Vaporwave Is Dead: Sound, Community, and Metadata in Internet Music Genres

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Greene, Tanner, Music - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Miller, Karl, AS-Music (MUSC), University of Virginia

Emerging in the early 2010s, vaporwave is a music genre whose history and content are inseparable from the Internet. Vaporwave’s style hinges on an intense nostalgia for the music and visuals of the 1980s and 1990s, including corporate background music (or “Muzak”), commercial advertisements, and obsolete consumer electronics. The genre’s earliest producers released albums freely and pseudonymously—facilitated by file-distribution sites like Mediafire and Bandcamp—and its accompanying community formed through discussions on web forums like 4chan and Reddit. What started as a narrowly-defined style focused on edited loops of Muzak and smooth jazz quickly ballooned into something broader: an umbrella genre encompassing a wide range of sonic and visual references to the aforementioned late-20th century touchstones. Both the genre and its community continue to thrive to this day.

This dissertation analyzes how the concept of genre shapes the musical experiences of online listeners. Diverging from prevailing narratives that suggest genre is now irrelevant in popular music, I argue that genre remains a core concern of numerous Internet subcultures, including vaporwave. As one of the oldest and most popular of these subcultures, vaporwave makes an effective case study, demonstrating how genre functions as sound, as community, and as metadata in online circles. Thanks to social media, the discussions within a genre community are more accessible than ever; I use these discussions to demonstrate how the creation of a genre is messy, complicated, and full of debates that are both agonizing and enjoyable for their participants. And though Internet genres develop more rapidly than their offline counterparts, with community members at a greater physical remove, they share a similar developmental trajectory.

The structure of this dissertation follows that trajectory, beginning with the fringe network of a few musicians witnessed in chapter one. An initial flurry of press attention in 2012 defined key stylistic qualities of vaporwave and publicized a few prominent producers, garnering an enthusiastic reception among users of web platforms like 4chan. And though vaporwave seemed to fade by the end of the year, an emerging community continued to take shape. A new wave of producers incorporated new stylistic influences, ushering new listeners into the community and triggering arguments over the genre’s “true” definition throughout 2013.

Chapter two sees these arguments continue into 2014, when the term “future funk” becomes codified as a label for new, dance-oriented vaporwave built from disco samples. And though some community members saw future funk as a dilution of vaporwave’s original purity, more of them welcomed in with open arms. A growing acceptance of future funk, combined with the rise of popular record labels and the creation of a dedicated genre forum on the social media site Reddit, contributed to a robust community by 2015.

Chapter three shows how that community was stretched to its limits in 2016. From the outside, fascist propagandists sought to repurpose vaporwave for their own ends; from the inside, a popular producer and record-label operator antagonized listeners beholden to strict ideals of what vaporwave should sound like. All the while, the genre’s popularity continued to boom through the spread of popular Internet memes, bringing in people with less investment in the scene’s history. As a response to all three of these developments, the community’s traditionalist wing reasserted itself, paving the way for a genre more often focused on its past than its present or future.

Chapter four explores the extent of that past-oriented mindset, documenting a community focused on celebrating great albums of the past and discussing well-established subgenres. On the former front, many listeners collected new pressings of old classics on vinyl; on the latter front, an elaborate taxonomy of labels allowed community members to categorize releases across vaporwave’s wide stylistic range. These practices allowed the community to re-stabilize after the upheaval of 2016, and what emerged was a genre scene tight enough to successfully organize its first pair of offline festivals: 100% Electronicon.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
music, vaporwave, genre, metadata, Internet, community
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