Jun 8. 2017. By Lee Yang Cheng
Whether it’s plunderphonics or hypnagogic pop, it can be confusing and extremely daunting to differentiate the genres of Outrun. However, today I am going to be doing a public service announcement by breaking down the differences between arguably, two of the most iconic genres of the Outrun music category: Vaporwave and Chillwave.
For readers new to both genres, I definitely recommend listening to some of the music before reading the rest of this article. I recommend listening to Private Caller by Saint Pepsi for vaporwave and Resonance by HOME for chillwave.
If you’ve watched the introductory video to Vaporwave by Behind the Meme, you’d know the genre first originated in 2011. The first vaporwave song is generally considered to be Laserdisc Visions by, well, Laserdisc Visions. Funnily enough, the song was originally labeled as hypnagogic pop, it would later be relabeled by Texan producer – Ecco Unlimited, as ‘Vaporwave’. (Galil, 2013).
Though simply a music genre, vaporwave shouldn’t be defined by its musical aspects alone. There are three core aspects that make up the whole vaporwave experience: sound, aesthetics, and themes.
Chillwave first originated in 2009 as a genre encompassing musical qualities from three rising hypnagogic pop artists at the time: “Neon Indian”, “Washed Out’ and “Toro y Moi”.
This term would later be adapted by other internet users to describe music that mixes Lo-Fi (low fidelity) retro pop, 80’s and oceanic themed visuals, escapist lyrics about the beach and summertime into one package (“Chillwave”, 2017).
It is extremely easy to confuse the two genres since vaporwave is a genre derived from chillwave. Due to both genres taking on a low fidelity characteristic in their sounds and taking notes from 80’s and 90’s music, chillwave and vaporwave can often be confused for each other.
New listeners may listen to a vaporwave mix and chillwave mix on YouTube and find little to no stylistic differences in the two playlists. However, through keen observation and some research, I have found an aspect that distinguishes both genres from each other distinctively: Themes.
I’ll discuss this in depth first before moving onto the musical aspects.
Themes of Vaporwave
An article published by Dummy Mag in 2013 (Harper) stated that vaporwave was originally intended to be a satire of consumerist culture and modern capitalism. This is reflected visually and musically in vaporwave culture. Musically, the sample sounds of past technology are spliced into vaporwave songs. This is reflected in Blank Banshee’s track B:/ Start Up which sampled the Macbook startup sound and windows error notification soundbite. Though not always, splicing soundbites of technology into tracks is a unique characteristic to vaporwave music.
Oftentimes, vaporwave is visually presented with the color scheme of soft pink, turquoise, blue, and white. Common visual symbols of vaporwave are classical statues, expensive beverages – Fiji water and Arizona Iced Tea to symbolize wealth and consumerism, Japanese letterings, and retro computer and video game elements. Altogether, these elements create a collage worthy of what the vaporwave community calls: “ a e s t h e t i c ”.
A e s t h e t i c, spaced apart, is a term used by the vaporwave community to ironically give more praise than warranted to a piece of art. A YouTuber by the name of FrankJavCee posted a satirical video tutorial on how to make vaporwave. In that video, FrankJavCee defined a e s t h e t i c as “a pretentious way of saying something is beautiful.”
You’ll often find this word used ironically in vaporwave videos, appearing on-screen in either official or fanmade music videos, or in vaporwave album art and in discussions about vaporwave.
The purpose of “a e s t h e t i c’ is to contrast its overpraise with the low quality, and cheap looking art/ sound of vaporwave. The term, largely used as an inside joke, is a critique of the pretentiousness of hipsters, and the values society places on “branded” items (represented by Fiji Water, Greek Statues in the artworks).
“A e s t h e t i c” also juxtaposes the low level of effort required to create vaporwave art, which is in self-referential fashion, a metaphor for criticizing modern capitalism; products that are low quality, thoughtless, and mass produced.
One thing I think most articles and YouTubers who discuss about vaporwave (FrankJavCee, Adam Neely, Behind the Meme) do not mention is vaporwave’s critique of digital technology and society’s overreliance on it. The countless inclusions of retro PC and video game elements in vaporwave, be it artwork, video or music, I feel are enough to justify digital technology being part of the criticism.
Although the narrative may have started out as a criticism of consumerist culture, most articles I’ve read about vaporwave do point out that more and more vaporwave are being created unironically, thus defeating the original purpose of the genre.
Themes of Chillwave
Thematically, chillwave seems to be more “Free-range” unlike vaporwave. While vaporwave focuses on a specified handful of motifs, chillwave visuals can vary from neo-Tokyo inspired aesthetics, to abstract art such as the cover art of Toro y Moi’s chillwave album: Freaking Out.
However, an almost universal element in chillwave visuals I’ve noticed is the use of faded colors and filters to create an image quality reminiscent of oldschool VHS tapes and photographs. Landscapes near water also seem to be a popular aesthetic choice, which should not come as a surprise given the oceanic, beach and summertime escapism themes of chillwave lyrics (“Chillwave”, 2017).
Chillwave artists were much more concerned with evoking a sense of nostalgia and the emotions tied to that nostalgia; whether it’s the joy of remembering what once was, or dread that things will never return to the way before. Conversely, vaporwave artists used the sounds from the late 80’s and early 90’s to make a statement about the prevalent yuppie culture during that time period.
There’s been quite a bit of information to take in thus far, so I guess a short and sweet summation is in order. Vaporwave is more concerned with delivering social commentary through its 80’s and 90’s sounds such as technology soundbites and infomercial-esque tunes. Chillwave is more concerned with delivering a nostalgic, and “chill” experience so-to-speak, with its analog synths, echoed instrumentals and slow tempo.
Stylistic and Tonal differences in Vaporwave and Chillwave Music
It’s finally time to discuss the musical aspects of vaporwave and chillwave!
This is usually the most important bit in most comparisons of music genres, I’m surprised I’d gotten to this part quite late into my post. Okay. To surmise, one tries to recreate sounds from the 80’s – 90’s to evoke nostalgia, the other tries to sample music from the 80’s – 90’s to create something more avant-garde, and as a result of using soundbites from the 80’s – 90’s, evokes a sense of nostalgia.
Can you guess which is which? If you guessed the first to be chillwave, you’re dead on right.
Chillwave at the end of the day is really just a new and fancier form of 80’s pop music. Okay, not really, but chillwave does attempt to sound like music from the late 80’s and early 90’s. The difference is, artists now are equipped with more tools and have more versatile options to experiment with sounds, thus giving birth to chillwave. It’s what music from the 80’s might sound like if they had our currently technology and more ways to experiment.
One observation I’d also like to share is chillwave seems to use more analog synth – in comparison to vaporwave – to create that sweet 80’s electro bass sound that we all know and love. If you’re lost on what I mean, well, these kinds of things are better explained through actual exposure! Definitely recommend listening to Friendly Fires by Paris (Aeroplanes Remix). Have you done that already? Good. What I meant by an analog synth produced 80’s electro bass should become immediately clear.
Moving on, let’s talk about vaporwave’s musical style. To begin, I’d like to quote Jordan Minor on an article he wrote on geek.com about vaporwave: “Vaporwave is the muzak (elevator or mall background music) that plays in an elevator in a mall in a futuristic Japanese cyberpunk dystopia. It’s the music sedated freaks listen to on the neo-dance floor,” (2016). I love how beautifully Minor equates the auditory experience of listening to vaporwave as being in mall in Japanese cyberpunk dystopia, and I would agree completely. I feel vaporwave does creates this futuristic, dystopian vibe successfully through its samples of disruptive technology sounds; the windows error screen comes to mind, dial-up sounds of an old modem, fax machines and perhaps, muffled notification sounds of: “You got mail!” from your AOL account as well. To me, it’s this sense of nostalgia and yet unfamiliar, uncanny vibe that vaporwave encapsulates that makes the genre so great.
At this point, you probably realize I have a favorite among the chillwave and vaporwave, but believe it or not, I didn’t write this blogpost to stroke how amazing vaporwave is. Although the social definitions of music constantly shift with time, like how the Pop music of today will be considered classics in 60 years, I think understanding how a certain genre was once perceived and originated is always a plus for any music listener, because it gives people a new way of appreciating an art form they perhaps wouldn’t have appreciated without context.
Chillwave. (2017). Wikipedia. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chillwave
Harper, A. (2013). Essay: Invest in Vaporwave Futures!. Dummymag. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from http://www.dummymag.com/features/essay-invest-in-vaporwave-futures
Harper, A. (2013). some chillwave differences. Rouge’s Foam. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from http://rougesfoam.blogspot.my/2013/08/some-chillwave-differences.html
Galil, L. (2013). Vaporwave and the observer effect. Chicago Reader. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/vaporwave-spf420-chaz-allen-metallic-ghosts-prismcorp-veracom/Content?oid=8831558
Minor, J. (2016). Drown yourself beneath the vaporwave – Geek.com. Geek.com. Retrieved 8 June 2017, from https://www.geek.com/news/drown-yourself-beneath-the-vaporwave-1657121/t
Swan, N. (2016). Vaporwave: A Rise Of An Aesthetically Appealing Music Genre. Odyssey. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from https://www.theodysseyonline.com/vaporwave-rise-of-an-aesthetically-appealing-music-genre
Vaporwave. (2017). Know Your Meme. Retrieved 7 June 2017, from http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/cultures/vaporwave
last updated: June 15th, 2017 [submitted by Lee Yang Cheng]