Posted on 2016/10/21 by

Vaporwave and Appropriation

Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “Hep Cats and Copy Cats: American Music Challenges the Copyright Tradition” provides us with rich starting points for thinking about American music history and its frequently fraught relationship with copyright mechanisms. In particular, I find his treatment of rap’s history to be especially nuanced, with important attention paid to Dick Hebdige’s work on Jamaican “versioning” in the 1960s and DJ Kool Herc’s use of breaks. We should also keep in mind, however, that Copyrights and Copywrongs was published in 2001, and, as such, accounts for only part of the story that has led us to our current historical cultural moment. In the fifteen ensuing years – at least a few millennia in internet years – we’ve seen a series of cases that have served to complicate music copyright discourse and notions of fair use even more. From Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album and “Grey Thursday,” through Gregg Gillis’ rampant sampling under the Girl Talk moniker, the plethora of culture now available to us with a few clicks and keystrokes and the resulting remix culture have arguably rendered a case like Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., that Vaidhyanathan analyzes in his book, somewhat alien to us.

As an illustration of how culture has morphed in ways that further complicate some of the issues addressed by Vaidhyanathan in his text, I would like to introduce a recent internet-born musical genre into the conversation: vaporwave. Although to seek a rigid definition of the genre seems to run against its ironizing, ad hoc-ly theorized ethos, vaporwave can be roughly characterized as a style of music, arising around the turn of this decade, propagated by a loosely defined, largely pseudonymous group of creators/collaborators across Tumblr, YouTube, Bandcamp, and various music subreddits. Sonically, as Adam Harper puts it in a genre overview from 2012, “the typical vaporwave track is a wholly synthesized or heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music, bright and earnest or slow and sultry, often beautiful, either looped out of sync and beyond the point of functionality or standing alone, and sometimes with a smattering of miasma about it.” (“Comment: Vaporwave and the Pop-Art of the Virtual Plaza”). Aesthetically, its iconography clusters around a fetishistic treatment of 1980s and 1990s consumer culture – particularly, and frequently, the utopian futures imagined in period technology advertising – along with, among many other signifiers, “roman busts, tropical sunsets, low-quality graphics, and Japanese text” (Hardeman).

The cover of Macintosh Plus’ 2011 フローラルの専門店 (Floral Shoppe), a seminal early vaporwave release.

Ascertaining the intentions behind vaporwave producers’ specific sonic and aesthetic choices has proven to be a fraught critical endeavor in discursive spaces associated with the genre online. Harper, in 2012, sees a clear through-line between the genre and the accelerationist philosophy of thinkers such as Nick Land, whereas others, such as Michelle Lhooq, have framed it more generally within a punk lineage: “vaporwave is actually ‘punk,’ in that it’s driven by a subversive political objective: undermining the iron grip of global capitalism… by exposing the alienating emptiness underneath its uncanny sheen” (“Is Vaporwave The Next Seapunk?”). Scott Beauchamp, writing more recently this summer in Esquire, falls on the side of Lhooq’s analysis, arguing, “vaporwave has obvious antecedents in American music and culture. And although it might mimic the aesthetics of capitalism, the anti-place of the American mall, and the sounds of a tranquil permanent present, it has more in common with punk. It’s political” (“How Vaporwave Was Created Then Destroyed by the Internet”). Others shy away from the overtly political characterization of the genre as “appropriative critique,” feeling that this is reductive and has only been undertaken because it “eases the [genre’s] ‘path to legitimacy’” (Noack).

What does all of this have to do with Vaidhyanathan and the ideas explored in “Hep Cats and Copy Cats”? Vaporwave is generally conceived of as having two “founding documents” (Beauchamp) from around the turn of this decade: Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010) and James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011). Each project, I would like to argue, is fascinating to consider within the historical cultural context established by Vaidhyanathan, and offers us unique opportunities to query our present moment in light of issues identified by him.

Eccojams Vol. 1 is actually a pseudonymous cassette release by acclaimed electronic producer Daniel Lopatin who typically releases material under the name Oneohtrix Point Never. The basic practice of “eccojamming” is intentionally quite simple[2], consisting of the isolation of a small excerpt from a pop song, which is treated with an enormous amount of echo/reverb, and then looped and paired with accompanying visuals sourced from YouTube (Reynolds 81). The most “famous” of Lopatin’s eccojams is an excerpt from art pop singer Chris de Burgh’s hit “The Lady In Red” entitled “nobody here.” For just over two minutes, an isolated section of de Burgh singing “There’s nobody here” is looped over low-resolution graphics of rainbow road – sourced from a 1983 commercial for a laser disc game (Dummy Magazine Staff) – itself overlaid atop an anonymous and impersonal visual of a skyline. Although it lacks an accompanying “official” visual like “nobody here,” a deeply nostalgic personal favourite of mine from Eccojams Vol. 1 is simply known as “A3,” an eccojammed version of a chorus excerpt from JoJo’s 2006 hit “Too Little Too Late.” According to the critic Simon Reynolds, my pangs of nostalgia may not be completely arbitrary responses to Lopatin’s Person project, as he interprets it as “relat[ing] to cultural memory and the buried utopianism within capitalist commodities, especially those related to consumer technology in the computing and audio/video entertainment area” (81).

Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual is very different from Lopatin’s Eccojams, but still a seminal source text for the development of the vaporwave genre. Sonically, it is significantly different, consisting of 16 tracks – initially intended as 16 ringtones (Red Bull Music Academy) – of airless, uncannily melodic music bearing discomforting, quasi-sensical names like “Global Lunch,” “Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi,” and “Condo Pets.” Take “Solar Panel Smile” as an example, where Ferraro conducts a 4-minute mini ensemble comprised instrumentally of the Nintendo Gamecube “Menu Theme,” the Windows XP “Shutdown Sound,” the Nintendo Wii “Startup Sound,” and Garageband preset instruments. According to Harper, Far Side Virtual “pastiched techno-capitalist stock promotional music for the era of the personal computer and of bum-bags full of Apple devices, forcing us to confront the kitsch that’s used to make us excited about brands and their technological possibilities” (“Comment: Vaporwave and the Pop-Art of the Virtual Plaza”).

As can hopefully be intuited at this point, Lopatin and Ferraro’s work serve to contrast our cultural moment greatly with some of the cases treated by Vaidhyanathan in his text. As he argued back in 2001,

[t]here could be room for unauthorized sampling within American copyright law. It could and should be considered fair use. Digital samples are more often than not small portions of songs. These portions are being used in completely different ways in the new songs. Because they are not working in the same way as in the original song, they are inherently different from their sources. (145)

This holds largely true of Lopatin and Ferraro’s sampling choices across these two projects,[3] but, more broadly, what is perhaps more interesting to contemplate in considering these remarks is how little fair use rhetoric has informed this movement of cultural creation on the internet. Perhaps this can be explained, in part, by vaporwave being, for the large part of its lifecycle, niche or small-scale enough as to not attract significant litigation as a result of its works. Or, as another explanation, perhaps litigation has not been pursued – and, consequently, fair use not been invoked – because we live in a different age of savvier, more cool-attuned brands[4] and rights holders that are eager to leverage associations with hip nascent underground microtrends. In this world, JoJo is no Gilbert O’Sullivan to Chuck Person’s Biz Markie, vociferously protesting the minuscule snippet of her eccojammed vox. Instead she’s sitting back, maybe reveling in, and perhaps furiously consulting on how to, in some way, monetize, her unanticipated fifteen microseconds of microfame. That is, of course, if she is aware of it at all.

One last idea that I want to put vaporwave in dialogue with from this week’s readings is the concept of appropriation, as defined early on in Rosemary J. Coombe and Nicole Aylwin’s “The Evolution of Cultural Heritage Ethics via Human Rights Norms.” As Coombe and Aylwin outline,

when creativity involves a practice described as appropriation, an assertion is being made that a text has been moved or removed from its authorizing context, or that it has, in some significant sense, been taken (Meurer and Coombe 2009). In some cases, this decontextualization may be deliberately and critically intended – [1]to challenge the fields of meanings in which the object properly figures, [2]to assert an alternative ownership over it, and/or [3]to consider the importance of other realms of connotation in which it might signify. (201-2)

Clearly, appropriation is also very useful to bring into any consideration of vaporwave – indeed, the three intentional decontextualizations that Coombe and Aylwin list in their last sentence above could each be posited as motives underlying the vaporwave ethos, if such a thing even exists. But, what I want to highlight in particular, here – via Lopatin’s, Ferraro’s and other vaporwave artists’ work – is how muddied ascribing intentionality to works can become, especially works born out of, and elaborated on/through the digital ether. It’s also why, I would like to argue, we haven’t seen nearly as much outrage at vaporwave’s appropriation of Japanese characters and signifiers as in other cases of cultural appropriation in recent years – whatever intentionality exists behind their use, it is too oblique and distancing to spark direct offence.

This applies, similarly, to Vaidhyanathan’s discussion, near the end of “Hep Cats and Copy Cats,” of copyright infringement defenses won on the grounds of parody. Following a brief discussion of 2 Live Crew’s “Pretty Woman,” he states, “[f]or a work to qualify as a parody, it must make some critical statement about the first work. It’s not good enough to be just funny. The critical statement must be directed at the source text itself” (146). Here again, I have a feeling that vaporwave might fail this intentionality test, as it rarely, if ever, feels entirely parodic. As Lopatin puts it in the liner notes to a 2009 DVD release, Memory Vague, “no commercial work is outside of the reach of artistic reclamation” (quoted in Reynolds 81). To me, the most oddly affecting vaporwave music works at once to ironize and sentimentalize its source material, complicating any kind of clear parodic interpretation.

As Coombe and Aylwin remark, “[t]he tendency to treat all cultural forms in digital media ecology as mere ‘information’ enables everyone to access and make use of cultural goods” (201) – vaporwave is a specific example of this idea borne out online in all of its confused, splintered polyphony. I hope by bringing it, and several of its most well known works into this conversation, I have provided a contemporary digital context in which to discuss ideas such as Vaidhyanathan’s, Coombe and Aylwin’s, and, more broadly, many of the others from our course. To me, it is exciting to see issues that we discuss in class playing out culturally around us online in something close to real-time.

[1] As with any cultural micro-genre/trend operating on the internet in the age of postmodernism, there has been significant argument over the last several years around whether vaporwave, as a genre category, is even still alive/operative. The movement’s “death” was being called as early as three years ago by some of its practitioners.

[2] When asked about the Eccojams release and its relation to vaporwave in a Reddit AMA from October 2013, Lopatin aligned eccojamming, provocatively, with folk practice, remarking, “im glad people like the eccojams stuff, i always hoped it would be something people would just do — its kinda folky by nature” (“I’m Daniel Lopatin, pka Oneohtrix Point Never. AMA”).

[3] Where Vaidhyanathan’s length stipulation becomes less defensible is in a consideration of slightly later vaporwave works, such as PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises’ Home™, which seemingly repurposes dated corporate muzak tracks wholesale, or, at least, sounds very convincingly like it could be doing so.

[4] If this is true of brands in particular, this, in itself, would be a significant attack on any of vaporwave’s (assumed) political efficacy, demonstrating, yet again, capitalism’s insidious, seemingly limitless capacity to absorb and resell any critique of it. Curiously, one of the more recently theorized death knells for the genre came when Tumblr and MTV unveiled rebranding efforts that bore striking resemblances to vaporwave aesthetics.

Works Cited

Beauchamp, Scott. “How Vaporwave Was Created Then Destroyed by the Internet.” Esquire, 18 Aug. 2016. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Coombe, Rosemary J. and Nicole Aylwin. “The Evolution of Cultural Heritage Ethics via Human Rights Norms.” Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Culture Online. Eds. Rosemary J. Coombe, Darren Wershler and Martin Zeilinger. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. 201-12.

Dummy Magazine Staff. “2010: Why Oneohtrix Point Never Is Our Artist of the Year.” Dummy Magazine, 31 Dec. 2010. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Hardeman, Steven Lewis. “Our Weird Internet: Understanding Vaporwave.” Odyssey Online, 19 Sept. 2016. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Harper, Adam. “Comment: Vaporwave and the Pop-Art of the Virtual Plaza.” Dummy Magazine, 12 July 2012. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Lhooq, Michelle. “Is Vaporwave The Next Seapunk?” Thump, 27 Dec. 2013. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Lopatin, Daniel. “I’m Daniel Lopatin, pka Oneohtrix Point Never. AMA.” Reddit, 9 Oct. 2013. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Noack, Tristan. “Vaporwave: Completely Vapid?”, 28 Apr. 2016. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Red Bull Music Academy. “Interview: James Ferraro and His Music Multiverse.” Red Bull Music Academy Daily, 6 Mar. 2012. Accessed 18 Oct. 2016.

Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Hep Cats and Copy Cats: American Music Challenges the Copyright Tradition.” Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity. New York: New York UP, 2001. 117-48.

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