Soft Drinks & Thematic Tangles

Tackling a future funk classic and the jumbled themes it carries.

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2013 KEATS//COLLECTIVE

Attempting to granulize the “true” meaning of a piece of art as an end user is ultimately a futile process, and there are few cases for which this applies more strongly than vaporwave. An internet-dwelling microgenre that traffics in pitch-shifted pop music and seemingly endless layers of irony, its works tend to be more impressionistic and evocative than purposeful or coherent.

Something of a cousin to vaporwave, future funk works from a similar template, repurposing vintage pop music and embellishing with added drums and effects to make… some kind of point about… society? But it adds radio funk and disco to the mix, and dials down on the frequent doom and gloom of its plunderphonic forebears in favor of fun-loving atmosphere. It certainly is enjoyable music, but I’m often left with nagging questions after listening to any of my favorite future funk albums: What is it trying to say? Is it trying to say anything at all?

Released by electronic musician Ryan DeRobertis in 2013 under the name Saint Pepsi, Hit Vibes is one of the genre’s landmark projects. The opening title track begins with dialogue pulled from the 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You, “I hope you have something great to wear tonight, ’cause we’re going to a party.” And suddenly a joyous parade of trumped-up horns bouncing off a jaunty drum groove and shimmering, saccharine string sections launches into full force before promptly fading out less than a minute later. The remaining twelve tracks follow suit; it sounds like nothing short of a rager.

Hit Vibes is first and foremost pure ear candy. Cuts like “Have Faith” and “Better” build endorphin-soaked walls of noise with peppy rhythms and aggressive sidechains, while “Around” and “Cherry Pepsi” slow down slightly and lay on the saturation for some seriously syrupy jams. DeRobertis’ curatorial sweet tooth is felt for the album’s duration, filled with sounds that reach the bliss point and then keep going for a few more miles. The result is about as addictive as the “Strawberry Lemonade” referenced by the album’s finest track or the soda in DeRobertis’ chosen moniker.

Though for how consistently pleasing Hit Vibes is, it is not a one-note album. A sprinkling of low-key ballads and interludes interspersed throughout the sugar rush lends to a surprisingly dynamic listening experience that does not drag or overwhelm across its thirty-six minutes. Dialogue from Everyone pops up once more in “Interlude,” where a conversation about wedding ring selection works in conjunction with an easy listening song, adding to a touching, sappy exhale of a tone poem.

Evaluated with the same rubric as a more traditional album, it’s decidedly less than a masterpiece — except this is future funk we’re talking about. For a genre whose main goal is to play that funky music, DeRobertis plays it right. Hit Vibes is a sonic bomb of irresistible glee that’s sure to combust into an instant dance party wherever it’s played.

Admittedly though, the elements that make the album most captivating for me personally have nothing to do with its music.

To me, it feels like DeRobertis is hiding some very interesting ideas under the album’s carefree veneer. Like many a future funk album, Hit Vibes often feels like a parody of the grinning pop-funk of decades past, a light chiding of that era’s kitsch. It often borders on cheesy, and just as frequently steps right over the line into the territory of Gap Band music videos and ’80s exercise tapes. With every jovial burst of energy, it seems there’s also a nudging elbow and a Can you believe this guy? smirk from DeRobertis. I’ve genuinely laughed at the joyous explosion at the start of the album, and many other moments become comedic in their embrace of goofiness.

Through this lens, it serves as a direct response to the increasing self-seriousness of music in the 2010s, an unabashed co-opting of that beloved kitsch to counteract pervasive pretension. A large number of musicians, particularly in communities like vaporwave and other similar DIY music scenes, seem to be pretty convinced that their music really means something, that their creativity is nothing to laugh at. Maybe Hit Vibes is a chuckling rebuke to that imposed grandiosity.

Or it could be that there’s something darker beneath the surface. Vaporwave and its adjacent genres often implicitly critique the ills of our culture, its artifice, its un-sustainability. Perhaps Hit Vibes seeks to paint a portrait of the all-too-common attitude of absolute unconcern for a burning world in favor of dancing the night away with a spirit of pleasure-seeking and hedonism. Perhaps it casts doubt on the similarly common practice of digesting and regurgitating past musical tropes and styles in a shameless attempt at appealing to deep-rooted nostalgia rather than coming up with anything remotely new. Nothing matters and it’s all been done before, DeRobertis seems to say with a glazed expression, so why not join them?

Even the pseudonym Saint Pepsi seems to fit this. A religious title bestowed upon devout, godly people throughout history is invoked in the same breath as a monolithic multinational corporation, a heavy-handed commentary on the way that sanctity has been trampled in the contemporary age by soulless, capitalist corporatism and consumerism. It’s a small step away from “Pope Coca-Cola™.”

Of course, this is all conjecture. It could be any one of these meanings are correct or all of them are, and there’s also a large chance that Ryan DeRobertis just wanted to make some fun music with none of these ideas in mind. Artistic intent is near-impossible to derive from a finished product, and Hit Vibes is a prime example.

A survey of the comments on various YouTube uploads of the album shows listeners who believe Hit Vibes carries the meanings discussed above, and many who shrug and encourage people to listen and love it without any cynicism or search for deeper thematic goals. If you follow that advice, there are some fantastic grooves and warm synth textures to lose yourself in.

And who’s to say you shouldn’t sit back, crack open a Cherry Pepsi, and let the smooth sounds wash over you?

two-stepping through banality

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