Tim Ivison, 19 January 2014

Shopping, Waiting, and Working (out). A few streams of music have me thinking about the workplace again. Not the café/office/library synthesis but artefacts of other spaces: the mall, the waiting room, elevators, factories, gyms…all conduits of commerce, labour.

Vaporwave, an entirely online micro-scene, captures acoustic fragments of what it was like to walk through a mall in 1988. The mall was always designed as a marketplace but it was also a hollowed out idea of the city, a place to walk, to socialise, to daydream and drift through potential scenarios of self-fulfillment. Take Dystopian Chic’s Odio Furachi or ボーナスで『FRIDAY SHOPPING for instance. With heavy reverb and carefully arranged tape distortions, these tracks evoke a recent past that seems much more distant and foreign that it really is, a reflection of the acceleration of planned obsolescence.

Dystopian Chic · Odio furachi

Dystopian Chic · ボーナスで『FRIDAY SHOPPING』

Like the scavengers in Battle Angel Alita, vaporwave producers like Dystopian Chic are unearthing semi-functional chunks of audio and resurrecting them into mutant forms. Aesthetically, the total boredom of high-rise office work and late night security guards sometimes shades into blade runner mysticism or Herbie Hancock’s less appreciated later work… but the main impression is one of plastic decay. Muzak reconstructed. More a psychological regulator than a musical genre, it is a sound made for shopping malls and dentist offices, waiting rooms and elevators.

Reading various vaporwave reviews, the official narrative seems to be that the music is about a kind of arch-capitalist aesthetic, bringing everything soulless, superficial and crass the surface, evoking Bateman’s famous monologue on Huey Lewis and the News in American
Psycho. James Ferraro’s recent offer certainly speaks to this reading of the sound.

However, to me it also seems to have its origins in the more pedestrian, less glamorous spaces of wage labour, rather than the thin atmosphere of the boardroom. Even the saxophone solos seem to be one step removed from the tropical vacation they seem to promise.

Compare this to two releases from Night Slugs: Hysterics’ Pleasuredome and Jam City’s The Courts. Although neither of these are super new (the former from summer 2013, the latter from early 2012), they both capture a distinct aesthetic that we are bound to hear more of in the coming year. Pleasuredome, which also features with other tracks from the ‘Club Constructions’ EP on the DIS 20kg mix, is filled with hard staccato beats and rhythm sounds made from (or emulating) the sound of a body builder’s gym.

DISmagazine · Hysterics – 20KG Mix

The Courts, as one might imagine, is a quantized collage of sounds from the highly polished floors of a basketball court, matched to hand claps and synths.

Jam City – The Courts from night slugs on Vimeo.

Although the official interpretations of these tracks probably have something to do with working out on the dance floor and gym bodies in the club, the sounds of exertion and machinery are so prominent that it also has a kind of field recorded quality that keeps your mind on the intensity of the original ‘site of production’ as it were. Thinking about the trajectory of house and techno and its fabled industrial origins, my mind drifts not towards the dance floor but towards the factory, with one memory in particular coming to my mind: passing by an old factory on my bike in Chicago and noticing inside an exclusive gym had taken up residence and was full of young professionals from the adjacent condos. The paradoxical image of upper middle class managers and health conscious yuppies toiling away on repetitious machinery in an old factory building instantly conveyed a keen sense of alienated labour. What must they do all day to give rise to this desire for a body shaped by rigorous factory work? Listening to the 20kg mix, I couldn’t help but wonder if, years later, those same people might have had this mix loaded up on their iphone and strapped to their arm while they put the treadmill through its paces.