|Cultural origins||Mid-to late 2000s; France, Western Europe|
Synthwave (also called outrun, retrowave, or futuresynth) is an electronic music microgenre that is based predominantly on the music associated with action, science-fiction, and horror film soundtracks of the 1980s. Other influences are drawn from the decade's art and video games. Synthwave musicians often espouse nostalgia for 1980s culture and attempt to capture the era's atmosphere and celebrate it.
The genre developed in the mid-to late 2000s through French house producers, as well as younger artists who were inspired by the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Other reference points included composers John Carpenter, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis (especially his score for the 1982 film Blade Runner), and Tangerine Dream. Synthwave reached wider popularity after being featured in the soundtracks of the 2011 film Drive (which included some of the genre's best-known songs), 2012 videogame Hotline Miami, 2017 film Thor: Ragnarok and the Netflix series Stranger Things.
Synthwave is a microgenre of electronic music that draws predominantly from 1980s films, video games, and cartoons, as well as composers such as John Carpenter, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream. Other reference points include electronic dance music genres including house, synth, and nu-disco. It is primarily an instrumental genre, although there are occasional exceptions to the rule. Common tempos are between 80 and 118 BPM, while more upbeat tracks may be between 128 and 140 BPM.
"Outrun" is a synonym of synthwave that was later used to refer more generally to retro 1980s aesthetics such as VHS tracking artifacts, magenta neon, and gridlines. The term comes from the 1986 arcade racing game Out Run, which is known for its soundtrack that could be selected in-game and its 1980s aesthetic. According to musician Perturbator (James Kent), outrun is also its own subgenre, mainly instrumental, and often contains 1980s clichéd elements in the sound such as electronic drums, gated reverb, and analog synthesizer bass lines and leads—all to resemble tracks from that time period. There is also a visual component on synthwave album covers and music videos. According to PC Gamer, the essence of outrun visuals is "taking elements of a period of '80s excess millennials find irresistibly evocative, and modernizing them so they're just barely recognizable."
Other subgenres include dreamwave, darksynth, and scifiwave. Journalist Julia Neuman cited "outrun", "futuresynth", and "retrowave" as alternative terms for synthwave while author Nicholas Diak wrote that "retrowave" was an umbrella term that encompasses 1980s revivalism genres such as synthwave and vaporwave. Darksynth is influenced by horror cinema. Invisible Oranges wrote that darksynth is exemplified mainly by a shift away from the bright "Miami Vice vibes" and "French electro house influences" and "toward the darker electronic terrains of horror movie maestro composers John Carpenter and Goblin" also infused with sounds from post-punk, industrial and EBM.
Synthwave originates from the mid-2000s or late 2000s. Diak traced the genre to a broader trend involving young artists whose works drew from their childhoods in the 1980s. He credited the success of the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City with shifting "attitudes toward the '80s ... from parody and ambivalence to that of homage and reverence", leading directly to genres such as synthwave and vaporwave. The influence of Vice City was also noted by MusicRadar. Molly Lambert of MTV noted the song "Love on a Real Train" by Tangerine Dream in the film Risky Business (1983) was a major influence, with "ornately repetitive synth patterns, hypnotic chimes, and percussive choogling drum machines".
The mid-2000s French house acts David Grellier (College), and Kavinsky, who had created music in the style of 1980s film scores, were among the earliest artists to be part of the emergence of synthwave. Key reference points for early synthwave included the 1982 film Blade Runner (both the soundtrack and the film itself), 8- and 16-bit video games, 1980s jingles for VHS production companies, and television news broadcasts and advertisements from that era. According to NME and MusicRadar, the 2011 film Drive was a major influence on synthwave, and included a track by Kavinsky, "Nightcall" in the film's soundtrack, as well as David Grellier, Johnny Jewel, and several tracks by Cliff Martinez. EDM.com described Kavinsky as a "synthwave pioneer", while the horror blog Bloody Disgusting describes Carpenter Brut as a "synthwave icon".
Popularity and legacy
In the early 2010s, the synthwave soundtracks of films such as Drive and Tron: Legacy attracted new fans and artists to the genre. Drive featured Kavinsky's "Nightcall" and, with College, "A Real Hero", which catapulted synthwave into mainstream recognition and solidified its stature as a music genre. The genre's popularity was furthered through its presence in the soundtracks of video games like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Hotline Miami, as well as the Netflix series Stranger Things, which featured synthwave pieces that accommodated the show's 1980s setting. Nerdglow's Christopher Higgins cited Electric Youth and Kavinsky as the two most popular artists in synthwave in 2014.
In the mid-2010s, "fashwave" (a portmanteau of "fascist" and "synthwave") emerged as a largely instrumental fusion genre of synthwave and vaporwave, with political track titles and occasional soundbites, such as excerpts of speeches given by Adolf Hitler. The phenomenon was described as self-identified fascists and alt-right members appropriating vaporwave music and aesthetics. Elsewhere, there was a growing trend of Russian synthwave musicians whose work espoused nostalgia for the Soviet Union, sometimes described as "Sovietwave".
In 2016, British band The 1975 released the critically acclaimed synthwave-influenced track "Somebody Else". The track comes as their third single for their second album, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It. It has been cited as a major influence on many contemporaries' work, such as Lorde, Tate McRae and Olivia Rodrigo.
Synthwave remained a niche genre throughout the 2010s. In 2017, PC Gamer noted that synthwave influences were to be felt in early 2010s gaming releases, primarily of the "outrun" subgenre, including Hotline Miami and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Writing in 2019, PopMatters journalist Preston Cram said, "Despite its significant presence and the high level of enthusiasm about it, synthwave in its complete form remains a primarily underground form of music." He added that "Nightcall" and "A Real Hero" remained "two of only a small number of synthwave songs produced to date that widely known outside the genre's followers."
The 2019 virtual reality game Boneworks heavily features the synthwave genre in its soundtrack, which was composed by Michael Wyckoff.
In 2020, "Blinding Lights", a synthwave-influenced song by R&B artist the Weeknd topped US record charts, the first song to do so during the COVID-19 pandemic. Matt Mills of Louder wrote in 2021 that the genre "had exploded into the mainstream, cramming dancefloors and soundtracking blockbusters."
- The Rise of the Synths – 2019 synthwave documentary featuring John Carpenter
- 1980s in music
- Drive - The 2011 arthouse action film featuring Ryan Gosling
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Media related to Synthwave at Wikimedia Commons