One of the most exciting things about music writing is discovering a common language between artists and, as a result, tracing a style in the making. The speed of the Internet accelerates this process, causing genres to become increasingly micro-, and in many cases, evaporating before they have the chance to fully develop.
Last year, Adam Harper of Dummy announced the dawn of ‘vaporwave’ – music of the age of high technology and hyperconsumerism, in which lounge music scraps and commercial debris are looped, blurred and distorted into a virtual mirage, represented by the likes of MACINTOSH PLUS, New Dreams Ltd. or INTERNET CLUB. A number of artists promptly distanced themselves from the term, while just last month, Alison Green at Chicago Reader expressed doubts as to whether any consolidated microscene could exist. Regardless of whether one can still discern coherent musical movements in 2013, an important attitude in contemporary electronic music is evident here, and due to its interdisciplinary nature and striking cultural relevance, may yet expand beyond an online fad.
Vaporwave was about hopes that failed to happen. A nostalgic nod to a future that never materialised, or more generally towards the era in which everything was oriented towards the promise of something. Even fonts, commonly italicised in the mid-90s, were straining towards the horizon. Vaporwave, in Harper’s definition, aims to reproduce this thrilling sensation of potential, encapsulated in vivid names such as Geocities and Angelfire, and by the keen use of katakana characters, pastel gradients, Windows 95 environment aesthetics and ubiquitous italicisation. Reading between the lines, there is a sly gesture towards Brian Eno and his Windows jingle, and a glimpse of the heartless, dystopian technoreality predicted by artists as diverse as Front 242 and Kylie Minogue (‘Confide In Me’ video, specifically). Because many vaporwave acts incorporate the sounds of ‘practical use’: elevator music, advertising jingles, teleshopping aural wallpapers – the fledgling genre quickly earned a subversive label, becoming perceived as a witty critique of the global capitalist condition and perhaps the only new movement containing true traces of punk’s DNA. Its critical aspect and semiotic layer were widely discussed, and even contested by its informal father James Ferraro, who insisted on stressing the musical level of the phenomena. Yet the symbolic aspects seem to have taken on their own life, making the tiny genre – perhaps inadvertently – the most acute expression of contemporary fears and anxieties.
The world which vaporwave longs for could be encapsulated by author David Mitchell’s number9dream, in which fantasy lies just beyond the glimmering swirl of data, or in the detachment and big city loneliness found in Haruki Murakami’s works. Technology used to be a dream vessel, a reservoir of potential; meanwhile, the century has turned. Japan, struggling with a less successful economic period, seems to have lost its supremacy as the ultimate paradise of pop-technological dreams. The post-millennial future turned out to be far closer to the world described in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, a bleak, corporate dystopia in which portable social networking devices serve as an indicator of one’s personal ‘market value’, and relationships between people devolve into a ‘contract in our mutual interest’. This is where ‘stockphotocore’ comes in; a mirror held up to the ‘as is’, rather than vaporwave’s yearning for the ‘might have been’. It describes the work of Transmuteo, Mediafired, ‘Far Side Virtual’-era James Ferraro and other artists who find themselves at home in the realm of virtual simulacra and free-floating signifiers.
The promised future became internalized and mundane. It is also smaller, more compacted, and can fit both in the hand (smartphones), and, impendingly, on our faces (Google Glass, which appears to be the slightly disappointing actuality of the VR helmet). After 9/11 and the dotcom bubble bursting, videogame cyberutopian aesthetics lost their appeal; our times have the aseptic wholesomeness of singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat, rather than the steely attitude of Trinity from The Matrix. Advertising began to focus on selling a product on the back of experience, ‘moments to be cherished and celebrated’; since the famous Sony Bravia commercial with Jose Gonzales’ cover of The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’, a new, whimsical type of adspeak has developed. Its ingredients are faded, pastel camera filters, happy ‘ordinary’ people enjoying things in slow motion (flying a kite, dancing in a meadow, picnicking, blowing bubbles), coupled with organic, mild songs known from the radio. As Tim Terhaar of Tiny Mix Tapes thoughtfully noted, Muzak as a distinct genre ceased to perform its role as soundtrack accompanying the activities of trade and service, and was replaced by mainstream rock and pop with equally innoccuous qualities. Ultimately, the term ‘coffee house music‘, referring to ubiquitous, harmless, user-friendly, advert-ready artists like Coldplay, KT Tunstall or Jason Mraz, was coined (“songs that are relaxing enough not to interrupt your work and/or conversations but they are not so slow and monotonous that will make you feel sleepy”).
With the rise of corporately-created ‘authenticity’, the pursuit of experience and the chain coffee shop or mall as global hangout, a new utopian vision emerged. This could not be further from the cyberworld of the 90s, as there is no clearly-outlined future anymore; the year 3000 is too far away and thus the current ideal, unreachable aim lies in the experience of the present. Nothing embodies this better than stock photography: its imagery is often so relentless in the pursuit of standardization that it becomes wholly detached from life-as-lived. The Internet responded to its omnipresence: there are a number of articles – even whole blogs – dedicated to these generic images, whose translucent nature makes them near-invisible until taken out of context. Once highlighted, they entertain us with either schoolbook straightforwardness or absurd, escapist artificiality masquerading as the essence of a particular phenomenon like ‘Women Laughing with Salad‘. Hence stockphotocore: an aural commentary on the endlessly replicated imagery of non-existent ‘chillaxed’ people reclining with laptops, dogs failing to shed their hair onto white furniture, or the fixed rictus grins of enthusiastic working teams.
There is obviously something deceitful in stock photography’s reassurance, comparable to the way medication du jour Xanax works, as a certain spectre of fear, foreshadowing the next dotcom meltdown, lurks behind the ubiquity of stock images. In a number of INTERNET CLUB’s releases, the skulking evil behind the banality of corporate webspeak seems to be perfectly captured by deadpan humour (‘Webinar’, ‘Optimization’, ‘Productivity Suite’). Transmuteo, despite taking cues from 1990s New Age, can equally be heard as a commentary on the fashionable wellness, spa and life coach culture.
Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual remains the best example, not only because the sound fabric is woven from the audible elements of an average contemporary interaction space: the swooshing sound of Skype, mobile ringtones, music on hold, etc., but also due to the character of the microcompositions. Designed for frequent repetition, and arranged to cause the least disturbance, the sounds of gadgetry and software actually exacerbate daily annoyance, becoming the soundtrack of perma-stress. “Horror appears unexpectedly in the world of fashionable pubs, posh shops, banks made of marble and glass, flair of these new times, green tea and permanently dieting girls”, wrote Polish film critic and journalist Tadeusz Sobolewski in 1999. He was describing a murder case, and yet his words seem equally applicable to the contemporary condition, which stockphotocore is beginning to address.
In a world of ever-proliferating microgenres, why underline the resonance of this particular one? Even though we’re talking about a phenomenon which began its existence as a semi-nostalgic groundswell, it may yet become the first revivalist musical movement to actually free itself of the retro. On the outside, it is disguised as a sonic Tumblr for the lovers of mildly outdated technology, but by focussing on particular elements pulled out of the thoughtless vortex of sounds and images, stockphotocore uncovers a potentially sharp edge.**