Synthwave Primer

A discussion of parallel subgenres & Overcoming our cultural barriers

Adjacent to seemingly every subgenre of the vast and complicated music spectrum exists some sort of near-parallel tangent built and defined for an audience in some way differing from the fan bases of its close relatives. Though two subgenres may share commonalities of influence, techniques, and even artists who exist across multiple planes, for the most part they remain relatively separate, rarely sharing a genre’s most defining feature – its fan base. Independent audiences may share very similar musical taste, but find themselves separated by generational gaps, geographical, political, and cultural borders, and ultimately, the simple lack of the knowledge that these parallel schools even exist. As styles gain momentum and new stylistically differing branches of genre sprout and expand, a maze of complicated barriers develops, naturally barring fans and artists from tapping the entirety of a plausible market.


So, how do we overcome these barriers? How do we navigate the maze and discover a wider breadth of music? And if we don’t, how can we call ourselves true fans or true experts without a thorough understanding of our own cultural preferences? The answers are all long and complicated, but come down to a single, simple notion: music is always changing so a true fan is always studying, growing, and most of all, open to change.


As counterintuitive as it may seem, the situations in which we tend to find ourselves most apprehensive and struggling to accept new culture is when it comes to us by way of a friend’s recommendation. And as obvious is it may seem, it’s important to note anyway, that these moments are often when we stumble across a new song, a new artist, or even an entirely new subgenre that perhaps our own cultural maze could never have led to without the aid of a friend. With the help of others, an open mind, and a willingness to immerse ourselves into untested waters, we’re able to break down intercontinental, interscholastic, and intergenerational barriers and envelope our taste in a broader sphere of art, inspiration, and understanding.


The younger generations have never lived in an era where electronic music in some form or another didn’t have a major impact on the world’s musical direction, but very few fans, including myself, have a quality understanding of where the genre’s now extensive network is rooted. For me, partly caused by the timing in my life and partly due to my generational preferences, the early 2010’s electronic explosion – highlighted by acts like Disclosure, XXYYXX, Bondax, and Tourist, has been the most influential on my own electronic taste. The movement, though highlighted by the acts already listed, drew me in with a subgenre often referred to as Dreamwave.


The style is defined by its mellow sound, muted keystrokes and guitar chords, and uniquely echoic and ghostly vocal samplings. It, in its most brief description, is the floaty, off-kilter expression of music hard to describe without making references to dream and intrinsic thought. Like much of the electronic realm, it exists as the musical equivalent of impressionist painting. There is so little defined and clean-cut in the sound that the listener is able to construct their own sense of meaning in every song. It also provides the genre with a vast reach of situational applications. It’s easy to tune out and let it simply exist as the background soundtrack of daily activities, but it’s also easy to turn up the volume and let it give energy to a party.


One evening, while fanboying over my own love of Dreamwave in a conversation with a friend equally driven by his own passion for music, my descriptions of the style provided him insight into a subgenre that might be particularly attractive for me. He called it Synthwave, built me a playlist, and gave me some information into the style’s background – inspired by and paying homage to various cultural movements from the 1980’s including film, video games, music, and a visual aesthetic, Synthwave gained its serious momentum in the early 2010’s, targeting a fan base of listeners nostalgic for their most-preferred decade.


Off the bat, there were clear parallels between Dreamwave and the information my friend gave me about Synthwave. Down to the very names, the two styles seemed to be built upon consistent foundations and a dedicated listening session to the playlist, aptly titled Synthwave Primer, proved that they were largely reflective of one another, even laying claim on occasion, to the same artists. Although obvious discrepancies exist musically, thematically, and otherwise, the primary difference between the two subgenres is simply their fan bases and the way they are targeted.


Synthwave dedicates their descriptions and inspirations to 1980’s cult cultural icons like Out Run – a popular arcade game noted for its versatile soundtrack. A plethora of 80’s films are also frequently credited as inspiration, and the popular 2011 film, Drive came equipped with a critically-acclaimed, heavily-Synthwave soundtrack that helped launch a more wide-spread reach of the movement and the artists included. Naturally, thanks to its marketing strategy, Synthwave has amassed a following largely built of Gen-Xers and early Millennials who have reason to be attracted to 1980’s subculture revival.


Dreamwave, built of largely the same musical elements as Synthwave – electronic drum patterns, smooth, melodious vocal sampling, an overall mellow tone, and a plethora of synths ranging from explosively powerful and West Coast hip-hop inspired to low-key and classical, is really only removed from Synthwave by its marketing approach. The artists and the movement as a whole tend to be described with adjectives like European inspired instead of 80’s inspired, French House instead of Power Glove, bouncy instead of game cultured, dreamlike instead of nostalgic. Though the collection of artists belonging to the intergenerationally separated movements is largely different, a listen to either subgenre will result in a difficulty to separate the two.


I, like most fans of music, try to be open to the new, but still often find myself apprehensive when given a recommendation. But if my experience with the Synthwave Primer has taught me anything, it’s that often a recommendation is a helping hand with the power to aid us in the navigation our own cultural mazes and overcome the barriers between parallel styles, sometimes separated only by something as small as a marketing strategy and a target audience. Listen to your friends, listen to your heart, and listen to Dreamwave and Synthwave if you’re a fan of either, a fan of electronic, or just a fan music fan in general.