Hey y’all. Sorry it’s been forever. This is kind of a long one. Hope you’re well.
Before I get into this, let me get into something else.
Art is a two-way street. You engage with it, it engages with you. Sometimes both directions are full of information and color and history. Maybe this is age or hope talking, but one flow of traffic doesn’t need to overtake the other.
Yet, we don’t live in that mediated, patient world. Power is imbalanced by design with white supremacy at the forefront, and cultures get co-opted by that ruling class, creating fetishistic subcultures that appropriate icons, languages, and aesthetics without properly acknowledging who created them, and ultimately who should benefit the most from this cultural exchange.
K Hansen—who makes pastel-kissed prog-emo music as Spring Silver—wrote a piece for Talkhouse last year that celebrated Daniel Lopatin’s Eccojams, Vol. 1. (Side note: you should listen to Spring Silver’s weightless cover of “Long Road Home,” originally written for Lopatin’s Oneohtrix Point Never project.) Eccojams is considered by many to be a foundational document in vaporwave, right next to the soundtrack of the Tetris port for the ill-fated Philips CD-i. On Eccojams, Lopatin takes the haunting splendor of its Sega Genesis namesake and places the spectrum of American pop music over it, creating an experience that sits between a trip to a dentist waiting room and the five seconds before anesthesia knocks you out for dental surgery.
The track above takes the title line from JoJo’s “Too Little, Too Late,” warps and stretches it away from sparkling teen drama, and cranks up the desolation. As Hansen puts it, “The vocals and instrumental are dipped in sludge and echo back and forth against cavernous walls. The dense, compressed, overdubbed harmonies are immense and eerie. The bouncy delay creates a syncopated groove that surrounds the listener.” It’s a weighted blanket before weighted blankets were weighted blankets. (Editor’s note: the weighted blanket was invented in 1998, so I guess it’s more like it’s deserving of a “that’s heavy, Doc” from Marty McFly a few years before he gets to 2015.)
Eccojams was released the year before two other records in the genre, James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual and Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe. While both of these works create this feeling of corporate nothingness, taking different pastiches of Muzak and Cisco Systems hold music and distorting them past recognition, the latter is notorious for solidifying vaporwave as a bona fide genre in cultural circles and engaging in cultural appropriation. This includes using kanji, Chinese characters adapted for use for Japanese writing, a choice that would inform vaporwave up to its contemporary scene, which has also adopted K-pop and anime into its thematic repertoire.
Both FSV and Floral Shoppe were given Pitchfork reviews, but Macintosh Plus’ mysterious LP was given Sunday Review honors. Defending its 8.8 evaluation, writer Miles Bowe traces a lineage from Grimes’ “post-internet” self-identifier to Floral Shoppe’s then-teen creator Ramona Xavier, giving room to everything from the disc’s Turok: Dinosaur Hunter sample to its status as an album existing as a blip in a large, transient discography that abandoned vaporwave for ventures into self-referential hip-hop collabs. But Rowe doesn’t unpack that stylistic choice to import Asian cultural and linguistic touchstones. (For contrast, Far Side Virtual is a departure from Ferraro’s lo-fi drone recordings, inspired by the airy expanse of the Windows 95 startup sound.)
So I went elsewhere. Teagan Kim, in a paper published in Johns Hopkins University’s Macksey Journal, utilizes Floral Shoppe in a larger argument about how vaporwave’s ties to other subgenres like cyberpunk, causes both to “imagine Japan as an accelerationist dystopian future.” (Accelerationism was coined in the 1960s by a sci-fi writer to argue that technological advancements linked to capitalism should speed up in favor of a world dominated by automation.) Arguments for vaporwave as anti-capitalist critique have popped up as well, with Far Side Virtual’s smirking track list acting as a good example (“Pixarnia and the Future of Norman Rockwell,” “Starbucks, Dr. Seussism, and While Your Mac is Sleeping”). Kim cites musicologist Adam Harper, who claimed vaporwave producers “can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound.” With its wobbly reliance on retro hardware and outmoded technology, Harper’s vaporwave uses relics from the past to sternly warn against the oppressive realities of late-stage capitalism. When asked about these debates, Yellatee, owner of the Taiwanese label Mhz通信販売, responded “bruh, i would say it’s just a buncha stoned kids making music.” It’s an ongoing discussion.
As a frequent listener of vaporwave, I found it important to, at the very least, try to see the direction of some conversations in this important discourse. Because the gamut of “chill” and “ambient” playlists on YouTube and streaming services include countless tracks with kanji—in titles and on album art—engaging critically with this art form by looking for output that champions vaporwave’s original ideals without the incessant borrowing of aesthetics from Japan, Korea, or elsewhere.
This dialogue comes from me as part of a larger conversation we (especially white people) should be continually having regarding not just the long and painful history of imperialist and racist violence Asians have endured worldwide and in the United States, but also a culture of fetishization that’s prevalent in any niche, from those riding the “fifth wave” emo pledge class, to making anime rip T-shirts for your band, to revisiting your lonely LP of Weezer’s Pinkerton. (OK, I’m circling one niche like the world’s loudest shark.) If vaporwave’s anti-capitalist chaos is meant to be taken at face value, the only way anti-capitalism can truly work is if it’s anti-racist. Everybody, from Portland’s Xavier to those who put obi strips on labels shipping from U.S. ZIP codes, think about your stake in these cultures, and what harm it does.
And then after that, you should find out about organizations in your area that support AAPI community members. Some around North America that I’ve found include Toronto’s Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, where your donation can directly fund everything from anti-violence programs to 24/7 support hotlines. In light of my reflections, I have set up a monthly donation to the Asian Arts Initiative here in Philly. “Located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown North, Asian Arts Initiative is a multidisciplinary arts center offering exhibitions, performances, artist residencies, youth workshops, and a community gathering space. Here, all of us can view and create art that reflects our lives, and think critically, creatively about the future we want to build for our communities.”
the rumors are true: if your twitter account had a blue checkmark when you were alive, you’re in hell when you die.
the reasoning for this has never been explained to me. when i got here, the guy checking me in asked me why i had the damn thing. i told him there was a form. i filled it out a couple times, and on like, the third attempt, my twitter profile got the blue badge.
“you know a couple is less than three, right?” he slams me matter-of-factly without a smile.
“shouldn’t the couple <3 each other?” even in death i am insufferable.
no response until i hear the receptionist mutter under his breath, okay, punisher’s it is.
“don’t worry. you’ll more than hardly know her.”
the floor falls out and everything’s dark, until neon stops me from drowning in it.
from the looks of it, punisher’s is a dive. the “p” in the busted sign is faded and stuttering, there’s garbage dressing the front stoop, and a sense of lived-in chaos hangs over the whole scene. maybe it’s because there’s nothing connected to it: no adjoining food stores, no alleyways for stuffed dumpsters, no streets trailing away from its island. it’s just big nothing and broken light.
i pull the front door and step inside. there’s no bouncer waiting for me on the other side of the threshold, no hand stamp or cover charge. in hell, sinners must ride free. surprisingly, punisher’s is half empty. okay, okay, fine, it’s half full. there’s a bar off to the right side, bottles stacked in tight rows behind the bartender. i walk over. my gait is a perfect icebreaker.
“what’re you in for? fight gone wrong?”
“is this place called punisher’s because of this first impression?”
“no. but with a line like that, you deserved to be here five years ago. punisher’s is where the has-beens of the internet live out the rest of their eternity in shared cosmic misery.”
“you’re saying i should feel sorry for myself?”
“you have gifted kid syndrome and middle child syndrome. you’ve felt sorry for yourself all your life.” as if on cue, two other bartenders pop in to shout “ay everyone! we’ve got a gifted kid! five years washed-up flipped their lid!”
“what’s my name?”
“doesn’t matter. all i need to know is that the platform you’re standing on is about to have its bottom fall out.” under my feet is a crushed mess of wawa hoagies. substack. very funny.
“let me guess, you’re the grand jester of hell?”
“i used to be called the grand joker but then jared leto kind of ruined the whole thing for me.”
“the grand joker of hell.”
“hey! all my friends are heathens! take it slow!”
i’ve had enough. “where’s the bathroom?”
“we live in a society without bathrooms.”
the bartender surrenders and lifts one hand to his chin in fake contemplation. “it’s in the back to the left. follow the blinking lights.”
the walls are covered with pictures of past patrons, some whose signatures accompany why they were punisher’s favorites at all: there’s a gleaming portrait of bean dad, holding a gilded can opener. are you fucking serious? this is where i got sorted? main character hell?
horrified, i find my way towards the bathroom. the “blinking lights” the joker referred to are emanating from a pinball machine, a mechanical wonder from above ground. miraculously, a quarter appears in my pocket.
i insert it into the machine. i can’t pick up on the theme, but my best guesses land on eternal damnation or hellfire, something generic and loud. orange flames run up the sides of the cabinet and the machine’s score wheels—the vintage ones that turn over every ten points—scream in bright red. cool, a reminder of something normal.
as soon as i plunge the steel ball into play, the flippers at the bottom of the playfield disappear. the buttons that once controlled them are also gone. instead, the center drain is split by four vertical bars, each showing a point value.
joker senses my bewilderment and pops up to assist. “how’s your bladder? even madder?” his laugh sounds not far off from bubble bass, the gaslighting motherfucker from spongebob.
“what happened to the flippers?”
“all pinball in hell is a game of chance. we kick it old school.”
When my parents were dating, my dad bought my mom a pinball machine from a secondhand distributor. It moved across the country from Colorado to Michigan, where it sat a sizzling mess of broken solenoids and dead digit counters until my brother and I figured out how to plug it in. Once we learned the coin door opened to reveal a tiny wire that triggered the credit mechanism, we played pinball all the time.
Sean and I have never seen The Six-Million Dollar Man, the ABC show that themed that 1978 hunk of metal and switches. We’ve also never seen it in top pinball form, hearing the glitchy fanfare through corroded speakers and attempting to decipher our high scores from Ghost in the Machine-style numbers. Arcades in our area didn’t really favor pinball, so in the intervening years before Windows XP introduced the family computer to Full Tilt!, it was this box of problems or nothing.
That machine is a solid-state table, which offered conveniences like digital scorekeeping and chiptune-grade audio. These variants sit between the retro simplicity of electro-mechanical pins, often recognizable by flippers that literally say “FLIPPER” on them, a novel concept since being introduced with 1947’s Humpty Dumpty. The late Eighties and early Nineties brought tables with advanced programming, allowing for advanced rule sets, interactive toys and set pieces, and dot-matrix displays, common on the original Game Boy. (The Game Boy’s model number, DMG-01, stands for “Dot Matrix Game.”) Solid-state is a bridge between these two worlds: mechanical behemoths that are growing increasingly more fragile, and cabinets which brought pinball back from the dead more than once.
Pinball’s beginnings can be traced back to Louis XIV’s reign, but its closest modern equivalent is bagatelle, a form of table billiards. In the 19th century, players would plunge an ivory ball into a playing field interrupted by wooden pegs, the goal being to land the ball in the hole earning the player the most points, while avoiding knocking over the pegs. Bagatelle is considered to be linked to not just pinball, but its older billiards brother and mini golf for its negotiation of obstacles and goals.
By the 20th century, pinball was a largely American industry. Major manufacturers like Williams (named after its founder, responsible for inventing things like the tilt mechanism) and Stern (still standing despite pinball’s second death in 1999!) were creating million-dollar empires, sustained by the quarter-hungry appetite of machine operators and arcade owners across the globe. Williams and Stern would gobble up most competition just by outselling them, folding pinball business away from former video game giants Sega and Data East. (A third player, Zaccaria, entered the business via Bologna, Italy from 1974 to 1990. The company’s entire history of electro-mechanical and solid-state tables, as well as DMD reimaginings, are available as Zaccaria Pinball, a free-to-play cross-platform game.)
Pinball was illegal to play in New York from 1942 to 1976. Concerned that Stern and Williams’ Chicago home base was a breeding ground for criminal activity, coupled with the fact pinball lacked flippers, caused Mayor LaGuardia to ban the sale, distribution, and play of these machines. Most were destroyed by sledgehammers or recycled for World War II. And y’all named an airport after this guy? What the hell?!
It wasn’t until Roger Sharpe stunned a city council meeting by playing a pinball machine, calling the shot he planned to make, and then making it that the game changed. No longer was pinball tied to its chance-game beginnings; it became a game of skill. Because of Sharpe’s demo, Steve Epstein was able to open Broadway Arcade in Times Square, creating pinball’s first competition networks, allowing for pinball’s most skilled to call more of their own shots.
“you know,” joker begins, “pinball was tied to the mob.”
“yeah, for like three decades in new york. don’t you love the mafia? we’re in hell, aren’t we?”
“who said all mobsters go to hell? james gandolfini is in heaven.”
“james gandolfini played one on tv. that’s different.”
“who died and made you the judge of moral authority? tony soprano might be in hell, but let’s not speak ill of james.”
“right. let’s just speak ill of this james.”
joker smiles. “you gotta earn your praise, james. this is punisher’s, and you’re in hell.”
“you think tony’s played pinball?”
“tony soprano had a dream about the wide-eyed clown in asbury park that one time.”
“you’ve seen the sopranos?”
“james, i’m dead, not stupid.”
In 2013, Steve Epstein opened Modern Pinball on New York’s Third Avenue after Broadway closed in 1997. In 2009, Epstein was a main focus of the documentary Special When Lit, which points fingers at home video games for driving kids away from pinball and longs achingly for the smoky debauchery of 1970s Tommy cosplay. (And speaking of Tommy, my friend Michele has not only written about that rock opera written by a true-blue pinball hater, but also pinball in that era itself.) Luckily, Epstein found a place to rekindle his arcade dreams before passing away from cancer last June.
Modern Pinball came into my life at a time when everyone around me would annoyingly and somewhat fairly refer to it as Wait, That’s Not Modern Baseball! In the summer of 2015, I lived off one Subway sandwich a day while commuting back and forth to Manhattan. The unlimited MetroCard was worth more than to me than all the dollar pizza in the world, and so I would give up fifteen dollars of potential meals to play Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray for a couple hours after my unpaid internship.
Most of the machines in Modern Pinball—all set to Free Play—are of the DMD variety. With that pizzazz comes added complexity, and without scouring a forum like PinballVideos for tutorials, pinball loses its strategy and becomes a simpler version of a fighting game: mash the flippers when the ball is in range, try not to lose it.
Pinball greats, from repeat champ Lyman Sheats to autistic savant Robert Gagno, will never react like this. It’s common novice advice to urge against using the flipper right away when a ball nears it, instead using maneuvers like the bounce pass (not moving, say, the right flipper, and instead letting the ball bounce off it to transfer to the left flipper) or the live catch (stopping a ball’s momentum with a flipper and letting the roll to the flipper’s hinge, allowing a player to cradle it) to hold the ball in place and more deliberately plan shots. This tutorial video for Theatre of Magic, one of my favorite tables of all time, underlines the importance of prioritizing certain targets, ramps, and loops to maximize not only total points, but the bonus multiplier that stacks up after a ball drains out of play.
Watching a truly great pinball champ manage chaos while emphasizing meditative, intentional moves feels less than a change-eating diversion and more like a chess match. Combine the tabletop-game level of nuance and scenarios on a well-planned cabinet and pinball becomes a riveting sport to watch competitively or an addicting simulation thanks to Pinball FX3, another pinball simulator whose community hearkens back to the four-player fury of the game’s heyday.
punisher’s is gone, and so is joker. in its place, a series of endless mirrors, like the kind you’d see in a marshall’s fitting room, three panels that, if looked at with the right curiosity, reflect infinite versions of the same potential reality.
it’s just me now. i call out, and i answer. until i don’t just answer. i respond.
“i see you’ve found us again.”
“we saw each other last eighteen years ago? aren’t you my reflection?”
“2003. miami, florida. dillard’s.”
when i was a kid, and when i was dragged into department store fitting rooms, i would step up to these kinds of mirrors and pretend i was gathering a meeting of selves. i’m probably not the only one that did that. as far as i know, i’m the only one that’s doing this: hearing myself not repeat myself.
“does that mean something?”
i was in miami hooked up to machines. the machines told me how to walk and how to bend my knees and how to lean and how to squat and by the end of three weeks, the idea was that i’d know how to “walk” “normally.” mom and i stayed somewhere miles away from a coral-pink hospital complex watching clapper ads and full house and i did nothing but type out about two things: miami and a fake band named pseudonym. they had records named melodramatic shit like losing turbulence. (many years later, this impulse to invent pocket stories for bands would be immortalized in the young-adult snarkfest king dork, and i felt absurdly validated.)
i don’t remember any names or any details, but pseudonym’s singular narrative came from a brain that had no reference points for the history i was inventing. by their fifth album, released after the band struggled to maintain a grip on the world, their song ostensibly grew darker and bitter, and then i stopped writing.
“think about what pseudonym was for.”
shortly before leaving for miami, i found the notebook i had from first grade. in it, there were journal entries disguised as ads for an album by someone named james cassar and it was called live people. nearly twenty years removed from that blueprint for pop stardom, i can tell you that i probably wanted to be a mix between aaron carter and thomas fucking delonge. hell yeah, dude.
the biofeedback didn’t fix anything that my stubbornness wouldn’t undo. i was upset that my rockstar ideals and dreams were offset by the fact that physical and occupational therapy would always be my replacement for that. it felt like no matter where i tried to nudge the ball forward, it would always drain, no bonus. just nothing.
pseudonym—chosen for its plug-and-play universality—made any band the template for my keen attention and kid-gloves understanding of industry politics. if i wasn’t going to have the behind-the-music taping in my honor, i could write what functioned as a script for others, however imaginary.
if i wanted a place, i would have to invent the spot.
The last thing I did before the world shut down in March was cancel an Uber. The Philly Pinball Club was holding their tournament finals at Barcade in Fishtown and I wanted a new hobby, one that linked to the zeal in my parents’ basement without any of the upkeep. I felt like surrounding myself with a different crowd—united by the love of a game that was illegal, dead, resuscitated, dead, and then violently shaken again—would offset any cynicism swirling around in my internet-poisoned brain.
Pinball has a community that is as segmented and rich as a music scene. You have your zines, like the illustrated Drop Target or the Seattle regular Skill Shot and your bands, like the steel ball-obsessed ones on CD compilations given away with Multiball.
Pinball requires you to focus and slow down, plan and execute. It’s an appealing opposite to the calamity that pre-COVID 2020 felt like to me. And that’s what I wanted to do. But my solenoids were worn, my lamps smashed. The lights were off, and it wasn’t time.
The Six-Million Dollar Man functions as a precursor to Captain America, in that government intervention rehabilitated a body believed to be past hope, creating a superhuman machine instead of something less threatening. (And before you say my assessment of Captain America is wrong, I don’t have twenty movies’ worth of time to pretend to care about the MCU.) The quote that rings out with the most cultural cache (ironically never synthesized by its pinball machine) is “We can rebuild him, we have the technology.”
Technology doesn’t rebuild everything. It can replace faulty wiring and coax neural pathways to pave over bad routines, but that’s about it. Technology can be a threat to the natural order of an industry or the planet (looking at you, NFTs and their defenders). It can help, too, but it isn’t the ultimate answer.
Pinball has been seen as a revelatory technology. There was Tommy, the Who’s caricature of a “deaf, dumb, and blind kid” who commanded a rabid cult of the silver ball, but that didn’t actually serve pinball’s image, just Elton John in massive sunglasses. Project Pinball, featured in an issue of Drop Target, places pinball machines in hospitals nationwide, noting an uptick in both patient and caregiver morale when they’re in common areas. And there’s Gagno the champ, whose visual processing field allows him to attack pinball’s myriad stimuli at once without having to divert his gaze.
I don’t think I’ll be good at pinball for a while. I’ve been playing it on keyboards and with Pro Controllers, so my approximation of the actual game—tactile feedback from a nudge, the rewarding click of the flippers—is pretty thin. But if it can help people in small ways elsewhere, why can’t it help me?
We’ll see. Soon, I’ll have my own pinball machine—a digital one with no broken parts and no potential for them. I can rebuild. I’ll have the technology.
Talk to you again in July, when we return to Punisher’s. weird upstairs will be migrating to jamescassar.com. You read the Substack joke. You knew I was headed there.