At the start of this campaign, Westminster lobby reporters likely didn’t think they’d have to brush up on the definition of shitposting, but we got through that – with some minor squabbles when the BBC got the wrong end of the stick. Now, overworked political journalists will have to add another word to their lexicon: vaporwave.
The phrase is about to be repeated ad nauseam by political hacks because of a curious video that cropped up overnight on the Conservatives’ YouTube channel. Entitled “lo fi boriswave beats to relax/get brexit done to”, it’s a 71-minute long video of the Prime Minister sat in a train carriage, while oddly anime-looking landscapes roll past the window to the kind of chilled-out electronic music that you might be more accustomed to hearing in dentists’ waiting rooms. Occasionally, the calm is interrupted by soundbites from Johnson’s speeches, talking about massive investment and the importance of getting Brexit done. It’s all part of a movement called vaporware, which has been part of digital culture for the best part of a decade.
“Lo-fi beats videos already straddle a line between earnestness and irony,” says Scott Wark, an associate researcher at the University of Warwick who studies memes. “This video tries to balance Boris between the two. It uses the meme to frame his speech – stumbles and all – as not only soothing, but almost a meditative mantra. The aesthetic is drawn from anime or Japanese RPGs, which have characteristically emotive aesthetics. This trope is supposed to trigger chill.”
It’s weird – and is designed to be. But it also shows a digital literacy we’ve rarely seen in British political campaigning for a long time.
At least 31 million “lofi beats to relax to” videos exist on YouTube, part of a massive movement designed to capitalise on people’s eagerness to find music to relax to on the video-sharing platform. In the last year, views on such videos increased by 75 per cent, accounting for 1.2 billion views overall, according to social video measurement platform Tubular Labs. The main audience for that content was 18- to 24-year-olds, which could help bring down the average age of the Tories’ YouTube audience, 57.5 per cent of whom are over 35.
But like many memes, vaporwave has been associated with the alt-right: one major tweet under the “boriswave” hashtag draws comparisons with a similar-looking video featuring famed former British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley.
It’s not the first time that this odd subsection of music culture has collided with Conservative politics. Three years ago a YouTube user posting under the name Robert Mugabe uploaded a video to YouTube overlaying Jacob Rees-Mogg’s bloviations with vaporwave. It got 40,000 views. “It’s so strange that the official Tory yt [YouTube] is now churning out memes,” he wrote last night.
He’s quite impressed with their media strategy, he tells me. They seem more engaged with social media this election. The important thing is that it generates a reaction, it doesn’t matter if it’s positive or negative – so long as it gets shared it will then spread to a wider audience,” he says. “All the Labour supporters who are mocking the video online and sharing it are inadvertently helping the Tories spread their ‘get Brexit done’ message which is what their media team wants.”
Nor is it even the first time the Tories themselves have dabbled with vaporwave. Who Targets Me, a service tracking the use of advertising in the general election campaign, highlighted earlier this month that the party had spent thousands broadcasting a vaporwave-inspired advert across Instagram and Facebook to hundreds of thousands of people.
“It’s been quite a baffling election so far,” says Tristan Hotham, a PhD researcher at the University of Bath who has been monitoring the way campaigns use social media. “All of this slightly edgy Conservative stuff, I feel half of it is clearly trying to speak to the very online generation of white males of which I’m a part, and equally it’s designed for nerdy people like me to say look, they’re doing something slightly out of the ordinary,” he says. “It’s an insider joke and shows the Conservatives are on the side of people who are ‘very online’.”
Between the canny co-opting of dank memes, shitposting in spamming out deliberately poorly designed election posters on Twitter and this latest video, the Conservatives are embracing the oddest corners of internet culture. They’re doing it after each of the memes reached the zeitgeist – vaporwave was first a thing in the early 2010s, but had a resurgence in 2017 and 2018 due to the mundane unreality of TV shows like Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman – but they’re still well ahead of Labour in engaging with audiences steeped in the digital space in their language.
It’s all part of an attempt to engage under-35s, says Hotham, who has tracked one of the groups being targeted by the Conservatives in a new wave of 13 videos released this morning across social media: men under 35. “That group is the sort of group who may not go out and vote, so obviously we’re talking like 0.01 per cent but every little helps, and if you’re in some northern seat where the Tories lost by 500 votes and you activate 20 young kids and are successful with the rest of the campaign, that’s worthwhile,” he says.
It also has a wider halo effect: much like the shitposting on Twitter, we’re all talking about it and amplifying it to a wider audience.
Wark is less keen. “You could read this as a cynical attempt to repackage Boris as a relaxed figure, though his public clowning already tries to do this,” he says. “For me, it’s quite dystopian. Trains run slow because the network is overloaded. They’re trying every memetic technique in the hope that one will stick – it’s a form of political advertising for a post-irony generation.”
At current rates, the Boriswave video could even outstrip the Conservatives’ previously best-performing video of the election campaign, Boris Johnson’s “12 Questions” (a pastiche of Vogue’s “73 Questions format”, where mundane questions are asked in what’s meant to be an off-the-cuff, roving interview style).
That Vogue-esque video garnered around 25,000 views the day after it was posted – and has since gone on to be watched around 204,000 times as of writing, accounting for one in every 100 views the 13-year-old Conservatives’ YouTube channel has ever received. But the Boriswave video is doing even better: it has already topped 32,000 views in the first 13 hours.
“It’s a combination, I think, of two strands of thought in the party: the traditionalist, let’s keep hammering Jeremy Corbyn, and some young kids saying let’s throw some crazy stuff out there,” says Hotham. That young person could well be Jonny Piper, who, in addition to a stint as a senior video producer for the Remain campaign in the 2016 referendum, was for nearly three years head of video at the Conservative Party, before leaving in July 2018. He returned as a digital advisor for Jeremy Hunt’s leadership campaign earlier this year. Bethany Wheatley, the Conservatives’ former digital director, pointed the finger at Piper on Twitter, who replied “You’ll have to wait until the [Tim] Shipman book [to find out]” if he was behind it.
The question will be whether it lasts. Not the views, but the video itself, which may have questions of copyright. Last night journalist Henry Dyer managed to discern some of the tracks used in the video. When I contacted one of the artists behind one of the songs used, a formerly London-based music producer using the name Mr Beast who released the song as part of an album in 2010 when he was 18, the musician didn’t know anything about it. (He then stopped replying to messages.)
Conservative HQ didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment asking about the copyright status of the music used in the video