Simpsonwave is a video remix series whose success lies in its ability to connect between its source material on a deep level. The Simpsons has its origins in a deep social critique and a groundbreaking willingness to touch on emotionally realistic situations. This ties in well with the music of vaporwave, which is an uncompromisingly subversive and cathartic form of social criticism.
Simpsonwave is a video remix series featuring clips from classic Simpsons episodes paired with music and aesthetics from the “vaporwave” music genre. As opposed to the slew of random TV/music mashups posted every day to YouTube, simpsonwave videos rely on an audio/visual pairing which connects with itself on a deep level, as both classic episodes of The Simpsons and vaporwave music are shaped by a critique of modern society. This connectivity between the mediums helps lend a sense of fluidity to simpsonwave videos, which, when done well, tend to be dystopic and nostalgic in tone.
The origins of simpsonwave can be traced to an October 27th, 2015 vine uploaded by user Spicster. The 6 second vine pairs footage from Simpsons episode “Bart on the Road” (Season 7) with the song “Resonance” by Home. The vine shows Bart and his friends in their car on a road trip. The weather is beautiful, Bart is driving on a highway with his sunglasses on, his friend Nelson is relaxing with the window down and his feet up. Visually, these images are dripping with nostalgia, both for adolescent road trips and for The Simpsons itself; whose quality is generally perceived to have declined significantly since Season 9.1 Musically, “Resonance” by Home’s Randy Goffe amplifies the vine’s sense of sentimentality. The song’s pleasant synth timbres and harmonies provides a sense of meditative bliss that is energized by the youthful sounds of the drum and bass groove. This mix of sounds builds on the music of Goffe’s influences, the bands of 2009’s chillwave summer; defined by the druggy adolescent sentimentality of groups like Neon Indian, Toro y Moi, and Washed Out.
Altogether, the combination of music and visuals creates a sense of nostalgia that is overwhelming. The vine’s heavy sense of pathos has led it to be looped more than 29 million times.
Among the clip’s many viewers was 19-year-old Lucien Hughes, a physics student from Nottingham England. The vine struck a chord with Hughes, leading him to upload the February 8th, 2016 video “ＨＯＭＥＲＳＣＡＰＥ － １９９２ 美的”. In the video, Hughes sets a clip from Simpsons episode “Marge Gets a Job” (Season 4) to the vaporwave song “ピコ” by Ramona Xavier of MACINTOSH PLUS. The video shows Homer lying on the couch, slipping into a drug induced reverie, while a soft saxophone line from “ピコ” plays in the background. Here, in what was Hughes’ first attempt at simpsonwave, he failed to understand the true appeal of Spicster’s vine. Spicster combined audio and visuals that connect with each other in a non-ironic way. Both the video clip and the audio that Spicter relies on ooze with nostalgia. On the other hand, the music of Ramona Xavier is overtly politically charged. Hughes’ pairing of this politicized music with the visuals of meditative drug escapism sort of missed the point, and the videos’ relatively low viewer count reflects this. However, in the coming weeks, Hughes would upload videos that better reflect vaporwave’s dystopic, nostalgic tone.
Three weeks after Hughes’ “ＨＯＭＥＲＳＣＡＰＥ － １９９２ 美的,” came Hughes’ video “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ”. In the video, he syncs footage from Simpsons episodes “Bart’s Girlfriend” (Season 6) and “Lisa’s First Word” (Season 4) to the song “Teen Pregnancy” by vaporwave artist Blank Banshee.
With VHS tracking lines added for nostalgic effect, the video opens with Marge walking the family into church on a Sunday, warning Bart to pay attention in Sunday school class. When Bart doesn’t respond, Marge turns around to see Bart listening to his cassette player, which is playing MACINTOSH PLUS’ “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー”. Marge takes the cassette player away and scolds Bart for using it. She then rounds on Homer asking him to help discipline Bart. But when Marge looks, Homer is still in the car grooving to “Teen Pregnancy” by vaporwave artist Blank Banshee. Here “Teen Pregnancy” becomes overdubbed onto the original audio. Marge begins to lay into Homer, but her voice is drowned out by the soothing ambient minor groove that opens the song, and Marge’s angry tirade elicits an uncomprehending expression of innocence from Homer.
From here, “Teen Pregnancy” takes the video away, and the video turns to Bart to take on its central themes. As the music grooves, we see Bart first setting eyes on, and talking to Reverend Lovejoy’s daughter, who Bart becomes enamored with in “Bart’s Girlfriend”. Next, the video cuts from Bart yearning for the girl, to a scene from Bart’s infancy as he walks into his parent’s bedroom while they are making love. Next, we see Bart sunken on the floor, traumatized, trying to make sense of what he’s just seen. Here the lyrics repeat “it was just a little mistake”, eerie lyrics when one considers that the song’s title is “Teen Pregnancy”. The sultry adolescent female protagonist, whose lines are sampled from an episode of Degrassi Junior High, seems to say the words as if unable to comprehend the gravity of her actions, much as Bart is confronted with a reality he is far too young to come to terms with. These images become recurring themes for the video. By repeatedly showing these scenes, the viewer is given the sense that these are childhood traumas which will not go away, traumas which now shape Bart’s relationship with Reverend Lovejoy’s daughter. Interspersed with images from Bart’s traumatic childhood are clips of him grooving to music with gloomy backdrops, including a backdrop of Millhouse despondently lamenting on the monkey bars, and another one of smoke stacks billowing in a dark and dystopian looking Springfield. “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ” also contains a clip of the morbidly obese loner, Comic Book Guy, viewing “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ” from his computer. The juxtaposition of Bart’s youth and this sad lonely man makes it seem as though Comic Book Guy is watching the video for nostalgic purposes, an attempt to relive his happy youth via the internet.
In all, while still retaining a sense of nostalgia, the video is noticeably darker in tone than Spicster’s vine, and in this way is able to mesh more appropriately with the foreboding catharsis of “Teen Pregnancy”. Like other vaporwave tracks, the aesthetics of “Teen Pregnancy” are derived from the songs that it samples. The somber minor harmonic synth line is sampled from Boards of Canada’s “Sunshine Recorder”, while the melodic line and drum groove are a slowed down version of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. By combining Boards of Canada’s solemn and unsettling synth line with the funky sounds of Grandmaster Flash’s grim portrait of poverty in New York City, the song carries with it the musically gratifying and therapeutic attempts by both bands to deal with life’s violent realities. By reflecting vaporwave’s aesthetics in the music video so well, “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ” would become a major success, earning upwards of 4 million views and helping to bring widespread attention to simpsonwave.
The American nightmare
In a 1995 interview with Wired, Brian Eno “characterized the contemporary artist as not a creator so much as a ‘connector of things’”.2
Just as the success of Spicster’s vine lay in its ability to connect the nostalgia of the “Bart on the Road” and chillwave music, Hughes’ “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ” succeeded in connecting the social criticism of vaporwave music and The Simpsons through the use of dark and unsettling imagery. This is fitting on another level, although it’s easy to forget it now as it enters its 29th season, as The Simpsons was originally intended to contain a deep-seated element of social criticism.
The structure of The Simpsons was based on the drawings of cartoonist Matt Groening, who in turn based the Simpsons characters on his comic strip “Life in Hell”. As John Ortved writes in his book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, “Life in Hell”, “reeked of depression, death and fear”. The comic’s protagonist was portrayed as being the victim of “Reaganite social values, the religious right, commercialism, teachers, and bosses.”3 When Groening turned the comic into the The Simpsons, his idea was to turn the sitcom formula of the 1970s/80s on its head. Sitcom’s wise father figure was turned into Homer Simpson, a bumbling alcoholic who physically abuses his son. The happy housewife was dissatisfied and considered adultery. The son was a total menace, and the daughter’s sensitivity and intellect left her isolated from her peers and her family. As Groening explained, "What is the The Simpsons but a hallucination of the sitcom? And that has to be the ultimate American nightmare."4
This sort of cultural criticism was unprecedented in television, and led to the show being widely criticized, with First Lady Barbara Bush calling it “the dumbest thing I had ever seen”.5 At the 1992 Republican convention, George H. W. Bush promised to “strengthen the American family, to make the families a lot more like the Waltons, and a lot less like the Simpsons.”6
This backlash was unsurprising when one considers that the television landscape of 1989 was dominated by shows like “The Cosby Show, Full House, Growing Pains, Golden Girls, Family Ties and Family Matters."7 To a television audience used to the same tired tropes, The Simpsons was fresh and excitingly subversive. Similarly, vaporwave music breaks with pop conventions to create a social critique of its own, one that is much starker.
There's nobody here
Hughes’ first attempt at simpsonwave, “ＨＯＭＥＲＳＣＡＰＥ － １９９２ 美的”, utilizes the song “ピコ” from MACINTOSH PLUS’ seminal album Floral Shoppe. “ピコ” samples from the 1993 song “Carioca Groove” by Dancing Fantasy, a generic soft jazz track never intended to be anything more than elevator music. The idea behind Floral Shoppe was to take this sort of retro muzak and associated adult contemporary hits and to throw them into “a centrifuge”.8 As Ramona Xavier (MACINTOSH PLUS) explains, the intent is to show the listener the “colder, more stark side of” the music.9 The result is an album that sounds like the deranged soundtrack to a world gone mad. Floral Shoppe is a “chopped, glitching and screwed adult contemporary soul alongside twinkling spa promotional tunes."10 Songs that once celebrated the excesses of consumerism now sound like mournful cries of despair, and expressions of extreme dissatisfaction with work and consumerism. As Xavier explains, “I grew up with my dad working at Microsoft for a decade, and I grew up isolated, and I watched the job sort of suck the life force out of him…these companies are destroying us as a society and their employees are just a byproduct."11
The 2011 release of Floral Shoppe was part of a burgeoning music and arts movement known as vaporwave. One of vaporwave’s early pioneers was Daniel Lopatin, who made music from 2009-2011 under the name Sunsetcorp. Lopatin saw early success as Sunsetcorp in 2009 with his song “Nobody Here”. “Built out of a tiny loop of vocal from Chris De Burgh’s ‘The Lady in Red’ and a vintage eighties computer-animation graphic called ‘Rainbow Road’” set to the backdrop of a dark city skyline, the song paints a desolate picture of modern life.12 Lopatin takes De Burgh’s saccharine love song and mocks its original meaning by endlessly looping one line from the song, “there’s nobody here”. The lyrics are hauntingly slowed down and dripping with reverb making the original vocals sound unsettling and artificial. The result is an anthem of subversive loneliness. As Lopatin explains, the music was composed as a, “cathartic thing to do while I was doing menial office labour,” his attempt to escape from boredom at his 9-5.13 And while Lopatin would eventually move away from the retro vaporwave style to make original experimental electronic music under the name Oneohtrix Point Never, songs like “Nobody Here” would be highly influential on vaporwave’s development. Its slowed down reverb soaked loop of a 1980s-soft rock hit, combined with the retro computer graphics of the early 1990s, Lopatin’s “Nobody Here” contains all of the basic ingredients that would come to define vaporwave music like Xavier’s Floral Shoppe.
By relying on retro source material, vaporwave returns to the promises of the past to mock their optimism. The music can be interpreted as a rebuke to ideologues like Francis Fukuyama, whose 1989 essay “The End of History?” argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled the final conquest of neoliberalism over all inferior forms of social organization.14 15 Writing of the Marxist criticisms of wealth inequality, Fukuyama remarks, “But surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West…the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.”16 Vaporwave’s uncompromising despair seems to reach into the past to Fukuyama’s essay to mock its pretensions. The mockery is not limited to music and aesthetics, but the very term vaporwave itself seems to criticize Fukuyama. Vaporwave is derived from the word vaporware, “which describes computing projects that, even though advertised and promoted, are never in fact released.”17 Fukuyama may have advertised the promises of egalitarian neoliberalism, but its users are still waiting for it to be released.
Sentimentality in dystopia
Simpsonwave videos are more than just dystopic in feel, all simpsonwave videos contain at least a certain element of nostalgia. As FrankJavCee explains in his video, “How to Simpsonwave”, simpsonwave videos rely on “dreamlike filters and VHS distortion to represent the adult longing for a childhood they thought they had.”18 This nostalgia actually works as a form of social criticism in its own right, one that has deep roots in popular American culture.
In the episode “Homer’s Odyssey” (Season 1), Homer loses his job at the nuclear power plant. Unable to find employment, Homer sinks into a depression that takes its toll on him and his family. Under the weight of the mounting pressure, Homer decides to end his life. In a touching scene, he writes a heartfelt suicide note to his family, and other than the fact that he writes the note on a to-do list entitled “dumb things to-do today” there is no joke. Homer quite seriously intends to kill himself. After writing the note, Homer ties a rock to himself and begins walking to a bridge. At home, Lisa finds Homer’s suicide note, and she leads the family to the bridge where they stop Homer from jumping.
Drawing on this dark and, for a television show, groundbreaking imagery, Youtuber Zero SB simpsonwaved “Homer’s Odyssey” in his “ｓｕｉｃｉｄａｌｔｈｏｕｇｈｔｓ”, with music taken from the electronic group Tycho.
Tycho’s stoically heartbreaking music provides the perfect backdrop to a situation that is all too relevant two and a half decades after the “end of history”. Homer’s sinking depression and his decision to take his own life is depicted seamlessly in the video. Like “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ”, the video’s dark tone helps it relate to the music. However, the element of nostalgia in this video is impossible to overlook. The VHS tracking lines are more heavily used in this video than in “ＳＵＮＤＡＹ ＳＣＨＯＯＬ”, and make the video seem like a precious artifact, rather than a well-produced new product. This sense of historicity is heightened when one considers that the episode is from the time when the show was still animated by its original animators at the Gabor-Csupo animation studio. The Gabor-Csupo animation style is distinct from the sleeker looking subsequent seasons, and their retro unevenness in animation style lends the video an aesthetic of sentimental memory. The video almost seems as it if is simply the thoughts of Homer, as he gazes out into the water below the bridge, considering how he ended up there.
In a sense, imagery like this is a form of social criticism that has deep historical roots. One can think all the way back to Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner. The movie is set in 2019 Los Angeles, which “seems to have undergone a holocaust”.19 The world is dominated by big business interests like the Tyrell Corporation, and workers at the bottom of the social ladder are now machines called “replicants” who are, in the words of the protagonist Rick Deckard, “expected to work like machines and be treated like machines.”20 And while the movie broaches often disturbing subject matter, at its heart it is truly about the gruff and emotionally dull Deckard learning to tap into his humanity and empathy amidst the chaos of dystopia.
Throughout the movie, the music functions as a way to add sentimentality to an otherwise cold and inhuman world. As Michael Hannan and Melissa Carey explain in their essay on the music of Blade Runner, “One of the main functions of the music in Blade Runner is to emphasize the theme of nostalgia for the past.”21 This is not the nostalgia of a breakup song, this is the nostalgia of dissatisfaction with society, a longing for a new world that is based on the ethos of solidarity rather than individualism. This critical nostalgia is reflected in the music of another one of simpsonwave’s influences, the Scottish electronic music duo Boards of Canada. The group’s influence has been noted by Home’s Randy Goffe, and referenced in Blank Banshee’s “Teen Pregnancy”. With musical references to the Branch Dividians of Waco, Texas, and the use, “of sound treatments suggestive of decay and wear-and-tear," the music’s eerie nostalgia functions as the sci-fi soundtrack to a decaying world.22 In many ways, the political content of the music seems like the grandfather of the uncompromising electronic punk of vaporwave. As Henning Lahmann at Vice magazine explains, Boards of Canada, “presented itself as an afterthought to the pseudo-Utopia that had lasted for a decade after the end of the Cold War, and whose delusions now slowly became obvious."23 According to the duo, the music is meant to be “bleak” and to reflect the idea that our “fragile” societies are headed towards “collapse”.24 The music of Boards of Canada and Blade Runner yearns for a different world, and it is this same longing for a more sensitive world amidst the callousness of capitalism that underpins Zero SB’s video, and simpsonwave videos in general.
The dark and often nostalgic tone of simpsonwave videos reflects the source material that it draws from. By putting together forms of media that share a deep connection, simpsonwavers live up to Brian Eno’s description of the artist the “connector of things”. Although commentators like FrankJavCee have proclaimed simpsonwave to be dead, successful videos like Zero SB’s “ｓｕｉｃｉｄａｌｔｈｏｕｇｈｔｓ” and AnalogByNature’s dark and nostalgic video “ＤＯＮ'Ｔ ＣＲＹ ＦＯＲ ＭＥ” have been uploaded in the past 2 months.
Whether or not simpsonwave can continue to build off of its earlier success remains to be seen, but what has been made so far is noteworthy.
- 1John Ortved, "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History," (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 7.
- 2Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (New York, NY: Faber and Faber, 2011), 130.
- 3Ortved, 15.
- 4Ortved, 78
- 5Ortved, 5.
- 6Ortved, 3
- 7Ortved, 3
- 8Tanner Grafton, "Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts," (Alresford, UK: Zero Books), 47.
- 9Grafton, 47
- 10Adam Harper, “Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza,” Dummy Magazine, December 12th, 2012, accessed November 18th, 2016. http://www.dummymag.com/features/adam-harper-vaporwave.
- 11Grafton, 47
- 12Reynolds, 80.
- 13Reynolds, 81.
- 14Grafton, 30.
- 15Francis Fukuyama, " The End of History," in Geopolitics Reader, ed. by Gearóid Tuathail et al. (Taylor & Francis Ltd, 1997), 114-124, SocINDEX with full text.
- 16Fukuyama, 118.
- 17Adam Trainer, "From Hypnagogia to Distroid," in The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality, ed. by Sheila Whiteley and Shara Rambarran (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 420.
- 18FrankJavCee, “HOW TO ＳＩＭＰＳＯＮＷＡＶＥ”. YouTube video. Posted April 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfVWjxQCfEA.
- 19Metin Boşnak, "The Nocturnal Future as Alienated Existence: Blade Runner." Journal of Economic & Social Research 3, no. 2 (2001): 84, Accessed October 19, 2016, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.
- 20Boşnak, 87.
- 21Michael Hannan and Melissa Carey, "Ambient Soundscapes in Blade Runner," in Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema, ed. by Philip Hayward (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 163.
- 22Reynolds, 331.
- 23Henning Lahmann. “How Boards of Canada's Geogaddi Soundtracked Our Post-Millennial Tension.” Thump, July 25th, 2014, accessed November 18th, 2016, https://thump.vice.com/en_uk/article/warp-25-boards-of-canada.
- 24Sandison, Michael and Marcus Eoin. theguardian. Interview by Louis Pattison. “Boards of Canada: 'We've become a lot more nihilistic over the years'.” https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/jun/06/boards-of-canada-become-more-nihilistic, June 6, 2013.