I should first offer a brief apology for how infrequent my posts have been here. As a PhD student, I’m nose-deep in a book most of the time, and come up for air mostly to relax and decompress. I did, however, experience an interesting confluence of my scholarly work and my extra-curricular enjoyment the other day in the form of an essay by Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) and a vaporwave remake of an 80s pop song from The Miami Sound Machine.
First, if you haven’t read Baudrillard, you should know the guy can seem a little out there. He’s primarily known as a sociologist, but his theoretical and critical work has found its way into a variety of humanities fields, especially English-lit/critical theory, and particularly as it relates to postmodernism. Interestingly, he’s also possibly one of the first trolls, arguing publicly that the Gulf War didn’t not take place, but that’s a subject for another post, perhaps.
His main contribution to the field is the concept of “simulacra,” or “simulation,” and his argument for the ways in which reality has been completely obscured (or subsumed) by imitation/simulation. Much of this core concept is found in the essay “The Precession of Simulacra” where Baudrillard argues that in the postmodern age we have lost touch with reality. More specifically, there is no longer a “real” at all; it has been replaced by a representation of reality. What we see as the world is simulacra (singular: simulacrum), a representation without an original.
He provides a few examples of how this happens, some of them helpful and others less so. One of the more notable examples is that of a map: in his analogy a map is created of an empire, and this map is so perfectly representational of the original that people can no longer tell the difference between the two. Eventually, the original rots away, leaving only the map, a copy of the real. But the problem now, he asserts, is that we’re creating images, signs, and narratives that have no basis in reality–a copy without an original. This he calls the “hyperreal.”
There are, of course, some fundamental problems with simulacra and the hyperreal according to Baudrillard–the main problem is that, ostensibly, anything can be true (for all intents and purposes) because truth is simply a matter of persuasive simulation.
We can see how this works by looking at the phenomenon of diametrically opposed narratives emerging simultaneously, such as that A) The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was carried out by radical Muslim terrorists and B) The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was an inside job, perpetrated by the US gov’t to justify a “war on terror” and the proliferation of the surveillance state that ensued. Because the vast majority of us were not on the ground on that fateful day, the only way we have of experiencing and understanding the event is through media. We only know, therefore, the narrative presented to us, manicured and rendered for a particular kind of consumption and for a particular set of reasons. Thus, without having been there, scenarios A and B are both equally possible, and, according to Baudrillard, equally “true.”
What does his have to do with Gloria Estefan’s awesome 80s perm, you ask? Well, if we take a look at the original song by The Miami Sound Machine, we could locate, arguably, some elements of what Baudrillard’s talking about, albeit on a somewhat different scale and register. “Falling in Love” works from a variety of love-song archetypes in the lyrics and from some R&B and even Funk roots in its arrangement. As a whole, Baudrillard might say The Miami Sound Machine’s mid-80s hit is a simulation of the pop-love song (a category we can readily recognize) but without an actual “real” foundation. Baudrillard might argue that “Falling in Love” is a simulacrum of a pop song that doesn’t exist.
This is a stretch, I know, and probably sounds suspect (there’s plenty of justified critique of Baudrillard’s work), but I’m less interested in this tenuous argument and the mental gymnastics it requires than I am in what happens when contemporary remixes in the vaporwave movement get a hold of this stuff. That’s when things get really weird–and fascinating.
Vaporwave, on the surface, is where 80s and 90s smooth jazz, muzak, and obscure pop music meets electronica, hip-hop sampling techniques, and internet memery. It feels like what might happen if a computer programmer who grew up in the 80s was nostalgic and bored in the wee hours of the morning. The visual aesthetic of this microgenre, considering its emphasis on nostalgia, is extremely important, with looped Reagan-era commercials and neon glitch art nearly always displayed alongside the music. A much-viewed example of vaporwave can be found below. Check it out:
Interesting, right? If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, it evokes a distinct kind of nostalgia; there’s something lingering in the background that’s recognizable, but it’s also strangely new. It feels as if the past is being compressed and delivered via .zip to the present. Or at least that’s the sense I get.
But what happens when we employ the lens Baudrillard gives us? What would he say about this music? What would he think of Waterfront Dining’s re-imagining of “Falling in Love” (re-titled “Miami Wicked”)? Can it even be called a re-imagining, considering how intact the original track is?
My best answer to this question comes from my own personal experience. I was born at the very end of the 80s, and thus don’t really remember much from that cultural moment, despite how long 80s culture lingered into the 90s. But I feel the nostalgic pull of this music, despite never having heard this song before (at least not to my memory).
So what we have in this re-imagining of “Falling in Love” is a song explicitly engineered from the nostalgia of a culture that itself was a representation–this is a dreamlike re-imagining of what was already a dream-image. And further–listened to and enjoyed (and probably made) by a person who didn’t really experience that decade. Does that make this thing a simulacrum, or something altogether different?
It seems to me to be something pushed past simulacrum into something new, something still further removed from what Baudrillard meant when he talked about culture being manufactured, about culture being purely imitation. At least in the original song we can sense some form of originality, however flimsy Baudrillard might argue it is; we can feel the construction of the song as a coherent unit. But this recreation/remix and all the competing (perhaps deferred) associations it triggers feels altogether different.
I think I’m still processing what vaporwave might mean to Baudrillard, but I hold firmly that this phenomenon is worth exploring and thinking about. This is, after all, how culture is made/remade/recycled. Culture itself is the material of this movement after all.
At the very least, if Baudrillard’s lens leads us only into a neon-lit simulation of a culture that never really was, the music’s pretty good.