Through falling down the rabbit hole of progressive house playlists on YouTube, I’ve stumbled upon a rich ecosystem of alternative electronic music genres. I have recently been drawn to the City Pop/80’s Japanese funk remixes that re-package classic tunes from Japan’s 1980’s economic boom. These songs sound directly off any disco, funk, or soul album sold in the West, but with the odd catch that the singers are singing in Japanese. They simultaneously evoke a lost past and an alternate future.
As I went further down this rabbit hole and explored various synthwave and vaporwave mixes, I realized that the background images (usually a brief animation infinitely looped) played just as vital a role in the mix as did the music which composed it. These videos were striving to capture a mood.
The images which accompanied these mixes often combined elements of an 80’s envisioned future, a Tron world of purple, blue, and pink. There would be anime characters, cyberpunk cityscapes, and neon lit alleyways. The images left one with a sense of the thrill of fast cars, long drives, big cities, and life altering technology, but they also suggested a certain wistfulness that embraced these things as already lost.
Nostalgia for a time you’ve never known
In my mind, no single title summed up more poetically the heart of vaporwave aesthetic than “Nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.”
The vaporwave aesthetic combines a longing for apocalyptic change, disappointment in the present, and a “nostalgic” escapism to a world which is simultaneously composed from elements that really existed (old computers, cassette tapes, found sounds, looped 80’s pop, and synths), but which is also self-consciously acknowledged as never having existed at all.
This aesthetic more than anything embodies a melancholic mourning for a future that was hoped for but never became.* You see, we live in the times that past generations envisioned, but we do not live in the future they dreamt of. Their dreams haunt us today.
Retreat into nostalgia functions as a common strategy for handling cynicism and despair in the presence. Nostalgia makes the present bearable by covering over our antagonisms and anxieties.
Baby Boomers grouse about how different the world is today from the one they grew up in, and many of them hearken back to a golden age of one sort or another, but this is largely an attempt to feel some semblance of control in our out of control clown world.
For those on the Right, perhaps they find refuge in nostalgia for tge Reagan years, the 50’s, or even this country’s founding. For the Left, often it was the Summer of Love/Student protests in the 60’s, the New Deal era, and even the Obama presidency feels far enough in the past that folks feel nostalgia for it. Sometimes these two groups even manage to overlap in looking back to the civil rights movement, and the activism of figures such as MLK.
However, all these instances of Baby Boomer nostalgia have in common that they presume that the world they long for actually existed.
Vaporwave actually explicitly acknowledges the manufactured nature of all forms of nostalgia. By constructing its world from various real objects that existed in history, vaporwave openly acknowledges the reality of the act of fabrication. Boomer nostalgia also draws on disparate objects found in history (Woodstock, The March on Washington, The Continental Congress, etc…), but this nostalgia differs from vaporwave by remaining willfully ignorant of the act of construction.
Boomer nostalgia overlooks the racist dissonance of the Declaration of Independence’s opening lines with the fact that the men who signed that document themselves owned slaves. The world constructed by nostalgia is just as fictitious as the world of vaporwave, because it remains silent to what it didn’t include.
Ultimately, vaporwave unmasks the fetishistic nature of nostalgia. An object is constructed (or “found”) which allows one to endure any manner of hardship by virtue of one’s attachment to this singular object.
This cuts both ways, for nostalgia can be both positive and negative.
The Left perpetuates a fictitiously retrograde past which functions as a foil for their own present political maneuvers, whereas the Right clings to a narrative of decay from an original greatness or moral purity. This is why Trump’s “Make American Great Again” is the arch-conservative slogan.
Political discourse in America needs to be able to own up to the artificial nature of the constructions which it employs when talking about the past, or else it will remain enslaved to fantasies here in the present.
*For more on the haunting disappointment of the discrepancy between actual our present and our ancestors’ imagined futures, see essay 2 in David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules.