The History of Synthwave

Do you remember the 80's? The era of roller skates, VHS and Walkman cassette, the golden age of neon’s, synths and future. The 80’s were an era when we used to fantasize a lot about the future. From the dystopian post-apocalyptic vision of the future to the high-tech utopian fantasy, the 80’s were like a draft of the  present.

The Legend of Synthwave

The nostalgia of that spirit led, at the beginning of the 2000s, to the appearance of a new kind of electronic music that goes by the name of Synthwave. A new kind of music ?
Well, not completely. That’s why today we go back, to the future!
synthwave history
You may have noticed there’s a lot of nostalgia going around these days. Every time I read the comment of one of my articles, there’s always someone going like : I wish I grew up in ths 80s. Iwas born 10 years too late. I wasn't even alive in the 80s ... and I'm still getting nostalgia from this. But the 80s nostalgia is really special, because it’s about the 80’s as we fantasize them and not as they were, exactly the same way we used to fantasize about the years 20 10 during the 80’s.
The success of films with bygone aesthetics like Drive or Kung Fury shows that, but it’s really more the indie game Hotline Miami that allowed a lot of fans of the 80’s to relive it, in an idealized way. That game guided the player through a world inspired by retro wave, a kind of electronic music inspired by new wave, funk, hip hop, movies and video games from the popular culture of the 80’s. Buty how to call that music genre ?
History of Synthwave

Other Genres

Well there’s a lot of possible names, like newretrowave, synthpop, darksynth, outrun, futuresynth, dreamwave and synthwave, et cetera. Of course, there are slight differences between these genres of music, and if you’re a fan of darksynth you’re gonna think that dreamwave is pretty boring or even … gay. I will speak about that in another article. We’re just gonna call it synthwave for today. Now let’s take a look at where it came from. Electronic music didn’t start today and there’s a lot of alternative styles of electro music going around, from the best to the worst, and electro music has evolved a lot before ending up in nightclubs. Let’s take a look at the period of the 70s and 80s. This period is extremely important in the history of electronic music and above all in the evolution of the synthesizer. There was a lot of innovation of musical instruments going around at that time. The synthesizer already existed since the 60s and some of them like the Minimoog or the Organon were used a lot in psychedelic rock music by Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Edgar Froese or my fellow  countryman Jean-Michel Jarre, and by great artists like Giorgio Moroder. The innovations in the domain of electronic  Enstruments in the 70s and the 80s allowed experimenters and artists to evolve this the synthesizer into an amazing instrument. The Roland synths and the drum machines make their appearance and Yamaha releases the DX7, one of the most popular digital synths ever. Those innovations and the experiments resulting from it popularized new genres and even made it to he hip hop scene with artists like Herbie hancock using ARP synthesizers.

Mainstream and Synthwave

Synths are then used in pop music by mainstream artists like Madonna and in the whole new wave trend of the 80’s. Finally, synthesizer is present everywhere from music to advertising and television series, and above all: cinema. One of the first early examples of synths film soundtracks comes from the 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange, in which most of the music is pieces of Beethoven played on a Moog synthesizer by the composer Wendy Carlos. And he’s not the only one! John Carpenter for instance uses synths a lot in the soundtrack of his movies. Brad Fiedel produces tracks for Terminator, Vangelis releases the amazing soundtrack of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Tangerine Dreams produces the original soundtrack of Thief by Michael Mann. The 80s are a turning point for the electronic music. The synthesizers finally become a part of mainstream pop culture.
At that point, the western world enters a period of rapid de-industrialization accompanied by a rise of unemployment and poverty. Violent crime skyrockets. And yet, acclaimed military power of the US and unmatched technological innovation was pushing towards a feeling of optimism, and the future appeared either as a hyper-technological utopia or a dystopian post-apocalyptic nightmare.
These extreme fantasies expressed themselves a lot in the pop culture of that decade finally ending up coming back at us with synthwave. After the dominance of synths in the 80s, the 90s see the rise of techno and dance and synth music is not relevant anymore. Synthesizers make a timid comeback in 2001 when the French duo Daft Punk releases its second album, Discovery, characterized by a retro 80s feeling in the music. In 2005, the musical project.


College is launched by David Grellier, as an attempt to "to synthesize into his music the emotions of his childhood” and is greatly influenced by American 80s pop-culture. In the second part of the 2000s, Vincent Belorgey, a french touch composer, creates the character of Kavinsky, a teenager who died in a car crash in 1986 and whose spirit has merged with the car. He calls his music “OutRun”. In 2009, the swedish Mitch Murder releases his first EP featuring a refreshing and colorful  music, and will later include some chiptune samples in his tracks, giving his music a retro-gaming feel. At the very beginning of the 20 10s, synthwave is still an  alternative, underground music, with few producers involved like Kavinsky, Mitch Murder, the swedish Robert Parker and the american Com Truise. Com Truise delivers an easily recognizable and relaxing retro chillwave, with a soothing,  Colorful feeling to it. In 2011, the huge success of the Drive movie by danish film-maker Nicolas Winding Refn ends up putting synthwave in the news, with the tracks Nightcall by Kavinsky and A Real Hero by the canadian synthpop duo Electric Youth charting in Europe. The brutal retro feeling of the movie influences the swedish developers of Hotline Miami, an ultraviolent indie game released in 2012.
Synthwave 80s cars
Hotline Miami features some synthwave tracks, revealing the cyberpunk- influenced dark synth of Perturbator and the minimal electro of M.O.O.N. The soundtrack is part of the game, and as Hotline Miami gains a great success, so does the music! The synthwave music genre started to get public attention following the release of Hotline Miami 1 but especially its sequel. If we take a quick look at Google Trends, we can see that no one cared about synthwave or retrowave before the release of Hotline Miami 1. There’s a few results between the release dates of the first game and its sequel, and it totally blows after Hotline Miami 2. Between the two Hotline Miami games, the number of synthwave artists grows rapidly. The french artists Carpenter Brut from the metal music scene is making ultraviolent compositions with synthesizers, guitars and drums, thereafter having problems with some bigoted puritan towns. In 2013, Ubisoft releases the game FarCry Blood Dragon which owes part of its relative success to its Soundtrack, featuring artists like Power Glove. In the early 20 10s, the synthwave sub-genre of electronic music has transformed from a whisper on a few select Internet hubs into a self-sustaining musical ecosystem hoisting itself up and expanding rapidly.

Artists and Labels

Retro-wave labels are emerging, with Bloood Music, Future 80s Records and the allmighty NewRetroWave Records quickly becoming the most significant. With the profusion of synthwave artists, the 2015 game Hotline Miami 2 ends up with a soundtrack with 4 times more synthwave than its predecessor. 2015 is also the year of Kung Fury, a funny and kitsch movie funded on Kickstarter and starring David Sandberg. The presence of David Hasselhoff, icon of the 80s singing on a production of Mitch Murder, and the soundtrack featuring great synthwave artists like Betamaxx and Highway Superstar further improves the success of the musical genre. In 2016, the game Furi and the television serie Stranger Things both feature synthwave soundtracks that make the spectator’s experience complete. Since the mid-2000s, when gamers took a liking to French artists like Kavinsky and College who were creating sounds inspired by 80s film score legends, the synthwave  genre has exploded in a plume of modern electronic fury, with artists emerging all around the globe.
The special feeling of synthwave is coming from the nostalgic memories of the 80s tied to music. The imbalance of the 80s, with the optimistic perspective of a high-tech future clashing with the pessimistic prediction of a nuclear apocalypse is captured in synthwave; and there’s a comforting minimalism among the flickering neon signs, high-speed car chases, post-future haircuts and cyborg assassins. so guys this article was the first one of a series of article about the culture of synthwave if you liked it please leave a comment.

1 comment

  • Mark Stawecki
    Nice read. Why does a lot of synthwave art show a car?

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