Lofi beats to study and relax to
Vaporwave, aesthetic nostalgia, and why Nintendo 64 music makes us cry
A girl drawn in the style of Miyazaki animation sits by an open window. A nighttime breeze flutters the curtains. A lamp casts a warm pool of light across her workspace. The girl flips through an open notebook, laptop glowing idly nearby. She does not browse the internet, scroll through documents, or bounce from tab to tab. She is focused on her studies. A brown cat sits on the windowsill, wagging its tail, watching the world in real time. Headphones on, the girl is presumably listening to lofi beats like the rest of us.
This is Lofi Girl. Lofi Girl (also the name of a Youtube channel) has become a symbol of stoic relaxation for millions of young people across the world. The channel streams relaxing lofi hip-hop 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s an international phenomenon. Check the chat and you’ll see comments from every country and continent. Spain, India, Brazil, Egypt. Anonymous students check in to give encouragement for upcoming exams. Many drop a comment or two expressing how much they love the channel. Some just say hello. As I check the stream on my laptop, I see 31,000 people have tuned in. Someone somewhere is feeding tracks into this never-ending playlist. But for the rest of us listeners, we’re simply friends of the Lofi Girl.
Lofi Girl is perhaps the most popular example of a new type of internet trend that I call “aesthetic nostalgia.” This term is an attempt to label an emerging undercurrent of art that focuses on creating moods involving relaxation, childhood memories, and the subtle layering of sensory experience. On the surface, aesthetic nostalgia attempts to pin down moments of peace and quiet through still-life representations. Take Lofi Girl, for example. Unlike many of the living, breathing college students who visit the page, the digital avatar remains focused on her studies and lives in a calm world that forever remains undisturbed. The light outside her window slowly shifts from day to night to day again. Her contentment is contained in an infinite loop. In short, Lofi Girl represents an anxiety-less ideal for many teens and twenty-somethings suffocating in a hyper-anxious, hyper-commodified world.
Why has Lofi Girl become a worldwide phenomenon? It seems like the channel's appeal is stronger than simple background noise. The longer I think about what Lofi Girl represents, the more I recognize the central role grief plays in aesthetic nostalgia. Day spas, sports, online dating, and scented candles – these all help people destress from the grind of modern life. But they're not meant to help us feel our way through grief. Aesthetic nostalgia, however, places grief – a specific kind of grief – front and center of the artistic experience. It's a grief tied to the Millennial experience.
Namely, aesthetic nostalgia creates moods that help the participant feel their way through grief rooted in failed promises.
The Rise of the Aesthetic Vibe
One music writer roots the popularity of lofi beats in the genre's simplicity. “Lofi is different from other forms of popular music in that it champions simplicity. It is the Marie Kondo of modern music — reflective, inviting only the essential.” I disagree. Simplicity doesn't account for the addictive pull of its emotional resonance. Lofi isn't about simplicity so much as its about the subtle layering of atmospheric elements to create a mood. The layers may be simple, but the overall effect is rich and complex. Lofi beats require mixing a melody over a hip-hop beat and then adding the quintessential "lofi" effect to make it sound like an old time recording. Many songs also include soft rain or night noises that create an even deeper level of calm. The draw of the Lofi Girl channel couldn't exist without the visual elements of Lofi Girl herself.
The result is a coherent aesthetic "texture." Some might call it a vibe, and vibes are saturating digital content from Instagram, to Youtube, to TikTok.
Anna Wiener writes about a new social media phenomenon in her article "The Strange, Soothing World of Instagram's Computer-Generated Interiors." Artists and interior designers are creating computer-rendered interiors of sleek, modern, luxury homes. According to Wiener, "The pictures are strangely soothing, with their fanciful palettes, evocative silhouettes, and enticing water features. Sunken living rooms are full of pillows, or clouds; spiral staircases are wrapped in cyan glass." She goes on to note, "The spaces project order and calm, and rely on a visual vocabulary of affluence, indulgence, and restraint. They are uncluttered and private; welcoming but undamaged by human use." These images represent vibes. The fact that Wiener uses so many adjectives to describe these surreal spaces indicates the existence of aesthetic texturing.
Gen Z is also embracing aesthetic texture. In "TikTok and the Vibes Revival," Kyle Chayka examines a new trend on social media – posting "brief flashes of seemingly normal life" that immediately evoke a specific emotional experience. The New Yorker article gives the example of "Casually cooking a meal in a swaying sailboat on the open Atlantic Ocean is a vibe. So is slaloming down the road on a skateboard to Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams' while swigging cranberry juice." Chayka calls a vibe "a moment of audiovisual eloquence." Again, we see that a vibe is created through layering of sensory material. Each example contains an action modified by an adverb in a specific location often paired with some kind of connection to eating.
And perhaps the most concentrated form of aesthetic texture can be found in vaporwave.
Two months ago, Youtube began recommending vaporwave videos in my suggestion feed. The thumbnails intrigued me. They showed empty malls and hotel pools bathed in warm neon light. Upon loading the videos, I was met with slow synth melodies and distorted pop-jazz vocals. It was nothing more than remixed muzak from the 1980s and 1990s played underneath still images of the thumbnails – the very same sterile, corporate locations the music would have been originally played thirty-some years ago. The feelings these videos evoked, however, kept me going back for more.
Vaporwave became my new work soundtrack. Slogging through monotonous blog posts and email campaign setups, this new genre of music helped me make it through the day. The music made me feel like I was floating underwater. It was relaxing in a surface-level kind of way. I didn't have to think much about it. Vaporwave retains muzak's original intention – it lets you detach from the stressors of modern life. And yet, just like Lofi Girl, vaporware evoked a deeper reaction.
As vaporwave should. A brief survey of the genre reveals that its core creators aren't out to create background music or mind-numbing soundscapes. Vaporwave is rooted in a specific philosophical perspective. One part anti-capitalism, another part future-focused, it seeks to challenge idealistic notions of a techno future.
In a wonderfully titled article called "Vaporwave's Little-Known Roots are Anti-Capitalist and Totally Punk," Nick Fulton traces the general contours of the vaporwave genre from it's inception right after the economic crash of 2008 to it's modern-day forms. Although Google searches for vaporwave peaked in 2017 and have remained steady ever since, musicians have had a difficult time maintaining creative momentum. Electronic music label owner George Clanton believes the reason that so many artists are adopting new techniques in vaporwave and moving outside the confines of the genre as a result, is because a lot of early vaporwave tropes have been played out. He notes that nostalgia seems to be what’s holding the genre together. “Vaporwave today has little resemblance to what it used to be,” he says. “The common thread seems to be a warped nostalgia. Today I think about vaporwave as being whatever the subculture is listening to and collecting.”
One perspective suggests, "Vaporwave has become a parody of a parody, creating an infinite loop of irony that leaves behind the awe it once generated replacing it instead with endless memes of pastel gradients, Roman busts, and 3D coke cans." It seems the postmodern cycle of deconstruction and repurposing that originally made vaporwave so interesting has collapsed on itself. The most popular album of all time, "MACINTOSH PLUS - リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー |" is flooded with snarky comments riffing off the pseudo-intellectualism of the original creators.
But using George Clanton's phrase, warped nostalgia is a concept worth holding onto. Warped nostalgia accurately describes my experience of vaporwave, and as I'll show soon, it's what's keeping the genre alive for millions of listeners.
Click one of the four videos above to introduce yourself to vaporwave.
Down the "Comfortwave" Rabbithole
My Lofi Girl/vaporwave rabbit hole had been a long time coming. In early 2020, right before the coronavirus lockdowns, I had fallen into the habit of listening to old Nintendo 64 soundtracks during work hours. This was long before I discovered vaporwave. But like vaporwave, I found these video game soundtracks relaxing. The limited technology of the early 90’s translated to simple, electronic melodies. In case you’re not aware, Nintendo 64 featured the golden age of 3D platformers, expansive worlds containing dozens of unique environments to explore. Each world – from deserts to swamps to winter wonderlands – had its own musical accompaniment. These soundtracks brought the games to life. I grew up playing these video games, and needless to say, my enjoyment of these tracks relies heavily on nostalgia. These soundtracks brought me back to a host of virtual sights, sounds, and emotions.
In retrospect, I realize that the need for comfort applies to all three communities associated with lofi, vaporwave, and Nintendo 64 throwback playlists. Despite the ebb and flow of the hardcore fans (as we saw with vaporwave), these comfort seekers have remained loyal listeners.
While I appreciate the contributions of early vaporwave, and I'll return to why it's important later, I'd like to identify a split in the genre between old school vaporwave and "comfortwave." Comfortwave replaces the focus on sterile irony with relaxation and enjoyment. Compared to its precursors, comfortwave is more closely aligned with aesthetic texture and vibes. As we saw with the empty utopian architectural renders of Instagram, the effect is meant to soothe. And nowhere do we see nostalgia meet aesthetic texture than in these retro game playlists.
For example, “Relaxing Video Game Music in a Cozy Room (Nintendo 64)” has over 1,100,000 views on Youtube.” The video has curated a playlist of Nintendo 64 music alongside visuals of a small, glowing tube TV displaying the menu screens from the various game soundtracks. Does this aesthetic combination work? Just read the comments and compare them to the sarcastic comments on "MACINTOSH PLUS - リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー |"
Life really feels like a dream, 34 years old now, and it feels like just yesterday I was having my mind blown by Mario 64 for the first time, seeing Smash Bros. commercials, and beating Ocarina of Time... great memories.
Suddenly I’m 6 years old and I’m at my grandma’s house in NY playing Ocarina of Time on the floor with my dad 🥺
I can’t remember what I just read from a book, but I remember these songs from 20 years ago
This music isn't relaxing because it reminds me of a time when my life was much happier and more innocent lol
Nostalgia Storytime! So, I'm the youngest of many siblings. In the late 90s, my brothers and sisters either all lived with their dad or on their own, while I was the only one living with my mom in the city. Every couple months or so, my siblings would visit, and I would get super excited. I remember this one time around Christmas 1999, all my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins visited for a few days and my mom rented two connecting family rooms at the coolest hotel in our city. It had three pools, two waterslides, an arcade, and a bunch of other fun things. I was only 4 at the time, but I remember this experience so vividly. We had McDonalds and Pizza Hut basically everyday, ran around the halls and played hide n seek, made a train on the waterslide, played ocarina of time on the Nintendo 64, and a ton of other stuff. It's funny how the title of this video brought back these memories. They would have been lost forever if not for this video. So thank you for that.
Millennials: The Nostalgia Generation
Enough has been written in an attempt to account for “90’s kids” nostalgia. Millennials have been tagged as the nostalgia generation ever since the term Millennial entered the public lexicon. Corporations have made billions rehashing characters, songs, and TV shows from the 90’s. Take a look at Nickelodeon’s “The 90’s are All That,” and Totoro-themed pins, stickers, and décor.
Critics of the Millennials have placed this childhood nostalgia firmly in their crosshairs. They claim Millennials refuse to grow up. A childhood of pampering and participation trophies have led to millions of adult-children who can’t handle “real life.” But these criticisms fail to grasp the nature of this nostalgia.
What vaporwave, Lofi Girl, and the popularity of retro game music reveal is that Millennial nostalgia does not wish to relive past like the way Baby Boomers wish to return to the "good old days." Rather, Millennial nostalgia grieves promises that were never kept, a future that was never realized. This generation longs to relive the past in order to experience the hope for a bright future. This is the grief that underpins all of comfortwave.
Philosophically, vaporwave is an aesthetic response to grief rooted in disillusionment. Vaporwave videos simulate what it’s like to remember an experience you’ve never had. In his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, John Koenig coined a term called “Anemoia,” the feeling of nostalgia for a time you’ve never known. Vaporwave and anemoia go hand in hand. Aesthetic nostalgia, however, goes one step further than anemoia. It specifies the time you've never known as a longing for a time that was promised but never materialized.
Vaporwave, with its utopian mall-scapes and images of early internet optimism, grieves the failed promises of a generation's childhood. No generation has seen so many promises dashed like Millennials.
Millennials are the last generation to remember a pre-high-speed internet age, a pre- 9/11 world, and a pre-Great Recession economy. Social life, security, and economy – each of these events marked an end for American optimism. The rise of the internet led to online bullying, depraved pornography, alienation, addiction, and doom scrolling. 9/11 marked the end of open international travel and introduced a newfound nativism and fear of outsiders. The Great Recession marked the end of expansive economic growth and showed Millennials that American prosperity is constantly on the precipice of collapse.
While Gen Z has also grown up in a world of uncertainty and doubt – more essays will be written about the effects of coming of age during the COVID-19 pandemic – Millennials are unique in that they still remember a vague, nascent time when they were promised an optimistic and secure future. The internet was a large contributor to that sense of optimism and security. Children of the late 80s and 90s did not create the internet in hopes that it would solve the world’s problems; they were simply promised this bright, shining future as fact.
Case in point, watch this classic of the retro internet, “The Kid’s Guide to the Internet.” The video represents the optimism of the early internet. Set to friendly crystal synths and backed by the narration of a kind adult, the video mimics the feel of 90’s sitcoms. The viewer is introduced to a typical, white American family excited to use their new computer. The son, Peter, is overcome by a curiosity for learning. Dad trades stocks on his new machine. Mom pays the bills online. The video represents one of the last vestiges of a white, wholesome, WASPy future.
Now watch the vaporwave playlist, "It's Sunset in 1991 and You're on AOL (Vaporwave Mix)." The visuals are loaded with 90's tech nostalgia. A VHS tape sits on top of a Macintosh computer. Outside the venetian blinds are palm trees. Diet Pepsi and funky floppy discs suggest you've just spent a relaxing day browsing the proto-internet. The day is winding down. There's nothing to worry about.
Hindsight tells us that this this vision of the internet was laughable.
Compare this idealistic vision with a popular meme of Bill Gates saying, “It’s amazing to think what great and exciting things people will be doing with PC’s in 30 years.” The meme comes in two parts. A joke is always found in the second image. In one example, the Bill Gates quote is paired with a picture of 1000 T-REX vs 80,000 Chickens: Ultimate Epic Battle Simulator. Yes, the internet has been used for great and exciting things indeed.
A National History of Disillusion
The mainstream history of the United States is closely tied to cycles of optimism and disillusion. The 1900s began with the thrill of winning World War One followed by the swinging 20’s. The Great Depression soon crushed any upswing in national sentiment. The stock market tanked, sending millions into unemployment and wiping out entire life savings. Interestingly, one of America’s most popular remedies for The Great Depression was movies. During that time, Hollywood unleashed a horde of plucky, upbeat narratives that were meant to sustain the nation. Watching old movies like “Singing in the Rain” or “Annie,” one realizes that optimism truly fueled America's cultural narrative for a long period of time.
Along these lines, 1940s saw victory in World War II, which launched the United States into the largest economic boom in human history and into the white-washed veneer of 1950’s America. TV sitcoms continued to bolster the myth of the happy nuclear family. Technology soon picked up the mantle of progress during the late 60s and 70s. Both the home and office were transformed by personal computers and time-saving appliances. The moon landing established America as both a political and technological world leader. At the same time, the civil rights movement brought new freedoms to millions of people. American optimism was at a fever pitch.
The early 1990s were when this cultural optimism reached its peak in terms of national narrative. Enough time had passed since Jim Crow, Vietnam, and the Cold War to distill these complex historical moments into digestible classroom lessons. Any 90’s kid will remember being told the story of the first Thanksgiving with the help of paper doll pilgrims and Indians. We all learned Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech along with the Emancipation Proclamation. Wars were nothing more than military “interventions.” Desert Storm and the Kosovo Crisis didn’t register in the average child’s consciousness like WWII must have for an earlier generation. In a legitimate way, life mirrored “The Kid’s Guide to the Internet." We took for granted that life was peaceful and that America was advancing socially, economically, and technologically.
It wouldn't last.
“Cruel optimism” is a term coined by Lauren Berlant to describe America’s relationship with the American Dream and similarly optimistic cultural narratives. Specifically, cruel optimism exposes how our national hopes are thwarted by systemic, sociological factors. In a review of Berlant’s work, “Affect Theory and the New Age of Anxiety,” commentator Hua Hsu summarizes cruel optimism like this:
We like to imagine that our life follows some kind of trajectory, like the plot of a novel, and that by recognizing its arc we might, in turn, become its author. But often what we feel instead is a sense of precariousness – gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules won’t give us control over the story, much less guarantee a happy ending. For all that, we keep on hoping, and that persuades us to keep on living.
Hsu gives an example of the Occupy Wall Street movement:
The Occupy movement, which began in September, 2011, could be seen as a response to the cruel optimism of capitalism, the pent-up outrage of citizens realizing that they’d been chasing nothing more than a dream…. Consider our Twitter-fed swings of anger and mirth, the oversharing and moodiness ascribed to younger generations, the paranoia stoked by proliferating conspiracy theories, even the emergence of the eternally sad pop star.
Kids of the 90’s saw life moving in an upward trajectory when really the culture was cresting the hill of optimism heading downward. This generation took the 90’s as a baseline reality when it was its own anomalous golden age. Granted, few remember the 1990’s as some belle epoque. On the surface it was marked by grunge music, ugly jeans, frosted tips and boy bands. But the underlying national security, economic stability, and technological advancement was undeniable.
Of course, the 90’s ended in cruel optimism just like other historical moments. Columbine, 9/11, and the Great Recession placed the 90's squarely in the nation's rearview mirror. Looking back, we can see that 1940s Hollywood, the automobile, free love, and the internet – each hallmark of a specific American era – have all resulted in their own version of cruel optimism, the dashing of a sincerely held belief that human achievement and ingenuity would lead to a brighter future.
A Deeper Dive into Vaporwave
Vaporwave is a response to the cruel optimism of the late 80’s and early 90’s, specifically in regard to the internet. Unashamedly postmodern, the genre uses pre-existing content to subvert cultural narratives about optimism. As I’ve mentioned, vaporwave is more than its music. Its aesthetic effect relies on multiple media including visuals, ambiance, and contextual framing. It’s intended effect is to manipulate otherwise benign images, audio samples, and digital filters into empty, surreal, yet comforting aesthetic experiences.
Luke Cartledge provides an astute summary of vaporwave in his 10-year retrospective of the genre:
Vaporwave is, at base, a nostalgic genre. It’s not alone in this: a great deal of indie and rock, for example, remains stuck in the 1970s and ’80s, endlessly rehashing the great ideas of Ian Curtis, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith with diminishing returns. But it’s what vaporwave is nostalgic for that’s so interesting. It’s the sound of people born in the 1980s and ’90s – significantly, shortly before or not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall – reaching back to a version of not just their youth, but their infancy. Like the objects of most nostalgic impulses, these visions of the past can’t be said to have actually existed in any meaningful way, but that doesn’t diminish their rose-tinted appeal.
It’s disorientating, unsettled, and, like so much vaporwave, weirdly comforting.
This phrase, “weirdly comforting,” cannot be overlooked. I've already pointed out the phrase, "warped nostalgia." In fact, the weirdness contributes to the overall sense of comfort. Why? Because the distorted vocals and echoing mall ambiance combined with untethered images from early computer culture tell the truth about the modern internet that few are willing to broach. In a felt sense, vaporwave captures the tension between empty promises, glamor, and loneliness. And of course, this felt sense is inextricably linked with aesthetics and aesthetic nostalgia.
Emily Gosling, a writer for Eye on Design Magazine, expresses this sentiment when she writes, “Vaporwave designs are like posters that promise the bubble hasn’t burst, thrust in front of the eyes of those who know it definitely has.”
Filippo Lorenzin comes to a similar conclusion charting parallels between vaporwave and surrealist art:
Vaporwave is about failed promises and decadent shiny futures. You don’t enjoy it as such, but rather is a song you play in background while writing (as I am doing now) or a picture you find after scrolling your tumblr homepage for 20 minutes.
Both Tanguy’s art and vaporwave aesthetic reflect a sorrow for what could happen in the future if the past didn’t take place. To look at those desolate landscapes means to stare into the void left by a present that is not what they promised us would be.
Gosling and Lorenzin’s juxtapositions highlight why vaporwave is not a purely nostalgic genre. Pure nostalgia, a nostalgia rooted in reliving the past, a nostalgia better associated with Baby Boomers, thrives on idealization. Nostalgia wants to return to a previous memory. Vaporwave does not want to return to the 90’s to relive history. It wants to rewrite history, which so fantastically failed before our very eyes.
The question then becomes how has that promise failed and how does vaporwave’s aesthetic nostalgia meet that need?
One of the great failures of the internet is the failure to increase social bonds and connections. Feelings of loneliness are at all-time highs and closely relate to rates of depression. If Millennials are the nostalgia generation, then they’re also the loneliness generation. Zhou Xinyue, a Chinese researcher at Sun Yat-sen University discovered in the late 2000s that nostalgic feelings are a natural way for the brain to counteract loneliness. Participants who self-identified as lonely also reported higher rates of nostalgia.
Social media has exacerbated disconnection and isolation. The constant dopamine hits dysregulate the human brain’s normal means of brain chemistry. Hightened anxiety makes it harder to engage in relationships once one does find oneself in in-person settings. Vaporwave addresses this by acknowledging the feelings of isolation while treating them with nostalgic memories. Again, vaporwave imagery is full of empty malls and empty spaces that appear strangely comforting.
A second failure of the internet is the 90’s promise of unlimited excitement. Kids commercials of the decade were characterized by fish-eye lenses, wild graphics, and screaming. The idea of “unlimited” was almost always used in relation to the internet. Access to the World-wide Web would connect you with everyone and everything. Now, however, we know this isn’t the case. Most of the internet is boring. 80% of all content is surfacelevel fluff while the other 10% lives behind paywalls or poorly optimized SEO links. The complete deluge of content leads to information overload, and paired with internet addictions, causes fatigue and brain fog. The internet doesn’t need more excitement. It needs relaxation, which is what vaporwave provides.
The third failure of the internet is it’s proclivity toward global doomsday anxiety. “Doomscrolling” is a term that’s reached mainstream usage during the 2020 pandemic and tumultuous political cycle. Now, at the tips of your fingers, you can read up-to-date articles on all the crises all over the world. The internet has the corner on the anxiety market. As individuals, we feel depressed and addicted as websites manipulate our brain chemistries. But no one does anything about it since fear gets clicks and clicks get money.
Vaporwave provides much needed escapism for its listeners. Mel Magazine did a feature on the mallwave genre, a close cousin of vaporwave. Mallwave is a genre that specifically focuses on vaporwave-esque music set to images and ambient noise from shopping malls. The intended effect is to recreate the sensation of cleanliness and the thrill of shopping, a safe environment for many.
Matthew Tills, a teen interviewed for the features, explains that mallwave provides a sense of home in an otherwise lonely, anxiety-filled existence:
The music invokes a 'sensory' kind of nostalgia that he doesn’t get from the music of his childhood. 'That’s the appeal of vaporwave,' he says. 'It can take you to a place you’ve never been before, but still make you feel at home.'
It sounds stupid, but mallwave does let me escape from the shittiness of everyday life,' Tills explains. 'It’s just a couple of hours in a day where everything at least feels okay, that I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’m going to get a job, the political situation in the U.S. — all that shit. I guess it makes me think that there was a better time, or a time when people in this country felt better.'
At the end of the day, I believe that vaporwave, Lofi Beats to Study and Relax to, and all related genres are aesthetic responses to trauma. Recent advances in trauma treatment (see The Body Keeps the Score) have shown that the body heals from anxiety, the constant flight-or-flight response regardless of threat level, through physical interventions. It’s not enough to tell the mind that everything will be alright, the body must recondition itself to feeling safe. Vaporwave uses aesthetic experience to tell the body that it's safe. It engages neural pathways through nostalgic feelings to create a sense of safety. Vaporwave has such a cult following because it is true in the felt sense. It deftly captures sweet nostalgia and allows us to recognize the deep sorrow of unmet expectations, to admit that we wish things were different than they are.
Again, science corroborates what goes on in the body when one listens to vaporwave:
The evolutionary significance of positive emotions resides in their capacity to undo patterns of physiological arousal resulting from negative emotions and to facilitate a return to homeostasis. Second, emotions can bypass the body and afford homeostatic comfort by simulating a felicitous body state as if it were occurring.
Nostalgia, then, could be eminently suited to engage the “as-if body loop” mechanism, given that it involves a recalled image of the self in a felicitous state.
To translate the science speak, nostalgia creates positive emotions which can counteract negative emotions rooted in the anxieties of modern life.
Let's not forget, however, that vaporwave cannot exist without the weird and strange. Yes, vaporwave makes us feel good. But not without a heavy dose of disconcerting surrealism. And this is where vaporwave sets itself apart from shallow sentimentalism and other nostalgic sedatives.
As I wrote earlier, pure nostalgia hopes to abandon the present to return to an idealized past. But vaporwave’s insistence on disconcerting surrealism refuses to embrace an idealistic vision of the proto-internet days. Instead, the genre embraces a return to an earlier time in order to redo and remake. We see this in the reliance on remixing and sampling. It’s postmodern, yes, but not in the sense of tearing down in order to undermine. Vaporwave tears down in order to rebuild. It has the potential to move its listeners in the here and now to ask themselves how we might recapture the magic of the early internet. It asks us to step back and see where we went wrong.
This is where I disagree with other vaporwave commentators like this author from Esquire:
In his 2016 book, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification Of Ghosts, author Grafton Tanner explains why the genre makes us so uncomfortable: “Vaporwave is the music of ‘non-times’ and ‘non-places’ because it is skeptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space.”
Vaporwave merges nostalgia with dramatic irony: As viewers in a play, we see what’s wrong with the world and feel powerless to stop the narrative unfolding.
While this could be one intellectual interpretation, it’s never matched my aesthetic experience of listening. Perhaps it's an authentic experience of early vaporware, music more focused on the deconstruction of pre-internet consumer culture and capitalism, but it doesn't match the experience of listening to vaporwave from the perspective of comfortwave, the genre's later offshoot. Vaporwave never makes me feel powerless in the face of everything that’s wrong with the world. I instead feel relaxed and safe. While pessimistic interpretations of vaporwave are legitimate, I will side with my own experiences and the experiences of thousands of internet commenters. At its heart, vaporwave is an optimistic phenomenon.
Thus, vaporwave and Lofi Girl go hand in hand. Vaporwave takes us back to a time when possibilities still existed. Lofi Girl gives us a picture of what that promise could have held, where strangers come together to say hello, relax, and imagine a world rich in sights, sounds, and textures. Lofi Girl is a small space where the promises of the internet really did come true. Comfortwave as a whole encourages its listeners to put themselves back in an earlier time in order to reimagine a brighter future.
Vaporwave is important because it evokes an aesthetic truth about our relationship with the internet – we feel deeply that the internet has failed but at the same time we hold onto a deep hope for its future. It does not shut down our present feeling. It doesn't say, "Get over your grief, it could be worse." Instead, in allowing that expression of grief, it allows its listeners to move on. It highlights one of the most inspiring aspects of the Millennial generation. Millennials refuse to return to a white-washed past. We also refuse to reject the past as unsalvageable and irredeemable. We grieve the arrival of cruel optimism. But in spite of this grief, we fundamentally hope in a brighter future.