Vaporwave is the sort of genre that’s more intriguing the less you know about it. Ideally you’d find an interesting-looking cassette laying behind a dresser in a thrift store or at a garage sale, plunk down fifty cents, then dig out some old boom box and proceed to get freaked out by the bizarre noises that came out of it. You would have so many questions – a who, several whats, lots of whys. You’d look for answers but there would be nothing there, just Japanese text and eye-catching pastels, accompanied by music that’s both strangely familiar and utterly alien, like pop music for the brain-damaged.
Now consider the world that vaporwave actually lives in, a world in which all these answers are seconds away. We know who – Ramona Xavier, who has released some 40 albums since 2010 under many different aliases. We know what – Diana Ross, Dancing Fantasy, Pages, and Sade, amongst other smooth hits of the 70’s and 80’s. As for why, I guess I’ll leave that to r/vaporwave or those who write thesis papers on the stuff, because like most things on the internet, vaporwave has been discussed to the point where there’s practically nothing one could say about it anymore. The point is that this is not some obscure, profoundly bizarre tape of Japanese infomercial music, but rather something made in some college kid’s dorm room with the explicit purpose of freaking you out. Again…best not to think of it too much.
Floral Shoppe is the most well-known vaporwave album of course, the one that would pop up straight away on a Google or YouTube search; if you’ve spent considerable time on the internet you’ve probably seen its cover art. It wasn’t the first and I doubt it’s the best, but those designations don’t mean a lot in this genre. None of this stuff gets reviewed too well anyway, and you could definitely argue that vaporwave was around long before this, it just wasn’t called vaporwave. Really vaporwave is about more than the music; it’s about the art, the aesthetic, the smoothed-over globalized look and those primitive, weirdly evocative 3-D models. But if I were to guess what this music would’ve sounded like just going on the art alone, I probably would have said something like early-90’s P-Model, with industrial beats and wall-to-wall sequencers. Instead, the idea is to find the smoothest, most commercialized forms of music possible – think electric pianos, saxes, drums with the reverb set to max – and turn it into something nightmarish, by altering the pitch, glitching it out, or otherwise finding a way to detune it. If you own a turntable with a good pitch shifter and the ability to go to 16 RPM, maybe you’ve tried to make this kind of music yourself.
As such, it’s hard to deconstruct this stuff, particularly when it’s got this much of a DIY-punk sensibility. If Floral Shoppe has an overriding theme, it’s that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; the tunes are all structured oddly, as though they were randomly cobbled together from larger edits. Several tracks wind up overlong and repetitive, while others are curiously short. Often there are glitches where you wouldn’t expect them, or mashed-up bits where the time signatures don’t fit. The loops are done haphazardly, sometimes cutting off at slightly different points, indicating that much of this was done by hand. Then there’s another clue; two consecutive songs by Pages, three off the same Dancing Fantasy album in a row – all of which makes me believe that this was made very quickly. I mean, yeah – Ramona was only 19 when she made this, and it comes in the middle of a two-year stretch in which she released twenty-some albums.
Which begs the question – is this anything? Depends on what hits you of course; some things work and some don’t, but at the end of the day it’s more good than bad. Sure, the first track is nearly unlistenable, mashing incompatible bits on top of each other and distorting them in unnatural ways, but that warped, out-of-tune sax at 1:05 always makes me crack up, especially considering how many people out there really take this shit seriously. The album really begins with the second track – the 420 one and/or the Diana Ross one, the one that does nothing but slow “It’s Your Move” down to half speed, skip around a bit, and pile on the reverb. If the album does have a punchline, it’s that – Ramona does little more than remix and dick around with the tempo, and in retrospect, many of those creepy, hellish qualities you’re hearing were there all along. Just listen to the original Dancing Fantasy tracks; it’s no secret why she cribbed so much of that album.
So that’s my take; who knows what her intentions were, if it was intended as a sharp critique of consumer culture (as so many have claimed) or if she just thought it sounded cool, but either way there’s something hilarious and very punk rock about this. I mean, your typical internet denizen (myself included) would never touch this sort of music in a thousand years, and now if you check out the YouTube comments on the source material, they’re blasted with people who were dying to know what the hell they originally sounded like. Again, I’m not going to say this is what Ramona had intended here – she probably figured the album would wind up like her others, downloaded by a hundred people and forgotten about. Instead it went viral, and sparked a movement that generated approximately a thousand vaporwave releases in 2012. Whether it’s a masterpiece or just an obnoxious joke, everyone should hear it at least once.