Synthpop Stylistic origins Disco, New Wave, electronic, pop, post-punk, glam rock, krautrock Cultural origins 1977–80 in Germany, Japan, England Typical instruments Synthesizer – drum machine – bass guitar – tape loops – drums – guitar – sequencer – keyboard – vocoder – sampler – vocals Mainstream popularity Worldwide: high 1981–85, medium 1986–2000, high 21st century Derivative forms House music, trance music, digital hardcore, electroclash, indie electronic
Fusion genres Synthpunk, techno
Synthpop (also known as electropop, or technopop) is a genre of popular music that first became prominent in the 1980s, in which the synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument. It was prefigured in the 1960s and early 1970s by the use of synthesizers in progressive rock, electronic art rock, disco and particularly the "Kraut rock" of bands like Kraftwerk. It arose as a distinct genre in Japan and the United Kingdom in the post-punk era as part of the New Wave movement of the late-1970s to the mid-1980s.
Early synthpop pioneers included Japanese group Yellow Magic Orchestra and British bands Ultravox and the Human League; the latter largely used monophonic synthesizers to produce music with a simple and austere sound. After the breakthrough of Tubeway Army and Gary Numan in the British Singles Chart, large numbers of artists began to enjoy success with a synthesizer-based sound in the early 1980s, including Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Japan and Depeche Mode in the United Kingdom, while in Japan, Yellow Magic Orchestra's success opened the way for synthpop bands such as P-Model, Plastics, and Hikashu. The development of inexpensive polyphonic synthesizers, the definition of MIDI and the use of dance beats, led to a more commercial and accessible sound for synthpop. This, its adoption by the style-conscious acts from the New Romantic movement, together with the rise of MTV, led to success for large numbers of British synthpop acts, including Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, in the United States.
In the late 1980s, duos such as Erasure and Pet Shop Boys adopted a sound that was highly successful on the US dance charts, but by the end of the decade synthpop had largely been abandoned. Interest began to be revived in the indie electronic and electroclash movements in the late 1990s and, in the first decade of the 21st century, it enjoyed a widespread revival with commercial success for acts including La Roux and Owl City.
Synthpop received criticism for its limited and artificial sound and for its associations with alternative sexualities. It helped to establish the place of the synthesiser as a major element of pop and rock music, directly influenced subsequent genres including house music and Detroit techno, and has indirectly influenced many other genres and individual recordings.
Synthpop was defined by its primary use of synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers, sometimes using them to replace all other instruments. Borthwick and Moy have described the genre as diverse but "...characterised by a broad set of values that eschewed rock playing styles, rhythms and structures", which were replaced by "synthetic textures" and "robotic rigidity", often defined by the limitations of the new technology, including monophonic synthesizers (only able to play one note at a time). Many synthpop musicians had limited musical skills, relying on the technology to produce or reproduce the music. The result was often minimalist, with grooves that were "typically woven together from simple repeated riffs often with no harmonic 'progression' to speak of". Early synthpop has been described as "eerie, sterile, and vaguely menacing", using droning electronics with little change in inflection. Common themes were isolation, urban anomie, and feelings of being emotionally cold and hollow.
In its second phase in the 1980s, the introduction of dance beats and more conventional rock instrumentation, made the music warmer and catchier and contained within the conventions of three-minute pop. Synthesizers were increasingly used to imitate the conventional and clichéd sound of orchestras and horns. Thin and treble dominant synthesized melodies and simple drum programmes gave way to thick, and compressed production, and a more conventional drum sound. Lyrics were generally more optimistic, dealing with more traditional subject matter for pop music such as romance, escapism and aspiration. According to music writer Simon Reynolds, the hallmark of 1980s synthpop was its "emotional, at times operatic singers" such as Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox. Because synthesizers removed the need for large groups of musicians, these singers were often part of a duo where their partner played all the instrumentation.
Although synthpop in part arose from punk rock, it abandoned punk's emphasis on authenticity and often pursued a deliberate artificiality, drawing on the critically derided forms such as disco and glam rock. It owed relatively little to the foundations of early popular music in jazz, folk music or the blues, and instead of looking to America, in its early stages, it consciously focused on European and particularly Eastern European influences, which were reflected in band names like Spandau Ballet and songs like Ultravox's "Vienna". Later synthpop saw a shift to a style more influenced by other genres, such as soul music.
Electronic musical synthesizers that could be used practically in a recording studio became available in the mid-1960s, around the same time as rock music began to emerge as a distinct musical genre. The Mellotron, an electro-mechanical, polyphonic sample-playback keyboard was overtaken by the Moog synthesizer, created by Robert Moog in 1964, which produced completely electronically generated sounds. The portable Mini-moog, which allowed much easier use, particularly in live performance was widely adopted by progressive rock musicians such as Richard Wright of Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman of Yes. Instrumental prog rock was particularly significant in continental Europe, allowing bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Can and Faust to circumvent the language barrier. Their synthesizer-heavy "Kraut rock", along with the work of Brian Eno (for a time the keyboard player with Roxy Music), would be a major influence on subsequent synth rock. In 1971 the British movie A Clockwork Orange was released with a synth soundtrack by American Wendy Carlos. It was the first time many in the United Kingdom had heard electronic music. Philip Oakey of the Human League and Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire as well as music journalist Simon Reynolds has cited the soundtrack as an inspiration. Electronic music made occasional moves into the mainstream, with jazz musician Stan Free, under the pseudonym Hot Butter, having a top 10 hit in the United States and United Kingdom in 1972, with a cover of the 1969 Gershon Kingsley song "Popcorn" using a Moog synthesizer, which is recognised as a forerunner to synthpop and disco.
The mid-1970s saw the rise of electronic art musicians such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tomita. Tomita's album Electric Samurai: Switched on Rock (1972) featured electronic renditions of contemporary rock and pop songs, while utilizing speech synthesis and analog music sequencers. In 1974, Osamu Kitajima's progressive rock album Benzaiten, featuring Haruomi Hosono (who later founded Yellow Magic Orchestra), utilized a synthesizer, rhythm machine, and electronic drums. In 1975, Kraftwerk played its first British show and inspired concert attendees Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to throw away their guitars and become a synth act. Kraftwerk had its first hit UK record later in the year. The group was described by the BBC Four program Synth Britannia as the key to synthpop's future rise there. Italy's Giorgio Moroder paired up with Donna Summer in 1977 to release the electronic disco song "I Feel Love", and its programmed beats would be a major influence on the later synthpop sound. David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, comprising the albums Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979), all featuring Brian Eno, would also be highly influential.
Early guitar-based punk rock that came to prominence in the period 1976-77 was initially hostile to the "inauthentic" sound of the synthesizer, but many New Wave and post-punk bands that emerged from the movement began to adopt it as a major part of their sound. The do it yourself attitude of punk broke down the progressive rock era's norm of needing years of experience before getting up on stage to play synthesizers. The American duo Suicide, who arose from the post-punk scene in New York, utilized drum machines and synthesizers in a hybrid between electronics and post punk on their eponymous 1977 album. Also in 1977, Ultravox member Warren Cann purchased a Roland TR-77 drum machine, which was first featured in their October 1977 single release "Hiroshima Mon Amour".
Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), with their self-titled official debut (1978) and Solid State Survivor (1979), developed a "fun-loving and breezy" sound, with a strong emphasis on melody. They introduced the microprocessor-based Roland MC-8 sequencer and TR-808 rhythm machine to popular music, and the band would be a major influence on early British synthpop acts. 1978 also saw the release of UK band The Human League's début single "Being Boiled", and in the US Devo began moving towards a more electronic sound. At this point synthpop gained some critical attention, but made little impact on the commercial charts.
British punk-influenced band Tubeway Army, intended their debut album to be guitar driven. In 1978, Gary Numan, a member of the group, found a minimoog left behind in the studio by another band, and started experimenting with it. This led to a change in the album's sound to electronic New Wave. Numan later described his work on this album as a guitarist playing keyboards, who turned "punk songs into electronic songs". A single from the album, "Are Friends Electric?", topped the UK charts in the summer of 1979. The discovery that synthesizers could be employed in a different manner from that used in progressive rock or disco, prompted Numan to go solo. On his futuristic album The Pleasure Principle (1979), he played only synths, but retained a bass guitarist and a drummer for the rhythm section. A single from the album, "Cars" topped the charts.
Giorgio Moroder collaborated with the band Sparks on their album No. 1 In Heaven (1979). That same year in Japan, the synthpop band P-Model made its debut with the album In a Model Room. Other Japanese synthpop groups emerging around the same time included the Plastics and Hikashu. This zeitgeist of revolution in electronic music performance and recording/production was encapsulated by then would-be record producer Trevor Horn of The Buggles in the international hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" (1979).
Numan's success was the trigger for the chart appearances in 1980 of Visage's self titled debut, John Foxx's Metamatic, and Ultravox's Vienna. 1980 also saw the release of what for many is the defining album of Devo's career, the overtly synthpop Freedom of Choice.
Commercial success (1981–85)
The emergence of synthpop has been described as "perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat". By the 1980s synthesizers had become much cheaper and easier to use. After the definition of MIDI in 1982 and the development of digital audio, the creation of purely electronic sounds and their manipulation became much simpler. Synthesizers came to dominate the pop music of the early 1980s, particularly through their adoption by bands of the New Romantic movement.
The New Romantic scene had developed in the London nightclubs Billy's and The Blitz and was associated with bands such as Duran Duran, Japan, Ultravox, Visage, Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, Soft Cell, Spandau Ballet, ABC and Culture Club. They adopted an elaborate visual style that combined elements of glam rock, science fiction and romanticism. Duran Duran have been credited with incorporating dance beats into synthpop to produce a catchier and warmer sound, which provided them with a series of hit singles. They would soon be followed into the British charts by a large number of bands utilising synthesizers to create catchy three-minute pop songs. A new line-up for the Human League and a more commercial sound, led to the album Dare (1981), which produced a series of hit singles. These included "Don't You Want Me", which reached number one in the UK at the end of 1981.
Synthpop reached its commercial peak in the UK in the winter of 1981–2, with bands such as Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Japan, Ultravox, Depeche Mode and even Kraftwerk, enjoying top ten hits. In early 1982 synthesizers were so dominant that the Musicians Union attempted to limit their use. By the end of 1982, these acts had been joined in the charts by synth-based singles from Thomas Dolby, Blancmange, The Eurythmics and Tears for Fears. The proliferation of acts led to an anti-synth backlash, with groups including Spandau Ballet, Human League, Soft Cell and ABC incorporating more conventional influences and instruments into their sounds.
In the US, where synthpop is considered a sub genre of New Wave and was described as "technopop" by the press at the time, the genre became popular due to the cable music channel MTV, which reached the media capitals of New York City and Los Angeles in 1982. It made heavy use of style-conscious New Romantic synthpop acts, with "I Ran (So Far Away)" (1982) by A Flock of Seagulls generally considered the first hit by a British act to enter the Billboard Top Ten as a result of exposure through video. The switch to a "new music" format in US radio stations was also significant in the success of British bands. The success of synthpop and other British acts would be seen as a Second British Invasion. Synthpop was taken up across the world, with international hits for acts including Men Without Hats and Trans X from Canada, Telex from Belgium and Yello from Switzerland.
In the mid-1980s, key artists included solo performer Howard Jones, who mixed synthpop with the optimism of late-'60s pop, and Nik Kershaw, whose "well-craft synthpop" incorporated guitars and other more traditional pop influences that particularly appealed to a teen audience. Pursuing a more dance-orientated sound were Bronski Beat whose album The Age of Consent (1984), dealing with issues of homophobia and alienation, reached the top 20 in the UK and top 40 in the US. and Thompson Twins, whose popularity peaked in 1985 with the album Here's to Future Days, which reached the US top ten and spawned two top ten singles. Initially dismissed in the music press as a "teeny bob sensation" were Norwegian band a-ha, whose use of guitars and real drums produced an accessible form of synthpop, which, along with a MTV friendly video, took single "Take on Me" (1985) to number two in the UK and number one in the US.
Declining popularity (1986–2000)
Synthpop continued into late 1980s, with a format that moved closer to dance music, including the work of acts such as British duos Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and The Communards. The Communards major hits were covers of disco classics "Don't Leave Me This Way" (1986) and "Never Can Say Goodbye" (1987). After adding other elements to their sound, and with the help of a gay audience, several synthpop acts had success on the US dance charts. Among these were American acts Information Society, Anything Box, and Red Flag.
An American backlash against European synthpop has been seen as beginning in the mid-1980s with the rise of heartland rock and roots rock. In the UK the arrival of indie rock bands, particularly The Smiths, has been seen as marking the end of synth-driven New Wave and the beginning of the guitar-based music that would dominate rock into the 1990s. By 1991, in the United States synthpop was losing its commercial viability as alternative radio stations were responding to the popularity of grunge rock. Exceptions that continued to pursue forms of synthpop or rock in the 1990s were Savage Garden, The Rentals, and The Moog Cookbook. Electronic music was also explored from the early 1990s by indie electronic bands like Stereolab and Disco Inferno, who mixed a variety of indie and synthesizer sounds.
21st century revival
Indie electronic began to take off in the new millennium as the new digital technology developed, with acts including Broadcast from the UK, Justice from France, Lali Puna from Germany, and Ratatat and The Postal Service from the US, mixing a variety of indie sounds with electronic music, largely produced on small independent labels. Similarly, the electroclash sub-genre began in New York at the end of the 1990s, combining synthpop, techno, punk and performance art. It was pioneered by I-F with their track "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" (1998), and pursued by artists including Felix da Housecat, Peaches, Chicks on Speed, and Ladytron. It gained international attention at the beginning of the new millennium and spread to scenes in London and Berlin, but rapidly faded as a recognizable genre as acts began to experiment with a variety of forms of music.
In the new millennium, renewed interest in electronic music and nostalgia for the 1980s led to the beginnings of a synthpop revival, with acts including Adult and Fischerspooner. In 2003–04 it began to move into the mainstream with Ladytron, the Postal Service, Cut Copy, the Bravery and The Killers all producing records that incorporated vintage synthesizer sounds and styles that contrasted with the dominant genres of post-grunge and nu-metal. In particular, the Killers enjoyed considerable airplay and exposure and their debut album Hot Fuss (2004) reached the top ten of the Billboard 200. The Killers, the Bravery and the Stills all left their synthpop sound behind after their debut albums and began to explore classic 1970s rock, but the style was picked up by a large number of performers, particularly female solo artists. After the breakthrough success of Lady Gaga with her single "Just Dance" (2008), the British and other media proclaimed a new era of the female electropop star, citing band acts such as Little Boots, La Roux and Ladyhawke. The success of Japanese technopop girl group Perfume's album Game (2008) led to a similar renewed interest in Japanese popular music. Other Japanese female technopop artists soon followed, including Aira Mitsuki, immi, Mizca, SAWA, Saori@destiny, and Sweet Vacation. Male acts that emerged in the same period included Calvin Harris, Frankmusik, Hurts, Kaskade, LMFAO, and Owl City, whose single "Fireflies" (2009) topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Synthpop has received considerable criticism and even prompted hostility among musicians and in the press. It has been described as "anaemic" and "soulless". In the 1980s, objections were raised to the quality of compositions and the limited musicianship of artists. In 1983 Morrissey of The Smiths stated that "there was nothing more repellent than the synthesizer". According to Simon Reynolds, in some quarters synthesizers were seen as instruments for "effete poseurs", in contrast to the phallic guitar. The association of synthpop with an alternative sexuality was reinforced by the images projected by synthpop stars, who were seen as gender bending, including Phil Oakey's asymmetric hair and use of eyeliner, Marc Almond's "pervy" leather jacket, skirt wearing by figures including Martin Gore of Depeche Mode and the early "dominatrix" image of Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics. In the US this led to British synthpop artists being characterised as "English haircut bands" or "art fag" music. Although some audiences were overtly hostile to synthpop, it achieved an appeal among those aliened from the dominant hetrosexualism of mainstream rock culture, particularly among gay and female audiences. Synthpop's early steps, and Gary Numan in particular, were also disparaged in the British music press of the late 1970s and early 1980s for their German influences and characterised by journalist Mick Farren as the "Adolf Hitler Memorial Space Patrol".
By the mid-1980s, synthpop had helped establish the synthesizer as a primary instrument in mainstream pop music. It also influenced the sound of many mainstream rock acts, such as Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top and Van Halen. It was a major influence on house music, which grew out of the post-disco dance club culture of the early 1980s as some DJs attempted to make the less pop-oriented music that also incorporated influences from Latin soul, dub reggae, rap music, and jazz. Musicians such as Juan Atkins, using names including Model 500, Infinity and as part of Cybotron, developed a style of electronic dance music influenced by synthpop and funk that lead to the emergence of Detroit techno in the mid 1980s. The continued influence of 1980s synthpop could be seen in various incarnations of 1990s dance music including trance.
The electronic sound and style of the 21st century revival influenced mainstream pop artists, including Lily Allen's second album It's Not Me, It's You (2009). It was also incorporated into mainstream British R&B music, such as Jay Sean's "Down" (2009) and Taio Cruz's "Break Your Heart" (2009), which became chart-topping hits in the United States. Other acts used samples of 1980s synthpop tracks in the production of new records, including Mobb Deep and Rihanna.
- Schaffel beat – triplet feel popularized in electronic music
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