Vaporrave Virus

Or, how the fragmented specter of rave spreads through the digital network.

Rave has been declared dead several times. There is hope. In this new decade, the spectre of rave manifests itself online and spreads through the digital network like a virus. “Hard to Say” by Djrum leads the way.

The moment the beat comes in is pure bliss. The tension disappears and gives way to the euphoria of anticipation: you are not there yet, but you are confident that you will arrive. Where? On the dance floor. The epicenter of the rave. For now, there is another door between you and heaven, but you can hear them. Those beats. Gently, yes. They drip through the door, just as inevitably as water finally squeezes through everything.

Everyone who has visited a rave knows the feeling: you are approaching the rave, you feel the tension building up in your body until you hear the first beats almost inaudibly in the background. Hello euphoria. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan would describe that feeling as the completeness with which the medium encloses you and creates an alternative reality. According to McLuhan, that is the essential difference between linear media that are visually focused (“I believe I have reached the rave when I see the dance floor”) and ear-oriented non-linear media (“I hear, so I believe”). [1]

The beat I am talking about? In “Hard to Say”, the a-side of the 12inch that the British producer Djrum released at the end of last year on the R&S record label. The first tone already reveals that something special is about to happen. “Hard to Say” is different from the vast majority of electronic music released in 2019. It sounds like the soundtrack of the coming decade. It marks the beginning of the 2020s.

Big words, I know.

Let me explain why I think “Hard to Say” will be seen as one of the first vaporrave classics in ten years.

Let’s go back in time. To the start of this millennium. The nineties were characterized by optimism, beautifully portrayed in the video clip for “No Good (Start to Dance)” (1994) by the breakbeat collective The Prodigy. The breakthrough of techno music marks the end of history and the internet for everyone. In contrast to punk (the individual versus the system), the aesthetic of techno is another: bottom-up, everyone equal, being yourself, but also being part of the “swarm”. The future that McLuhan predicts in the infamous interview he gave to Playboy in March 1969 seemed to come true:

“The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically embarrassed state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace.” [2]

After the bursting of the internet bubble and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, that dream has ended. Pop culture responds by going back to the past. That in itself is not a new phenomenon, but the extent to which is more extreme than before. In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011), Simon Reynolds describes how pop increasingly refers to a romanticized past. A past that gets misremembered. The first decade of the new century is one of nostalgia. [3] I wrote about this extensively in the article “Vaporwave as a counterculture”. [4] The emergence of vaporwave is essential because it withdraws playfully from the nostalgia trend. In his book Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the commodification of Ghosts (2016), writer and musician Grafton Tanner defines vaporwave as post-nostalgic:

“Vaporwave undermines the commodification of nostalgia in an age of global capitalism while accentuating the uncanny properties of electronic music production. It undermines the electronic ghosts haunting the nostalgia industry.” [5]

The second decade of this century ends with the first: post-nostalgia is popping up everywhere. In his book Capitalist Realism (2009), British thinker Mark Fisher describes how the beginning of the 21st century symbolizes the situation in which capitalism is the only conceivable system. [6] Later — during a panel at the CTM festival in 2013 and as a result of the V / VMs project “The Death of Rave” — he carries rave to the grave. According to Fisher (our belief in), the future dies with rave. He describes the power of rave in the excellent article “Baroque Sunbursts” (2016). [7] Being together and becoming one with the rest of the public and the machine undermines the tendency of the neoliberal capitalist system to let ourselves be entirely focused on ourselves and to see ourselves as autonomous individuals without a connection to others. He calls that psychic privatization. Rave is like a baroque sunburst: that moment when light rays from another world suddenly breakthrough in ours (Fisher borrows the term from Fredric Jameson). These rays of light make us aware that there are other, better worlds.

Rave may be dead, Fisher has spent the last few years of his life working on acid communism, a concept that he comes up with together with theorist Jeremy Gilbert. It doesn’t lead to a book (Fisher committed suicide early 2017), but there is a Gilbert-led workshop during the 2018 edition of the Transmediale Festival in Berlin. There is no clear definition, but acid communism is meant as a way for the left to reinvent itself in a creative, playful and unpredictable way.

The association with the left is understandable given the background of the inventors, but as far as I am concerned, acid communism is much more an accelerationist practice than a classical political one: the left and the right play no role. In the wonderful article “Turn On, Tune In, Rise Up” at Commune writer Emma Stamm also struggles with the left / right gap. [8] She brings in Burning Man: a festival that fits within the concept of acid communism, but is also described as hyper-capitalist.

Another problem is the conservative tendency of the left to see technology as a threat. In “Rave-Accelerate-Die,” Noah Brehmer describes what the ideas of Fisher, his CCRU teacher Nick Land, and speculative realism thinker Ray Brassier have in common:

“[…] They all opposed the anti-Promethean sentiments or dominant critical-theory circles of the 90s, who attached themselves to the grunge melancholy or the technologically alienated, fractured subject or Adorno’s modernity. Relevant here is the idea of accelerationism: progression of technological development (and not its regression) as a tantamount to the overcoming of the historical violence and contradictions of capitalism.” [9]

Whoever places technology — and we are also talking about the abstract machine of electronic music — on the outside, remains a willing victim for a neoliberal system that uses technology as an object of desire. This way, the machine always remains a sought-after object outside of humans. A good example is a smartphone that both is seen as dangerous technology that makes us lonely, allows us to scroll endlessly and leads to traffic accidents, and is brought to the market every year in a renewed version to sell millions of copies. Attract and repel. Attract and repel.

In short, it may be clear that any disconnection from the neoliberal system can only take place if we break with the left/right dichotomy. Embracing the other (human, animal, machine) and thereby leaving the hyper-individualism — or psychic privatization — cherished by neoliberalism, is essential, according to Fisher. Both left and right are currently doing the opposite by stating “the other” as an enemy.

And then we are back at vaporwave.

In Pitchfork, Simon Reynolds has characterized the past decade as that of conceptronica. [10] Much can be said about Reynolds analysis. For now, it is important to note that he has lost touch with “street culture”. Reynolds notes that the renewal in electronic music has taken place in the last ten years with a select group of artists who move from artistic music festival to creative music festival and play there for a few thousand initiates. Innovation that is fully encapsulated and echoed in galleries and museums. Not at the club. Reynolds has a point, but he forgets that besides Lee Gamble, Amnessia Scanner, Holly Herndon, Jam City and White Goblin — to name a few — renewal is taking place elsewhere, even though that is different from Reynolds’ intention. The streets of today are the internet.

Vaporwave classic “Floral Shoppe” by Macintosh Plus has tens of millions of streams on YouTube. Although the album has never penetrated the musical mainstream, it is one of the most influential albums of the previous decade. Videos in which photos of abandoned shopping malls are combined with 1980s classics that sound like they sound in an empty shopping center are viewed millions of times. Vaporwave aesthetics are everywhere and even influenced Netflix. An art form that is just as socially critical as Reynolds’ concept. It spreads like a virus, and delivers the old promise of the web: being everywhere at once. Perhaps the many loosely connected digital networks are the clubs of this time, and the rave is digitally fragmented in time and place.

Since 2016, EELF from Lithuania has been combining hand-shot video material from the 1990s that he or she finds on YouTube with new electronic music found on platforms such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud. [11] The combinations are exciting and unusually beautiful. The EELF channel is already close to 22 million views. Despite the old visual material, the conjunction with new music (which often sounds retro) does not feel nostalgic.

Maybe that’s also because the nineties, like the eighties, never really disappeared. The 21st century is characterized by the lack of a narrative of the now and the future. In that respect, we still live in the eighties and nineties. That last decade was postponed in 2001. It looks like it’s starting up again.

New music comes with a new narrative.

And so we are back at “Hard to Say” by Djrum. The beats that suddenly come in are the baroque sunbursts of Fisher: we catch a glimpse of an alternative reality. In Babbling Corpse, Grafton Tanner hopes that:

“For now, we live in a mall, but I think it’s closing down. […] There is a way out of this cultural nightmare.”

That beat shows us that there is a way out, without seeing it immediately. That’s okay. Hearing is enough. At the same time, “Old Tape” from Burial appeared with the same post-nostalgic feeling. With vaporwave as the most significant pop-cultural development of the past decade as a basis, this could be the following:

‘Rave rises from the dead, not in clubs, but as an elusive spirit that through the infinite networks of the worldwide web still lives up to the promise that rave once held: not only as an alternative to the hierarchical, neoliberal pop-cultural order but ultimately for the neoliberal system itself.’

Vaporrave as an accelerationist virus. Apart from that, ‘Hard to Say’ and b-side ‘Tournesol’ are two magical compositions in which Djrum, the British producer Felix Manuel, mixes all kinds of styles, such as ambient and gabber. He already did this before. His album ‘Portrait with Firewood’ (2018) is highly recommended. The flexibility with which he does that on his last 12-inch is unheard of. That also means that ‘Hard to Say’ and to a lesser extent ‘Tournesol’ sound different from previous work by Djrum and deviate from the conceptonica of Reynolds, and experimental work that appeared this century on labels such as Planet Mu and Hyperdub. That difference may perhaps be easily dismissed as an emotional issue.

Yet I hear something new: it is mainly the simplicity with which styles and moods coincide. And how that coincidence creates a sense of recognition and, in this case essential, the lack of need to recognize the various components and bring them back to their historical value. Maybe I’m wrong, but for now I feel:

“Hard to Say” by Djrum will be a vaporrave classic in ten years.


[1] Marshall McLuhan. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: Toronto University Press.

[2] Eric Norden. (1969). “Playboy interview: Marshall Mcluhan,” Playboy, March.

[3] Simon Reynolds. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[4] Theo Ploeg. (2019). “Vaporwave as a counterculture”. FRNKFRT. March 7th.

[5] Grafton Tanner. (2016). Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts. London: Zero Books.

[6] Mark Fisher. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative?. London: Zero Books.

[7] Mark Fisher. (2016). “Baroque Sunbursts”. Rave: Rave and its Influences on Art and Culture. Antwerp and London: Black Dog Publishers and Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp.

[8] Emma Stamm. (2019). “Turn On, Tune In, Rise Up: Acid against Austerity.” Commune. Issue 4, fall.

[9] Noah Brehmer. (2018). “Rave-Accelerate-Die”. Blindfield. July 18.

[10] Simon Reynolds. (2019). “The Rise of Conceptronica”. Pitchfork. October 10.

[11] The EELF channel is removed by YouTube due to copyright infringement (the channel is back for a while now).

This article was first released in The Weird Politics Review, January 18, 2020.