Is laptop-produced, hi-fi music the punk rock of the Internet age?
MUSIC In 1992, when Pavement released its seminally crusty, DIY masterstroke Slanted and Enchanted, tape hiss and low fidelity were inherent, unavoidable side-effects of recording on the cheap. As much as that fuzzy production sound complemented the band's shambolic, punk sensibility, clean recording techniques were only attainable through studios, spendy gear, and other resources unavailable to most garage slackers in Stockton.
Since then, home recording standards have improved dramatically. Professional-quality software like Ableton is easily obtainable via piracy, as is an infinite sea of music-as-source-material, waiting to be lifted, sampled, and recontextualized. in 2013, this increased accessibility has rendered lo-fi recording an aesthetic choice, and no longer an intrinsic property of DIY-ism.
Yet, despite the advent of clean, sterile recording as the "default mode" of DIY music in the age of the laptop-as-recording-studio, a sizable chunk of modern, computer-based music is still permeated by the cultural signifiers and trappings of tape-based lo-fi, from the warped perversion of Ariel Pink, to the fuzzy obfuscation of Dirty Beaches, to the chillwave movement's heavy-handed reliance on effects and filters. Ostensibly, this lo-fi aesthetic is kept intact partially in order to communicate the sort of subversion-from-the-margins that we associate with punk-rock, and other dissenting art-forms, but over the past few years, a new approach has developed, which not only embraces the stylistic properties of clean recording, but uses that sterility in a fringe context, subverting the order of the music-world similarly to the lowest of lo-fi.
James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual (2011) was a watershed moment in this marriage of anemic production qualities, and the left-field approach of the DIY movement. Whereas Ferraro's previous albums, such as On Air (2010), presented a fairly standard, Ariel Pink-indebted take on hypnagogic pop, (refracting a broad palette of samples from both high-art and trash-culture through a reverberatious, dreamlike haze of outmoded recording sensibilities), Far Side Virtual opted for a brighter, cleaner more limited set of source material, keeping the dryness of those samples intact. By co-opting stock commercial muzak, cheesy MIDI synths, and a jumble of ringtones, startup chimes, and Siri robot-speak, Ferraro was able to place these sounds into a new cultural framework, without significantly altering their sonic integrity, resulting in an approach now known as vaporwave.
What might resemble generic, innocuous, (yet tastelessly compiled) stock-music, when presented without context, sounds like a scathing attack on the vapidity of techno-capitalism, and our docile complicity as consumers, given the knowledge of Ferraro's outsider status, and the subversive reputation of the Hippos In Tanks label to which he is signed. The vaporwave trend has expanded since the release of Far Side Virtual, birthing #HDBoyz (a Mountain Dew chugging, Best Buy-patronizing boy-band whose cultural position is complicated by having performed at MoMA in NYC), and even Dis Magazine, a self-described "post-Internet lifestyle" publication that embraces and/or lampoons fashion, commerce, and garish product placement.