How synthwave scores nostalgic visions of the future

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Sometimes I think about my parents growing up as kids in the ’50s, where the perception inside my mind is that life was actually black and white. That is, life was actually just those two contrasting colors and all of the gradients in between. If pressed, I, of course, know this not to be accurate. This perception is fed by the fact that most of my knowledge of that era has come from black-and-white television reruns and a few scattered photographs. There’s an allegory analogous to this polarized vision of color. The ’50s are often sold to us as an era of abundance, often attributed to its “simplicity,” a concept further in concert with the idea of the world being two primary colors. This analogy also serves to champion or decry the next era of the ’60s and ’70s as being “complicated.” 

Of course, these perceptions of the ’50s as an Eden of simplicity are nonsense. However, if I were tasked with creating a movie about the 1950s, my mind would be aggregating a composite vision of Leave it to Beaver, the Twilight Zone, and a smattering of dusty photos.  I was born in the ’80s. Being born in a decade gives you a bizarre yet unreliable form of authority towards that era. While it is true I was alive for seven years and five months of the ’80s, I was so young my memories of the decade are muddy and primal. My only firm opinions on movies, music, and politics from the ’80s are based on things I read or consumed in the late’ 90s. Every firsthand perspective of the ’80s is constructed solely through a wildly capricious frame. This is to say, I cannot offer any critical thinking of the era based on logic, for I was but a youthful beast. I wasn’t aware that I was in the era of the ’80s. I didn’t even know what an era was. 

Still, emotional memories are not entirely invalid. I rode around with my older cousin in her Volkswagen Rabbit, listening to Huey Lewis and the News and Human League. I occasionally stayed up late with my dad and watched films like The Last Emperor and The Karate Kid. These experiences offered the absorption of sensory byproducts—sights, sounds, feelings, etc. At no point during the ’80s did I tangibly understand that I was listening to a record called “The Power of Love” by a band called Huey Lewis and the News. Nonetheless, when I hear “The Power of Love” now, there’s something animal in my resonance with it. I don’t even particularly like the song, but it feels significant to my being. It feels like it belongs to my past. This amorphous linkage to my youth has made the Synthwave genre so fascinating, not just sonically but also in the visual aesthetic that goes with it.

My YouTube homepage is riddled with a cascade of purple and pink neon. As I scroll down, there is an endless stack of playlists with names like “Stock Trading Synthwave,” “It’s summer in the ’80s, and you’re driving alone,” “Corporate Ca$ual Vaporwave.” and “Ultra Relaxing Cyberpunk Ambient.” The videos feature a hodgepodge of 16-bit animations of Ferraris driving along palm tree-lined roads; Hyperbolic renderings of futuristic cityscapes; Collages of found footage of people working at hedge funds, spliced with clips from Miami Vice.

One of my favorite mixes, “Synthwave-Retrowave,” has a looping five-second animation featuring a pixelated anime detective with his feet up on a desk, nodding and tapping his feet. In the background, we see the sun setting through the window blinds. This has become my favorite genre to listen to when I work. It’s candid and never ambient. It gives a burst of tangible hyperbole during the day’s lulls and panache to its mundane slogging. I sometimes hesitate to watch anything else on YouTube, fearing it will tamper with my algorithm and disrupt my gallery of dystopian fuchsia.  

The music’s genesis is rooted in emulating the sounds of ’80s horror, action, and sci-fi film scores. While in ’80s movies like Halloween and Terminator, the score was merely a supplement to bolster the mood in the mise en scene, synthwave places this audio byproduct at the fore, creating entire records with the same moody timbre and pace. John Carpenter, famed director of Halloween, is arguably synthwave’s patron saint, who famously scored several of his own films—They Live, Escape from New York, etc.—with signature eerie compositions. One of the genre’s luminaries, Carpenter Brut, is named after John Carpenter. A Youtube channel is even devoted to Carpenter-inspired synthwave (“John Carpenter Style Retro Synth Mix”).

Despite a spiritual lineage to the ’80s, synthwave has little to no resemblance to the decade’s more famous genre outputs (new wave, post-punk, etc.). Instead, synthwave centers around moody scores, which bounce with optimism, ominous dread, and even ambivalent sublime. Melodrama might be synthwave’s defining characteristic. Ironically, despite the genre’s emotional tempests and frequent presence in films that hypothesize futuristic scenarios, synthwave’s sound is rather austere, often resembling 16-bit video game soundtracks more than de facto orchestral scores. 

While the music can be appreciated independently of the films, their themes have aged remarkably well. Terminator and Blade Runner explore a simultaneous devotion to and a distrust of unchecked technology. Robocop and They Live examine our trusted institutions failing us, falling prey to neoliberalism. They all have one eye on current affairs and the other on life after the apocalypse. However, as tempting as it is to declare this modern sonic output as a recreation of the soundscapes of the ’80s, it must be asked: was this actually what the 1980s were like? 

In 2003, Chuck Klosterman, writing about Disneyland, said, “Tomorrowland…is how people at Disney during the 1950s saw the future, which means the future now resembles the early 1970s, which means their future is our past.” Something similar is happening with synthwave. Many of the films of the ’80s, especially those that inspired synthwave, were intent on hypothesizing the future. Still, a prediction can only be based on information available in the present. Therefore, the forecast can only stretch so far. Like Tomorrowland, the ’80s predictions are steadily hitting their expiration dates (Escape from New York took place in 1997, Blade Runner in 2012), none of which have come to fruition (Terminator gave itself a nice cushion, and its apocalypse doesn’t happen until 2029). 

However, inaccuracy works the other way as well. While it is true that it’s impossible to accurately predict the future, it is also true that someone in the present can’t make an exact rendering of life in that past if they aren’t there now. This is like a grandfather trying to paint a portrait of his unborn granddaughter whom he will never meet. Then in the future, the granddaughter attempts to paint the grandfather that she had only ever heard about. Both parties can only simulate what they believe they know about the other. In this way, we are similar to the now ubiquitous AI that intakes a bevy of information about a subject and then regurgitates a synthesized version of it based on patterns, motifs, sequences, etc., that have some resemblance but are imperfect. Before AI was framed as an omnipotent supervillain, it was often portrayed as a lovable dope. Just a few years ago, there were AI-generated stories about characters like Batman, which created a reasonably clear trajectory with familiar faces in the Batman canon. However, the placements were comically off. In these gaps between the guess and the truth is the beauty of incorrect science fiction films and scores from the future that make predictions about the past.

Recently movies and TV shows like Drive, Stranger ThingsKung Fury, and Flinch have utilized the synthwave genre for their soundtracks. In the case of Stranger Things, this was to present a more realistic portrayal of life in the ’80s. As for the others, except for Kung Fury, while they do not take place in the 1980s, they are creations that summon the 80s’ penchant for murky noir-soaked crime. Whether or not we have an entirely accurate sense of life in the ’80s, synthwave provides an apropos sonic backdrop for our current anxieties. 

Lately, I’ve been fiddling with AI image generators. While synthwave refers to the musical genre, the culture’s aesthetics are robust enough to where adding the direction “A Synthwave illustration of…” yields cogent results. Recent creations have been “a synthwave illustration of a hyena lounging by a swimming pool, “”A synthwave illustration of a hippo wandering through Tokyo,” “…a lion sleeping on an inflatable alligator,” “…a tiger driving a Porsche,” and on and on. The results are ominous, like a horror movie written by Lisa Frank, but also gorgeous in a garish way. I have no idea what I’m driving toward, maybe a post-apocalyptic prediction of my own. Or, perhaps, I’m making a shoddy attempt to understand the excess of the decade I was born in. Either way, chances are, both my understanding and predictions are likely incorrect. 

Synthwave Albums: A Crash Course

Kavinsky – Outrun 
Carpenter Brut – Leather Teeth
Blade Runner Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Tangerine Dream – Autumn in Hiroshima
Mitch Murder – Interceptor 
John Carpenter – Lost Themes 
Miami Nights 1984 – Turbulence
Gunship – Gunship
Lazerhawk – Skull and Shark
Kung Fury Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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