Synthwave Is Dead. Long Live Synthwave.

Synthwave Is Dead. Long Live Synthwave.

Synthwave is dead.

Anyone fol­low­ing the genre closely has seen it com­ing for years, and it’s very dif­fi­cult to feel sur­prised by the music’s cur­rent life­less state. The record­ings that defined the heart and the soul of syn­thwave from cre­at­ors like Mitch Murder, Lost Years, Miami Nights 1984, and Lazerhawk feel like a dis­tant memory now, and return­ing to those early albums — with all their incred­ible magic and ima­gin­a­tion — simply drives home how dis­ap­point­ing cre­ations in a sim­il­ar style have become.

The archetyp­al sounds of the genre are gone, a fad­ing snap­shot of nos­tal­gic music pin­ing for a dec­ade that began 40 years ago. There are, of course, plenty of vali­ant efforts being made to keep the music alive, though the hon­est listen­er can acknow­ledge that the like­li­hood of anoth­er great album mani­fest­ing at this point is nearly non-existent.

Synthwave — as it could be under­stood from roughly 2008 to 2015 — has become a wasteland.

The spirit of old school Synthwave. Miami Nights 1984, 2010

If you don’t believe it, take a moment to revis­it songs from the early era like Miami Nights 1984’s “Early Summer,” D/A/D’s “Backbone of the Night,” and Mitch Murder’s “Midnight Mall” (or really, any­thing from the first four years of Mitch Murder's cata­log). Or, let your­self get pulled into the immense magic and ima­gin­a­tion of Le Cassette’s entire Left to Our Own Devices album.

Those releases had an inspired song­writ­ing spark and authen­tic­ally nos­tal­gic charm that have gone miss­ing from new releases in the genre, includ­ing music from the same creators.

Lost Years nev­er fully recap­tured the spir­it of 2012’s Amplifier. Mitch Murder entered a long, steady decline fol­low­ing 2014’s Interceptor. Perturbator has cre­at­ively dis­tanced him­self from syn­thwave for years. The qual­ity of Kavinsky’s music was debat­able when it was new, and MN84 dis­ap­peared at a cre­at­ive peak almost a dec­ade ago. A mod­er­ate num­ber of oth­er respect­able artists did well through the middle of the dec­ade, though even they now seem to be in decline.

The real­ity is that syn­thwave from the late ’00s to the mid ’10s cap­tured a very spe­cif­ic moment in time, a moment when the child­hood memor­ies of its cre­at­ors from the 1980s were vivid and still had a strong, tan­gible emo­tion­al pull.

That moment has faded from the uni­verse and the magic is gone.

Early synthwave magic. D/A/D, 2013

There are simply too few artists mak­ing mean­ing­ful music in synthwave’s ori­gin­al, lo-fi approach to make it worth sift­ing through the thou­sands — yes, thou­sands — of imit­at­ors work­ing in the style today.

That all sounds very bleak, and for those of us who love the sounds of early syn­thwave, it can abso­lutely feel that way. But life goes on and so does music innov­a­tion and evolution.

Long live Synthwave.

The term “syn­thwave,” which once applied to a very spe­cif­ic pro­duc­tion sound and song­writ­ing style, has grown remark­ably wide and now encom­passes an enorm­ous range of music, most of which has little con­nec­tion to the music pro­duced at the turn of the last dec­ade and doesn’t reflect any spe­cif­ic cre­ations from the 1980s.

Second-generation synthwave. Essenger, 2019

Instead, syn­thwave has grown from a niche under­ground genre into a low-key cul­tur­al phe­nomen­on, pulling in a host of mod­ern influ­ences and find­ing its way into major motion pic­ture soundtracks, the latest Taylor Swift album, and a brand new single from The Weeknd. With it, con­cep­tions of what feels “retro” and what feels “’80s” have also shif­ted, and the uni­verse accepts a much broad­er and more mod­ern under­stand­ing of what con­sti­tutes a throw­back to the era.

The inter­pret­a­tion of melody, song­writ­ing styles, and use of retro synths have changed the ’80s reviv­al into a massive cul­tur­al move­ment with sig­ni­fic­antly great­er long-term poten­tial. The ’80s now live on in the DNA of an entire gen­er­a­tion of music artists who have embraced the throw­back as part of their under­stand­ing of con­tem­por­ary music, using it to move the music for­ward instead of per­petu­ally look­ing back.

Elegant chill synthwave from Euan Ellis, 2020.

Genre pur­ists may wish to hold onto a nar­row con­cep­tion of syn­thwave and con­tin­ue to use the term to refer to the spe­cif­ic sounds of the early genre. (Anyone who fol­lowed my past art­icles knows I fought as hard as any­one to keep the name sac­red, for example in 'What Is Synthwave?' and 'Why Synthwave Isn’t Synthpop) but we all know the inev­it­able has arrived.

Inch by inch, the term “syn­thwave” has grown to encom­pass an increas­ingly diverse array of retro synth music, and it’s happened through years of nat­ur­al and steady evol­u­tion of the music. Importantly, it’s been the most tal­en­ted cre­at­ors who have con­sist­ently pushed the envel­ope through the years and con­tin­ue to do so today.

A masterwork of modern synthwave. The Bad Dreamers, 2019

This pat­tern of evol­u­tion was ignited by a hand­ful of cre­at­ors around the middle of the '10s, most vis­ibly The Midnight, Gunship, and FM-84. The pol­ished pro­duc­tion and strongly mod­ern music influ­ences were, in the case of songs like The Midnight’s EDM-inspired track “Lonely City,” a drastic depar­ture from early syn­thwave music.

A turning point for synthwave. The Midnight, 2015

The pop­ular­ity of those three artists inspired count­less oth­ers to fol­low, bring­ing in increas­ingly tal­en­ted and pro­fes­sion­al cre­at­ors from out­side genres. Even pro­du­cers on the dark side of the syn­thwave spec­trum, which has tra­di­tion­ally been gritty and ultra lo-fi, have begun embra­cing rich, mod­ern pro­duc­tion techniques.

We’re in a new era now, one in which syn­thwave doesn't refer to a par­tic­u­lar idea the way many of us are used to. It has grown in leaps and bounds over the past sev­er­al years, most cer­tainly in size, but also in diversity — and per­haps most sur­pris­ingly — in qual­ity.

The caliber of music being pro­duced at the edges of the syn­thwave genre today is high­er than any­thing that’s come before it. Professional pro­du­cers are now part­ner­ing with full-time sing­er-song­writers in prop­er stu­di­os with some excep­tion­al results.

Past meets present. PRIZM, 2019

There’s a cer­tain tragedy in it for pur­ists, but for those will­ing to flip their per­son­al per­spect­ive and under­stand the second gen­er­a­tion of cre­at­ors not as aber­ra­tions, but as pion­eers infus­ing the music with much-needed inspir­a­tion and excite­ment, a new world of pos­sib­il­it­ies opens up.

Suddenly cre­at­ors like The Midnight, Gunship, PRIZM, and many oth­ers who are blend­ing syn­thwave with mod­ern genre influ­ences and pro­duc­tion tech­niques are no longer isol­ated examples on the fringes of the genre. They’re the stand­ard-bear­ers for the genre mov­ing forward.

Meanwhile, artists who have tra­di­tion­ally fallen out­side the syn­thwave genre have been lean­ing increas­ingly fur­ther into retro synth styles, to the point that the space between syn­thwave and con­tem­por­ary forms of pop and EDM has been oblit­er­ated. If syn­thwave is fun­da­ment­ally a throw­back to ’80s synth music, then the genre is wide open.

’80s pop revival. Shura, 2016

Allie-X - Super SunsetShura tracks like “Tongue Tied” and “Nothing’s Real” from 2016 are more of an authen­t­ic evol­u­tion of ’80s music than a thou­sand copy-paste syn­thwave albums com­bined, and they have much of the nos­tal­gic magic that old school syn­thwave has lost (to say noth­ing of their infin­itely high­er pro­duc­tion quality.)

If there are any doubts that main­stream pop artists are listen­ing to and pulling influ­ences from syn­thwave, one look at the cov­er for Allie X’s ana­log ver­sion of her Super Sunset album or the music video for Dua Lipa’s “Let’s Get Physical” should clear things up.

Within this con­text, sud­denly VHS Collection’s “I Can’t Stand It” makes per­fect sense as a mod­ern syn­thwave song, and a great one. Suddenly Jai Wolf’s “Still Sleeping” is fully iden­ti­fi­able as a syn­thwave song, and a deeply sat­is­fy­ing one. Even Joan’s “Take Me On (Chilled)” has a retro synth vibe that gels with where syn­thwave is head­ing, des­pite the fact it sounds noth­ing like the tra­di­tion­al genre.

An unexpected synthwave gem. Jai Wolf, 2019

For those con­cerned about the older style los­ing recog­ni­tion, it’s worth remem­ber­ing that the early music still has its own unique name: outrun.

Outrun elec­tro (and retro elec­tro) were the first com­monly accep­ted names for the genre before syn­thwave and ret­rowave sprouted up, and “out­run” remains a per­fectly unique iden­ti­fi­er for the ori­gin­al sounds of the genre.

At the end of the day, those early out­run albums aren’t going any­where. They’re still here for all of us to enjoy, and in some ways, the magic in them is actu­ally stronger now as they’ve been out long enough to carry their own nos­tal­gia. Listening to Mitch Murder’s Current Events, for example, puts me in a dreamy haze that takes me back to the people and places in my life when I first heard that record­ing a dec­ade ago.

It’s nos­tal­gia on top of nos­tal­gia, and those albums will always have their place in the syn­thwave pantheon.

Yes, the ori­gin­al form of out­run has become a bad­lands with little susten­ance to offer its vis­it­ors, but syn­thwave itself is argu­ably health­i­er than it’s ever been. It’s enjoy­ing more pol­ished and finely craf­ted cre­ations under its ban­ner than ever before, and it’s undeni­ably reach­ing more eyes and ears than at any pri­or point in its history.

While dozens of qual­ity cre­at­ors are con­trib­ut­ing to the second gen­er­a­tion of syn­thwave from with­in, hun­dreds of oth­ers in indie pop, EDM, alt rock, and main­stream pop incor­por­ate its retro synth sounds into their cre­at­ive approach and have erased the bound­ary lines in the pro­cess. At the start of a new dec­ade, syn­thwave is already big­ger and far more pop­u­lar than ever. For those will­ing to embrace the changes, syn­thwave is not only alive and well, but thriving.

Long live synthwave.