Imagine driving on the freeway at night. No other cars around, the road ahead seems to stretch into forever. The perfect soundtrack for such a setting would come from an emerging music genre called “Synthwave” — retro-electronic music that brings beats from the 1980s, sends them though the modern-day computers systems, and spits out music that you can drive to all night.
Over the past few years, there has been a boom in retro electronic music, commonly known as synthwave. Inspired by 1980s electropop, synthesizers, and film soundtracks, synthwave is quickly rising in popularity among music fans, and it has spilled over into movies, video games, and soon, the mainstream.
The 1980s saw the rise of synthesizers and electronic music, but those tracks were rather crude compared to the advanced notes that modern computers are capable of. Those “crude” notes are one of the big appeals of synthwave — the genre embraces the imperfections. Inspired by the 1980s new wave of electronic music and samples, synthwave artists are turning out instrumental tracks with heavy focus on analog synthesizers, reverbs, and sci-fi samples. Often, the only “lyrics” will be lines of dialogue mixed in from 80s movies.
Nostalgia plays a big part in the synthwave culture. From the music videos, to the album cover designs, to the promotional materials, even the typefaces and colors, all take their inspiration from the 1980s in one way or another. The persona of one of the pioneers of synthwave, French musician Kavinsky, includes his trademark 1980s clothes and shoes, and a Ferrari Testarossa — the quintessential 1980s sports car, as seen in his “Protovision” music video below.
Synthwave emerged in the late 2000s thanks to two French artists: Vincent Belorgey aka Kavinsky, and David Grellier, aka. College. Both artists were featured in the 2011 movie Drive, the first movie to use a synthwave-heavy soundtrack, and the movie that got many on the synthwave bandwagon.
Kavinsky drew inspiration from 80s electropop and film soundtracks to come up with a distinct take on electronic music. By comparison, David Grellier was influenced by his own childhood, growing up in the 1980s at the height of American cultural export.
Other artists soon started emerging around France. James Kent, aka Perturbator, started creating his own variation on synthwave, with darker, moodier tones, sometimes dubbed “dark-synth”. As the new underground genre started attracting more fans, more and more artists came forth with their own retro-inspired tunes.
While Perturbator brings the dark side of synthwave, Miami Nights 1984 takes its inspiration from Miami in the 1980s, featuring tracks perfect for a drive into the sunset. Or a remake of Miami Vice.
If Miami isn’t the right setting for you, Johan Benghtsson, aka Mitch Murder, finds inspiration for his synthwave tracks from 1980s New York and its fast-paced Wall Street culture. He describes his Mitch Murder persona as “…an overworked Wall Street I.T. from the 80’s who dreams at night other realities for himself. These are the soundtrack to his dreams”.
After its emergence and popularity in France, synthwave artists are now found all over the world: Dynatron (Denmark), Mitch Murder (Sweden), Night Runner (Brazil), Lazerhawk (USA), Power Glove (Australia), Miami Nights 1984 (Canada), FutureCop (England), Timecop1983 (Netherlands).
None of these artists are associated or signed with any major labels. Most of them distribute their albums themselves through Bandcamp. In addition to Bandcamp, YouTube plays a massive role for synthwave artists — it is the way to promote their tracks, which are often music videos featuring clips from 80s movies, Japanese anime, or custom-made 3D graphics inspired by the early digital computer graphics effects that emerged in the 1980s.
YouTube has so far become the de-facto way to get a feel of synthwave. The online video site has dozens of channels dedicated to the genre, and some of them have huge followings. Channels such as New Retro Wave, Luigi Donatello, Maniac Synth have over 160,000 subscribers and 50 million video views between them.
Like many emerging music trends, synthwave isn’t just a new genre of music. It’s quickly becoming an art style as well. When it comes to the art of synthwave, there’s a solid foundation in 80s trends and graphics, from neon, to sharp typefaces, to dark and gritty city-scapes (and always at night).
By far the most dominant color of synthwave is magenta
If a single color could be assigned to represent synthwave, it would be magenta. It plays a prominent role as either the primary or accent color of most synthwave album covers and artworks (examples seen above), alongside other neon colors, most often variations of teal and cobalt blue.
In addition to a distinct color palette, synthwave artists commonly use 80s science fiction artworks as inspiration, such as B-movie posters, commercials, VHS covers, and the crude computer generated graphics of the time.
If there’s one movie that brought synthwave into the mainstream, it’s Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Released in 2011, Drive’s soundtrack was the first time a (somewhat) mainstream Hollywood film relied on synthwave, and it fit the movie’s style perfectly. Scored by Cliff Martinez, with tracks from Kavinsky and College, the music was just perfect for a movie centering around driving at night in Los Angeles.
The torch was later picked up and carried on by 2014’s The Guest, and 2015’s hit indie horror It Follows. Both movies feature synthwave-heavy soundtracks. Finally, the cult short film Kung Fury, a parody of all things 80s, featured a soundtrack by Mitch Murder, one of the most popular synthwave artists of today.
“If there’s one movie that brought synthwave into the mainstream, it’s Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive”
In addition to movies, synthwave is now rising in popularity in video games as well. Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the perfect synthwave game: a combination of music by Power Glove and visuals bathed in neon and magentas. Additionally, the game brings back old 80s movie tropes, from corny dialogue, to its cyberpunk setting, complete with killer cyborgs and dinosaurs. For icing on the synthwave cake, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon features Michael Biehn, the actor who starred in iconic 80s action movies such as The Terminator and Aliens.
The following is a list of selected synthwave artists and links to their works.
Emily Auburn previously wrote about Playtime: The lost Modernist Masterpiece.