(Beer on the Rug, 2011)
I’ve only seen one movie ever on LaserDisc. The format wasn’t really around long enough for it to gain any traction among my friends or their families (it wasn’t really around long enough at all), so I wasn’t able to notch my belt with films viewed from the unwieldy platters. But in 1996, in the home theater of my friend’s rich aunt and uncle, I popped my LaserDisc cherry on the only film that, in hindsight, remotely makes any sense to have lost that innocence to: the Christopher Walken revisionist biblical history nightmare The Prophecy.
Laugh if you want, I can take it. I’m not going to apologize for my personal film history. I mention this, not merely because the artist I’m reviewing today happens to have the word “LASERDISC” in their name (and yeah, they do it all caps, that’s not me), but also because I can actually get the secret off my chest that I’ve seen a movie on LaserDisc. It’s out there now, in public – I’m no longer relegated to whispering my secret to middle-aged Japanese salarymen with a penchant for outdated electronics that were, let’s face it, once pretty popular and en vogue with Japanese salarymen. I mean look at me – I’m fondly recalling an experience, going so far as to wave it in your face like a national geek flag, that would have been no different if I had simply watched the movie on cable rather than on LaserDisc. It’s this fleeting, insufficient, disposable, vaporous memory, meaningless on my personal continuum. And it’s The Prophecy, for god’s sake.
And this is LASERDISC VISIONS, for god’s sake too, on the surface a fleeting, and insufficient album, as disposable as the band’s namesake technology. Look at that cover art for a minute before you even think about the music. Early 1990s photo collage, created in whatever progam predated Photoshop, in that program’s infancy. (Help me out on program comp, somebody.) The font’s godawful, and it looks like someone grabbed a couple of unconnected images, including logos for Sega Saturn and Compact Discs and what seems like an Asian model in a soft drink commercial, and slapped it all together without the first inkling of cohesion.
So it may not be any surprise then that the music found on New Dreams Ltd., a subgenre dubbed “vaporwave” and cheekily referred to in this great primer article as “business class lounge music,” flits past and barely registers, pleasant background noise to well-styled and manicured commercialism. It’s fleeting, insufficient, and disposable, but it’s weirdly important as a culturual and musical touchstone. The sounds and textures aren’t composed as they are stitched together from various sources, presented almost unchanged but arranged in such a way as to make sense in a way that’s foreign but almost-not-foreign, like the soundtrack to a bright white sterile plastic airport club that exists ten years from now. It’s futurism as seen through the eyes of the early 1990s businessman. The music is haunting in its accuracy of the feelings it conjures while listening to it, and the feelings are uncomfortable because you’ve felt variations of them, but not necessarily these exact feelings. It’s pleasant in the way an out-of-body experience is probably pleasant as you gaze at your hospital room.
What makes the “vaporwave” tag so fitting is that there’s very little to grasp on to – the synthetic nature of the music so fully permeates its own existence that it feels fake in every way. But what counterbalances the total fallacy of it is the way it’s presented, and the life it takes on within its own community. New Dreams Ltd., and at this point I’m really talking about the genre as a whole, was knowingly released with my reaction in mind, as a paean to distasteful capitalistic practices (to me anyway) and made to appear palatable. I can only really take this seriously if I remove myself from it in such a way that I’m winking and nodding along with the whole vaporwave crew, appreciating the music for its wily packaging and stylized image, yet willing to acknowledge it’s glossy undercurrent seeded in modern human greed. Whether or not New Dreams Ltd. or any other vaporwave album is meant to be a criticism of that is the question that makes the whole thing a worthwhile endeavor. Trying to figure it out is the fun part. Knowing in the back of your mind that someone’s probably taking this seriously and is in total agreement with the lifestyle or the nostalgia of the lifestyle is the edge. It’s the darkness. It’s the re-envisioning of cultural warefare. There are probably spirits, good and bad, fighting over the souls of those who listen to this.
I always point to my ongoing fascination with James Ferraro, the man who has a PhD in this kind of guessing game. On Ferraro’s similar Far Side Virtual, there were two very divided sides on whether or not the music was actually good, and I think a similar argument could be made for LASERDISC VISIONS (or anything else produced under the New Dreams Ltd. – unitalicized – brand, such as Macintosh Plus or 情報デスクVIRTUAL) – does the experimental nature of the source material and its appearance outweigh the outdatedness of the music itself? And is the music in fact outdated, or does it strike a chord of, let’s say good, nostalgia in some unusual way? Is it simply plasticized, mass-produced crap that will quickly go the way of the LaserDisc? What is its point within the broader musical landscape, and how seriously should we take the musicians behind it?
I’m continually asking myself these questions about vaporwave and the genre’s artists. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get through the music. I certainly have to be in the right frame of mind. But every time I listen to Ferraro, or LASERDISC VISIONS, or Internet Club, I find myself asking more questions about the nature and direction of the album than I do for any other experimental musician. And that, I think, is what should keep you coming back to this, if you can get in that headspace.
RIYL: Mediafired, Macintosh Plus, Internet Club, James Ferraro