Industry Spotlight, Guest Column, Recommended Reading

Then & Now: Synthpop

Seth Lorinczi
Seth Lorinczi on Oct 16, 2018

Ah, synthpop. Now there’s a word that rolls off the tongue like “soft-serve,” or any other sweet confection of days gone by. A guilty pleasure, a bit of cotton-candy for the ears, and a musical genre many thought—or sometimes hoped—was relegated to the dustbin of history.

Was it? Yes and no. In the strictest sense, synthpop was a musical movement springing from the larger new wave scene of the late 1970s. If electronica, as we’ve discussed previously, was a genre with deep roots in experimental music and academia, synthpop was its younger, less complicated cousin, poppier and less challenging. It wasn’t necessarily a style designed to last.

But to nearly everyone’s surprise, synthpop turned out to be a genre with staying power. If “serious” musicians dismissed early synthpop pioneers as lightweights, they couldn’t help but acknowledge the genre’s commercial success. By the mid-80s, only a few years after its initial breakthrough, synthpop or its variants ruled the airwaves. And though the genre faded from the spotlight with the diversification of styles anticipated by the turn of the decade into the ‘90s, its descendants—everyone from the Killers to Lady Gaga to Calvin Harris—ensure that synthpop, or some faint echo of it, will be heard for years to come.

Synthetic Origins and the Digital Revolution

Like electronica, synthpop is for the most part impossible without the synthesizer, an instrument that creates—synthesizes—sound waves electronically rather than acoustically. The first “affordable” and readily available example was Robert Moog’s MiniMoog, costing some $10,000 in today’s dollars in 1970.

Early synthesizers were a far cry from the ubiquitous keyboards of today. In addition to requiring manual setup and programming, they were monophonic, meaning that only note at a time could be played. This was fine against the backdrop of rock music—one compelling example is the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun”—or in the experimental musings of avant-garde composers such as Pauline Oliveros, but relatively few attempted to use these early machines as the backbone of pop music.

By the mid-70s, several manufacturers were producing workable polyphonic synthesizers. What’s more, these instruments—including now-famous names such as Sequential Circuits’ Prophet 5 and Roland Jupiter-4—were shrinking in size and cost, making them both more practical to use in live settings, and attainable by average musicians.

While some artists in this period, such as Cat Stevens, updated their more or less traditional arrangements with synthesizers, others took the instrument further. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte in 1977, in some regards pushed the synthesizer farther than it had been before. In the absence of reliable sequencing tools, it required a laborious “hand assembled” approach in the recording studio, but it pointed the way forward towards modern, electronic dance music.

Meanwhile, some musicians emerging from the rubble of the punk movement were approaching the instrument from another direction entirely. Gary Numan was a member of Tubeway Army, a more-or-less conventional guitar-led outfit, but upon discovering a by-that-point obsolete MiniMoog in a recordio studio, he was excited by its atmospheric, moody potential. In the summer of 1979, his “Are Friends Electric?” became the first song that could reasonably be called “synthpop” to top the UK charts.

Around this time, the first workable digital synthesizers were hitting the market. From a sonic perspective, the difference between them and older analog units was slight. But in terms of practicality, they represented a quantum leap. Now sequencing, memory recall, modulation and a host of other functions could be controlled with absolute precision each and every time the instrument was used. And crucially, it meant that rhythm and other tracks could be arranged, pre-recorded, and played back with the push of a button. All the essential elements for synthpop’s domination were now in place.

To The Top of the Charts And Back

With the punk wave having run its course, the stage was set for something fresh, and with new, user-friendly tools—and public curiosity—in hand, synthpop artists were prepared to take their emerging genre to the very top of the charts. The “New Romantic” movement, a frilly, glammy and heavily ornamented style originating from New Wave, produced bands such as Spandau Ballet and Ultravox. By far the most successful of these was Duran Duran, who imbued synthpop with a more organic and danceable feel that garnered them massive chart success and, in America at least, talk of a “Second British Invasion.”

Others would soon follow. The Human League were initially more or less an art project straddling the worlds of experimental minimalism and electro-punk. With their third album, Dare,  they took their chilly synthpop in a new, more danceable direction. The record, which included the smash hit “Don’t You Want Me,” would soon be recognized as a commercial and artistic high-water mark for the genre.

In England, artsy outfits like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode and Japan all found success on the charts, but in America, the path to fame lay largely through a new medium: The music video.

The “new music” then beginning to break into American radio station programming was tailor-made for videos. (Think big hair, primary colors, and jumpsuits.) A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran (So Far Away)” reached the Top Ten almost solely on the strength of its accompanying video, filmed in a mirror- and foil-covered room. You can judge its effectiveness for yourself.

Of course, there had to be a backlash. After artists like Howard Jones and Thompson Twins had their respective moments, guitar-driven rock came back with a vengeance. By mid-decade, what some have termed “heritage rock”—Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp—had largely squeezed out synthpop in America, while in the UK, indie bands like the Smiths paved the way for the guitar-driven sound of what was to come in the fertile underground of the ‘90s.

Synthpop Today

“Everything that comes around…” they say. The “edgy” hairstyles, androgynous fashion and synth tones that so infuriated the budding roots rockers of the ‘80s faded from view, became punchlines, and then—perhaps inevitably—began a cautious comeback.

As is so often the case, these first tentative tones came from the underground fringes, made in many cases by emerging artists who had been too young to embrace synthpop the first time around. Fischerspooner, the Postal Service and the Killers all released their debut albums within a few years of the turning of the millennium, and since then the prevalence of self-consciously backwards-looking—or sounding—pop has only grown.

Before turning her gaze to other genres, Lady Gaga mined the vaults of electropop—a harder-edged variant of synthpop—to massive commercial success. And Adam Wiles—better known as Calvin Harris—has built an astonishing career based largely on synthpop and its variants.

Of course, as those who enjoyed the genre in its first go-around deepen into middle age, the demand for music referencing those original songs will only intensify. Will synthpop become an audible time capsule, or will younger generations use their freedom of choice to give this durable genre new interpretations and variations yet unimagined? Stay tuned, dear reader.

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