Can music be democratic? Joshua Ziner says yes… and here’s why.
Is music “democratic?” I mean, certainly in a general sense: we all have access to it, whether it be digitized and archived in cyberspace, or immediate through a live experiencing. To a certain extent we even have control over its consumption, simply through tuning in (or out) of FM radio, YouTube ads, or whatever noise is coming from the new residents on the upstairs floor. But what does it mean to participate in a musical experience, the way we participate in the experience of democracy? Is it possible that we have more control over our modes of musical consumption than ever we could imagine? I say yes… and here’s why.
Being a musician doesn’t require you to do something new – at least not anymore. In this age where subcultures (“micro cultures,” as some music journalists would say) rule our cultural subconscious, you’ll find a dizzying array of influences coming together to create bizarre things – field recordings and the new underground and the like – but it’s not unfamiliar, no, not in the way that Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” was to bewildered audiences in 1974. Simply, it’s a desire to tap into a phrase coined by music journalists in the early 2010’s known as “retromania” – an obsession with the past, and the more you look at contemporary music, the more you’ll see: it’s everywhere.
This isn’t just a return to the sounds of yesteryear, mind you: this is everything. You’ll see visuals and art, sounds and movies, though nothing exhibits a better mix of all that than the experimental genre known as “Vaporwave,” a pun off of the term “vaporware” (software intended for company release that is delayed indefinitely due to any number of circumstances). Well, what is this stuff, anyway? It came from nowhere, in the heat of the “retromania” summer of 2009 (when underground guys like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi topped the indie charts), and took us all by surprise: Why does this sound like Donna Summers slowed down and looped endlessly over imagery of dystopian consumer-capitalist nightmares? Precisely, because it is – “all that is solid will return to air,” Marx famously wrote in the Communist Manifesto – the correlations are obvious. Vaporwave is the appropriation of imagery and sounds from the heyday of 80’s / 90’s consumer-capitalism in order to reveal its excess, and more importantly, help accelerate it (through consumption and critique) to its logical conclusion: implosion. By forcing us to examine a music whose cultural commentary is autonomous (rather than interpretational), Vaporwave shows us that we are in an age of –proto, not –post: that we have not only a lens through the past can be viewed, but through which new lineages of that past can materialize, eventually. In time, everything will become Vaporwave – after enough cultural distance has passed. This isn’t a temporal fad – this is a new mode of critique, and perhaps more importantly – of production.
Anyone can make Vaporwave. You, me, your boomer father, your disengaged fifteen-year old cousin – and that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. All it takes is a little computer access and some basic skills in Ableton, and you can create this stuff right from your home (hell, there’s even an app that allows you to edit anything using stylized-imagery of the Vaporwave brand). This is “high art” that everyone can partake in, and because of this hands-on mode of musical production, we start to see something peculiar emerge: the music itself becomes the critic, beating the listener to the interpretive punch. We don’t need knowledge of chart history nor musical theory to know what it is we’re hearing, we need the one thing that we always have, even when we don’t realize it – memory. By tapping into a short time ago (playing on a cultural ethos rather than a musical one) as its defining creative product, Vaporwave has continued what the elitist underground of the avant-garde began half a century ago – simply repackaged in a way that everyone can access and understand, even if they don’t quite know why. That understanding is nostalgia – a new nostalgia – and that product of high culture is now something for everyone.
So, what do we have? A critique of consumer-capitalism that anyone from their basement can partake in: creating new futures through re-appropriating the past. This is the first time in cultural criticism where the object of critique gives the review of itself for us; we don’t have to do anything but sit back and watch, enjoy, and bask in the glorious, brand-heavy imagery from a by-gone era. All it takes is a little bit of imagination, art consciousness, and cultural distance and eventually, after enough time, even the era we’re living in right now will be chopped and screwed until an entire new aesthetic is generated from it. It’s only a matter of time before you, me, and everyone we know are a part of the new nostalgia.