Synthwave: Yesterday’s Tomorrow

As a werewolf who was born in the 1980s, I find the obsession with its culture fascinating.

Stranger Things isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Nostalgia for the 80s has been present in culture for about as long as I’ve been alive – heck, I was born in 1988, so only two years of my life at most were free of popular culture nostalgic for that decade. We’ve brought Stephen King’s It to cinema and created sequels to genre-defining classics like Blade Runner, Mad Max and Rambo. The grainy, neon-drenched aesthetic of the decade crops up in video games like Hotline Miami and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Turns out people in their twenties and thirties – who probably don’t actually remember much about the decade, if they were even alive back then – absolutely love the 80s.

I’m typing this on a mechanical RGB keyboard whose keys follow a smooth gradient fade from a deep blue at the bottom to a neon pink at the top. Trust me, I’m into this whole nostalgia thing just as much as anyone else.

So with every other artistic medium desperately nostalgic for a time when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both in office – yeah, wrap your head around that one – it’s not really surprising that music has gotten its shutter shades and pastel tracksuits out as well. But one particular music genre hasn’t just reached back into the past – it’s grabbed the hand of the past which was, itself, reaching into the future.

Synthwave is a form of musical retrofuturism, a form of artistic expression based upon depictions of the future from an earlier era. The visionaries of the early 20th century created the clean lines, smooth curves and shining surfaces of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne based on what they thought the future would (or, perhaps, should) look like. Half a century later – in the 1980s, appropriately enough – Flash Gordon gave us a vision of that future.

Synthwave is not only music inspired by the aesthetic sensibilities of the 1980s, it’s a realisation of what people in the 1980s thought music would sound like now.

Orax – Omen

Like most forms of music, synthwave is marked by a number of distinct subgenres, from the meaty, pulse-pounding outrun action of Carpenter Brut – Turbo Killer and Dan Terminus – Avalanche to the introspective vocal productions of Gunship – The Mountain and ALEX ft. Laura Currie – Broadway to soothing, ambient tracks in the rapidly-growing vaporwave subgenre such as bl00dwave – simulations and MACINTOSH PLUS – リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー (a lot of vaporwave band and track names are like that – you get used to it). But a lot of synthwave bands deny tidy grouping with their impressive range, with acts like Perturbator producing intense and violent tracks like Diabolus Ex Machina and more reserved vocal tracks like Venger on the same album.

No aspect of the 1980s has been wasted. Do you remember the slew of aerobics VHS tapes that were sold in that decade? Well, me neither, but did you want an entire musical act based around them? Sha-Kobe has you covered. Did you ever wish that Vangelis had written some love songs? Timecop1983 can make that happen for you. Did you ever want the star of Baywatch to sing over the closing credits of a parody action B-movie? Well, that’s an incredibly specific desire, but yes, it exists.

This, along with symphonic metal and Chopper hip-hop, is probably one of my favourite musical genres, and I think it has something to do with the fact that the scene is a little bit niche – you don’t get into this genre unless you have a real passion for it. There aren’t many artists here who’d rather be doing something else – this sort of music is exactly what they want to be making, and it shows.

Now, whether the culture of the 1980s was really something to aspire to is a debate worth having at some other point, but that the decade was meaningful is beyond doubt – we’re more than a quarter century removed from it and it’s still inspiring wistful nostalgia in people who never even lived through it. I feel like if synthwave is anything to go by, we’ll be seeing wireframe palm trees and digital sunsets for a long time yet.

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