Why Synthwave Isn’t Synth Pop (And Why It Matters)

Why Synthwave Isn’t Synthpop (And Why It Matters)

Synthwave exis­ted con­ten­tedly for over a dec­ade with little or no con­fu­sion about the fact it was a sep­ar­ate form of music from synth pop. However, as syn­thwave has evolved deep­er into vocal-based song­writ­ing in recent years, it's become increas­ingly com­mon for fans and artists to begin using the two names inter­change­ably. Along with the con­fla­tion of terms has come con­fu­sion about how syn­thwave is dif­fer­ent, if at all, from synth pop.

From a his­tor­ic­al per­spect­ive, it's easy to under­stand why syn­thwave isn't synth pop. They are each their own rich genres of music with thou­sands of con­trib­ut­ing artists, and the terms are not simply catch-alls for music made with syn­thes­izers or synth-based music with vocals. With few real excep­tions, syn­thwave and synth pop are sep­ar­ate genres of music with strik­ingly dif­fer­ent backgrounds.

What's in a Name?

Using the terms “syn­thwave” and “synth pop” inter­change­ably obscures under­stand­ing of the music. This makes it more dif­fi­cult for fans to loc­ate music that appeals to their spe­cif­ic tastes, gen­er­ates con­fu­sion in con­ver­sa­tions, and glosses over import­ant cre­at­ive dif­fer­ences between artists in both genres, dis­reg­ard­ing dec­ades worth of beloved synth pop and syn­thwave cre­ations in the process.

Importantly for cre­at­ors of syn­thwave music, adopt­ing the older and gen­er­ally unre­lated term “synth pop” makes it more dif­fi­cult to con­nect with inter­ested fans and build an engaged audi­ence. Fans of tra­di­tion­al synth pop are not neces­sar­ily likely to enjoy syn­thwave, which leads to mis­spent advert­ising money and unne­ces­sary leg­work that could be avoided by stick­ing with the increas­ingly prom­in­ent and recog­nized “syn­thwave” label, which rep­res­ents a vibrant and spe­cif­ic niche of music.

Making a dis­tinc­tion between terms is also rel­ev­ant for listen­ers. As with all art appre­ci­ation — as well as appre­ci­ation of food, wine, bird­watch­ing, and an end­less num­ber of oth­er things in life — cat­egory labels are a fun­da­ment­al ele­ment of recog­ni­tion and com­pre­hen­sion. When used flex­ibly and as a means of descrip­tion, they are an indis­pens­able tool for under­stand­ing and com­mu­nic­at­ing with one anoth­er about our shared exper­i­ences with music, enhan­cing our enjoy­ment of it in the process.

This art­icle is rooted in a firm belief in the import­ance of music genres. It is meant to cla­ri­fy and embrace cre­at­ive dif­fer­ences between artists, and it recog­nizes that genres exist on styl­ist­ic spec­trums with dif­fer­ent shades and com­bin­a­tions. As such, it is often rel­ev­ant to describe the style of indi­vidu­al songs with more than one adject­ive and genre term, a fact that will be evid­ent through­out this article.

Despite the under­stand­able con­fu­sion over sim­il­ar names, the dif­fer­ences between syn­thwave and synth pop are quite easy to hear, and there are dec­ades’ worth of examples of synth pop music for us to explore.

What Is Synth Pop?

To under­stand how and why the genres are dif­fer­ent, it’s of course neces­sary to estab­lish what each of them is in the first place. I've already writ­ten a full his­tory of syn­thwave along with descrip­tions of its sub­genres in What is Synthwave?, so if that genre seems murky or unfa­mil­i­ar, check there first. This art­icle will primar­ily focus on synth pop in order to make the dif­fer­ences between the two plain to hear.

Note that the goal of this art­icle is not to detail the com­plete his­tory of synth pop, but to pin­point its most prom­in­ent and read­ily iden­ti­fi­able char­ac­ter­ist­ics in order to estab­lish an iden­tity for the genre and use it as a means of com­par­is­on to synthwave.

Synth pop is one of the earli­est forms of elec­tron­ic music, and like almost all elec­tron­ic music, has its roots in the work of the German group Kraftwerk in the 1970s. However, as with many music pion­eers, much of Kraftwerk’s early music falls out­side or on the edges of the genre they helped pion­eer (much as Black Sabbath’s releases from the 1970s were not yet heavy met­al).

Instead, the best examples of synth pop from Kraftwerk came later, par­tic­u­larly on the group’s 1986 album, Electric Café. In fact, it’s worth jump­ing ahead moment­ar­ily and pin­point­ing “The Telephone Call” from that album as a not­able example of true synth pop music.

Genres are based on pat­terns, which means that dense areas of com­mon cre­at­ive ele­ments form the heart of genres while less com­mon approaches and tech­niques form the edges. When synth pop is viewed broadly with dec­ades’ worth of con­tri­bu­tions in mind, “The Telephone Call” lands very near to the cen­ter of the synth pop style.

While listen­ing to “The Telephone Call,” note the stiff, mech­an­ic­al beat, machine-like effects and melod­ies, and dis­pas­sion­ate, spoken vocal deliv­ery, as these are all essen­tial aspects of synth pop music and cru­cial points in this dis­cus­sion of the genre.

True synth pop from the fathers of electronic music. Kraftwerk, 1986

Early synth pop

Although much of ‘70s-era Kraftwerk was not yet synth pop in its full sense, the group helped to spark a grow­ing interest in syn­thes­izers as instru­ments, an interest that was shared by young artists in the UK in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It's there that synth pop (ori­gin­ally hyphen­ated as “synth-pop”) developed a stronger iden­tity and first estab­lished an iden­ti­fi­able pat­tern of music.

Among the earli­est and most not­able pieces of British music to shape the synth pop sound are Gary Numan’s “Cars” from 1979, as well as Human League’s “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” Ultravox’s “The Thin Wall,” and Depeche Mode’s “New Life,” all from 1981. Once again, note the rigid and min­im­al rhythmic ele­ments, sparse pro­duc­tion, and par­tially spoken vocal deliv­ery in each of those songs.

An upbeat, early synth pop track from genre pioneers Depeche Mode, 1981

Many of Depeche Mode’s most pop­u­lar early songs lean toward a more ener­get­ic style of music than oth­er synth pop cre­ations, though they share all of the genre-identi­fy­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics men­tioned for “The Telephone Call.”

Synth pop’s defin­ing ele­ments — mech­an­ic­al rhythms, under­stated com­pos­i­tions, spoken vocal deliv­er­ies — were the res­ult of a few dif­fer­ent factors, includ­ing the per­formers’ mod­est tech­nic­al skills and the lim­it­a­tions of the early syn­thes­izers avail­able to them. However, in many cases, the music was also a reflec­tion of the cre­at­ors’ under­ly­ing con­cep­tu­al interest in machines, with syn­thes­izers fre­quently rep­res­en­ted as the instru­ment of arti­fi­cial lifeforms.

That aspect has remained a vital char­ac­ter­ist­ic of the synth pop genre through­out its his­tory, and it’s plain to hear and see in the per­form­ances of songs that planted seeds for the entire genre, includ­ing Tubeway Army’s “Are Friends Electric” and Kraftwerk’s “Das Model” of the late ‘70s.

In the case of Kraftwerk — who wrote songs with titles like “The Robots” and “The Man Machine” — the mem­bers lit­er­ally per­formed their music as though they were androids. (This robot­ic aspect of the band’s per­form­ances, as well as its rela­tion­ship to German min­im­al art cul­ture, was fam­ously par­od­ied in Mike Myers’ Sprockets skits using a sped-up loop of Kraftwerk’s “Electric Café” for the theme music.)

The man­ner­isms of the per­formers as well as the rel­at­ive style of the music are echoed in Tubeway Army’s “Are Friends Electric” from 1979. “Are Friends Electric” is a rock-based pre­curs­or to true synth pop, and although it does not rep­res­ent the genre as fully as “The Telephone Call” or even Gary Numan’s “Cars” from later in 1979, it is an essen­tial part of the genre’s gen­es­is and exem­pli­fies nearly all of its defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics. The music’s icy atmo­sphere, min­im­al­ist deliv­ery, and Numan’s android-like per­form­ance in the video below make this an imme­di­ate and vital example of synth pop’s origins.

A formative example of early British synth pop. Tubeway Army, 1979

This interest in machines, both dir­ectly through the elec­tron­ic instru­ments and indir­ectly as part of culture’s increas­ing shift into com­puter-based soci­ety, res­ults in a very rigid sound that is present in all true synth pop music. A crisp, often force­ful 4/4 rhythm com­bines with emo­tion­less vocals and punc­tu­ated melod­ies for a sound that feels like it was writ­ten and per­formed by syn­thet­ic life forms.

As the style developed a clear­er iden­tity in Britain at the start of the new dec­ade, its early sound was embraced and began to flour­ish more widely back in Germany. Excellent examples of this come from The Twins, who released Passion Factory in 1981 and Modern Lifestyle in 1982. Both albums fea­ture songs with unmis­tak­able sim­il­ar­it­ies to the early synth pop explored by British acts at the time, includ­ing the min­im­al, robot­ic sound of the music along with semi-spoken vocals.

Early German synth pop from The Twins, 1982

Creations from the first sev­er­al years in synth pop’s his­tory are par­tic­u­larly sparse and free of embel­lish­ment, and it’s often rel­ev­ant to recog­nize them as their own form of “early synth pop” music, espe­cially as the style has under­gone its own care­ful and expli­cit reviv­als. For example, artists like Sector OneDatapop, and Unisonlab have cre­ated early synth pop music in the 2010s with strong influ­ences from Kraftwerk record­ings of the late ‘70s.

(Jumping ahead slightly, it’s worth observing that this reviv­al of early synth pop music is drastic­ally dif­fer­ent in terms of style from syn­thwave, which is not an expli­cit throw­back to any par­tic­u­lar form of music from the 1980s.)

Early synth pop from Britain and Germany — accen­ted by exper­i­ment­al synth cre­ations from Yellow Magic Orchestra in Japan — form the found­a­tion of the genre. However, it’s worth men­tion­ing again that the record­ings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were later pushed to the edges of the synth pop genre as the pat­tern of music expan­ded and con­cen­trated more heav­ily on a slightly evolved sound, epi­tom­ized by Kraftwerk’s “The Telephone Call” from 1986.

Early Synth Pop’s Broader Context

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, synth pop was fun­da­ment­ally a sub­genre of new wave, which referred to a massive cul­tur­al shift in song­writ­ing styles com­ing from Britain, and shortly after, the US. There are sev­er­al dis­tinct facets of new wave, and the label is more rel­ev­ant as a descriptor of music innov­a­tion from the era than for a par­tic­u­lar cre­at­ive approach. That said, new wave can very gen­er­ally be described as a melod­ic, rock-based evol­u­tion of punk music.

Synth pop began as a spe­cif­ic style of this new wave revolu­tion and later evolved into its own com­plete genre. However, because of the inter­re­lated nature of the two, there is a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of gray area between synth pop and new wave through­out the ‘80s. Artists often leaned toward one style or the oth­er, even fluc­tu­at­ing from one track to the next on the same album.

Ultravox’s “We Came to Dance” from 1982 is a clear synth pop song with its no-frills com­pos­i­tion and stiff deliv­ery, while the song that pre­cedes it on the group’s Quartet album, “When the Scream Subsides,” is a new wave track driv­en by an elec­tric gui­tar and a power­ful vocal per­form­ance by Midge Ure. Robert Palmer, the decade’s mas­ter of pop music exper­i­ment­a­tion, embraced the min­im­al early synth pop sound with his 1980 hit “Johnny and Mary,” while the very next track on his Clues album, “What Do You Care,” is a funk-driv­en rock piece that more closely recalls his record­ings from the ‘70s.

Early British synth pop from genre chameleon Robert Palmer, 1980

Naturally, the inter­re­lated nature of new wave and synth pop led to much of the later his­tor­ic­al con­fu­sion around synth pop, with artists like Duran Duran receiv­ing the label des­pite their music pre­dom­in­ately being an elab­or­ate style of upbeat rock music with warmly melod­ic vocal hooks.

This con­fu­sion was fur­ther com­poun­ded in the ‘80s as early synth pop was incor­por­ated into a lar­ger melt­ing pot of com­mer­cial music that blen­ded the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of synth pop and new wave with funk, soul, hip-hop, and a high num­ber of oth­er styles. As the genres evolved into new­er and increas­ingly unre­lated styles, a lack of new and mean­ing­ful terms allowed the synth pop label to be passed along inde­cis­ively to new genres.

The Pointer Sisters’ 1984 album Break Out is a great example of this melt­ing pot of music ideas, and it con­tains pre­vi­ously unre­lated genre ele­ments like R&B and synth pop along­side one anoth­er on the very same songs. Despite the influ­ences of synth pop on the album, how­ever, none of the entries on Break Out can be prop­erly clas­si­fied with­in the genre, and it is more accur­ate to refer to the record­ing as “‘80s com­mer­cial Pop” or simply “‘80s Pop.”

The fol­low­ing genre map is help­ful as a visu­al­iz­a­tion tool for under­stand­ing how synth pop, new wave, and ‘80s com­mer­cial pop are inter­re­lated, but often sep­ar­ate genres of music. Note that it is impossible to fully cat­egor­ize genre evol­u­tion in this way, and so the dia­gram is meant as a visu­al ref­er­ence and not a com­plete clas­si­fic­a­tion system.

Synthwave vs Synthpop genre map colorful venn diagram
(Click to enlarge the genre map.)

It’s worth revis­it­ing the top­ic of ‘80s pop later, but while main­stream cul­ture was adopt­ing pieces of synth pop for its own pur­poses, the cold, robot­ic heart of the music con­tin­ued to con­nect itself with a very dif­fer­ent cul­ture and style of music, par­tic­u­larly in Germany and its sur­round­ing countries.

Synth Pop, Industrial, and Dark Wave

Significantly, syn­thes­izers were often frowned upon by the estab­lished music world of the late ‘70s. They were not ser­i­ous music­al instru­ments in the eyes of many pro­fes­sion­al song­writers, pro­du­cers, and crit­ics of the era, and so the artists who embraced them — and the ven­ues and labels who sup­por­ted the artists — often held a coun­ter­cul­ture mind­set and ded­ic­a­tion to under­ground music.

This meant that early pion­eers of synth pop fre­quently shared their per­form­ance spaces with post-punk and indus­tri­al musi­cians, a fact with immense implic­a­tions for the future of mul­tiple genres.

For those who are famil­i­ar with synth pop and indus­tri­al music, that fact will imme­di­ately con­nect the dots in the ances­try of those genres, includ­ing their sound and visu­al aes­thet­ic. Synth pop and indus­tri­al music have shared their DNA in each other’s cre­ations for dec­ades, and they have sim­il­arly car­ried their punk her­it­age with them across the years, as in riv­et­head cul­ture.

Soft Cell is a fam­ous example of a synth pop act who exhib­ited the genre’s linger­ing ties to punk cul­ture. Another example is the German group Boytronic, whose synth pop track “You” from 1983 per­fectly rep­res­ents the tri­an­gu­lar rela­tion­ship of synth pop with indus­tri­al and post-punk music. The cold, mech­an­ic­al rhythm of “You” bor­rows from the per­cuss­ive sting of indus­tri­al tracks while the punk and post-punk influ­ences shine through in the vocal deliv­ery and aes­thet­ic of the music video.

German synth pop with close ties to industrial and post-punk. Boytronic, 1983

Boytronic pro­duced numer­ous examples of synth pop in this style, includ­ing “Diamonds and Loving Arms,” “Luna Square,” and “Photographs,” all of which fea­ture a leaden atmo­sphere with sharp per­cus­sion, robot­ic syn­thes­izer tones, and unsmil­ing, semi-spoken vocals.

To fully under­stand the close rela­tion­ship between synth pop and indus­tri­al music, it’s worth examin­ing the work of indus­tri­al pion­eers SPK. When the group released their Machine Age Voodoo album in 1984, it was a marked depar­ture from the exper­i­ment­al indus­tri­al noise they made on earli­er releases like 1982’s Leichenschrei. Instead, the record­ing incor­por­ated ele­ments of the synth pop style that was rap­idly gain­ing momentum in the first half of the 1980s.

The res­ult is tracks like “Seduction” that fea­ture a vicious, strik­ing rhythm with detailed per­cus­sion and prom­in­ent vocal leads, all delivered with steely pro­duc­tion. These cre­ations per­fectly rep­res­ent the deep bond between indus­tri­al and synth pop music in the emer­ging years of both genres.

A hybrid synth pop-industrial creation from industrial pioneers SPK, 1984

Because of their close gen­es­is along­side one anoth­er in under­ground clubs, it’s accur­ate and rel­ev­ant to think of synth pop and indus­tri­al music as fraternal (non-identic­al) twins. This tight, nearly inex­tric­able rela­tion­ship between the two has per­sisted without inter­rup­tion for 40 years.

Crucially, true synth pop music always bears a mech­an­ic­al, robot­ic edge, and more often than not, per­cuss­ive ele­ments with an indus­tri­al touch. The more a music cre­at­or dis­con­nects from this mech­an­ic­al sound, the harder it becomes to clas­si­fy their cre­ations as synth pop.

This melt­ing pot of cre­at­ive ideas between synth pop, indus­tri­al, and post-punk music will also be famil­i­ar to fans of dark wave (not to be con­fused with dark syn­thwave, aka dark­synth), which emerged from the same under­ground cre­at­ive spaces. As post-punk evolved into increas­ingly diverse forms of music like dark wave, it fre­quently brought the synth pop and indus­tri­al twins with it.

For example, dark wave pion­eers Clan of Xymox’s self-titled album from 1985 car­ries clear examples of its rela­tion­ship to synth pop, par­tic­u­larly on the songs “Stranger” and “No Human Can Drown.” Synth pop and indus­tri­al ele­ments are present in an evolved, mod­ern form on the act’s new­er tracks like “Your Kiss” from 2017. Wolfsheim’s 1991 song “The Sparrows and the Nightingales” is anoth­er excel­lent example of a dark wave track that can be fully clas­si­fied as synth pop.

Dark synth pop from Germany’s Wolfsheim, 1991

During the ‘90s and ‘00s, synth pop’s rela­tion­ship with dark wave and indus­tri­al music became espe­cially vis­ible with­in the con­text of the ever-expand­ing EBM cul­ture and sev­er­al of its sub­genres and out­growths. For example, many future pop cre­at­ors incor­por­ated a dir­ect and imme­di­ate evol­u­tion of synth pop music into their songs, bring­ing along touches of dark wave and industrial.

Several of Solitary Experiments’ songs from the ‘00s cap­ture the essence of this mix­ture well, adding mod­ern pro­duc­tion touches and EDM sens­ib­il­it­ies to the blend, as on “Delight.” As with many synth pop cre­ations, “Delight” con­tains a dis­pas­sion­ate, android-like vocal deliv­ery along with a stark, indus­tri­al-spiked rhythm section.

Dark synth pop with future pop production. Solitary Experiments, 2005

Covenant’s “Dead Stars” has a light­er tone than “Delight” but is a mod­ern synth pop song by every defin­i­tion, includ­ing its rigid and force­ful 4/4 beat, dra­mat­ic­ally robot­ic synth melod­ies, and ster­il­ized vocal deliv­ery. Another excel­lent example of this dir­ect, future-minded evol­u­tion of synth pop is Colony 5’s “Heta Nätter” from 2005. Despite the updated pro­duc­tion on the track, its ties to pion­eer­ing synth pop cre­ations are unmis­tak­able, and because “Heta Nätter” has a dir­ect and imme­di­ate styl­ist­ic con­nec­tion to early ‘80s synth pop from Depeche Mode, it is fully accur­ate to clas­si­fy it as a synth pop song.

Synth pop with future pop production. Colony 5, 2005

So, Why Is Everything Else Called Synth Pop?

Although synth pop blends evenly into many dif­fer­ent styles of music, its defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics are often easy to identi­fy. Yet the term is applied to an enorm­ous range of music whose cre­ations often hold no styl­ist­ic con­nec­tions to one another.

Like many oth­er pop­u­lar music genres – such as heavy met­al – fans, journ­al­ists, and musi­cians con­tin­ued to use the term “synth pop” to refer to new forms of music that developed well bey­ond the genre’s sig­na­ture sound. As men­tioned earli­er, this is largely due to its close con­nec­tion with new wave music and the ways in which synth pop and new wave were incor­por­ated into pop­u­lar music of the 1980s.

As a res­ult of the rap­id cre­at­ive evol­u­tion around the style and the fail­ure to cre­ate or embrace new terms, “synth pop” became an increas­ingly broad and ambigu­ous term. Once the name became unmoored from its ori­gin­al sound and was car­ried into main­stream pop of the ‘80s, it began to float around in gen­er­al pub­lic con­scious­ness without any­thing con­crete to attach itself to, and so new fans and cre­at­ors began assign­ing it to unre­lated genres without under­stand­ing what it meant or where it came from.

The res­ult is that artists like Thompson Twins and Howard Jones are some­times placed under its ban­ner, des­pite them mak­ing music that is bet­ter defined as “new wave” or bet­ter still, “‘80s com­mer­cial pop.”

Although this mis­con­cep­tion of synth pop some­times reaches extremes (as we’ll see later with syn­thwave artists), there are plenty of gray areas to jus­ti­fy the con­fu­sion. Madonna’s first two albums, for example, show unmis­tak­able influ­ences from synth pop. “Burning Up” from her 1983 debut holds a strong con­nec­tion to synth pop with its stiff, syn­thet­ic rhythm, though it would be dif­fi­cult to fully clas­si­fy it under that label, as the music is largely dis­con­nec­ted from the robot­ic, under­stated feel of the genre. Instead, notice the friendly, invit­ing pro­duc­tion tone and hook-heavy singing style of the track below.

‘80s commercial pop with synth pop influences. Madonna, 1983

Once again, it’s much more accur­ate to identi­fy the song as simply “‘80s com­mer­cial pop” or “‘80s pop.” Although a name like “‘80s pop” may sound gen­er­ic, it’s actu­ally fully rel­ev­ant as a genre descriptor and rep­res­ents the melt­ing pot of ideas that was hap­pen­ing at the time. ‘80s pop artists came from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds, though they grav­it­ated toward a cent­ral music idea and cre­ated a diverse but cre­at­ively har­mo­ni­ous genre of music.

Pet Shop Boys provide anoth­er example of an artist blend­ing synth pop with out­side styles, and their music is a sig­ni­fic­ant source of con­fu­sion over the term. Although the duo’s earli­est tracks like “West End Girls” are clearly synth pop-related, the music is miss­ing some of the rigid, android-like tone of the genre and favors a more access­ible, com­mer­cial sound. Where the real con­fu­sion sets in is on later releases, as the act rap­idly shif­ted away from their synth pop roots and began incor­por­at­ing stronger dance influ­ences, free-flow­ing melod­ies, and oth­er dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent ele­ments for a remark­able new sound.

This is plain to hear on Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 track “It’s a Sin,” whose lush instru­ment­a­tion, sweep­ing orches­tra, power­ful vocal deliv­ery, and rich pro­duc­tion style pull it remark­ably far away from synth pop.

‘80s pop and dance music with distant roots in synth pop. Pet Shop Boys, 1987

A sim­il­ar type of evol­u­tion can be tracked with­in the dis­co­graphy of Depeche Mode, who by 1990’s Violator album had shif­ted into a more grace­ful style of music that aligned with com­mer­cial pop of the era and was dif­fi­cult to clas­si­fy as synth pop. This type of shift with­in a single artist’s dis­co­graphy is far from rare, par­tic­u­larly among music artists who find wide­spread com­mer­cial suc­cess. (For example, Judas Priest was argu­ably clas­si­fi­able as hard rock in the late ‘70s, heavy met­al in the early to mid-‘80s, and power met­al by the time they reached 1988’s Ram it Down and 1990’s Painkiller.)

Numerous oth­er artists from the era, includ­ing Alphaville and Eurythmics, fall into sim­il­ar cre­at­ive spaces as Pet Shop Boys, craft­ing detailed com­pos­i­tions with diverse instru­ment­a­tion and power­ful vocal leads that are only partly related to synth pop. In spite of the fact they are often asso­ci­ated with the term, none of their songs fit cleanly with­in the synth pop genre.

The rap­id evol­u­tion of cre­at­ive styles dur­ing the '80s ulti­mately caused the name “synth pop” to float around among unre­lated music styles for dec­ades, fre­quently caus­ing con­fu­sion whenev­er it turned up. Synthwave is simply the latest form of music to inher­it the synth pop label without own­ing a dir­ect and imme­di­ate con­nec­tion to the genre.

Is Synthwave the Same Thing as Synth Pop?

Synthwave is not the same genre of music as synth pop, nor is it a sub­genre of synth pop. It is also not a reviv­al of the older genre.

Once again, there is a full his­tory of syn­thwave avail­able here, but for the pur­poses of this art­icle, it's enough to say that syn­thwave largely grew out of EDM of the mid-‘00s, and it tends to have softer per­cus­sion and bright, detailed melod­ies with a warm pro­duc­tion style. Its pion­eer­ing cre­ations pull heavy influ­ences from funk, disco, and the ori­gin­al form of elec­tro (think Herbie Hancock's "Rockit"), as well as from film scores and video game soundtracks. The sparse, mech­an­ic­al aspects of synth pop, as well as its steely pro­duc­tion, are absent from syn­thwave-defin­ing cre­ations like Mitch Murder’s “Midnight Mall” from 2010.

Instead, note the prom­in­ent and elab­or­ate bass­line, nuanced per­cus­sion, and diverse melod­ic touches in the song below.

True synthwave (outrun) music with minor similarities to synth pop. Mitch Murder, 2010

It’s true that some early syn­thwave releases like those from Miami Nights 1984 and Lost Years are at least peri­pher­ally related to synth pop, though in the early and mid-2010s their cre­ations were vir­tu­ally nev­er mis­taken for the older genre. It’s roughly accur­ate to think of synth pop and out­run (the ori­gin­al form of syn­thwave music) as music­al neigh­bors, liv­ing on the same block and wav­ing to each oth­er in passing, but rarely ever shar­ing dir­ect con­ver­sa­tions with one another.

True synthwave (outrun) with minor similarities to synth pop. Lost Years, 2013

The strongest sim­il­ar­ity between most out­run and synth pop is the 4/4 time sig­na­ture and crisp rhythmic ele­ments that appear on many songs in each genre. However, these ele­ments are wide­spread through­out many forms of music, includ­ing unre­lated ones like jazz and folk rock, and alone are not a strong basis of com­par­is­on. If they were, Bob Dylan’s 1985 track “Tight Connection to My Heart” and Bon Jovi’s 1986 hit “Livin’ on a Prayer” would be synth pop songs.

The cur­rent con­fu­sion over the synth pop name seems to stem from the increas­ing pre­val­ence of vocal tracks with­in the syn­thwave genre and the shift away from lin­ear song struc­tures into pop formats with dis­tinct­ive verse and chor­us sec­tions. Although it seems logic­al to com­bine "syn­thwave" and "pop" to “synth pop” or simply to con­nect syn­thwave with vocals to the ambigu­ously used name for the older genre, this is often done without real­iz­ing the depth and extent of synth pop’s his­tory as a spe­cif­ic style of music.

In a dis­tinctly iron­ic twist, the most pop­u­lar artists mak­ing the shift into pop music, such as The Midnight and FM-84, are actu­ally evolving away from synth pop and into a soft, com­mer­cial style of the late 2010s that holds no mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion to the sounds of synth pop.

A dreamy blend of synthwave with indie pop. The Midnight, 2018

Not only is this music fully dis­con­nec­ted from synth pop, but its ties to tra­di­tion­al syn­thwave have become increas­ingly thin as well. In con­trast with early syn­thwave, which bor­rowed heav­ily from ‘80s music cul­ture like Euro disco, elec­tro, and video game soundtracks, acts like The Midnight and FM-84 increas­ingly turn toward con­tem­por­ary forms of EDM and com­mer­cial pop music for inspir­a­tion, com­bin­ing mod­ern main­stream sounds with retro synth tones for a unique and fresh blend of styles.

Compare songs like The Midnight’s “Lost Boy,” The Bad Dreamers’ “New York Minute,” or FM-84's “Bend and Break” to any of the synth pop examples in the sec­tion above, such as Kraftwerk’s “The Telephone Call,” and the dif­fer­ences are remark­able. FM-84's col­lab­or­a­tion with Ollie Wride on “Bend and Break” is an excel­lent example of a syn­thwave song with pop vocals that holds no con­nec­tion to synth pop music.

Synthwave blended with contemporary pop. FM-84 and Ollie Wride, 2019

This pop-flavored evol­u­tion of syn­thwave is a col­or­ful and lush style of music with flu­id rhythms, bright syn­thes­izer tones, and power­fully emotive vocals with strong melod­ic hooks. It dif­fers dra­mat­ic­ally from the mech­an­ic­al beats, sparse com­pos­i­tions, and robot­ic vocal deliv­ery of synth pop music, and the two styles are fun­da­ment­ally unrelated.

In fact, it’s increas­ingly accur­ate to think of this music as a sub­genre of con­tem­por­ary com­mer­cial pop. Aside from its retro synth tones, “Bend and Break” has a strik­ingly sim­il­ar feel to The Jonas Brothers’ “I Believe,” also from 2019.

‘10s commercial pop. The Jonas Brothers, 2019

To fur­ther illus­trate this cre­at­ive divide, it’s worth com­par­ing “Bend and Break” side-by-side with a retro synth pop cre­ation from the same dec­ade. And One’s “Dancing in the Factory” from 2011 is a true synth pop track unmis­tak­ably writ­ten and per­formed in the style of early Depeche Mode cre­ations like “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

A true synth pop track in the modern era. And One, 2011

“Dancing in the Factory” can be tied dir­ectly to pion­eer­ing synth pop cre­ations and is a synth pop song in the fullest sense pos­sible. In con­trast, it would be neces­sary to back­track through numer­ous genres, eras, and sev­er­al branches of post-synth pop evol­u­tion to begin to con­nect FM-84’s music to the roots of the synth pop genre. Those tangled and numer­ous degrees of sep­ar­a­tion make it impossible to clas­si­fy songs like “Bend and Break” as synth pop.

FM-84, The Midnight, The Bad Dreamers, and dozens of oth­ers are innov­at­ive and pion­eer­ing acts for­ging an excit­ing and increas­ingly pop­u­lar style of synth-based music worthy of new terms and new dis­cus­sions about syn­thwave. However, if a gen­er­al or broad term is needed to describe the music in cas­u­al con­ver­sa­tion, it is much more rel­ev­ant and less con­fus­ing to simply call their cre­ations “pop music” or “main­stream pop” instead of synth pop, as they share much stronger sim­il­ar­it­ies with com­mer­cial genres of the past dec­ade than with any form of synth pop or oth­er music from the 1980s.

On the oth­er hand, if gen­er­al­it­ies are to be avoided, fans, journ­al­ists, and artists should embrace more spe­cif­ic, rel­ev­ant labels like “syn­thwave,” “pop syn­thwave” or a new term that does not already have dec­ades worth of deep, con­crete asso­ci­ations attached to it for mil­lions of listeners.

There’s Some Overlap Between Synthwave and Synth Pop, Right?

Absolutely. As with nearly all genres, there is some over­lap in styles between syn­thwave and synth pop, and there are clear examples of music that can be accur­ately clas­si­fied with­in both genres. In these cases, it is pre­dom­in­ately the song­writ­ing and per­form­ance of the music that makes it synth pop while the retro synth tones and oth­er throw­back pro­duc­tion touches shift it into the realm of synthwave.

Mecha Maiko is one of the few artists mak­ing a hybrid form of synth pop and syn­thwave. “Electric Heat” from her 2018 solo album Mad But Soft con­tains the indus­tri­al-tinged per­cus­sion, stiff rhythms, cold pro­duc­tion, and reserved vocal tone that define synth pop music, and it eas­ily falls with­in the same scope of music as all the synth pop songs dis­cussed above, includ­ing tracks like Boytronic’s “You.” The artist's pre­vi­ous pro­ject, Dead Astronauts, also cre­ated numer­ous songs that can be accur­ately clas­si­fied as both synth pop and syn­thwave, such as “Black Echo.”

Synth pop with synthwave production. Dead Astronauts, 2018

Many of the songs on Alex’s Simulations album from 2018 can also be prop­erly clas­si­fied as synth pop, par­tic­u­larly tracks like “Game Over” and “Random Access Fantasies.” In fact, these songs argu­ably have more in com­mon with synth pop than syn­thwave. A high num­ber of songs in Compilerbau’s dis­co­graphy are also fully clas­si­fi­able as synth pop, includ­ing vocal tracks like “Talking Machines” (once again fea­tur­ing the theme of sen­tient robots) and “Far Away.” Several Maxthor cre­ations, par­tic­u­larly the artist’s col­lab­or­a­tion with The Foreign on “The Streets of 1987, Pt. 2,” blend the song­writ­ing and deliv­ery of synth pop music with syn­thwave pro­duc­tion. Notice the robot­ic vocal deliv­ery, min­im­al rhythm, and quick snap of the per­cus­sion in the song below.

Synth pop with synthwave production. The Foreign and Maxthor, 2015

These cre­ations and sim­il­ar ones con­sti­tute a rel­at­ively small slice of syn­thwave, and roughly five per­cent or less of syn­thwave cre­ations could be clas­si­fied as any form of synth pop music. Generally speak­ing, synth pop and its defin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics are absent from the broad­er syn­thwave genre.

On a related note, how­ever, the wide­spread reviv­al of post-punk and dark wave music cur­rently under­way con­tains many songs that can be prop­erly clas­si­fied as synth pop, such as “Geometric Vision’s “Jelly Dream” and Minuit Machine’s “Empty Shell.” This reviv­al of music is much more closely related to synth pop than syn­thwave is, a fact that makes per­fect sense from a his­tor­ic­al per­spect­ive. She Past Away has pro­duced numer­ous dark wave tracks with strong synth pop under­pin­nings over the past dec­ade, and songs like “Katarsis” are an unmis­tak­able mod­ern example of dark wave and synth pop’s dec­ades-long relationship.

Dark wave with a strong synth pop foundation. She Past Away, 2016

Although it’s true there are some gray areas between syn­thwave and synth pop, demarc­a­tion lines must exist some­where, or else every song in the world becomes a synth pop song. Synthwave and synth pop have remark­ably dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­ist­ics and his­tor­ic­al evol­u­tions, and with­in the scope of synth-based music, are sep­ar­ate genres that often appeal to sep­ar­ate demo­graph­ics of listeners.

To reit­er­ate the ana­logy from earli­er, they are much more like music­al neigh­bors than house­mates or fam­ily members.

Another look at the genre map from earli­er reveals the pat­tern of evol­u­tion across genres through spe­cif­ic songs. Once again, it’s import­ant to note that it’s impossible to fully clas­si­fy music in this way, and so the song loc­a­tions are approx­im­a­tions meant as a visu­al ref­er­ence, not con­crete categorizations.

Synthwave vs Synthpop song map with colorful venn diagrams Iron Skullet
(Click to enlarge genre map.)

Conclusion

Using the terms "syn­thwave" and “synth pop” inter­change­ably causes real con­fu­sion for listen­ers of both genres, com­plic­at­ing the pro­cess of con­nect­ing inter­ested fans with artists they will enjoy. Synthwave has its own name and identi­fy­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ics, and there’s no need to ret­ro­act­ively bor­row the name of a dif­fer­ent and beloved genre of music. (Particularly as “syn­thwave” was already co-opted from a more loosely defined term for syn­thes­izer music in the 1980s.)

This fact would’ve been true of syn­thwave five or six years ago, though it’s more rel­ev­ant now than ever. Fans of the stark and often indus­tri­al-minded sounds of synth pop are not always likely to embrace the soft, rich, and sen­ti­ment­al music of artists like The Midnight and FM-84, whose vocal-driv­en com­pos­i­tions are a sig­ni­fic­ant source of con­fu­sion over the name.

Like all aspects of lan­guage, the fun­da­ment­al pur­pose of music genres is to help us identi­fy our shared exper­i­ences and com­mu­nic­ate ideas with one anoth­er. To that end, the goal is always to be as clear as pos­sible, thereby min­im­iz­ing con­fu­sion, improv­ing com­pre­hen­sion, and most import­antly, enjoy­ing and shar­ing the music we love.

Synthwave and synth pop are dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent genres that occa­sion­ally mingle at their edges and are oth­er­wise con­tent to explore their own ideas. They are each unique and won­der­ful genres with thou­sands of con­trib­ut­ing artists who have helped define the shape and sub­stance of their indi­vidu­al styles, and they each deserve to have their names reserved for their spe­cif­ic cre­at­ive approaches.

Early British synth pop from Ultravox, 1982