Perspectives on Vaporwave

Evaporating Together + Aural Hauntology

Curtis Emery · 06/18/24

Vaporwave. What is it? Birthed on the Internet and spread through its virtual arteries via sites like Last FM, Tumblr, Mediafire,, and others, vaporwave is a subgenre of electronic music which initially may sound like synthwave but stands by itself as one of modern music’s most recent iterations.

Slowed down melodies, chopped and screwed ear worms, synthetic sound artifacts, and deconstructed auditory memories overlay alabaster greco art and 1980’s deco, digital, and Memphis-Milano style visual imagery to create the aesthetic of Vaporwave. Retro-nostalgia and modern recording techniques work together to bring the electronic sounds and trends of popular electronic music of the past to the present moment and reimagine it in a way that represents the too-good-to-be-true optimism of our past cultural self.

Imagine a song by Toto fed through a lo-fi system, cut and sampled, stuttering over a lounge rhythm—like elevator music from a similar dimension you may have overheard at a mall food court misremembered through the copyrighted ambient noise of a menagerie of storefronts, advertisements, and capitalism fueled spectacle.

Like a Vapor

What sounds hold our thoughts? What images bring us to the places we once knew? Every day we wade through the minutia of our memories, we follow patterns and adhere to our habits, look to the future and think back to our pasts. What was, informs who we are; what we want to be.

Those interested in hauntology, the concept that elements of our social and cultural past persist, like ghosts, an image conceived by French philosopher Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, will easily understand the pragmatic composition of Vaporwave. Derrida’s concept of hauntology claims that the present exists under the possibility of many futures which will never come, spurred on by expectations created and anchored in the collective past.

In the 21st century the concept has been applied far beyond politics and represents a true cultural shift in aesthetic and imagination.

Steen Christiansen, author of Sounds of Futures Past: Materiality, Hauntology, Affect argues that "hauntology bleeds into the fields of postmodernism, metafiction and retro-futurism and that there is no clear distinction – that would go against the tension which hauntology aims at."

Electronic music has been a magnet for this type of ideology. Artists, listeners, and cultural hanger-ons alike are drawn to virtual aesthetics and follow the same trends—the beautiful landscape of living on the Internet.

Virtual Reality

Vaporwave’s origin is wholly virtual. Born from the many online communities dedicated to electronic music on sites like,, YouTube, and so on, the first official Vaporwave release is considered to be Vektroid / Macintosh Plus—Floral Shoppe (2011), which came out on the now defunct label Beer on the Rug, an independent record company which put out a handful of vaporwave albums like Eyeliner’s BUY NOW (2015) and others. However, the sounds of Vaporwave are firm footed in the past.

Sonically, Vaporwave’s iconic chillwave influenced vibes can be heard in the experimental synthwave scene of the 80s and 90s. I can’t think of any band that exemplifies the magna mater of synthwave and Vaporwave than Germany’s Software.

Software, the moniker of the German electronic duo sound designer Peter Mergener and science fiction writer Michael Weisser, is a prolific electronic outfit and roster stalwarts of the iconic IC (Innovative Communication) Label—home to brief Software member, Krautrock legend, and label co-founder, Klaus Schulze and the group Ideal.

100% Electronica, a hypnagogic pop, vaporwave, ambient electronica label currently based in LA, and the brainchild of Vaporwave and electronic music mover and shaker George Clanton, has released two classic Software albums on vinyl, and historically made all of the band’s material digitally accessible in 2017—testament to the band’s work as an essential artifact of the Vaporwave genre and their in-demand contribution to electronic music.

Digital-Dance (1988), Software’s masterpiece, an exploratory new age, electronica album which imagined such modern places in an island world all their own. Soft, stylized, subdued synthetic melodies fit for a waiting room to the shoreline filled with ocean breaks, the sound of birds, and wholly synthetic ambient intricacies—released on January 1st, Digital-Dance asks the listener to take a breath from the modern world and relax in the digital reality of the album.

"Sunrise Island" from Digital-Dance is considered the “prototype of Vaporwave.”

Software’s triumphant return to a new generation of listeners and Vaporwave artists is unique because in many cases their audience grew from exposure to the band’s music on YouTube. YouTube, whose deep algorithmic archive of videos is sometimes best navigated when the user leans into the autoplay feature, is one of the best ways to stay up to date with current music, but especially taps into a vast network of content documenting the sounds and trends of recorded music and video.

Tools of the Trade

Just as social media was crucial for the contextualization and consumption of Vaporwave, artists relied on the do it yourself functionality of the sites to spread their music be it their first album, or an alter-ego of a currently recording musician looking to experiment outside of their current sphere.

Boston-born producer and composer Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never or OPN, is a prolific artist whose influence is felt across many different mediums—including composing the soundtrack for Elara Pictures Good Time, his work on the Weeknd album After Hours, and his deep catalog of ambient electronic music.

His record Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010) is considered one of the spiritual prequels to Vaporwave. The was originally credited to an alter-ego of OPN, Chuck Person, and released on Lopatin’s YouTube channel, sunsetcorp.

Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1 used samples from Toto's “Africa,” JoJo’s “Too Little Too Late,” Michael Jackson’s “Morphine,” 2pac, Tears for Fears, The Byrds, and many more, all processed by Lopatin, chopped, screwed, and disassembled to the point of new use in what is a truly groundbreaking album.

Lopatin’s experimental home in sunsetcorp showcases a collection of tripped out, hypnagogic electronic tracks, which reminds the listener of the witch house and YouTube incubated project Nike7up, whose acute plunderphonic sensibilities and counter-culture, drug-dosed, chillwave ambient gestures produced some mind bending proto-Vaporwave tracks.

Nike7up’s album Lucky!, which was released semi-serially through early 2010 until August 2010, featured many more hip-hop and drum and bass percussion arrangements, which is much more prevalent in modern iterations of Vaporwave.

Like Lopatin and with a similar attention to dated digital, easy-listening, mood music and synthwave sensibilities of 90s and 80s corporate sound design, producer, musician, and vocalist James Ferraro’s studio album Far Side Virtual (originally conceived as a set of ring tones), which was released a little over a year after the Chuck Person release, by Hippos in Tanks, brought in a new edge to the burgeoning Vaporwave sound which explored “hyperreality and consumer culture,” and examined “consumerism through the lenses of globalization and internet culture.”

E V A P O R A T E: The Beginning

Lopatin and Ferraro’s work stand as the foundation of the Vaporwave genre, with both producers bringing something different but completing a single picture—socially conscious, hypnagogic, hauntology-tinged, synthesizer music which breaks the chillwave formula and sets the stage for the sonic aesthetic of the Internet’s next viral culture shift.

Like cause and effect, Vektroid would take cues from Lopatin and Ferraro and release Floral Shoppe under the name Macintosh Plus, which became a magnet and inspiration for others interested in the 80s inspired funk and easy listening electronic music hooks of Vektroid's droning compositions.

While artists like Vektroid and James Ferraro saw label support, many artists practicing witch house, cloud rap, frozen wave, and other online born Vaporwave predecessors would release their music on social sites like Bandcamp, Mediafire, Soundcloud, and Last FM.

Congregating on and following hashtags on tumblr. Sea punk, Internet-fashion, post-post-modernism, and marxist pockets of early 2010s Internet subculture became champions of Vaporwave.

Vektroid's Floral Shoppe would accomplish two things at once—becoming the first Vaporwave release which considered and interacted with the key elements and specific aesthetic of Vaporwave, which were furnished by the many online subgenres prior, to creating something wholly new but also marking the end of “the first wave of sample-heavy music” that originally defined Vaporwave and reconstructed its template. Artists of this first wave include artists associated with Veracom, Luxury Elite, the many projects of Ramona Xavier (Vektroid, Macintosh Plus, Prismcorp, New Dreams Ltd.).

The First Rebirth

As with all niche online occurrences, once something is defined or named it ostensibly dies at the hands of the Internet’s many refractory angles.

With interest from music news outlets like Tiny Mix Tapes, Dummy, and Sputnikmusic covering the genre following Floral Shoppe’s buzz, Vaporwave was becoming a profitable bet for the music industry, which was in direct opposition to the original political ideals of the genre, but opened the doors for many new creators interested in the aesthetic and sound without the same political vigor or perspective.

Part of the new wave of Vaporwave, Blank Banshee would take the scene in 2012 with the same sonic vibes of Vaporwave “classic” but a new focus on trap music after releasing his record Blank Banshee 0. Released after Floral Shoppe, the album is a perfect example of the segue between the first iteration of Vaporwave and this new sound and ideology.

Notable albums from this time include: Internet Club - Vanishing Vision (2012), Eyeliner – LARP of Luxury (2012), and Saint Pepsi – Hit Vibes (2013).

Following in suite, projects like Eco Virtual’s Atmospheres 1 and Hong Kong Express’s Romantic Dream would take Vaporwave to totally unique destinations, through to a similar plane. Atmospheres 1 (2013) is a notoriously noisy, part original, part sampled, record which sounds at times like a retro-tech weather report. Romantic Dream (2014) instead is a “romantic foray into the nightlife of Hong Kong,” countering with the softer funk fused rainy grooves of HKE, now 2814’s, virtual escapism through sound. Both records attempted to bring listeners to new places, whether nightmare or relaxation, the realities created by these artists attempt to dream a future through Vaporwave’s esoteric narrative.

Vaporwave hits from 2014 include: Mute Channel - 平白氣形 (2014), Vaperror – Mana Pool (2014).

Also in 2014, George Clanton would release, as his sample-based electronic side project ESPIRIT, and help pivot the future of Vaporwave once again.

A New Path is considered the first Vaporwave record to feature all original music. Up until this point the genre was primarily interested in sampling previous works and considered a constant part of the plunderphonics scene. Clanton’s decision to eschew the conventional template for the genre would be beneficial and open up Vaporwave even further, expanding the perimeter of the viral aesthetic.

2015 would prove to be equally exploratory with hits from maximalist power trio Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv and more. Notable albums include: Televape – 超越愛 (translated: Beyond Love (2015)), 2814 - 新しい日の誕生 (translated: Birth of a New Day) (2015), Death’s Dynamic Shroud.wmv - I’ll Try Living Like This (2015).

The Never Ending Procession

By 2016, Vaporwave’s peak began to trend in a different direction. The combination of social media, modern technology, and consumerism’s new dependence on hyperreality to engage viewers, rendered the once ideological approach to subdued, political electronic music, part of the virtual backdrop of the customer’s smartphone. Commercialism is truly to blame, which seems to start the cycle once again.

Fractured into many subgenres and approaches, 2017 and onward would see Vaporwave dismantled reimagined in future funk, mall soft, eccojams, vapor trap, VHS pop, and other similar genres. As the novelty of Vaporwave would wear off, artists from the scene would capitalize on the new horizon for electronic music and bring the aesthetic of the early days of vaporwave to dance, electronica, and more mainstream genres.

Saint Pepsi, Death’s Dynamic Shroud, George Clanton, FM Skyline, Augraph, and more continue to penetrate the pop world with the sounds of the past.

From a Hauntological perspective, Vaporwave is definitely an interesting genre, one that betrayed itself and came back from its own remains. Faithful to the genre, labels like Pacific Plaza Records, V I R T U A 94 Records, Palm ’84, business casual, Gulf Audio Company, NO PROBLEMA TAPES, Hiraeth Records, Tiger Blood Tapes, My Pet Flamingo, and others continue to bring classic Vaporwave to audiences without sacrificing the original aesthetic.

To say Vaporwave died, or to say the Internet cannibalized the sound would, I believe, disregard the conceptual roots of the genre and cast shade on the wonderfully kaleidoscopic chaos running through our ethernet cables, which represents so much possibility for so many artists unable to access the conventional music industry hidden behind the paywall.

For reference, 100% Electronicon 2023 boasted an “OG” roster featuring many original Vaporwave players performing together for the first time in a long time. It may no longer be a ticket to a viral piece of content, but Vaporwave and its many subgenres still persist, as many things do, in a virtual world all their own.