A subgenre of new wave music popular from the mid-1970's in which synthesizers receive aesthetic emphasis and play a prominent role in the articulation of rhythm, melody, and texture. The most accomplished synth-pop groups -- Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Human League -- apply the avant-garde innovations of early synthesizer-based groups such as Kraftwerk, Neu, and Can to the craft of creating stylish popular music. The following discussion encompasses an evaluation of the musical sources behind synth-pop music, the formal and emotional properties at play, and the importance of cinema, soul music, and dance music to the genre's evolution.
The European Influence
Synth-pop originates from the music of German experimental bands of the 1970's affectionally referred to as kosmische or Kraut Rock. Fusing early synthesizers, interlocking guitar-bass riffs, and tape loops, kosmiche bands developed long-form compositions of impressive depth and texture. While British innovators like The Soft Machine, The Small Faces, and Pink Floyd sought artistic credibility by introducing elements of classical music and jazz to their work, the German take on progressive rock is somewhat unique in its use of synthetic sounds to convey atmosphere and mood. Groups such as Can (choice album: Tago Mago, 1974), Tangerine Dream (Phaedra, 1974), and Faust (debut, 1971) contributed to kosmische's colorful aesthetic scene in Cologne and Berlin by way of their performance and album work.
The most influential of the kosmiche bands, Kraftwerk, was formed by Ralf Hütter (b Krefeld, 1946) and Florian Schneider-Esleben (b Düsseldorf, 1947) at the Schumann Conservatory, Düsseldorf, in 1968. Their early work fused the avant-garde orchestral experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen (b Burg Mödrath, Cologne, 22 Aug 1928) -- himself an innovator in the application of electronic instrumentation to concert-hall works (see his seven-part operatic cycle Licht) -- with the British Psychedelia of The Pretty Things and The Moody Blues.
In spite of the influence of 20th century concert-hall music (John Cage, Philip Glass, Stockhausen) and psychedelia, the seemingly hermetic conditions underwhich this group composed led to the release of music that was unlike anything their peer group was creating. Kraftwerk possessed a derisively mocking, deadpan humor that was articulated by way of their statuesque stage performances and in their album covers. Their musical and visual accomplishments are epitomized by the following albums: The Music Machine (1978), Radio-Activity (1975), Autobahn (1974). Kraftwerk's musical legacy resonates in nearly all forms of new wave, techno, and hip-hop music today.
Mood and Atmosphere
While synth-pop is often thought of in terms of the technical equipment involved in its creation, an issue that has received less focus by music historians has been that of atmosphere. Musicians have employed synthesizers in pop music since at least the mid-1960's yet we do not refer to the soul music of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Isley Brothers as synth-pop, nor the progressive rock of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, or Genesis. Though these bands make extensive use of synthesizer technology, the quintessential synth-pop atmosphere reflects a feeling of melancholia, contemplation, or icy radiance. These emotional characteristics can be traced to the experimental rock of the Velvet Underground and the avant-garde orchestrations of Brian Eno in both his solo work (Here Comes The Warm Jets, 1974; Another Green World, 1975), his collaborations with Roxy Music (1971-1972; e.g. single Virginia Plain), and his production work for David Bowie (choice albums: Low, 1977; Lodger, 1978). All of the above albums made formative stylistic contributions to what would become synth-pop.
Gary Numan and OMD
An important early synth-pop artist, Gary Numan (b Hammersmith, London, 1958) crystallized the innovations of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk to create music that embodies the foundational characteristics of synth-pop while exuding a poignant, ominous sense of style. Numan was a product of the early-1970s British glam aesthetic epitomized by the space-age decadence of David Bowie, the sexy ambiguity of T-Rex, and the fin de siècle elegance of Brian Eno-era Roxy Music. Cold and foreboding, evocative of robotic animation.
"Down In The Park" (Atco, 1979) the centerpoint of his album, Replicas, is illustrative of Numan's approach. Every sonic element -- the echo-laden synthesized string section, the minimal, richly textured percussion, the brassy vocal -- contributes to the creation of a luxurious sonic atmosphere. The lyrics describe a futuristic, nightmarish urban environment from the point-of-view of the robots (We are not lovers/We are not romantics/We are here to serve you) themselves. The narrator has had a traumatic experience in his transformation from human to robot, perceiving a gradual amnesia (I was in a car crash/Or was it the war?/Well, I've never been quite the same) while witnessing murder. An instrumental coda conveys the dissolution of this machine-dominated microcosm; the track seems to disappear as if it were being sucked up through a vortex.
All of Gary Numan's music exhibits this sly sense of humor combined with a fascination for computer technology and its intersection with popular music. While Numan remains mainly a cult favorite in the United States, his music was enormously successful at permeating the British charts and clubs in the eighties. Other important contributions include: We Are Glass (1980), Are Friends Electric (1979, #1 hit for 4 weeks in Britian), Cars (1979, UK#1) and the entirety of his album Telekon (1980).
Gary Numan's British chart success notwithstanding, most synthesizer-based European music of the late-1970's was produced for the intellectual, artful clubgoer as opposed to the young pop set. The musical evidence suggests that classic synth-pop succeeded in applying the formal properties at work in the experiments of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan to dance-oriented pop. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD, f. Liverpool, 1978) was one of the first groups to make the transformation from avant-garde experimentation to radio-friendly pop. Singles such as Joan Of Ark and Souvenir (Virgin, 1980), both very popular, have a transparent and dreamlike quality that colluded to make them international stars.
The Musical Compound
The introduction of music video on television in 1980 -- the first music video was a synth-pop gem Video Killed The Radio Star (dir., Russell Mulcahy, 1978) -- gave birth to a new era of popular music. This new form of popular music merged music, video, performance, and art into a cohesive whole for economic and aesthetic stimulation; this self-referential whole is referred to as a musical compound.
Duran Duran (f. Birmingham, England 1978) was the first band to create a fully realized musical compound, an important contribution to the synth-pop genre, and to the world popular music as well. Their single Hungry Like The Wolf (from Rio 1983, Pop #3) began its life as a highly effective piece of synth-pop: it applies the soundscapes of early synth pioneers like David Bowie and Roxy Music to the disco-funk of Donna Summers (I Feel Love, 1978) and Chic (Le Freak, 1978). Listeners connected to Duran Duran by absorbing the visual content of their videos -- hot-blooded British kids on safari (Hungry Like The Wolf); decadent jetsetters abroad (Rio); erotic photographers a la Blow-Up (Girls On Film) -- into the music itself. When radio listeners encountered a Duran Duran single on the radio, they could not help but inscribe the music within a visual and performative context.
Duran Duran referenced cinema implicitly and explicitly. In musical compounds such as The Chaffeur and The Reflex (1982), View To A Kill (1985), and Union Of The Snake (1983), Duran Duran created music that recalls its video counterpart while celebrating cinematography through aural signifers as well. In each of these songs, we can nearly hear the characteristics of modern cinema -- the pulsating camera movements, the complexly layered, deep-focus compositions, the improvisatory acting style -- conveyed through their use of heightened percussion, rhythm, and melody.
As synth-pop gave way to the noir industrial dance music of groups like Cabaret Voltaire, Front 242, Einstürzende Neubauten, the pioneering use of visual, aural, and lyrical references to cinema became an important aesthetic practice.
Now that the scope and character of synth-pop has been defined, a discussion of individual singles provides a useful means of exploring the edges of the genre. The contributions of Human League (f. Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, 1978), one of the first internationally successful synth-pop groups, are encapsulated by the single Fascination (1983, Pop #8) in which boy-girl harmonies are supported by a distorted, blaring synthesizer riff repeated endlessly through the single, conveying a sense of trance-like choreography. This single reads as a musical pun on the fascination for the possibilities created by the proliferation of synthesizer and studio technology.
The source of Soft Cell's 1981 single Tainted Love (see node) was a mid-sixties deep-soul single of the same name by Gloria Jones. The prominence of soul in synth-pop is an unmistakable reflection of Northern Soul, the British underground dance culture popular since the early 1970's embracing allnighters filled with rare soul and enthusiastic dancing. Soul ethos in synth-pop can be found in the music of Culture Club (Church Of The Poison Mind, 1983), Wham! (Freedom, 1984), Slits (Typical Girls, 1979), The Jesus and Mary Chain (Just Like Honey, 1985), and ABC (When Smokey Sings, 1987).
While each of these singles point to the prominence of the northern soul phenomenon, they also serve to widen the scope of synth-pop to include more uplifting, less cynical music. But many argue that the more synth-pop evolves towards mainstream accessibility -- and further away from avant-garde experiments in melancholia -- the less useful it is to refer to it as a distinct genre.
Let us therefore close by way of redefining the music as a subgenre of New Wave music that is influenced by the electronic accomplishments of Kraftwerk and other experimental kosmische groups; steeped in a great love of synthesizer technology, studiocraft and video art; and is often expressive of dark interiority. The best of synth-pop employs the synthesizer as a rhythmic, melodic, and textural force. The best of synth-pop motivates dancers, and stimulates listeners.
All Music Guide
Savage, Jon. England's Dreaming. New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.
New Wave Hits of the '70s and '80s set. Rhino Records, 2002.
Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box. Rhino Records, 2003. Liner Notes.