A History of Chillwave and Vaporwave

by Piero Scaruffi

TM, ®, Copyright © 2019 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


Chillwave was the first major musical genre that can be credited to the Internet. The term was coined in 2009 by Carlos Perez on his blog "Hipster Runoff" in a review of Washed Out, and Washed Out's first single Feel It All Around (2009) became the signature song of the genre. Chillwave spread on the Internet by the generation that had grown up with the 2001 terrorist attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq war of 2003, and the financial crisis of 2007. These catastrophic events may have had a psychological impact on the music, that was mostly sedated and relaxed, and occasionally blissful in the face of an unpleasant and stressful reality. The early practitioners harked back to the Animal Collective's mutant pop of Feels (2005) and to Noah Lennox/ Panda Bear's sample-delic album Person Pitch (2007), to Ariel Pink's lo-fi revisitation of the Sixties on House Arrest (2003), to J. Dilla's collage of vintage soul songs Donuts (2006), to the muzak for synths and drum-machines concocted by the Boards Of Canada (the simpler art of 2005 The Campfire Headphase, not the more experimental art of Geogaddi). The Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) may have been a catalyzer of sorts. Fact is that 2009 was the year when Washed Out (Ernest Greene), Neon Indian (Alan Palomo), Ducktails (Matthew Mondanile) and Toro y Moi (Chaz Bundick) made chillwave popular nation-wide thanks to Washed Out's EP Life of Leisure (2009), Neon Indian's album Psychic Chasms (2009), Small Black's single Despicable Dogs (2009), Ducktails' album Ducktails (2009), and Toro y Moi's album Causers Of This (2010).

The merits of this genre were vastly exaggerated by a press eager for new "isms" and movements. In reality, the whole chillwave movement amounted to little more than a revival of the most tasteless synth-pop of the 1980s. Chillwave sounded like a polemic against guitar-driven rock music, and the way it was distributed, publicized and consumed. Chillwave shunned the concert arenas and preferred the website Bandcamp, chillwave shunned the music magazines and preferred Internet social media, chillwave shunned the radio stations and preferred the playlists on music streaming websites. Last but not least, chillwave was a derivative form of music made by amateurs who had neither vocal nor instrumental proficiency.

Chillwave was therefore mocked by the music establishment. Nonetheless, it went on to create millions of fans on the Internet. And it eventually fostered the advent of another "low-brow" electronic genre, vaporwave, which was even more mocked by the establishment and became even more influential.

Vaporwave was essentially a variant of chillwave that appeared a couple of years later. The link between the two genres was Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never), who released the mixtape Ecco Jams Vo.1 (2010) under the moniker Chuck Person, His "eccojam" was a remix of an old pop song, and the remix consists in selecting a specific section of the song and repeating it at a slower speed than the original and warping its arrangement with sound effects. Another precursor, the one who truly codified the vaporwave aesthetic, was producer Skeleton (spelled as three Chinese characters), whose second album Holograms (2010) compiled brief "eccojams" that mainly used not pop muzak but smooth jazz .

Vaporwave began in earnest with an album by Oregon's graphic artist and producer Ramona "Vektroid" Xavier, Floral Shoppe (2011), credited to Macintosh Plus, that targeted (sampled and/or imitated) old elevator muzak and smooth jazz, and with California's producer James Ferraro, whose Far Side Virtual (2011) offered cheesy synth-based elevator music mocking the consumer society. These were the home producers who defined the vaporwave aesthetic: ethereal, trance-like, slow-motion samples of faceless muzak from the 1980s. Influenced by Vektroid's album, very often the vaporwave musicians liked to use Japanese titles, even when the sampled music was not from Japan. Vaporwave was therefore essentially a subculture of the remix, but of the foolish remix rather than the austere one. Vaporwave was sedate lo-fi retro-futurism spawned by a generation that was raised on videogames, laptops and social media. To some extent, it was also nostalgic, but not so much for the music that it metabolized as for the early days of cable television. It certainly wasn't meant as serious business because it was almost always distributed in the form of a widely advertised "free download" from websites such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The term was coined in October 2011 by the music blog "Weed Temple" in a review of Girlhood's album Surfs Pure Hearts.

The following year Canadian producer Blank Banshee (Patrick Driscoll) injected trap music into vaporwave, thereby coining "vaportrap", on his debut album Blank Banshee 0 (2012), while Austin's Internet Club (Robin Burnett) released a mixtape of Japanese muzak, Vanishing Vision (2012).

While Portugal's Mediafired (Joao Goncalves) had already invented it on the cassette The Pathway Through Whatever (2011), "mallsoft" became a subgenre on its own after Sapporo Contemporary (2012) by Virtual Information Desk (another incarnation of Vektroid).

New Zealand's Eyeliner (Luke Rowell) provided the link with the electronic new-age music of the 1980s on LARP of Luxury (2013); and Kansas' Golden Living Room (Joel Cachero) provided the link with ambient music on the cassette Welcome Home (2014).

Hit Vibes (2013) by Boston's Saint Pepsi (Ryan DeRobertis) and Sailorwave (2013) by Mexico's Macross 82-99 (Gerald Mookie) focused on samples from disco-music and funk of the 1970s, and thereby coined the "future funk" subgenre.

Mallsoft became more popular thanks to Hologram Plaza by Disconscious (2013), Supermarket Yes! We're Open (2014) by New York's Siglyopum Groceries (visual artist Jordan Bortner), and Palm Mall (2014) by Holland's Cat System Corp (Jornt Elzinga).

The year 2014 witnessed numerous Japanese-titled releases by Ohio's Telepath (Luke Laurila), and Telenights (2014) by Canada's Ghosting, basically a mixtape of samples from television. Vaportrap yielded Blue Screen 001 (2014) by Florida's Windows98 (Daniel Saylor), perhaps the best album of the subgenre, and Mana Pool (2014) by Atlanta's Vaperror. But 2015 was the last significant year of the fad. Besides Atarashi Hi no Tanjo/ Birth of a New Day (2015) by 2814 (the duo of Telepath and London's HKE aka David Russo) and Beyond Love (2015) by Televape (the duo of Vaperror and Telepath), the year yielded the most adventurous album of videogame-infected ecco jams, I'll Try Living Like This (2015) by Philadelphia's Death's Dynamic Shroud.wmv (the trio of James Webster, Keith Rankin and Tech Honors).

Very little of the vaporwave movement was original. A sense of dejavu pervaded even the most clever compositions. But its fans weren't even born when John Oswald's Plunderphonics (1988), Christian Marclay's More Encores (1989) and Coldcut's What's That Noise (1989) created the first samples-based music, and were probably too young to remember Solex's Solex vs the Hitmeister (1998) or the ephemeral "mash-up" vogue launched by Girl Talk's Secret Diary (2002). In any case those were attempts to be genuinely creative, whereas vaporwave was trying to be genuinely derivative.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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