Identifying Conceptual Marxism in Postmodern Electronic Music
In the forty-six second YouTube video “name ten things that arent [sic] v a p o r w a v e,” two couples play a board game at a coffee table. One man draws a card and is tasked with reciting a list to the effect of the video’s title. He scrambles to mention “toothpaste, pizza, [and] lamps,” but finally arrives at “Vaporwave,” and throws up his hands in frustration (Hyper 0:06). His friend hits a red STOP button, and suddenly the room is filled with a slowed-down, chopped-up remix of Diana Ross’ song “It’s Your Move” (Whosampled). The man with his hand on the button grins on as his friends cover their ears and cringe with pain. He slowly turns his gaze to the fourth wall as the Head of Helios is gradually superimposed over his face (Hyper 0:28).
The video is an edited version of the skit “It’s Not Jackie Chan!” featured on the Adult Swim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. The word “vaporwave” has been conspicuously dubbed over the words “Jackie Chan,” and the remixed Ross song takes the place of a droning buzzer. The original video does not include the crudely Photoshopped image of the Head of Helios (Adult Swim UK).
It is easy and important for the viewer to be confused and even unsettled by the video. It is not immediately clear why the scene unfolds the way it does, poorly edited, absurdly scripted, and cryptically humored. The peculiarity is enough to address something specific without describing it, and the characters’ reaction to the music indicates that it’s supposed to be bad. Esoteric and unapologetic, the video does nothing to explain the meaning of what’s transpired, leaving the viewer to figure out what Vaporwave is or isn’t, and why it exists in the first place. What one finds is an aesthetic-born musical genre exemplary of conceptual art’s most poignant potential.
Etymologically, “vaporwave” stems from “vaporware,” a word describing new-fashioned, typically futuristic products—like the Sky Commuter, a flying car (Hard)—that are announced but never released. The root, “vapor,” suggests intangibility and fictional existence. The substitution of “wave” for “ware” hails the transient and theoretical nature of such products, and can even be linked to the Marxist notion that “the inevitability of obsolescence” in capitalist society leaves it in a state of constant flux (Harper). As a term, “vaporwave” refers to a cultural cycle of sale and disposal glorified in American culture, one that reached its zenith during the 1980s and 1990s (Wolf – 1:09).
Artists coming of age in the 2010s saw this avid and premature marketing as a sign of the times—metaphorical, even, of a culture rooted in the neglected promises of consumerism. In response, they created “a counter culture that . . . embraced [corporate ideals]” (Wolf – 6:18) and contributed to the wash of insubstantive production. From this culture came digital art founded in “an aesthetic that was popularized by an obsession with ’80s and ’90s subculture” (1:05). Vaporwave music became the soundtrack to this aesthetic. Given its appropriative nature, it appealed to contemporary Warholian artists as something they could very nearly mass produce, even with their limited productive resources. Better yet, it was something made of unlicensed, stolen materials (4:20).
Early in the genre’s history, the typical formula for creating Vaporwave was to slow down or distort preexisting music. Songs from the 1980s were especially popular for their resemblance to the Muzak native to elevators, supermarkets, and held calls (Wolf – 1:20). Artists became more experimental with splicing and mixing samples as the genre gained traction in online communities (0:45). What was once just a parodical exercise in appropriative sonic production matured into what is now Vaporwave, a sample-based avant-garde movement in electronic music.
Among hundreds of anonymously produced and equally obscure albums, Floral Shoppe (2011) was one of the first to become popular within Vaporwave’s original community. Produced by Macintosh Plus, an alias of the artist Vektroid (Wolf – 3:10), the piece opens with a sample of the jazz song “Tar Baby” (1985) by Sade (Whosampled). The track is called “ブート,” which is Japanese for “Boot” (Google). It is followed by the song that plays in “name ten things that arent v a p o r w a v e,” “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー,” which translates to “The Computing of Lisa Frank 420 // Contemporary” (“Vaporwave A Brief History” 3:37). The title track, “花の専門店,” is a sample of “If I Saw You Again” (1978) by Pages (Whosampled). None of the songs sampled in the eleven-track album have been formally accredited or contracted for their copyright, and every title (save for two untitled songs) is in Japanese despite Macintosh Plus being from Portland, Oregon.
Each of Floral Shoppe’s tracks is sonically complex and evocative in ways that do not immediately reveal themselves to the listener. Some of the tracks, including “ブート,” are dissonant and ominous. By opening with this song, Macintosh Plus seems to warn that what is to come may not be what it seems, and sets a dark undertone insistent through the album’s most upbeat pieces. Tracks like “待機” sound optimistic but sterile, and recall images of waxed linoleum and chrome shopping carts brimming with groceries in gleaming nonbiodegradable plastic bags and bottles. It is not a difficult stretch for one to imagine a voice accompanying the song to describe a state-of-the-art shopping mall. The juxtaposition of such songs presents the jarring and platitudinous in a way that disorients the listener, leaving him to ponder his place in a world that is mercilessly complex. They simultaneously parody and criticize efforts to scrutinize and simplify reality.
The album’s cover includes an image of the Head of Helios that sits in a foreground loosely established by perspective black tiles. The tiles form a checker stage before a small picture of the New York City skyline (including the Twin Towers) standing against a cloudy orange color-edited sky and standing over the Hudson River, which reflects the same ethereal color. Above, in mint green, the artist’s name is abbreviated “Macプラス,” meaning “MacPlus” (Google Translate), and flourished with a small geometric graphic of the same color. Just underneath it, the album is entitled in Japanese characters. The marble bust and the skyline image cast subtle shadows against the solid Pepto-Bismol-pink background.
These details do not follow any unique style attributable to Macintosh Plus, but conform to the crucial and specific aesthetic whence Vaporwave is derived. This aesthetic incorporates “glitch art, early digital graphic design, Roman busts, a fascination with [digitized] tropical landscapes, Japanese culture, and . . . the redistribution of old ‘80s elevator music inspired [by] Funk, New Age, and Smooth Jazz” (Wolf – 1:00). The color scheme always includes pink and often turquoise or white.
The use of crude collage and stark contrast of bright colors conveys a flustering otherworldliness while Japanese titles exotify the work and prompt the audience to wonder about its geographic and cultural origin. Graphics of the busts and landscapes serve as blatant representations of beauty in synthetic forms that indicate to the viewer that his culture is deceitful. Presentation of Romanesque art beside low-resolution digital graphics compares the two and ultimately equalizes them. The comparison degrades craft and theory, and insists parity of mechanical production to the humanity of art. In this sense, Vaporwave’s aesthetic arises from the postmodernist appropriation of consumerist cultural icons. These icons interact with expressions of deep human emotion to undermine the value of humanism in a way demonstrative of modern consumerist culture. They are unfeeling, commodified ideas and symbols that, beside classical sculptures and immersed in sublime music, are glorified as representations of power. They discount the efforts of art to engage humanity, and claim the world as their own: It is products and money that rule the world.
Vaporwave’s brand of postmodernism relates to what Jean-Francois Lyotard describes in his 1979 philosophical report, The Postmodern Condition, as a “shattering of belief and . . . discovery of the ‘lack of reality’ of reality” itself. Objective truth and fixed meaning is rejected, and value is instead recognized in process and presentation. The purpose of this presentation, Lyotard argues, is to convey the sublime, the “unpresentable,” as a challenge to the idea that all can be known. When successfully expressed, the sublime, defined by the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant to be “a strong and equivocal emotion,” is evidence that something exists beyond the scope of human understanding. (Lyotard 77)
To evoke the sublime, the artist must blind his audience with the “‘formlessness’” and “‘negative presentation’” (qtd. in Lyotard 78) that Immanuel Kant lauded. Kant believed that by presenting an absence of what is or should be—such as form or meaning—one can convey a sense of the infinite. Without definition, the observer of the sublime is confronted with the limits of his own perception and asked to imagine what lies beyond. This experience can induce fear—and is expected to be painful—but also evokes genuine ecstasy as one is overwhelmed by ineffable beauty (Lyotard 78).
Postmodernist use of negative form and lack of form is a reaction to a society “considered to be ill” (Lyotard 73). Such illness is characterized by a trend of creative “slackening” by which a community is “urged to put an end to experimentation” of any kind (71). Afflicted by this aversion to the abstract and obscure, scholars such as historians, scientists, and analytic philosophers look to what they believe to be concrete, factual, and certain as an alleviation of the symptoms of “impiety,” “Continental thinking” (71), and “‘adlinguisticity’” (72).
The impiety of which postmodernism is accused describes what the self-proclaimed pious would identify as a disrespectful (to god) challenge to theological absolutism. Continental philosophy is a school of thought rooted in the deconstruction of “absolute views of reality, truth, value, and meaning” (Jones). It is generally contextualized in opposition to Analytic philosophy, by which one is meant to discover such absolute views through scientific analysis. “Adlinguisticity” is a word coined by Lyotard himself (or by his translator, as The Postmodern Condition was written first in French). The brief explanation Lyotard offers defines adlinguisticity as “[speech] about speech, [writing] about writing, [and] intertextuality” (72), referencing the way in which postmodern art provides self-commentary. Such an artistic device could be threatening to a purist view of art as expressions of the “real world.”
The postmodernist rejects this absolutism, embracing artifice instead. “Assigned to the task of healing” (73) society, the postmodern artist (the musician, the scientist, the philosopher—indeed every postmodern thinker) accepts the guidelines and rules of his craft “as a means to deceive,” “seduce,” and “reassure” (74). By this logic, rules are not wrought from truth (74), and the resultant methodology produces works that break down social norms in order to keep the minds of the community in flux.
Without cultural works of thought to provoke diversity and liberty of thought, society risks inundating itself with intellectual uniformity, which is controllable. In their 1846 essay, “A Critique of the German Ideology,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels identify this risk as “ruling ideas” (Marx 21). These ideas are those which stem from a ruling class in possession of “the means of mental production,” and are those to which the rest of society is subject (21). Postmodernists do not claim that scientists, historians, realist artists, or analytic philosophers in general compose this class or intend to control the minds of their audience. They recognize instead that this is the natural result of an accepted ideology, be it intended or not. By producing art that challenges dominant conceptions of the world (including the revelations of modernism), postmodernists disallow any ideology to be considered outright truth. If society is encouraged to question, it can grow, and can avoid falling victim to ruling ideas. The disillusive world of avant-garde art is necessary to keep a culture healthily disoriented in this way.
Macintosh Plus uses samples to assemble musical compositions that realize this disorientation. Her bizarre sounds and caustic aesthetic draw forth powerful abstruse emotion and question truth. Her obscure origin and industrialized process of creation challenge the basis and value of artistry. These are the marks of the conceptual, the avant-garde, the preposterous—qualities on exhibition in Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day (2003), John Baldessari’s What Is Painting (1968), Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), and Floral Shoppe. These are the instruments of the postmodern.
Vaporwave contributes to this world of art a musical approach that takes advantage of what Kenneth Goldsmith calls “uncreativity” (Uncreativity as Creative Practice). To Goldsmith, there is treasure in repetition and meaninglessness. Working entirely with appropriated materials (Colbert 1:20), he makes found poetry, the “perfect place to place a valueless practice” (Goldsmith). In a very similar way, Macintosh Plus manipulates found material to mix the songs in Floral Shoppe, not composing the music herself, but composing songs of the music. Though she exercises what Goldsmith may assert is too much creativity by mixing the songs and creating her own intentional progression, her reorganization of content does not stray far from Goldsmith’s own style in practice.
In Day, Goldsmith retypes articles from the New York Times not in their coherent stream of plot, but in the order in which he encounters them as he pages through the physical newspaper. A sample of the work, titled “Islam,” demonstrates the types of disjointment this creates:
e2 the new york times, tuesday, september 11, 2001
Continued From First Arts Page
On Islam, Mr. Houellebecq went still further, deriding his estranged mother for converting to Islam and proclaiming that, while all monotheistic religions were “cretinous,” “the most stupid religion is Islam.” And he added: “When you read the Koran, you give up. At least the Bible is
very beautiful because Jews have an extraordinary literary talent.” And later, noting that “Islam is a dangerous religion,” he said it was condemned to disappear, not only because God does not exist but also because it was being undermined by capitalism.
Intentionally structured or not, his segmentation dislocates the reader amidst what may be expected to be a recognizable or even familiar text (Goldsmith). Macintosh Plus’s pieces produce the same effect. Strange cuts and abrupt shifts in the bodies of both Day and Floral Shoppe obstruct what’s coming next, and form their most interesting poetic and sonic textures.
Baldessari’s What Is Painting portrays a quote “from a book about art appreciation” (MoMa). It is painted in black, capital sans-serif calligraphy, and reads:
WHAT IS PAINTING
DO YOU SENSE HOW ALL THE PARTS OF A GOOD
PICTURE ARE INVOLVED WITH EACH OTHER, NOT
JUST PLACED SIDE BY SIDE? ART IS A CREATION
FOR THE EYE AND CAN ONLY BE HINTED AT WITH
Baldessari “hired a professional sign-painter to hand letter the words,” and “someone else [to] stretch the canvas” (MoMa). The very words appropriated from an outside text, it is clear that Baldessari is responsible only for the idea and its finance. Yet it is his name on the wall plaque beside the piece despite the possibility that he never touched the physical work of art itself. Though unlikely, he could have even avoided ever seeing it.
What Is Painting questions the certainty of claims made in the analysis of art as well as the extent to which it is bound by physicality. Baldessari sets a rule and breaks it himself, devising a painting that by logic of its own most literal message is not a painting. Because it is a painted work of art, however, it is difficult to label as “text” either. By not punctuating the introductory phrase “WHAT IS PAINTING” (Baldessari), Baldessari allows the words first, to indicate that the following text defines what painting is, next, to question what painting is, and finally, to establish, more abstractly, that painting, and art in general, is “what”—question, provocation, uncertainty. The method by which he commissioned the painting to be built also satirizes Economic Liberalism, hinting at Labor Cost Theory (most notably attributed to Adam Smith) and Marx’s theory of Surplus Value, which together describe the way in which a Capitalist is able to profit from labor by buying it as a resource from laborers and selling what comes of it (Capital 127).
Macintosh Plus addresses the same concepts by “breaking the rules” of her medium and employing the work of other artists to her own end. By means of Vaporwave’s aesthetic, she also encounters Lyotard’s own assessment of capitalism. Lyotard claims that because capitalism monetizes and therefore abstracts familiar concepts, it “inherently possesses the power to derealize” them (Lyotard 74). Realistic portrayals of “objects, social roles, and institutions . . . can no longer evoke reality except as nostalgia or mockery” (74). This is exactly the point Vaporwave artists make by installing in their album art and music videos imagery of fine art, like the Head of Helios amidst shoddy and untheorized digital visual schemes. The appropriation of subcultural icons contributes as well to this element of the work.
Duchamp abides more stringently (though not quite as radically) by the method of display Goldsmith so loyally adopts. His piece Fountain is an actual urinal purchased from “Mott’s,” a “plumbing supply house” (Harris 0:33). The appliance is exhibited atop a podium, on its back (the side that would, were the urinal installed, be screwed into a wall), and signed “R. Mutt 1917.” It raises uncertainty about the nature of its existence out of practice: if it is not functioning as a urinal, it must not be a urinal. Duchamp presents Fountain as if to ask what the object is if not a urinal, who can decide what it is instead, and from where the authority to do so comes.
Songs from Floral Shoppe similarly dissociate their samples from their original content and significance. Sade’s “Tar Baby” is a jazz song about the newborn child of a twenty-year-old girl, presumably abandoned by the child’s father. “ブート,” the song that samples “Tar Baby,” introduces the insidiousness of the coming electronic pieces that commodify emotion, optimism, and exotification in a satirical manner resemblant of Maxist criticism of the notions. It is difficult to recognize the works altered to construct the songs on Floral Shoppe because they have been recontextualized, similarly to (though more extremely than) Duchamp’s Fountain.
Vaporwave is the very deliberately engineered musical spawn of consumerism. Poised as a sonic shrine to capitalism and the cultural deities of the 1980s and 1990s, it amalgamates the materialist and the abstract to present to its audience a world embraced by lifeless vibrancy and chaos, shattered by existentialist imagery. Its songs are musical abominations resurrected of idols thrown away: they conceptualize the dangers of monetary culture and question the nature of truth to address cultural behaviors instilled by established economic principles. Disturbing, unpleasant, dystopic, emotional, sublime, and beautiful, Vaporwave embodies entropy itself and its constant relevance even in the most advanced civilization. It is the unimaginable, the unfathomable, the infinitesimal and the infinite. This is why it epitomizes postmodernist conceptual art. It is impossible to name ten things that aren’t vaporwave.
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