Imagine this: you’re in the local mall. It’s 1998.
You walk down the corridors, looking at the bright advertisements showcasing the newest items from JCPenney and KB Toys. The speakers are playing a smooth jazz version of the latest Backstreet Boys single. You don’t receive any texts from your friends because that piece of technology doesn’t exist (what is a “cellphone”?). You move in the direction of the arcade, smelling the fresh baked pretzels from Auntie Anne’s. You arrive at the arcade, greeted by the sights and sounds of Mortal Kombat II and NBA Jam.
Or how about this: you’re sitting at home. It’s 1983. Your parents are in the next room, catching up on last year’s Time magazines. The PC was Person of the Year! How exciting! Reagan is making the economy great again. You boot up your own piece of hot tech, the Atari 2600, and attempt to hit a high score in Pitfall (why is this game so hard?) Upstairs, your sister is listening to Matthew Broderick attempt to start his own high-stakes computer program. “Would you like to play a game?”
If I had to guess, right now you’re feeling a deep feeling of longing for a time period that seems lost. Some of you have never even experienced these types of events because you were born too late (if you’re from Gen Z, that definitely includes you). But you too might feel a nostalgia for a time that you’ve never experienced—the onset of late-stage capitalism fueled by the emergence of the internet age, citizen as consumer, embracing the happy optimism of the late twentieth-century insistence that “things are great and will go on forever this way.”Our longings, at their core, reflect a desire for comfort, for security, for safety, for the feeling of belonging.
But we’re 20 or 30 years out from these beloved memories. The Twin Towers have fallen. Globalization (many would say) has failed. The recession of the late 00s removed whatever hope young people had about their economic future. Modern music is so docile as to be rendered harmless, soundwaves sent through an accountant’s algorithm and spit out to meet the expectations of shareholders. How can we possibly cope with the monotony?
In the early 2010s, a group of musical artists began to upload songs to SoundCloud and Bandcamp that borrowed elements of 80s and 90s music and culture and reimagined them. This pioneering genre, come to be known as vaporwave (a portmanteau of “vaporware” and “chillwave”), used music samples from Muzak, elevator music, smooth jazz, and soft rock, combining them together in an often blurred mix to promote feelings of isolation and nostalgia among its listeners.
Many fans of the genre recognize the album Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 by Daniel Lopatin as the original vaporwave album, but the title of “anthem” for this new musical movement belongs to リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー (Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing) by Macintosh Plus. The song itself doesn’t seem groundbreaking—simply a Diana Ross song slowed down, chopped up, and repeated until the music is no longer recognizable. Critics’ opinions were mixed, but fans were quick to elevate this piece as vaporwave boiled down to its essence, using bizarre selections of music from 80s and 90s pop and video games alongside the album cover’s erratic use of Greek sculpture and geometric patterns meant to invoke the box art for some lost Encarta software that didn’t make it to market. Macintosh Plus may not have created vaporwave, but she certainly defined what “true” vaporwave would look and sound like from then on.
There are many interesting pieces on the rise, decline, and revival of vaporwave in recent years. Rather than provide a comprehensive look at the movement, I want to understand if there is anything worth redeeming when it comes to vaporwave, or if it should simply exist as a nihilistic criticism of the late-capitalist system that helped birth it.
Nostalgia for the Past…or for the Future?
Vaporwave seeks to take the trappings of late 20th-century culture and provide a soundscape that both appreciates and critiques the materials that it uses in its own compositions. One needs only look at the wild success of shows like Stranger Things as well as modern pop music that draws on 80s imagery and sounds to see how this era is appreciated by people of all generations. On any given day, new vaporwave appears on sites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud and cover images and art are shared and discussed on the r/vaporwaveaesthetics subreddit. There is a persistent love for the era, in part because it is “our” generation (if you’re Gen-X, Millennial, or somewhere in between).
However, there is also “critique” since listeners and creators suggest that the promise of the 80s and 90s, highlighted by its technological optimism and hope for a bright future that will consist of even more spending, higher paying jobs, and peace around the world, was forever ruined by the destruction of the Twin Towers. According to these creators and consumers of vaporwave, this optimism gave way to stagnation, each piece of technology simply a carbon copy of another piece of technology that we purchased with money earned from increasingly underpaid jobs. The optimism of the internet era is over in their eyes—a new age of societal decadence is born.
But is this actually the case? Are the philosophers of vaporwave right? As a Christian, we simply cannot look at a two decade time span and say “this is all there is, was, and ever will be.” Rather than view our nostalgia for an era of failed promises negatively, C.S. Lewis provides a concept that emboldens us to view our longing for that era as an emotion we should continue to nurture because it is actually good for us.
Sehnsucht for Shibuya
C.S. Lewis, mid-20th century Christian writer and essayist, identified the feelings of restlessness and longing for things and places that often don’t exist in this world as an indication of a desire for the transcendent in this world. He called this idea sehnsucht, a German word for “longing.” He summarized this by stating: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Lewis argues that the desires we have for things are ultimately fulfilled by the things that exist to fulfill those desires. The desire for food exists (hunger), and we have food that satiates those desires. The desire for sex exists, and ability to engage in it exists to satisfy the desire.
But what about our longings for a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore? Or for technology that is out of date? Or for music that is no longer made? Even if we are somehow able to go to these places, or use these technologies, or listen to this music, we often find that we’re still not satisfied by the experience. But what if it is the desire for the experience itself that is meaningful? And what if it is the desire itself that is meant to be a pointer to something more transcendent than the experience?
Our longings, at their core, reflect a desire for comfort, for security, for safety, for the feeling of belonging. While these longings are impossible to fulfill completely in this lifetime (even if you somehow borrowed a time machine and went to, say, Japan in 1987 to walk the Shibuya shopping district, or to America in 1991 to play the SNES when it first released while watching the debut of Power Rangers on TV, your longing wouldn’t be satisfied—it would just be replaced by another), Lewis believed that a place like that did exist, although not here, and not in the way any of us would have ever expected. “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
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Listening to vaporwave and taking in its sounds feels like coming home for the Gen X and Millennial generation. We grew up on 16-bit video games, Walkmans, synth-heavy pop music, and the height of consumer capitalism. That dream faded. We’re now adults with responsibilities, passed over by corporations who are looking to draw in the next generation. We are no longer the center of the world. To quote Tyler Durden, we are now “the middle children of history.”
But our longing for times gone by, for something outside of ourselves such that vaporwave wants to both evoke and critique doesn’t have to end in nostalgia for its own sake or, as too often happens, in despair for not being able to feel like we’ve “arrived” to the places that late 20th century techno-optimism said that we would be. Instead, vaporwave and its cohorts should serve as a reminder that our longing to be anywhere other than here is based in reality: we actually don’t belong here. There’s a far better Place that, deep down, we want to go. And, ultimately, there is a Way to get there.