Table of Contents
A Vaporwave aesthetic picture including a rising sun in the background of a bunch of palm trees. The scene has a technological/retro look and it is colored with purple and pink hues.
The discovery of the Vaporwave genre often begins with a simple, yet intriguing photo on a Youtube video. What looks like a relaxing background can lead to the rise of an entire community that has its own method of creating music, sharing music, and discussing politics.


Vaporwave is a genre of music that originated on online forums in the 2010s and consists of music samples and visuals from the 80s and 90s. It utilizes sonic themes of slowed down, dreamy, and chopped up samples of smooth jazz, R&B, and elevator style music that often incorporates synth as a focal point (Nowak, 2018). Several genres of music were a result of the development of Internet forums and shared underground and experimental hypnotic pop communities in the 2000’s. There was an increase in the use of sampling and musicians began embracing electronic  sounds that were valued based on their tactile impact. Musicians in the digital age were moving away from traditional means of making music which historically consisted of playing an instrument in a band. The use of technology erased this need and consequently Chillwave and Synthwave are accredited as precursors to Vaporwave because they touched on analog nostalgia and retro aesthetics more generally. Chillwave gained popularity and genuine interest as a new and emerging genre. Surprisingly, Vaporwave initially emerged as a satirical interpretation of Chillwave (Ballad-Cross, 2021). The early creators of Vaporwave music used lots of ironic imagery and sampling to emphasize the absurdity and eccentricity of the retro art that was more subtly present in Chillwave and Snythwave. James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin, and Ramona Xavier were among the pioneers of the Vaporwave genre that produced many landmark albums that shaped the exact artistic contents of the genre. 

Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing from Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus (Ramona Xavier)

Unique Features

Vaporwave draws on the idea of collective memory where listeners have a common longing for an experience or era that has long passed, even if they have not directly experienced it themselves. This is arguably the most distinct feature of this subculture because Vaporwave is designed around emulating this nostalgic feeling. Only those who have an emotional response to representations of this time period/aesthetic are going to be involved in the subculture. There are other online music genres draw on this time-based phenomena, such as Frutiger Aero, Cyberpunk, and Steampunk. The visuals that are associated with Vaporware can be described as things a person may find in an abandoned 80’s mall. This can range from brights colors, blurry images, checkered tiles, sporadic designs, and obsolete technology to more eccentric artistic statements such as horizons, stylized Greek sculptures, 3-D rendered images, and influences from Japanese anime and culture (Glitsos, 2017). 


Vaporwave image that includes a horizon, old technology icons, and Japanese imagery
Aesthetics example including a horizon, old technology icons, and Japanese imagery
Vaporwave picture that incorporates checkered tiles, palm tress, and Japanese lettering.
Aesthetic example including checkered tiles, Japanese lettering, 3-D images, and bright colors

Vaporwave is commonly associated with a sense of melancholy. The patterns of Vaporwave music are very cyclical and have little to no references to actual human beings. Most of the sampled music used to create Vaporwave represents a time and culture that is dead. This contributes to the emotional sense that Vaporwave is a genre that is frozen in time and empty (Lindsay, 2021). This feeling of desolation goes hand-in-hand with the themes of nostalgia that Vaporwave produces and contributes to its pecularity as a genre. While most genres of music have a heavy emphasis on innovation, the definition of what pieces of music specifically constitute “Vaporwave” are ultimately quite rigid. Vaporwave can be considered more of a culture than a genre of music because the visuals, artistic intention, and the societal status of the producer are incredibly important to the authenticity of the Vaporwave experience. Occasionally, there is an album that expands upon the Vaporwave sound in an interesting an authentic way. The most famous example of this is the album O by Blank Banshee because it incorporated trap elements into Vaporwave which produced a new artistic blend. It is still one of the most popular Vaporwave albums today and it shows that innovation within the Vaporwave scene is possible and will be accepted by the community as a whole as long as it is deemed valid and within the bounds of the Vaporwave experience. 

Dreamcast from O by Blank Banshee (2012) 

Anonymity and Copyright Issues

Vaporwave artists usually went by pseudo-corporate names or aliases and they released their music on free platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud. The barrier to entry for creating Vaporwave is very low because there are several free music mixing softwares and most people have access to a computer. These tools and a little bit of musical knowledge and talent is all that is needed for an individual to start producing their own Vaporwave music. In addition, it is much easier to publish music on Soundcloud and Bandcamp than it would be on an app like Spotify. This creates a lot of opportunity within the Vaporwave scene, but it also allows for excessive of abuse of copyright laws and an oversaturation of the genre with low-quality work. Even artists that are known within the scene, such as Ramona Xavier, are known for a small body of work when compared to artists of other genres. This is in large part because these artists have moved on to producing other styles of music. However, the most likely cause of culture of anonymity and mystery is the fact that the authenticity of Vaporwave music would be diminished if it were to come from an artist who was corporatized (Wilcox, 2023). Unfortunately, this means that Vaporwave concerts are essentially nonexistent.

Political Elements

Contrary to other online music aesthetics, Vaporwave has a political implication. However, unlike modern day political trends, Vaporwave does not take any immediate or obvious political stance. A listener can enjoy Vapowave with no understanding about its theorized political significance. However, throughout the development of Vaporwave, it received increased attention from academic circles for its unusual meteoric rise from the underground to widespread popularity. Through analyzing the discourse in communities and opinions of musicians, academics have written about how Vaporwave is a critical representation of capitalism and consumerism in sound, music, image, and aesthetic. Instead of using obvious messaging, Vaporwave critiques the failure to achieve an idealist consumerist society from within by relying on the culture of the 80s and 90s to demonstrate the irony and speed at which society has developed (Whelan, 2020). Still, there is much debate to be had about artists’ individual interpretations of their style of Vaporwave because much of the political commentary that comes out of this genre comes from music academics rather than the artists themselves. It is unlikely that people include themselves as part of the Vaporwave subculture if they are not first drawn in by the interesting visual and sonic elements of the genre rather than the political. However, it is an important factor to consider when discussing what makes a truly authentic Vaporwave artist. In similar fashion to punk scenesthere is increasing conversation about the authenticity of Vaporwave creators and whether they’re actually making an artistic statement or whether they’re simply using an uninspired formula to capitalize on a cheap nostalgic factor, unabashedly falling into the same consumerist trap that the genre first set out to critique. 


A brief video essay on the development and political elements of the Vaporwave genre by misteramazing (2016)

Growth and Current Status

Vaporwave is intertwined with social identity theory which is the idea that social categorization, social comparison, and social identification are what drives a person to join a subculture. Social categorization is the tendency to think about a group as interchangable people with similar beliefs rather than individuals. Vaporwave has a strong and active home on many social media sites to this day where artists are making new music constantly. Social comparison is the tendency to ascribe societal value of a group that is higher or lower than other groups. As the Vaporwave scene has continued into the 2020’s, it still hasn’t be able to achieve any significant mainstream success. It isn’t a subculture that is highly valued by those outside of the group. However, there will always be an ongoing conversation happening between Vaporwave purists and those just entering the scene with values being debated within the community. Social identification is the idea that members of the subculture are not detached observers, but consider their interest as a part of their identity and forms the way they see others. 


Vaporwave occupies a usual artistic space where it is considered a genre of music that should be expanded upon by some and a specific sound that fans should fight to maintain by others. A popular meme that surfaced on forums like Reddit and 4Chan is to comment “Is this Vaporwave?” on any piece of music uploaded that contains retro or synth elements. This became a popular method to upset people online because a question that most would perceive as completely innocent can start huge fights between users of these online forums. Vaporwave is rigidly defined by purists which has stifled the growth of genre outside of the scope of its original conception. On the other hand, it has lead rise to other online music genres of subgenres of Vaporwave that have their own avid fanbases. Genre maps are attempts to discuss and classify branches of a certain music genre and a genre map for Vaporwave can be found here. However, with the growth of social media and related genres such as Lo-Fi music, Vaporwave and its subgenres are continually reaching new audiences. While new Vaporwave artists haven’t reached mainstream success in a long time and there has been essentially no live action concert activity, Vaporwave music is more accessible than ever. One result of this is the emergence of 24/7 streams of Vaporwave music that anyone can listen to at any time on platforms like Youtube. Vaporwave is certainly one of the more unexpected results of the integration of music and technology, but whether it finds a way to evolve and reach more people or not, there is a constant audience that loves the nostalgia and ambiance that Vaporwave produces in a way that is unique in the music world. 

Other Sources


Chandler, Simon. 2016. “Genre as Method: The Vaporwave Family Tree, from Eccojams to Hardvapour.” Bandcamp. Retrieved April 1st, 2024 (

Aesthetics Wiki. 2024. “Vaporwave.” Retrieved April 1st, 2024 (


a e s t h e t i c s. 2015. “MACINTOSH PLUS – FLORAL SHOPPE – 02 リサフランク420 – 現代のコンピュー.” Youtube. Retrieved May 12th, 2o24.

BLANK BANSHEE. 2012. “Blank Banshee – Dreamcast”. Youtube. Retrieved May 12th, 2024.

misteramazing. 2016. “Vaporwave: Genre Redefined.” Youtube. Retrieved May 12th, 2024. 


Payton, Ross and McBirkinson, Birk. 2020. “Night Clerk Radio: Haunted Music Reviews.” PlayerFM. Retrived April 1st, 2024 ( 

Van Baelen, Enzo. 2022. “FutureSounds FM.” PlayerFM. Retrieved April 1st, 2024 (


Wikiwave 00000.png, February 26, 2020, Wikimedia, April 3, 2024 (


Vaporwave art example.png, April 13, 2017, Wikimedia, April 3, 2024 (


Ballam-Cross, Paul. 2021. “Reconstructed Nostalgia: Aesthetic Commonalities and Self-Soothing in Chillwave, Synthwave, and Vaporwave.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 33(1):70–93 (


Glitsos, Laura. 2018. “Vaporwave, or music optimised for abandoned malls.” Popular Music 37(1):100-118 (doi:10.1017/S0261143017000599).


Nowak, Raphael, and Whelan, Andrew. 2018. “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in An Online Music Scene.” Open Cultural Studies 2(1):451-462 (


Stuart, Lindsay. 2021. “Disaster Theory: Vaporwave Music as a Hauntological Expression of Sociopolitical Trauma.” English Language Notes 59(2):109–120. (


Whelan, Andrew. 2020. “‘Do You Have a Moment to Talk About Vaporwave?’ Technology, Memory, and Critique in the Writing on an Online Music Scene.” Popular Music, Technology, and the Changing Media Ecosystem: 185-200 (


Wilcox, Connor and Compton, Cristin. 2023. “Beyond the Screen: Exploring Vaporwave Musicians’ Communicative Identity Work.” Communication Studies 74(1):61-77 (



Tanner, Grafton. 2016. Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. John Hunt Publishing Ltd. 

Berry, David. 2020. On Nostalgia. Coach House Books. 

Cover of the cited book. It has some radio parts and the title of the book is at the top, the color scheme of the book cover is shades of blue.

Iruka, Ekko. 2015. Vaporwave: A Dystopian Musical Codex. Lulu. 

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