On January 3 a 17-year-old Chicago producer calling himself Metallic Ghosts played a concert from his bedroom in Old Town. Also on the bill for this online show were Veracom, a producer from Dallas; Luxury Elite from Kentucky; Infinity Frequencies, who's from somewhere in southern California; Transmuteo, aka New Orleans multimedia artist Jonathan Dean; Coolmemoryz, a Floridian who pretends to be from Japan; and a DJ set by PrismCorp of Portland, Oregon. Chaz Allen, as Metallic Ghosts is known by his parents, has never met any of the other musicians, and few of them ever perform live. They're all friends on the Internet, and in late 2011 their virtual scene gave rise to an ephemeral form of electronic pop christened "vaporwave," which by some accounts is already dead. In fact, as far as Allen is concerned, the January concert—the second incarnation of an online festival called SPF420, which debuted in September—doubled as a "final eulogy" for the genre. "As soon as you name something," he says, "it's going to take off and die."
Vaporwave, to the extent it can be said to still exist, is sample based, layering and warping pieces of the most reviled forms of music in the recording era: chintzy 80s lounge, smooth jazz, Muzak. Sometimes producers slow down and layer samples till they sound like velvety R&B slow jams, or chop and repeat them to create a sort of languid stutter. Its dreamlike feel recalls the hypnagogic pop of multiply pseudonymous New York musician and producer James Ferraro.
Sonically the aesthetic is dominated by gauzy reverb and a polished synthetic veneer, and visually it leans toward retrofuturistic imagery—luminous 3-D bubbles, for instance, or blocky skylines, made to look like outmoded computer renderings in toxic DayGlo colors. Both in its look and in its Internet-centric life cycle, vaporwave has more than a little in common with seapunk, the notorious microscene that attracted the attention of the New York Times last winter.
Laserdisc Visions' New Dreams Ltd.
To get to SPF420 2.0, performers and audience members logged into Tinychat, a free site that combines video conferencing and instant messaging. (The afterparty was held over at Turntable.fm.) Some sat in front of their computers for the whole six hours, while others came and went. In-jokes and trash talk flew in the Tinychat message window, often about vaporwave's alleged demise or what might be next. "Everybody was saying 'something-wave' or 'vapor-something,'" says Allen. During his set two videos ran side-by-side: the right showed him fiddling with an Ableton controller as he edited his mix on the fly, while the left played a montage he'd made of distorted 80s TV commercials for sodas and Japanese cars. Allen mingled with the crowd via IM, talking about his set, and the audience surfed the Web even as they listened.
"These are all people that met through Turntable.fm," says Allen. "You don't go on Turntable if you kind of like music, if you want to listen to the same dubstep songs over and over again. People get tired of them so easily because it's moving so fast." His involvement began in January 2012, when he found a Turntable.fm room called "Bloghaus"; that was where he met Luxury Elite, SPF420 co-organizer Stress (who says she's "from IDGAF island on the Internet"), and other future vaporwave musicians. They became online friends and bonded over shared tastes (R&B, chillwave, chopped-and-screwed hip-hop) before he'd heard any of their output or shared any of his with them.
At this point, Allen's own tracks were all over the map—juke music, house, even a bit of funk—and couldn't be called "vaporwave" by any stretch. He says he got started when he was three or four, using Sonic Foundry Acid 2.0. "I would make songs, and it was really like just another simulation game," he says, "like SimCity or RollerCoaster Tycoon." When he was 12 he caused a minor YouTube sensation with the pro-Obama tune "Hey There Obama," which he released during the 2008 primaries; it's a riff on the Plain White T's number "Hey There Delilah," and it's accumulated nearly three million views.
In January 2012 vaporwave was in its infancy. Some of its major players, such as LA/NYC label Beer on the Rug and Portland producer Vektroid, had been putting out experimental music for a year or two, but their smattering of releases had few unifying themes. That began to change in July 2011, when New Dreams Ltd., an album of lo-fi hypnagogic pop that Vektroid made under the name Laserdisc Visions (she switches among a confusing profusion of identities, all gathered under the PrismCorp banner), came out on Beer on the Rug. Other producers took a liking to the style, and in late 2011 Texas producer Will Burnett (aka Internet Club and Ecco Unlimited) attached the term "vaporwave" to it.
Internet Club's Dreams 3D
Throughout spring and summer 2012 vaporwave built a small audience through sites such as Last.fm and Reddit. Dummy magazine, Tiny Mix Tapes, and a handful of other music publications helped expose it to a different demographic, and last fall 4chan users started posting about it. By the time Needle Drop founder Anthony Fantano posted a video review of PrismCorp's Floral Shoppe (released under the name Macintosh Plus) in November 2012, almost everyone actually connected to the vaporwave scene had decided to abandon the style.
In part it was the outside attention that provoked the change. "That Fantano review," says Allen, "helped kill vaporwave, helped make it like everyone was doing it now. And 4chan was probably what really killed it, and the Dummy article." It says a lot about the scene's sensitivity to co-optation that such a tiny amount of press could set off such a reaction, but there were other factors at work too. Nobody involved particularly wanted the "vaporwave" label to stick to them, especially the ones who planned to keep making music in all sorts of styles. And of course the vaporwave aesthetic is so narrowly defined that it was destined to have a short half-life. "With any genre that you pen in and make to be so, so specific," says Fantano, "it becomes difficult for people to make new music within that genre without actually sounding like everything else that's already in there." Allen has seen evidence of this in practice: "You hear the same song being sampled by different artists in not too dissimilar a way," he says.
Many of Allen's online friends are producers who at one point called their work vaporwave, or who at the very least made music that other people described as such. (Not everybody approves of the term: Veracom says it's "an ugly overused tag based on somebody's ironic sense of humor that never should have been taken seriously.") But Allen doesn't consider himself a vaporwave artist—he didn't start experimenting with the style until spring 2012, and he says that was too late for him to contribute anything new to the aesthetic.
Metallic Ghosts' The Pleasure Centre
Nonetheless, his most recent release as Metallic Ghosts—a jam-packed sample-based concept album called The Pleasure Centre, about an imagined trip through the world's largest mall in 2026—reflects the influence of vaporwave in a couple spots. One track, "Post-Post-Vaporwave," tips its hat to the style while taking a playful jab at it. According to Allen, the important thing about the online scene he's part of now is the sense of community, not the sound of the music its members are making—that's always been in flux. "I remember when all these people were making witch house," he says.
That might help explain why the aesthetic choices of microgenres nurtured in online communities can seem so arbitrary. (Surely you remember the chorus of "WTF?" that greeted seapunk.) The particulars of a scene's sound aren't much more than tribal markers indicating who's on the inside and who isn't, and they can change at the drop of a hat. A third SPF420 festival is in the works for late next month—the tentative date is Wednesday, March 20—and though it's technically casino themed, nobody's sure yet what that will mean for the music.
"I just made a casinowave track, sampling slot machines and shit," Allen says. "So that might last for a minute. That might last for two minutes."