by Gwynn Van Houten
The “Eighties” label often inspires visions of vibrant, eclectic style, of a golden age of music, of countless classic films and series, and a grand wave of new technology: from muscle cars to computers, VHS to video games.
And if these visions inspire a sense of nostalgia within you — regardless of which decade you grew up in — you’ve probably noticed a recent resurgence of 80s-inspired culture: reboots of beloved franchises like Terminator and Ghostbusters, a trend in video games, especially indie titles, to utilize old-school graphics and mechanics, and a general fascination with the era that has resulted in the emergence of all sorts of new “retro” content.
Musicians have joined in on this sort of revival, as well. In the mid-2000s, a new brand of electronic music materialized, one intended to remind its listeners of the sounds of the 80s, known as synthwave.
Synthwave is characterized, as its name suggests, by synthesized melodies, basslines, and beats, similar to early electronic music but mixed in a more contemporary fashion. With room for diversity, some works also include characteristics of rock or modern electronica. And while primarily an instrumental genre, some artists may opt to add vocals for a more poplike feel.
Thematically, synthwave usually features sounds nostalgic of 80s action, sci-fi, and horror media. Many artists cite composers such as Vangelis (of Blade Runner fame) and John Carpenter (Halloween, Big Trouble in Little China, and more) as influences. And as with other music scenes, synthwave is not only a label associated with music, but with art: visuals that accompany synthwave tracks include Tron–like neon landscapes, movie poster-style illustrations, anime, and 80s models. The infamous vaporwave genre may be seen as a spinoff of synthwave, with emphasis placed on certain hues and fascination with Japanese culture and the Internet.
Blues and magentas are the colors most commonly associated with the genre.
The genre has largely been pioneered by European musicians, including French artists Anoraak, College, and Kavinsky, who all grew up during the 80s. In an interview with Slug Magazine, the architect behind College, David Grellier, cited movies such as Mad Max as his inspiration, adding that “It’s not easy to hold on to good memories of childhood like the TV shows and movies we watched when young. The purpose of College is to try and preserve those things. I don’t want to recreate the past. I just want to express something of today with tools of the past.”
David Grellier, a.k.a. College
Synthwave entered the mainstream with the debut of the 2011 action/arthouse movie Drive, which features tracks by College and Kavinsky. Kavinsky’s Nightcall, the first song on the soundtrack, has over 74 million views on YouTube. The 2012 PC/PlayStation game Hotline Miami also included a synth-heavy soundtrack, with notable artists such as M.O.O.N and Perturbator. The following year, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, a stand-alone expansion of the open-world shooter Far Cry 3, was released, and the soundtrack provided by Power Glove combined with the game’s stereotypically 80s themes (neon colors, cyborgs, dinosaurs) continued to invigorate an interest in the genre. Kung Fury, a comedic short film released last year that parodies numerous classic action films, boasted an impressive score by Mitch Murder, Betamaxx, and others.
Synthwave remains fairly underground, however. Most artists, of which there are easily hundreds, rely on platforms such as YouTube, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud for recognition. Personally, when looking for new music, I find one song that interests me, usually on the YouTube channel NewRetroWave, and keep browsing the suggestions, eventually entering a “YouTube wormhole”. But it’s paid off; while being far from the only genre I listen to, synthwave music makes up my largest playlist.
It’s always more meaningful to include songs than to just name artists. Here are just a few select tracks that I think exemplify the diversity of this type of music.