Even Stranger Things: Meet Skylar Spence, Avatar Of Vaporwave | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Even Stranger Things: Meet Skylar Spence, Avatar Of Vaporwave

As recently noted on Sound Opinions, I was thoroughly charmed and entranced by the retro-futuristic ’80s synth score for the Netflix smash Stranger Things, crafted by S U R V I V E, a.k.a. the Austin synth duo Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and wonderfully reminiscent of great Tangerine Dream soundtracks like Sorcerer, Firestarter, and Risky Business. But after looking backward toward the obvious touchstones, my buddy Tony and I recently fell down the YouTube/Pandora rabbit hole of like-minded fellow travelers in the odd genre that’s come to be dubbed “vaporwave,” much of which I’d previously dismissed.

Listen, you’ve got to love the fat alien tones of vintage analog Moogs and the glitchy lushness of early digital machines like the Yamaha DX1, but you’re right to be skeptical of a genre/movement that also celebrates the tinny, mind-numbingly repetitive soundtracks of Tron and first-gen Mario videogames, to say nothing of the Muzak played in shopping malls. Plus, there’s the super-serious way that many have written about this music, to wit, Grafton Tanner in the book Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts: “Vaporwave is one artistic style that seeks to rearrange our relationship with electronic media by forcing us to recognize the unfamiliarity of ubiquitous technology… [It] is the music of ‘non-times’ and ‘non-places’ because it is skeptical of what consumer culture has done to time and space.”

No wonder this stuff has been so ripe for parody, including the Net-ubiquitous “Rubber Chicken EDM,” which New York magazine suggested should have been the song of the summer. But the reason that spoof is so brilliant is because it recognizes what should be goal number one of this sound: Fun. And I’ve found no better purveyor of that spirit than Skylar Spence.

Now based—where else?—in Brooklyn, Spence was born Ryan DeRobertis in upstate New York, but he first made his mark in the music world as Saint Pepsi, releasing a flood of D.I.Y. bedroom electronica (nine albums!) in 2012 and 2013. Signing to Carpark and adopting his current moniker, he honed his quality control for what might be considered his first “real” album, last year’s Prom King. As that title indicates, songs such as “I Can’t Be Your Superman,” “Fiona Coyne,” and “Ridiculous” are all about the dancefloor, but the propulsive grooves are driven by irresistible melodies that catapult ’70s disco into the present, much like Passion Pit, even if Spence isn’t nearly as strong a singer as Michael Angelakos.

He more than gets by, though, and you have to root for a guy who so gleefully laughs at himself in particular and the vanity of dance culture in general, in the process namedropping Dorian Gray by way of Anthony Michael Hall in a John Hughes movie. “I’m in love with my own reflection/And I feel like I could dance all night,” Spence sings in “Can’t You See,” adding, “In the heat of the moment, I thought that I could kiss myself.” Boogie on, dude; I’m right there with ya.

Skylar Spence, Prom King (Carpark)

Rating on the 4-star scale: 3.5 stars.

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