Remember the eighties? Those fond memories of driving through neon pink and blue-hued cityscapes saturated by blinking arcades and illuminated shopping malls. Your car is buzzing with electronic synthwave beats playing from your cassette as you move towards the sunset through empty streets.
It sounds familiar, right?
Probably not. But this is what synthwave music would have you remember.
Synthwave is a genre of music that plays with our nostalgia. The genre began in the late noughties and drew its inspiration from films, songs and arcade games from the eighties. Although the music is popular, it is the aesthetic retro look that really drew fans in.
Origins of Synthwave
Our journey in synthwave begins with French house musicians from the late noughties. Although no one had heard of the term ‘synthwave’ until a few years later, many French house musicians began creating music inspired by science fiction and horror films from the eighties. For example, Justice, a French electronic duo, sampled the main theme song from Dario Argento’s popular horror film Tenebrae (1982) in ‘Phantom‘ and ‘Phantom II‘.
Similarly, M83, Daft Punk and Kavinsky inspired the genre because of their instrumental music created with synthesisers. Kavinsky’s single ‘Nightcall’ became synonymous with synthwave because of its inclusion in the film Drive (2011). The opening credits blares the electronic synth of ‘Nightcall’ as the viewer watches a skyline illuminated by city lights and Ryan Gosling’s character drive through the quiet streets.
The Longing to Drive
Driving is a consistent theme when listening to synthwave music. Drive brought the genre into mainstream media and drew attention to artists like Kavinsky. However, the music genre originated from OutRun, an 8-bit driving arcade game released in 1986.
You can listen to the game’s soundtrack on YouTube to understand how heavily the music influenced the genre and other artists.
In fact, Out Run‘s soundtrack inspired Kavinsky’s debut album (rightly named) ‘OutRun’, released in 2013. The television show Miami Vice and Dario Argento’s horror films were also influences of the conceptual album. The album pays homage to 1986 because it conceptualises a man crashing his car in 1986 and re-awakening as a zombie in 2006.
Driving + Miami = Synthwave
Okay, the perfect environment to listen to synthwave music is in the car. But, being in the car is only one part of the equation. Add driving a vehicle with Miami, and you have the perfect setting for listening to synthwave.
Miami Vice is one of the influences for the aesthetic setting of Miami. But, the primary influence is Playstation’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a driving game released in 2002. Funnily enough, the game was based in 1986.
OutRun and GTA: Vice City intertwine music within their gameplay. Both the games offer unique soundtracks built into a car radio simulation. The player could switch between tracks like they are switching between radio stations whilst driving.
Enter Tron: Legacy
The simulated radio station playing modern synth music mixed with driving in a gaming environment began the foundations for the genre’s aesthetic. Gamers feel connected, and even nostalgic, for these digital worlds built on gridlines and a glitched perception of freedom where a new world expands and simultaneously shrinks as you drive through it.
If a film could ideally incorporate the mix between arcade games, driving and synthwave, it would be Tron: Legacy (2011). Daft Punk’s electro soundtrack completes the scenes of digitised motorbikes driving through a cyber, neon and grid-lined world.
Longing For A Time Once Not
Much of synthwave’s attraction to the eighties is due to the decade being a time of new technological possibilities. As a result, many pictures associated with the genre are gaming arcades with glowing screens, colourful plastic cassettes and crackling retro films playing from a VHS tape.
If you have seen Stranger Things, then you can picture the stylised world of the eighties that synthwave tried to paint. Many of the show’s scenes include arcade games, pink and blue neon colours, and squeaky clean empty shopping malls with grid lined floors. Even the theme song of Stranger Things has electronic disco music associated with synthwave.
The consistent theme of cars, shopping and gaming, satirises the capitalist dream projected on ’80s America. The nostalgic dreamscape painted over YouTube videos, and album artwork of synthwave songs shows how idealised the eighties technology, capitalist and pop cultures was.
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