Neon Violence: Vaporwave and the Legacy of Eccojams
Written by Andy Martin on October 6, 2021
If you were to take a sober look at the 2010s, and the developments of music made during that time, you would end up with limited schools of thought. To my mind, the three types of music that were the most richly developed during the decade are trap, EDM, and vaporwave. These are broad classifications, and frequently cross over into each other
(Machine Girl comes to mind), but for the sake of writing, these appear to be the most sensical types.
Here, we’ll focus on Vaporwave, specifically the originating work “Eccojams Vol. 1” by Chuck Person. Chuck Person is an alias of Daniel Lopatin, who is most well known for his work under the pseudonym Oneohtrix Point Never. The record’s composition is simple: a series of clips from pop songs, slowed down, digitally effected, and arranged seemingly haphazardly. The source songs take on a new meaning when arranged like this. Despite the derivative nature of its composition, the originality of the project is astounding. Sampling-based music and sound collages had been around for a while, but I am hard pressed to find any records that predate the hazy popscapes of Eccojams. The genius of the work is such that its copycats are nearly unrecognizable, co-opting the aesthetics and sonic qualities, while leaving the musicality and striking impressions by the wayside.
Eccojams is distilled pop music: opting to take a single phrase (usually a hook), and manipulate it into an entirely different pop song. In traditional pop music, the chorus is a sharp, catchy contrast to a more subdued verse; in the words of Butthead, “Well Beavis, if they didn’t have this part of the song that sucked, then the other part, like, wouldn’t be as cool”. Certain “Eccojams” actually mimic this structure cleverly. “Angel” uses the same Fleetwood Mac sample in two different ways: Interpolating it dissonantly and rhythmically in the ‘verse’, while letting the hook repeat itself during the chorus (a neat little minimalist pop trick; has anyone ever gotten so much mileage out of only six seconds of audio?). Other tracks tend towards ambiance, choosing to only loop the effected sample, creating an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere. This trick often brings out details in the original song that are easily glossed over on a casual listen – the autotune on JoJo’s voice in “A3” takes on a synthetic quality when put through the Eccoification, adding to its unsettling nature.
The idea of recontextualizing existing art to take on a new meaning is not a new idea; the technology that best represents this concept in music is the sampler. Eccojams is one of the greatest showcases of the power of this tool. The sampled songs are from forgettable adult contemporary pop: “Nobody Here” samples Lady in Red, a song that sounds horribly dated and commercial today; the opener track samples “Africa”, an anthemic – yet vacuous – track. The distillation of single elements from these tracks creates an entirely new animal, however. The songs sampled were inarguably made for commercial purposes, a superficial cause (not that I am against commercial art – I love Hall and Oates). Once transformed, however, they become meditations. “Nobody Here” recalls an urban loneliness, “A3” reflects the importance of being genuine in our era of plastic. Ironically, the induction of meaning from the commercial tunes comes not from addition, but subtraction and rearrangement of itself. The ostensible becomes the true through a mere change in form and structure.
I am not generally a believer in the “great man theory” of history: the idea that most of human progress and history can be attributed to a small handful of exceptional people. However, I think there is a bit of truth to the “Great Man” theory of music – many musical forms would not exist were it not for the work of singular people. It especially applies to vaporwave – I simply do not see it existing as a genre if “Eccojams” was not created. This is evidenced by the talentless people that took up the reins of vaporwave after Lopatin abandoned it. It became a joke, a dead ringer for lazy musicians that wanted to appear ‘deep’ with little effort. Yes, Eccojams is compositionally simple, but it is skillfully put together. Lopatin went on to mainstream critical fame with his progressive electronic compositions like his score for “Uncut Gems”; this is a man of clear musical talent. Like I said before, there really is no a precursor to this sound; it appears to have just materialized out of an amorphous mass of kitschy pop music and digital samplers.
This is not to say that there were no skilled musicians that took the ideas of “Eccojams” and made it their own – Internet Club transformed corporate muzak into ironic ditties of capitalist dread, and acts like 2 8 1 4 forwent even creating Vaporwave out of samples, choosing instead to recreate the neon haze through original compositions. Yet only Lopatin has the claim to the genesis of it all. Nearly every plunderphonics Bandcamp release has his sonic DNA all over it, not to mention the dissemination of vaporwave aesthetics throughout the internet (in fairness, much of this was not his work alone – but it likely wouldn’t exist without him). He created grotesque and beautiful pop songs out of other pop songs, a kind of recursive mosaic of nostalgic public consciousness. Lopatin single handedly created then abandoned the vaporwave project after Eccojams, leaving a mythos that permeates the entire digital landscape. Nothing compares.