A curious example of capitalism’s powers of assimilation occurred at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, during Ariana Grande’s performance of Side To Side. It was curious because on this occasion what capitalism – in the form of one of its tendrils, MTV – appeared to be (re)appropriating was, ironically, capitalism’s own affective remainder. In immersing Grande’s segment in the visual tropes and tonalities of the musical subgenre known as ‘vaporwave’, MTV was doing little other than imbibing its own regurgitated waste, the incidental excess fumes that it had itself – in the 1980s – casually discharged into the ether.
As an aesthetic – hipster cough, a e s t h e t i c – that has developed via online communities, vaporwave has harvested the by-products of 1980s corporate consumer culture to produce some occasionally wonderful music and a provocative visual style. (Muzak, outmoded computer graphics, and infomercials are recurrent elements of the genre.) But, above all else, what vaporwave reclaims from the 1980s is a certain feeling of the decade, a set of subliminal affects that, unconsciously, we associate with particular audio and visual elements.
Transcoded by vaporwave artists like Vektroid, and transplanted to our own era, these elements (and their corresponding affects) are invested with an uncanny quality. Rechannelled into hypnagogic musical soundscapes, the background hum of the consumerist culture that engulfs us is made weirdly beautiful and retrieved as a site of potential resistance. In effect, vaporwave seeps through the corporate edifice and exposes the incipient power rooted in our affective capacities: to sense, to feel, to hear, to see. As an exercise in cultural memory, vaporwave thus evades an aesthetics rooted in nostalgia and instead reveals the unbridled phantasia of our sensual experience, a phantasia that can be preyed upon, yes, but which also spawns excessive affects (or – hey – vapours!) that cannot simply be marshalled, determined, or exploited.
In converting vaporwave into a cultural capital, MTV – in the midst of a corporate rebranding drive that has leant heavily on vaporwave and participatory culture – is essentially reclaiming not quite the waste matter of the 1980s as much as its waste vapours, those ‘structures of feeling’ that pervaded the decade, and in which vaporwave had discovered a font of potential. In co-opting vaporwave, then, MTV repackages even the quasi-redemptive sign of its own residual emptiness and puts it, too, to ‘work’.