In the middle of Jason Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, the author rants about how all music has sounded the same since the dawn of the internet.
This is a part of his overall argument that the collection of people into hive minds on the internet has reduced our creativity since our technology encourages us to reduce our ideas into only what the computer can understand and rewards the repetition of expression that people liked in the past.
You know who else has made that argument? Saint Pepsi and other vaporwave artists:
This music video had 10 million views before it got taken down in early 2018 when YouTube’s moderators confused it with the unrelated racist moonman meme. Thankfully, it was put back up (video by Sun Levi).
The vaporwave genre of music is a sample-based genre where the artists take sections of pop music or mall soundtracks from the 70’s, 80’s, and the 90’s and loop them multiple times, often altering the speed of the original sample and altering the reverb to add a sense of decay.
From there, the approach of these artists vary. Artists like CAT SYSTEM CORP. take older songs and make them sound as if they were playing on a cassette over a dead mall’s decaying loudspeaker. Artists like MACROSS 82–99 are a part of the future funk sub-genre and transform samples into electronic dance songs that barely resemble the original song.
Either way, these artists have the same goal: to elicit nostalgia and make fun of consumerism.
Going back to the video above featuring Saint Pepsi’s song “Enjoy Yourself”, the entire song and video burlesque pop culture and capitalism without needing to name them.
No individual part of “Enjoy Yourself” is original: the entire song revolves around five seconds from Michael Jackson’s 1977 hit “Off the Wall” and the music video is merely a well-edited 90’s McDonald’s commercial to make it look like the Mac Tonight mascot is performing the song.
The Mac Tonight references do not stop here. The cover for the album that this song comes from, Saint Pepsi and Luxury Elite’s 2013 landmark Late Night Delight, features Mac Tonight front-and-center on all digital, cassette, and vinyl releases on the Illuminated Paths store on Bandcamp.
One might think this song is ripping off Michael Jackson’s music, but now think about hit songs like “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 (not a good song, but the point still stands). Does that song not sound like many tunes that have come before it? Does it do anything no other song has done before?
When songs in general get stuck in your head, is the chorus usually the first part you remember? How many of the same words are used in songs and how many words do you need to remember in order to remember the song? What is being sold to you?
That is what music like “Enjoy Yourself” critiques.
Humanity’s desire to repeat the best experiences of their past and how it rewards and celebrates corporations’ desire to profiteer off of people with as little effort as possible is thoroughly mocked.
The more rigid, non-organic sounds and music that sampling and electronic instruments provide makes this satire easier to deliver in the same sense that Lanier believed that hip-hop bangs against the cage of electronic music’s domination over culture.
Vaporwave understands nothing is new under the sun more keenly than most other genres and instead of banging on the walls of its electronic and commercial confines like hi-hop, it makes the listener see their electronic and consumer walls more clearly.
Another key example of this is CAT SYSTEM CORP.’s 2014 album, Palm Mall. In addition to sampling older pop music and generic shopping songs, Palm Mall adds in ambient noise with audio distortion effects and electronic sounds to create the atmosphere of urban decay in a dead mall with no visitors.
This effect is so powerful that many YouTubers who explore dead malls (like Dan Bell, Ace’s Adventures) use music by or similar to CAT SYSTEM CORP. in their videos. Here, the unoriginal side of CAT SYSTEM CORP.’s music is used to highlight the stagnation of culture and attempts to bring back a decaying past that Lanier observed in You Are Not a Gadget.
At the same time, highlighting society’s attempts to recreate the retro can also serve as a faithful celebration of it. Future funk artists like MACROSS 82–99 have built careers out of this.
MACROSS 82–99’s 2017 album “Idols Sakura” demonstrates how samples of older pop songs can be transformed into completely different songs while keeping enough of the original song in tact to strike a chord with those who remember it.
For instance, the song “Breath of the Wild (ft. Chieko)” is based on a sample of a song from the soundtrack of the Sega Dreamcast game Shenmue according to WhoSampled, but completely transforms the sample by adding in electronic beats and a vocalist.
On the same album, songs like “Dance” combine multiple samples together to create a song that puts them in an entirely different context (This song in particular combining the music of Kool and the Gang with Rye Rye according to WhoSampled).
He did so much with the samples on this particular album that when it first came out, I thought the songs were entirely original only to be surprised at how well MACROSS 82–99 sewed so many tunes together.
Also, many of MACROSS 82–99’s most popular songs and a fair amount of the future funk genre’s artists sample obscure Japanese city pop songs as I have listened to it over the years (city pop being Japanese music from the country’s 80’s economic boom that emulated a lot of Western pop trends and Japanese jazz according to Vice).
In a way, songs like “82.99 FM” from MACROSS 82–99’s 2014 landmark album “A Million Miles Away” further feeds the interest culture has in reliving the past by introducing many outside of Japan to an entire new world of 80’s music in a vibrant and exciting way thanks to the spread of these artists on Bandcamp.
It is very popular within future funk and its fandom to make music videos from the songs out of clips from 80’s and 90’s anime. You have no idea how much older anime I only know of due to these videos. (Video from tojork)
Overall, I am not sure whether Lanier would have liked vaporwave or not, but because of how it mocks pop culture’s consumerism and stagnancy, I am certainly a fan and I think that it has a lot in common with Lanier’s points.
Featured Image: Luxury Elite and Saint Pepsi’s “Late Night Delight” was originally released in 2013 on Illuminated Paths and is still considered an important album to the vaporwave genre to this day as indicated by sites like Geek.com. (Image from Illuminated Paths)