Vaporwave: A fleeting future

2019 edition

Liu Zhenhu

Vaporwave is an art movement developed on the Internet which first emerging in the early 2010s (Nowak, R., & Whelan, A., 2018), and almost reached its heyday from 2014 to 2015. A series of subcultures and peripheral products have been derived; this style has many possibilities and ambiguous sub-style categories and information transmission. Inspired by mainstream cultural aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s, vaporwave explores representations of consumerism and pastiche in parallel to feelings of isolation (Sjaarda M., 2017).

Vaporwave criticize the post-industrial consumerist and reflects people’s curiosity and infatuation with the things of the past. The present is the future of the past, and the past is the future of the present. Vaporwave is in the form of two-dimension which is invisible and can be uploaded to the websites by the unknown person. That is, it was generated in networks completely and spread from the specific group to the masses.

Looking at the art history, when a new kind of art style emerges and develops, there must be a social, cultural background behind it even the reasons for market demand. For example, the emergence of postmodernism was related to the concept of “Less is more.” which is claimed by modernism and the prevail of Pop Art was concerned with the trend of Counterculture Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Vaporwave wasn’t accidentally happened; the specific social content has provided fertile ground for vaporwave that appeals most to the aesthetic taste of the younger generation. In a word, vaporwave reflects the change of people’s perspectives, both social and cultural.

For such a distinctive and controversial style, the research makes an objective analysis of the development of vaporwave through a large number of historical-documentary and interpretive analysis for official legislation, ethnographic research for interviews with the different people. The first stage is to describe the features of vaporwave to relevant to reappear the background and conditions at that time. The following stage is to compare and analyze vaporwave from two kinds of display systems: music and visual arts. The last stage is to investigate the influence of vaporwave as part of art history which was expected to bring some new gain for the relevant research of art history and to provide some reference and apocalypse for the development of the field of music and visual arts.

As a whole, the aim is to discuss the deep reasons why vaporwave, as a new art style highly praised by the younger generation, is thriving. Moreover, try to explore boundaries in theory for it. It is also expected to find the relationship between this kind of art movement and society to take a step forward to further research.


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

Sjaarda M., (2017): Recoup/Repeat/Resist: Vaporwave as Strategy.