February 19, 2019•666 words
(Originally published in Private Suite magazine, issue 5)
Book review: Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, by Grafton Tanner
This isn't an especially pleasant moment to be living in the global West. It's fraught with trauma over rampant historical and geographic dislocation, obsession with humanity's imminent demise, anxiety about late capitalism's unfettered expansion, and a general suffusion of simulations upon simulations that feel like ghostly presences animating our otherwise soulless and recycled media objects.
For all this, author Grafton Tanner argues in Babbling Corpse, vaporwave serves as both looking glass and touchstone. More than a musical genre or an artistic aesthetic, vaporwave is for Tanner a "sensibility," a "desire to turn our fascinations and fantasies into more disquieting forms, to suggest that not all is perfectly well, to remind us that maybe we have not been liberated in the Internet Age." That's what the book is about—a culture of commodification, phantasmagoria, and existential malaise that makes vaporwave a salient, even desirable, impulse.
Babbling Corpse is its own kind of mall, each chapter a kiosk showcasing the latest and greatest in cultural critique. All the big brands—object-oriented ontology, accelerationism, hauntology—are in stock and on display. Shoppers can largely browse the storefronts in any order, popping in and out of the various analyses. But while each chapter addresses a different dimension of the cultural mélange Tanner constructs, vaporwave wafts throughout the entire book, the ever-present muzak of Tanner's critical analysis. As part of a broader exploration of sampled media's uncanniness (Chapter 1), for instance, vaporwave serves as an example of "music that comes from nowhere, that can be attributed to no one or at best a faceless moniker, and resists easy analysis." In an argument about the Western world's unsettling preoccupation with its own demise (or "anthrodecentric thought," as Tanner puts it in Chapter 2), vaporwave appears as "the sound of the outside world of things—electronic technology, mass-produced goods, non-places," an apotheosis of what the world feels like when "we are allowed access to everything all the time." Everywhere, Tanner finds vaporwave—the prism that refracts our mass-produced nostalgia and the soundtrack for our hollow and vacuous times.
Most compelling is Tanner's final chapter, a sustained rumination on consumer culture in a post-9/11 world. Numerous vaporwave artists and producers claim that horrific first day of the 21st Century as inspiration for their work (indeed, many as a zero point in the alternate timeline vaporwave continues to unspool), and Tanner seizes on that connection to underscore "just how commodified the ghosts of our past are." The September 11 attacks, he writes, "shocked us into a state of cultural regression," and we've "been living in that period ever since, plumbing the past for comforting sounds and songs, sounds from periphery and mundanity of daily life before the great unraveling at the start of this century." Vaporwave, then, is part traumatic expression, part coping mechanism, and part critique—a "jarring indictment of consumerist culture" that somehow simultaneously celebrates and mocks its varied source materials.
Tanner's claim to have discovered "what makes vaporwave unique as a new method of Internet-produced punk" sounds dubious, since several such movements would seem to function as critiques of late capitalism and "invite us to react emotionally to a genre of music that has subversive potential." Its loftier claims aside, however, Babbling Corpse is certainly valuable reading for fans of vaporwave (the music, the art, and the sensibility alike). It's accessible enough for readers without a background in critical theory—a consequence, perhaps, of Tanner's tendency to linger agonizingly on recapitulations of other critics' arguments at the expense of advancing his own—but also rewarding for anyone who's wondered what would happen if Zizek, Jameson, and Derrida started listening to Macintosh Plus, Midnight Television, or g h o s t i n g. And ultimately, the book serves as fruitful fodder for a cultural imaginary in desperate need of new directions and possibilities. "For now, we live in the mall," Tanner morosely concludes, "but I think it's closing soon."