One thing I’ve always wondered about when I was growing up was what seemed to be the cyclical nature of culture.
Growing up in the 2010s, I saw revivals of styles in fashion, music, and art that were present in other previous decades. Almost like a near constant regurgitation of styles and forms that were present in previous decades. Eventually, I stumbled upon hauntology.
Hauntology, the philosophical concept, was developed by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx. It basically explains how one can only make sense of the present by comparing it with the past and using the potential outcomes and futures that never came to pass to anticipate the future. Like melodies, the past, present, and future are intertwined; only being able to be understood in companion with each other, instead of separate spheres. We cannot escape the past, as it must inform or “haunt” our current present.
In his book, Ghosts of My Life, critic and cultural theorist Mark Fisher took this concept of hauntology, and examined how artists of the mid-2000s had applied it to explore a disjointed, atemporal sound or aesthetic. He also explored how various styles, cliches, and forms were regurgitated repeatedly, and in the process, lost their value to the point of becoming pastiche.
In short, with the victory of neoliberal capitalism following the fall of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent “End of History”, ideological and cultural progress began to slow and start looping upon itself in a never-ending cycle of self-reference. Instead of cultural dynamism, we are subjected to a cultural stagnation that consists of an endless repetition of pastiche and past cultural artifacts of a complacent culture.
The promise of the future now exists as a spectre, a scaffolding lingering in the air around the places you go and the people you see. Dry melancholia exists that you can’t necessarily explain or put your finger on, but seems to persist. It’s thoughts like these that bring me to 猫 シ Corp.’s 2016 album, News at 11.
For someone who has spent too much time watching documentaries on the September 11th attacks, the effect is jarring. Tracks open with recordings of news anchors going about the normal business of the day, and unexpectedly cut just as we expect to hear about the attacks.
Instead, we are transported to another universe, another world. Here the hope of the ‘90s never ended, and the terror of the past is replaced by calm, smooth jazz. Yet it feels disjointed. It doesn’t feel right, but it feels like something better than the present we are stuck in, a fulfillment of what the future looked like from the perspective of the 1990s/early-2000s. Instead of the recurring disappointment we as a society have felt since then, we are given a future where the idealism and triumph of the ‘90s exists. In a lot of ways, the hope present before the attacks acts as the spectre that still afflicts American society. We constantly look back to the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ’90s, as Disco-revivalism replaces 80s-synth-revivalism replaces indie-folk replaces post-post-punk replaces disco-revivalism, or multiple styles clash in multiple visions by multiple artists.
In a lot of ways, I feel vaporwave embodies this sort of lost future. It plays into that idea of the spectre by employing aesthetics and sounds from the ‘80s and ‘90s via pastiche and exposing these revivalist movements as babbling corpses. In other words, it embodies the futures never achieved that obstruct a new future from being erected.
While the music can be truly incredible, it is still a bit disquieting at times. Like the internet meme “The Backrooms”, vaporwave can exist as a musical liminal space. An example of this could be the Dream Sequins, an album by Nmesh, which exudes this disquieting feeling of a past that isn’t fully dead. The track, “Dream SequinsⓇ”, repeats the same opening chords that sound like they came from a late-20th century corporate video before while audio samples and the song lyrics are looped and distorted beyond recognition. Dream Sequins feels symbolic of a society that is heavily reliant upon past cultural forms to construct their cultural ideas, almost as if we collectively can’t dream unless it is given to us through a corporate lens.
The album World Class by luxury elite continues the concept of liminal space as we are treated to an album’s worth of muzak that feels fitting for corporate offices and settings, yet feels empty, as if playing in a building that’s completely barren. Or even the feeling of being stuck on hold at the phone while this muzak is being played lifelessly.
English music journalist Simon Reynolds once wrote that hauntological music, in general, helped to construct a “lost futurism” through the wreckage of the present. The music shows visions of a future that was once within our grasp, gone. I believe it is concepts like this that lead to the unplaceable feeling of nostalgia one gets when listening to even more popular vaporwave songs, such as “Resonance” by HOME. We’ve seen the cultural forms before. We’ve felt that optimism for that future that never came.
What is also interesting is to see how widespread this regurgitation of cultural norms exists on the mainstream scale. Both “Little Dark Age” by MGMT and “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd are largely composed of synth-style music that feels both derivative of the underground vaporwave/synthwave arrangements and indebted to the New Wave music. Similarly, both music videos of “Wait by the River” by Lord Huron and “Are You Bored Yet?” by Wallows feature singers on stages that seem stuck in another era altogether.
In all these cases, it feels as if that the past emulated by these new forms is nothing but a spectre, a hauntological gesture of winks and nods to prod the viewer into a nostalgic haze. I won’t say that it is all pastiche, after all, nothing is made in a vacuum. Much of the music and cultural forms remarked in this article aren’t inherently terrible. “Little Dark Age” is a banger, and I personally think that the 90s-inspired fashion trends make for some really fun clothes. But when taken as a whole, I worry that we’ve fallen into an endless cycle of culture regurgitating itself.
Regardless, the question remains of why? Why does revivalism and pastiche continue to exist?
One particular idea is that through neoliberalism’s hostile takeover of the world, many of the systems and safety nets that gave refuge to artists are gone. The abandoned warehouses and factories where punk shows were played are now replaced with luxury townhomes and offices. As stated by Mark Fisher, “Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments of popular culture between the 1960s and the 1980s.” As the social safety net was scrapped, market forces began to condemn those who could not contribute what is considered “productive” or “valuable” to spend every waking minute working bullshit jobs just to survive. That’s not an environment that produces new cultural forms.
All the while, the rise of instantaneous communications has force-fed consumerism into the slim margins of free time we actually have. As Andrew Gallix wrote for The Guardian , “Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence… Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a ‘crisis of overavailability’ that, in effect, signifies the ‘loss of loss itself’: nothing dies anymore, everything ‘comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective’ like the looping, repetitive time of trauma.”
With conditions as such, it’s a miracle that any artistic development even takes place these days, when most people are just looking for a hit of something familiar before returning to the skullduggery; I feel like this is what vaporwave capitalizes on most; it has deconstructed the ways we have built ourselves up to see the same memes, hear the same songs, watch the same tv shows, deconstructed our perpetual need for nostalgia, for that vision of the lost future, in a world that has very little hope to serve us.
For the simple fact of the matter is that this isn’t how it is supposed to be. We could’ve built a utopia, the kind we see when we watch films of old. Instead we have people dying in front of their children, people dying because of the virus that our leaders were too wrapped up in their own greed to address, or even just going broke from losing their job due to said virus.
Until we can move past the current neoliberal era we find ourselves in, the future will always be canceled. Not just culturally, but in our hopes and dreams for a better world. It’s not a stretch to understand why much of the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s is still popular. They are associated with movements for a better world, with the freedom of experimentation and innovation. From the wild energy of “Psychedelic Shack” by The Temptations, to the shimmering worlds The Beatles created from songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows“, to adventurous experimentation of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys that led to albums like “Pet Sounds”. What all this art has in common is that they sound like expressions of freedom.
Maybe it’s time for our generation of disaffected youth, kicked to the ground by the greed of the powerful, to dream of new worlds, new cultural forms of a better world; a new radical space where we can all exist and be free. To give up the ghost and move beyond.
Jaxon Silva is a .WAV editorial writer, he wrote the article. Jena Nelson is a .WAV art contributor, she created the graphic.