I was sitting on the beach, and every iPod was playing Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” but they were all out of sync with each other. The song would be fading on one tinny speaker and just starting on another. Or two would be playing almost simultaneously but not quite. The line that kept jumping out at me was “living on spongecake,” which I later learned was actually “nibblin’ on spongecake.” But when I thought it was “living,” the line really stuck with me because I thought, yeah, isn’t that pretty much what we’re all doing? Living on a media diet of spongecake and margaritas? Pretentious, I know, but a few days later, I went back to work, and the Xerox machine (which is actually a Canon) was grinding away, and that line was still in my head. This track is an attempt at capturing what it sounded like.
While I was working on this piece of music (for lack of a better word*), I was reading a book by Grafton Tanner titled Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. The book examines vaporwave, a musical movement that attempts to grapple with the fact that technology in general and social networking in particular have displaced humans from their place at the center of the human experience.
Early on, Tanner provides context for his discussion of vaporwave by describing how the internet makes us strangers even to ourselves: “Part of the Internet’s strangeness stems from the anonymity and pseudonymity it can offer, even as it allows anyone unprecedented access to the private lives of others.” He later goes on to explain, “It is a confounding and eerie sensation to feel social while alone, thronged with invisible entities whose presence is felt yet who appear wholly absent. These entities are our twenty-first century ghosts, shorn from their corporeal shells and set loose to glide through cyberspace.”
In the context that Tanner describes, the almost limitless amount of music available on the internet is essentially ghost music. That is, like a ghost, music (like all media on the internet) is always there, waiting for someone to channel it. In some ways, then, music has lost its tangibility, has undergone, in Tanner’s words, a kind of vaporization: “Music transforms from a ‘thing’ into a stream and then finally into a formless cloud that infiltrates our everyday.”
Vaporwave, according to Tanner, takes this ghosted music and recontextualizes it: “Vaporwave is the music of ‘non-times’ and ‘non-places’ because it is skeptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space. The bulk of vaporwave is critical of late capitalism at every stage of its production, from its source material to the way the music is distributed and sold (if at all).” Thus “the vaporwave aesthetic relies heavily on certain images that evoke life under capitalism, both past and present. In particular, vaporwave album covers draw heavily from images of commerce, metropolises, computers, televisions, and numerous other ‘non-places’ and technological media.”
So what does vaporwave sound like? Tanner avoids defining the term, as the genre is somewhat amorphous and, to an extent, strives to defy definition. Nonetheless, he offers a few hints.
“Vaporwave is one artistic style that seeks to rearrange our relationship with electronic media by forcing us to recognize the unfamiliarity of ubiquitous technology,” Tanner explains. “A great deal of vaporwave’s unsettling sound comes from the relentless repetition of vocal hooks, introductory motifs, and refrains (among other samples of song sections)… Usually focusing on one fragment of an entire song, a vaporwave producer will then loop that fragment ad nauseam, often for the length of the entire track. The effect is absurd, hilarious, unnerving, and sometimes boring.” Additionally, vaporwave music “often tends to emphasize the uncanniness of glitches via repetition of audio effects such as distortion, pitch shifting, and high doses of compression.”
Ultimately, Tanner’s book suggests that we humans have become ancillary to the machines that consume our lives. Yet by holding a critical mirror up to our technology-saturated (and mediated) world, vaporwave has, in Tanner’s words, “become something like the ‘new punk’ or ‘Internet punk’ — coming from the online underground yet growing with an emphasis on welcoming others.” The result is “an entire community of artists, musicians, remixers, and critics listening to and creating strange and exciting sounds that grapple with nostalgia, consumerism, and the uncanny in a digital age.”
To put it another way, vaporwave invites everyone not only to look at technology’s influence on society with a critical eye, but also to make art that helps to elucidate that influence. (Hence, perhaps, “Spongecake.”)
Needless to say, I found Babbling Corpse to be an extremely edifying book, and I recommend it to anyone who’s curious to know what’s going on in the digital underground of the music world. Touching not only on vaporwave but on films like The Cabin in the Woods and The Shining, Tanner offers both a compelling critique of our relationship with technology and a glimmer of hope in the potential of the artist in all of us to put down the spongecake and reassert our dominion over the machines we’ve created.
* I’m not being self deprecating here. Rather, I’m admitting that if you listen to the track and compare it to “Margaritaville,” there’s an excellent chance that you’ll think of one as music and the other as… something else. But if we use Edgard Varèse‘s definition of music (i.e., music is organized sound), then, yes, this is music, as I’ve taken a number of sounds and organized them.