It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams
—Don DeLillo, Americana
Covetousness has always felt like a dreamscape. You are from moment to moment trapped inside of an experience which evades real contact. Being just a simulacrum of a universe, how can it not? The problem is most obvious in consumerist escapism, where the profound disappointment of not being able to have your cake and eat it too is transmuted into the urge to simply buy another a cake. And another. And so on. One disappointed fantasy leading to the next. Look to the Pacific Garbage Patch to see where the material bric-a-brac of our thwarted fantasies eventually end up. A life-destroying gyre aimlessly churning. An inorganic wound on the world.
Simone Weil addressed this feedback loop of desire and consumption in her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God”, writing that:
The great trouble in human life is that looking and eating are two different operations. Only beyond the sky, in the country inhabited by God, are they one and the same operation. Children feel this trouble already, when they look at a cake for a long time almost regretting that it should have to be eaten and yet are unable to help eating it. It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always, or even perhaps always, in their essence, attempts to eat beauty.
In our half-lucid dream of covetousness, we misread the cake for God. Our longing for the absolute, what Weil might call our hunger for God or in more secular jargon could be the Lacanian Real, can of course never be satisfied with clothes, cars, and cash. The sense that we are able to fully nourish ourselves with baubles is the illusion which animates our dreamworld. The architecture of the dream is supported by our economy and culture. The ornamentation is advertising. And the music being piped in is vaporwave, the soundtrack to our fantasies.
Vaporwave is music that showcases inauthenticity. Walter Benjamin famously connected the concepts of authenticity and aura. Industrial-scale reproduction has denuded objects of their quasi-mystical sense of unique being, argues Benjamin, writing that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Being a Marxist, if a highly unorthodox one, these ruminations were not all necessarily negative. He hoped, for instance, that this great transition to mechanical reproduction would sever art from its “parasitical dependence on ritual,” and that the movement of art from the private to public sphere would serve the upward march of human history. In other words, Benjamin suspected it might be a good thing that political Utopia replace Being. The “positive” effects of mechanical reproduction, such as they are, wrap each consumer product in a gauze of Utopian aspiration. As profound as our appetites might be, we are assured that they can be sated with a Coke and a pair of Levis. Vaporwave is an ersatz musical genre that satirizes those empty promises. It is an anti-product, the inverse of pop, and its flaws are calculated to emphasize the utter failures of Utopian consumerism to truly satisfy the human soul. That is how vaporwave works. That is what it does. But to fully appreciate it we need to understand it in the context of the relationship that Simone Weil tells us art has with the supernatural.
Homesick for a place I’m not even sure exists.
—text from vaporwave meme
The important thing to know about vaporwave is that it is dead. Or perhaps, having the dubious distinction of being the only music genre (so far) to have existed solely on the internet, it never really lived. Grafton Tanner pithily summarized the genre in Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts as “an Internet-born electronic-music microgenre that consistently divides critics and listeners alike with its singularly strange aesthetic and guerrilla methods of production.” In other words, it is DIY. The songs are composed and distributed entirely online (often for free) by predominantly non-professional musicians, lending the entire vaporwave scene (albeit digital) a punk quality. The music itself, Tanner notes, is electronic. And if a metaphor might serve to conjure the vaporwave sound, imagine a cassette tape of shopping mall music from 1987 being left on a dashboard to melt and distend in the sun.
The ur-text of vaporwave is the 2011 album Floral Shoppe by Vektroid (under the name Macintosh Plus), and although it was an actual album released on a proper label by a professional musician, it is probably the best introduction to genre. Even before hearing the music, one is struck by the cover art. A bust of Helios dominates the foreground, contrasting its Classical heft against the ironic late 80’s/early 90’s feel to the graphic design of the lurid pink checkerboard background. An early digital image of a pre-9/11 New York City skyline sarcastically suggests a window. Above the skyline are written the names of the artist and album in kanji. These are visual clues to the music itself, and we can find in them tropes that will be repeated throughout the rest of the genre: the appropriation of High Culture symbols by consumer culture, nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, a fascination with globalism and early digital culture.
The music of Floral Shoppe sounds like sampled and looped easy-listening, jazz, and pop from around the time of the end of the Cold War. It is often experimental, occasional tough to listen to, but deconstructs songs to offer a kind of exploded-view diagram of how our pop art subtly works on our innermost desires. The sound is dreamy, but, unlike the music in its original form, has been complicated by the remixing process to reveal edges and textures it did not originally have as a glossy consumer product. In the stand out track of the album for instance, “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”, the 1984 Diana Ross song “It is Your Move” is sampled, looped, modified, and repeated until it sounds as if it is been etherized and vivisected. We get the sensation that for the first time we are hearing the Ross song as it truly is: a packaged consumer product cynically playing off of our very real desire for connection to the transcendent.
It is not shocking that vaporwave is an internet phenomenon, the medium itself mirroring the temporal flatness of the genre. With vaporwave, cultural production is abstracted even further from Benjamin’s aura of specificity of time and place. The materiality of the songs is completely denuded and they are liberated from the necessity of their origins. We hear the secret message buried underneath a sensual membrane of effluvia: paradise for sale. Vaporwave is the subconscious reverie of a shopping mall unmoored from its bricks, carpeting, and plumbing. Sometimes it sounds ominous, like a warning. Death’s dynamic shroud.wmv is vaporwave rendered in chiaroscuro, contrasting the bliss of our material desires with a healthy fear at our own hedonism. Sometimes it is a joke, a way to laugh at ourselves and how easily we confuse our deeper appetites for a cheap acquisitive thirst, as with Saint Pepsi. Or as with 夜遊び | t e l e p a t h, it can be a way to acknowledge the sweetness of our fantasies. If vaporwave can be said to be about anything, it is about waking up from the misdiagnosed “end of history” and escaping the claustrophobia of Utopian materialism, or Mill’s stationary Utopia. The meaning of the genre is in its name, a portmanteau combining “vapor”—products which are designed and marketed but never actually sold—and “wave,” the colloquial term for a new musical genre but also literally the movement of energy through matter without an attendant disruption of mass. The name carries more than an echo of the famous line from The Communist Manifesto about all that is solid melting into air.
But for all that vaporwave means, for all of the different inflections that it can carry, it always treats the depth of our desire itself with the utmost regard, while denigrating the ultimately empty consumer products that we desperately use to try to feed that desire. Writing in Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil defines idolatry as coming “from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we do not have the patience to allow it to develop.” The appetite is real, but the meal is inadequate, and we lack the patience to wait in awe for the reception of Grace and substantial nourishment. “Man always devotes himself to an order,” Weil continues. “Only, unless there is supernatural illumination, this order has as its center either himself or some particular being or thing . . . with which he has identified himself.” The love, the desire, is always there. Only we are unable to fulfill it with earthly means, it not being an earthly appetite. Or as Weil succinctly puts it, “There is humility in us—only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.”
And so vaporwave moves us in the opposite direction of idolatry, even if only notionally. In mocking the disappointing gods of consumerism, the false temple of the mall, vaporwave unsettles our disoriented humiliation.
Strangeness is the form taken by beauty when beauty has no hope.
—Antoine Volodine, Minor Angels
If vaporwave’s cynicism towards aesthetic seduction bears a striking resemblance to Plato’s reasons for banning poets from his Republic—that art can distract us from the transcendent by anchoring our focus to the phenomenal world instead of leading us beyond it—vaporwave has even more resonance with Plato’s Timeaus and consequently Simone Weil’s ideas about the nature of creativity itself. The Timeaus is a cosmogonic myth. Any story of the first creation is also the story of every subsequent creative act writ large. But whereas the Timeaus is a myth of creation as order being brought out of a cosmic chaos, with a demiurge forcing brute and anarchic necessity to orient itself towards a higher good, Weil obviously adheres to the Judeo-Christian notion of creation ex nihilo. For Weil, God’s act of creation was less a force of will than an instance of self-renunciation. As she writes in her essay “Forms of the Implicit Love of God,”
God permitted the existence of things distinct from himself and worthy infinitely less than himself. By this creative act he denied himself, as Christ told us to deny ourselves. God denied himself for our sakes in order to give us the possibility of denying ourselves for him. This response, this echo, which it is in our power to refuse, is the only possible justification for the folly of love in the creative act.
For Weil, good art helps us to open the void inside ourselves as a place for God to enter. Bad art encourages us to fill this void with lesser forms of the higher good. Pepsi. Pornography. Power. Novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, a Platonist like Weil, wrote of bad art in Fire and the Sun saying that:
The bad artist sees only moving shadows and construes the world in accordance with the easy unresisted mechanical causality of his personal dream life . . . The mediocre artist (the ironical man by the fire, if we may so characterize him), who thinks he “knows himself but too well,” parades his mockery and spleen as a despairing dramatic rejection of any serious or just attempt to discern real order at all . . . Neither of these, as artist or as man, possesses . . . a just grasp of the hardness of the material which resists him, the necessity . . . of the world.
Katherine Brueck elaborates on Murdoch’s claims in The Redemption of Tragedy: The Literary Vision of Simone Weil, writing that:
For Murdoch, in its way, each kind of art, the bad and the mediocre, is a lie about the way things are and therefore a stumbling block to man’s knowledge about himself. Simply put, poor art ignores the central role of the necessity in human life, the central import of suffering and evil. Inadequate art also fails to describe the existence of an absolute good (the world above the cave), a good which can be known only by means of the necessary.
And so where does vaporwave fall in this schema? Weil wrote that “Even in art and science, though second-class work, brilliant or mediocre, is an extension of the self; work of the very highest order, true creation, means self-loss.” In many ways, vaporwave is an act of renunciation, or even re-renunciation. The void of self which we collectively filled with consumer products and Utopian visions of the mall as paradise is purged so that we might fill it with something commensurate, something greater. That we are able to create this space of non-self inside of ourselves is itself a holy thing, Weil tells us, which echoes both God’s original act of creation and Christ’s sacrifice. That we are even able to desire consumer products so deeply, and on a metaphysical level, is absurd. Of course, this absurdity is itself a gift. Weil writes that God “has given us this faculty of infinite illusion so that we have the power to renounce it out of love.” Vaporwave represents this first movement of renunciation. It is the preliminary tentative motions away from idolatrous orientation. As a genre, it sings of the restless human heart, imbued with an Augustinian hunger for the absolute.
In Gravity and Grace Weil says that “The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” Vaporwave at its best acts as a reminder that the human imagination alone always fails to satisfy. That our appetites cannot be sated with shopping malls and a globalized supply chain. That our human materials are not worthy of our self-renunciation, but that the void we open inside of ourselves to force contact with the absolute is in fact the abode of God alone.