Many of the modern cartoons that have connected with audiences are melancholic and beautifully tragic, focusing on characters’ deepest issues and turning away from traditional narrative storytelling to explore their personal beings. Now, a rising movement on YouTube is collecting these doleful, animated moments, and through the sonic lens of current emo-rap trends, creating a new vaporwave scene.
Vaporwave first sprang up in the early 2010s by satirizing pop culture, usually through reimagining nostalgic shows, films or moments through glitch art or psychedelic-edited animation set to chill music. (That’s as close to a definite description possible, as vaporwave is also continuously changing.) YouTube’s specific vaporwave re-emergence isn’t reliant on nostalgia, but is defined by its culture of vulnerability and recognizable sadness. Lounge music is replaced with lo-fi chillhop or variations on popular sad rap from artists like Lil Peep.
Combining music’s current vulnerable moment ephemeral, interpersonal trends running through modern animation creates this emotional, visual music style.
Shows like BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Adventure Time and Steven Universe are designed around crushing, cathartic moments of intense sadness. The characters’ mistakes are often repeated, and their journeys of redemption teeter on the edge of success before a misstep finds them barreling back toward the abyss. As Dana Schwartz wrote for Entertainment Weekly:
The only villains in BoJack Horsman are the inevitable tragedies of real life. It’s dark, and oftentimes bleak, verging on nihilistic. And because we experience it through the story of a cartoon horse, it’s palatable, balanced by a universe that also has room for “drone thrones” and a cat with a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Purrity.
Mario Aseckas is a 20-year-old artist and editor living in Europe. He’s a prominent member of the current vaporwave scene, and spoke to Polygon about the inspiration for his videos. BoJack Horseman is a big influence on his art, and he chalked it up to the show being unbelievably relatable, containing a universal message he could easily translate to his audience.
“I doubt that any other show will ever come close to the harshness depicted in some of the scenes in this cartoon,” Aseckas said. “It is remarkable how a show about a talking horse can feel so human and relatable.”
BoJack Horseman’s universal pathos makes it extremely popular in the scene, but editors like Aseckas use old vaporwave videos remixed from The Simpsons as a guiding principle for how to execute vaporwave properly. The Simpsons inspired its own microcosm of vaporwave culture, appropriately called “simpsonswave.”
“Vaporwave is directly related to nostalgia, so there is no doubt as to why The Simpsons are so linked with it,” Aseckas said. “Old episodes from the show were also more dramatic, which is an element related to vaporwave as well. Rick & Morty and Bojack Horseman, that nostalgic element disappears. But having dramatic elements in these comedy series makes you relate to the characters in a way that reminds you of the older seasons of The Simpsons. And most edits involving these shows are made using those elements.”
One of the first videos Aseckas came across is an incredibly popular Simpsons vaporwave installment called Sunday School, which has amassed more than 13 million views on YouTube. Created by Lucien Hughes in Feb. 2016, the video blends up tempo lounge music with contradicting Simpsons scenes; Bart is either happy and confident, or down and dealing with his own sadness.
Aseckas, looking for a way to deal with stress in high school, started editing his own videos. He didn’t mean for it to become an actual mainstay in his life, but as his channel grew and he realized he had a knack for creating vaporwave videos, he spent more time working.
“I thought I needed to have more dedication for my work, and since then I’ve tried to make every video better than its predecessor,” Aseckas said, adding that his wavering mood will affect a video’s tone. “I try to keep it as a hobby, but making a video exactly as I want it requires a lot of time [...] There are times when I find myself spending a whole day with little to no face-to-face communication with other human beings, and that can have some negative effects on your mood.”
Those feelings of isolation, he says, led to some of his best vaporwave videos.
Andrea Chapo, a 19-year-old editor who lives in Italy, and publishes vaporwave videos under “YoungChapo” on YouTube, shares Aseckas’s feelings on the power of isolation, and on BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty, citing how the melancholic vibes of the shows click with the inherent sadness of SoundCloud rap today. Chapo told Polygon it’s because of an overwhelming ambience in cartoon and music that “it is natural the videos have this kind of atmosphere.”
Modern vaporwave, Chapo argued, is a direct answer to an entire generation’s underlying feeling.
“I find that my generation feels very sad, and more and more boys take refuge on the internet so they can create a new life or look at others,” Chapo said. “But I find, for example, that many kids who write under my videos or those of others are depressed and are lonely people. These cartoons and songs contain sad content, and my generation is attached to sadness, so this feeling affects what is involved in art.”
Shows like Rick and Morty aren’t overtly designed for people living with depression in mind, but the shows attract people who cope with sad or intense thoughts. It’s something that even the show’s co-creator, Dan Harmon, who also lives with depression, has spoken about on Twitter. One fan asked Harmon how to deal with depression, to which he replied:
The most important thing I can say to you is please don’t deal with it alone. There is an incredible, miraculous magic to pushing your feelings out. Even writing “I want to die” on a piece of paper and burning it will feel better than thinking about it alone. Output is magical. Dark thoughts will echo off the walls of your skull, they will distort and magnify. When you open your mouth (or an anonymous journal or blog or sketchpad), these thoughts go out. They’ll be back but you gotta get em OUT. Vent them. Tap them. I know you don’t want to but try it.
Many of the artists and editors who operate within vaporwave’s current generation feel the same way: use art, and other people’s testimonials, to express themselves.
“These videos help me overcome many sad days, or to help expose even the simplest state of mind which I am at the moment,” Chapo said. Take a dive into any comments section underneath a traditional vaporwave video and it’s full of kids echoing Chapo’s takeaway.
The Bootleg Boy is one of the more popular vaporwave editors working today, and has been for years. He’s been creating videos since the age of 15, and finds that connecting to people through music and abstract cartoon edits is a good way of exploring emotions.
“I think we like to relate our sadness to something,” he told Polygon. “If we think that other people maybe feel the same way as us sometimes it gives us a release, we don’t feel so alone in our own feelings. I think these videos pick on sadness as an emotion because for a lot of people that’s the strongest emotion we experience. When you’re happy that’s great, but when you’re sad it just takes over, it’s everything. I think sadness for a lot of people is a stronger feeling than happiness.”
There is a risk to viewers soaking up the worrisome or scary thoughts of vaporwave comment sections. Many of these videos, according to Bootleg Boy, “exploit and [glorify] sadness” in a way that could be harmful. But for the most part, he feels good knowing that there are people who can connect with the material of his own edits, and find a community of people who simply understand what others are going through. Especially if people aren’t interested or are intimidated in finding communities in Facebook groups, or on sites like Amino and Tumblr.
“For me I’ve found that a lot of people feel comfortable talking about their emotions online because they don’t feel judged or embarrassed,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about your feelings in person, but I think it’s really important we all have a place where we can openly discuss our emotions and mental health. It’s good people find somewhere they feel safe to talk.”
Bootleg Boy isn’t just someone who creates vaporwave; he’s also a big fan of other creators. He watches their videos, and listens to new artists discovered through fantastical edits as a way to deal with his own troubles. He’s thankful for YouTube, and giving him the ability to either escape into videos or upload his own and communicate with other people.
“I’m like anyone, I have my highs and I have my lows, I’ve learnt how to better deal with them as I’ve gotten older,” he said. “Some days will be lows for no reason, but it’s important to not get too caught up in your head and just focus on doing the things that make you happy, for me that’s YouTube. I don’t like to be left with time on my hands, and keeping busy helps me not get inside my own head too much. I’ve dealt with my fair share of lows, and so the idea that somehow what I do is helping some people is amazing to me.”
Vaporwave is constantly changing, and all three video editors Polygon spoke to suggested it’s already changing. Questions about what vaporwave will become are beginning to crop up in the community, but no one’s particularly worried. Vaporwave isn’t going to suddenly disappear, and neither are cartoons like BoJack Horseman or Rick and Morty. As long as people want to connect with others through vaporwave, the scene will exist.
“Like everything, it’s a passing fad for some and for others not,” Chapo said. “As long as there are people who appreciate this thing and who ‘keep it alive,’ we are all happy. None of us are going anywhere soon.”