The impact and influence that the internet has had on our day to day lives is undeniable. From music and entertainment to work and fashion, it seems like everything around us is inevitably entangled in the web. This might explain why Vaporwave, one of the strangest musical and aesthetic movements to come out in recent history, has arisen directly from social media.

What is Vaporwave?

If you’ve never heard of Vaporwave before, don’t be alarmed as it’s a genre that was created to stay hidden in the depths of internet forums and although it has existed since 2011, its appearance in advertising and popular music is still relatively new.

First, the theory behind Vaporwave

From being an artistic and musical movement to an internet meme, vaporwave can be defined in different ways. It’s an aesthetic that managed to click with thousands of people, and spread through social media breaking into the mainstream.

Conceptually, it is helplessly reminiscent. A melancholic and distorted look of the aesthetics of the 80’s and 90’s .

It is characterized by incorporating old images & web design from the early days of the internet, music videos or other elements of pop culture of decades past and mixes it with surreal and distorted elements.

Whether it’s Michael Jackson videos, McDonalds ad’s or Simpsons episodes (which birthed the subgenre, simpsonwave.) Vaporwave takes pieces of memories and collects & distorts them, adding visuals and sound effects that create a sense of deep melancholy, reminiscent of a past that never was. All this mixed with theories of aesthetic canons of ancient Greece , such as Roman busts or Renaissance paintings, Japanese commercialism of the 90s and a compulsive obsession with visual balance and the golden ratio.

Your intro to Vaporwave

What is aesthetic?

Aesthetic is defined as, “a set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.” It is a word frequently found within vaporwave culture, often stylized spread out with full width characters (AESTHETIC.)

Many people refer to the particularly complicated style of vaporwave as “Aesthetic.” In this context, however, Aesthetic refers to a very particular style .

The YouTuber FrankJavcee brilliantly describes the aesthetics of the Vaporwave:

“It’s like someone that lives in a dystopian future finds a ton of old vhs tapes and is lonely because he is the only remaining person in the world but he is also drugged and floating in the sky in Japan”

Origins of Vaporwave

To understand where this movement comes from, we must move away from its visual aesthetics and focus on its influence as a musical genre.

Between 2011 and 2012, young artists began creating remixes of songs from the 70’s  and 80’s, mixing them with smooth jazz and lounge music, creating a new and strange genre, resembling a kind of “sad elevator music” .

Through, Reddit, Bandcamp, Tumblr, 4chan and other online channels, these artists began to share their creations, inspiring and spreading an aesthetic meme that managed to take root in the web.

One of the most important artists of this genre is Vektroid , whose album “Floral Shoppe” became one of the musical and aesthetic canons that defined Vaporwave.

On this album is the theme リ サ フ ラ ン ク420 / 現代 の コ ン ピ ュ (yes, that’s the actual name of the song) that over the years has become the true “anthem” of the genre. The song is based on Diana Ross’s track, It’s Your Move, which is cut and slowed down to an almost zombified rhythm. The song is dismantled and then reassembled, raised from the dead in a way that takes away all the product and commerciality of the original track, making it more sensual, fragile and attractive in the process. Floral Shoppe is an important piece when it comes to understanding why Vaporwave gained popularity; it finds the difficult balance between being a parody of consumer culture and being both interesting and enjoyable music to listen to. A balance most Vaporwave artists would seek to replicate.

Cover of the Floral Shoppe album by Vektroid, under the pseudonym MACINTOSH PLUS. This album marked for many the Vaporwave aesthetic.

GIF campaign Architecture in Tokyo

Architecture in Tokyo – ヒ ス イMARBLE (ft. ULTRA ウ ル ト ラ) The video is a collection of strange and funny Coca Cola advertisements from the 90s. A perfect example of Surrealism in Vaporwave

The name “Vaporwave” is the combination of two concepts: the first, a pejorative advertising term that describes products that are widely advertised but that never go on sale. The other term comes from the so-called “vapor waves” that Karl Marx describes in his writings.

“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid is evaporated into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The name of this genre refers to these failed promises and their music and aesthetics offers us an alternative history of the world when millennials were still infants; the zenith of the cold war.

As you may have guessed, Vaporwave also has a social element to it. The young artists remember the 80’s and 90’s not only as part of their childhood, but also as a time prior to the economic crisis, looking back at the exorbitant consumerism that marked the popular culture of the last decades of the 20th century with cynicism and dislike. An “anti-love letter” to our obsession of the time for expensive brands, luxury cars and shopping centers.

Vaporwave and Publicity

One might think that such a particular style, arising entirely from the internet and online forums, which also serves as a critic against capitalist consumerism, would never appear in the world of advertising. Well…. think again.

As expected with any aesthetic that becomes fashionable, publicists soon found a source of inspiration in Vaporwave and, just as other “anti-consumerist styles” such as punk and the hippie movement managed to find their place in the advertising, Vaporwave has become the preferred style of many brands in recent years. Brands that want to communicate a young, surreal, artistic and complex style that connects with an audience that loves internet culture, influencing more and more popular artists.

“Hotline Bling” by Drake

Drake, who’s tracks “”God’s Plan,” “In My Feelings” and “Nice For What” have recently been topping the charts, demonstrates one of the most famous examples of aesthetic leaking into the mainstream. Many attributed the pastel colors, neon lights and obsessively proportional composition in Drake’s Hotline Bling video as a clear indication of Vaporwave influence. This and James Turrell’s art installations which focus on themes of light and space inspired one of the most iconic music videos to come out within the past few years.

Hotline Bling, Drakes immensely popular music video, has an aesthetic clearly reminiscent to Vaporwave.

Spotify's "The RapCaviar Pantheon"

In one of Spotify’s latest advertising campaigns, they created 3d printed sculptures of different hip-hop artists. The advertisement, both aesthetically and visually, is directly inspired by Vaporwave aesthetic and the visual influence of Vektroid’s Floral Shoppe is undeniable.

RapCaviar Pantheon - Vaporwave

Spotify immortalizes some top hip-hop artists in it’s”Rap Caviar” playlist in an authentic “a e s t h e t i c” pantheon manner

Vaporwave & Graphic Design

Although most graphic designers are leery when it comes to defining themselves as artists, it is clear that we are more easily influenced by an artistic style than a publicist. The nostalgia, the madness of the 90’s and 80’s and the inspiration in “vintage” graphic design were already great influences of recent years in the world of graphic design, with too many examples to show here. In such an environment, it was easy for Vaporwave to find its place.

Little by little, the influence of this aesthetic has been seen growing in places like Behance or Domestika, slowly but effectively becoming part of our collective unconscious. That’s why it’s no surprise that many of the major rebranding projects of the last couple of years have ended up “splashed” by the Vaporwave.

  • MTV: “I AM MY MTV”
  • Tumblr: “TumblrTV”

In 2015, the legendary television channel took a very unexpected direction with the rebranding of MTV International, opting for an aesthetic that seems directly torn from a page of Tumblr. Full of visual chaos, old graphics and elements of Source Filmmaker. It was a rebranding “of millennials for millennials”:

VaporWave - MTV

Tumblr: "TumblrTV"

Ironically, shortly after MTV was inspired by Tumblr for rebranding, Tumblr chose to imitate MTV’s aesthetics in the 90’s when they launched TumblrTV. A new space to search and share GIFs:

“Life imitates art” the same year that MTV was inspired by Tumblr’s Vaporwave aesthetic blogs, Tumblr was inspired by the MTV 90’s aesthetic when they created TumblrTV.

"ORIGINAL is never finished"

by Adidas

This campaign, although intentionally eclectic, follows vaporwave’s influence in a way that we have seen in several previous campaigns of the brand such as “My Way” and “Don’t be quiet please”.

What do they all have in common? Once again, the aesthetics of the 80’s and 90’s (the golden age of its brand) reflected here in a modernized way, in an orgy of neon lights, pastel colors, references to art history, Greek sculpture and Renaissance paintings, smoke machines and VHS like “glitch” effects. Where to start? Watch any Adidas campaign for the last 5 years and you’ll immediately recognize visual elements taken directly from Vaporwave.

Adidas is especially fond of the melancholic and distorted aesthetic of Vaporwave, it’s campaign “ORIGINAL is never finished” being a clear example.

Vaporwave's legacy and lifeline

We have seen some examples of the immense influence that Vaporwave has had in the world of music, art, advertising and graphic design; but surely one will continue to wonder how a style with a supposedly anti-capitalist mentality becomes mainstream? How can Coca-Cola be inspired by a style that “attacks” the type of mentality that made it an icon? This can be explained in several ways: on the one hand, Vaporwave focuses on nostalgia, and while it views it in a pessimistic and melancholic way, it will always be associated with good memories of childhood and youth.

Scott Bocham, in his article for Esquire, gets surprised when listening to the music of this genre. Despite being such a difficult style to be taken seriously (as many musicologists will hurry to point out, much of this music is nothing more than 80s tracks slowed down with a trap beat in the background) he sees himself reflected in those songs, feeling immersed in the nostalgic sounds that makes your imagination fly

“Could it be that the AOL jingle of” You’ve got Mail!” Is for me what the cupcake was for Proust?” After the rebranding campaigns of MTV and Tumblr appeared, many gave the genre for dead, after all, it is a movement that arose in part from Tumblr and for fans of the genre, having seen that aesthetic reach the mainstream was a “bitter” experience.

However, the years go by, the 2011 of Vektroid already seems far away and nevertheless Vaporwave is still relevant. It is cynical by nature, it emerged as a reaction to the immense social and economic forces that continue to be a very important part of our lives; issues such as globalization, the era of consuming excessively produced and short-lived products and the manufacturing of nostalgia. It is the only musical style that refers to these aspects of our Zeitgeist and maybe that is why it remains a genre that matters to us.

You never know what direction design and advertising will take in the next few years and trying to predict fads is like staring at the sea and trying to predict waves. What is clear is that Vaporwave is still alive and it is still a long time before its wake dissipates completely.

Do you want to know more about Vaporwave?

Here is a list of material that may interest you: