Synthwave: An Underground 2010s Musical Movement

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By Saidif Mejia
Music Journalist

As the end of the decade approaches, people from all over the country wonder what musical styles will define these eventful past 10 years. Some may argue that the rise of trap hip-hop dominates everything beside it, while others believe that electronic dance music, or EDM, remains a notable example of a popular genre that does not require rapping. 

While trap, EDM, alternative rock and plenty of other styles have saturated radio station broadcasts everywhere, at least some recognition should be aimed towards more independent genres. One such genre happens to be synthwave, a style known for its use of 1980s-inspired retro electronic drum beats and distinct synthesizer notes that create a heavy sense of nostalgia for people who likely did not even live during the 1980s.

Although synthwave will undoubtedly carry a reputation for expanding the overwhelming sensation of nostalgia among listeners in the 2010s, its true beginnings occurred as far back as the early to mid-2000s. Around this time, late Generation Xers and early millennials were finally reaching adulthood, and with that came a desire to return to the simpler times of adolescence and childhood in the 1980s. 

A decent number of these individuals longed to go back to the days of neon visuals, creative and practical special effects in horror, over-the-top action in movies, 16-bit video and arcade games with simplistic plots and innovative soundtracks and futuristic racing cars combined with the unique fashion trends of the time. 

Most of these people began as French house and electronic artists, such as Kavinsky, College, Anoraak and so much more. These musicians took inspiration from the masters of 1980s horror and action film soundtracks like John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, only developing a totally new and refreshing spin on the sounds of synthesizers and drum machines. They may not have known it over a decade ago, but each of those musicians maintains responsibility for igniting a worldwide internet-based movement for synthwave music.

Before 2011, one had to tune into their local college radio station (if they were even within reach of one), to find anything resembling synthwave. In September of that year, however, Nicolas Winding Refn released his eighth film called “Drive” a film starring Ryan Gosling as a professional get-away driver who takes on ruthless gangsters to protect a family close to him. 

Though the movie achieved critical acclaim for its cinematic style, modern film-noir look, and unique loner-based storytelling, the film arguably receives the most credit for popularizing the synthwave genre. It featured artists like Kavinsky, College & Electric Youth, Desire, and even Chromatics, all of whom had already contributed to the growing favor of synth-heavy independent music. 

Each of these artists blew up on YouTube after the release of the film, with viewers eager to find sounds similar to what Refn included in his soundtrack. As a result, indie groups began to incorporate more synthesizers and drum machines into their tracks, also causing an increasing number of YouTube channels that exclusively uploaded synthwave music videos and underground synthwave tracks. 

By 2015 and 2016, people could not escape the enormous impact of the 1980s on television, films, video games and most importantly, music, but this phenomenon was not necessarily bad. Small indie video game developers saw it fit to have entirely synthwave-based soundtracks, with the most notable example being “Hotline Miami” (2012) and “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number” (2015).

Both video games, which happened to be greatly influenced by Drive, introduced the works of Perturbator, M|O|O|N, Sun Araw, Magic Sword, Jasper Byrne, El Huervo and countless others to an entirely new generation of retro-hungry gamers. On streaming platforms like Netflix, shows like “Stranger Things” (2016-present) showcased synthwave to mainstream audiences not only in the United States, but to the rest of the world as well. 

Some people may think that the show utilizes certain cliche tropes and archetypes, but almost no one can dismiss the remarkable sound and style of old school synthesizers with drum machines that accompany the story as “basic.” Numerous movies and television series that came afterward started to add synthwave tracks to their own scores, mainly because they knew audiences saw the scores as memorable rather than forgettable like common orchestral scores. 

Currently, nearly all of these artists and the craft they were included in possess passionate followings, primarily because they offer an alternative to the general music of today. Synthwave as a whole has substantially influenced the presence of 80s retro music, visuals, and even vocabulary in contemporary media. Only time will tell if synthwave will still hold up in 10 years, but for now, it remains one of the defining genres of this decade, even if none of its songs ever showed up on the Billboard Hot 100.

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