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Stylistic origins Electronic music
New wave
Pop music
Cultural origins Mid-Late 1970s/Early 1980s Europe, North America, Japan
Typical instruments SynthesizerDrum machineBass GuitarTape loopsDrumsGuitar SequencerKeyboardVocoderSampler)
Mainstream popularity Large, worldwide, 1980s (first wave) and late 2000s (second wave)
Derivative forms Electroclash, Ambient pop
Electropop, Futurepop
(complete list)
Fusion genres
Regional scenes

Synthpop is a genre of pop music in which the synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument. It originated as part of the New Wave movement of the late 1970s and to mid-1980s, and it has continued to exist and develop ever since. It has seen a rise in popularity in the 21st century.



While most current popular music in the industrialized world is realized via electronic instruments, synthpop has its own stylistic tendencies which differentiate it from other music produced by the same means. These include the exploitation of artificiality (i.e., the synthesis of sounds from waveforms) where the synthesizers are not used to imitate acoustic instruments, the use of mechanical sounding rhythms, vocal arrangements as a counterpoint to the artificiality of the instruments, and ostinato patterns as an effect. Synthpop song structures are generally similar to those of other popular music.




Mid-twentieth-century avant-garde and musique concrète composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen were pioneers in the development of electronic music. However, the instruments were originally large, highly complex, temperamental, and expensive. The use of synthesizers in rock music began in the 1960s, notably by the Beatles. In the late 1960s, there was a surge of Moog synthesizer-affected albums by artists like Perrey and Kingsley, Dick Hyman and, most notably, Wendy Carlos. In 1972, jazz musician Stan Free, under the pseudonym Hot Butter had a top 10 hit in the United States and United Kingdom with a cover of the 1969 Gershon Kingsley song "Popcorn". It is considered a forerunner to synthpop due to the use of the Moog synthesizer.[1] David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk influenced the first wave of British Synthpop.[2]

First wave: 1977-1990

Depeche Mode, one of the most successful synthpop bands of all time.

Giorgio Moroder paired up with Donna Summer in 1977 to release the electronic disco song I Feel Love. While a disco song first and foremost, the programmed, arpeggiated beats had a profound impact on the bands which would soon be known as synthpop. That same year, Ultravox member Warren Cann purchased a Roland TR-77 drum machine, which was first featured in their October 1977 single release Hiroshima Mon Amour.

In 1978, the first incarnation of the Human League of Sheffield, England released their debut single "Being Boiled". In the United States, Devo, who had been using synthesizers since their beginnings in 1975, moved towards a more electronic sound.

In the UK, the original synthesizer bands had a sound that was generally dark, moody and robotic and were more founded in an avant-garde, art rock aesthetic. In 1979, Tubeway Army, a little known outfit from West London, who dropped their initial punk rock image and topped the UK charts in the summer of 1979 with the single "Are Friends Electric?" and their album Replicas. This prompted the singer/songwriter, Gary Numan to go solo and in the same year he released the Kraftwerk inspired album, The Pleasure Principle which was another number one album, and he topped the singles charts for the second time with "Cars".

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".

Giorgio Moroder collaborated with the band Sparks on their album, No. 1 In Heaven. Others were soon to follow, including Frank Tovey, who performed under the name Fad Gadget. Tovey who was signed to Daniel Miller's Mute Records and made use of "found objects" in his recordings such as bottles and razors. Daniel Miller himself had a role in the emerging futurist movement as a performer under the name The Normal which released a one-off single Warm Leatherette. Although the single did not chart, it became a cult favorite and has been covered by many artists since its release, including Grace Jones, Duran Duran and Nine Inch Nails.

The sounds of synthesizers came to dominate the pop music of the early 1980s as well as replacing disco in dance clubs in Europe. Other successful synthpop artists of this era included Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Heaven 17, Japan, Eurythmics, and Tears For Fears (though the latter two would branch out into a wider rock/pop sound). Real Life, Camouflage, Modern Talking, Bananarama and others are bands of Synthpop style.

In early synthpop the synthesizer stood out and the music sounded eerie, sterile and slightly menacing. By the mid 1980's the technology had improved to the point that synthpop acts used the instrument to create a sound that resembled many instruments and allowed mainstream rock and pop acts to incorporate the synthesizer into their sound. At this point the synthesizer did not stand out and the differences between synthpop and mainstream music started to decrease.[2][3] According to music writer Simon Reynolds the hallmark of original synthpop was its "emotional, at times operatic singers" such as Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox.[4]

In the United States, where synthpop is considered a sub genre of New Wave, the genre became popular in large part due to the cable music channel MTV.

1991-early 2000s: Synthpop goes out of style

In Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia, synthpop remained more widely accepted. Eventually, the global synthpop scene re-emerged in the United States with the growing success of American record labels such as A Different Drum. Synth-pop pioneers in Latin America during the 80s were Virus.

By about the end of 1990 and the beginning of 1991[5], synthpop declined in popularity as Gangsta rap, Acoustic Music, grunge and also urban music began to replace its popularity. The bulk of electronic popular music in the nineties came from dance music genres such as house and techno. These music styles are usually not included in synthpop.

Some bands embraced by modern synthpop fans like Red Flag and Anything Box were dropped by their labels and began self-releasing new albums. Newer artists, such as Joy Electric have been influenced by the pioneering analog-coldwave sounds of the mid 1970's to early 1980s and have established a purist sound taken from the pre-sampling era. Low-fidelity synthpop artists Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Microfilm and Ariel Pink have found success on independent labels.

Synthpop did not entirely fall off the radar in the '90s however: a few Alternative acts continued to experiment with electronics and pop music; examples include Björk, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins, Blur, U2 and R.E.M..

Second wave, 2004 to present

Lights, Canadian synthpop singer who became popular in the late 2000s.
La Roux, British synthpop duo who achieved critical acclaim with their eponymous debut album in 2009.

Synthpop has also begun to re-emerge as some indie artists have incorporated the sound, slowly increasing the popularity of the genre. Some of the bands during the early-to-mid 2000s that helped the development of the genre have included Goldfrapp, The Postal Service, the Junior Boys, Uffie[citation needed], The Knife, and particularly The Killers, whose 2004 debut album Hot Fuss achieved widespread popularity and was considered an authentic throwback to 80s synthpop by many. However, their later works have moved away from the genre. LCD Soundsystem is another key artist in synthpop's development during the 21st century. MGMT's debut album Oracular Spectacular, originally released digitally in late 2007, achieved success with their lead single "Kids" and has led the way for chart success for other synthpop and indie electronic acts such as Hot Chip, Cut Copy, Lights[6], Metric, Owl City (number 1 US single)[7], Phoenix, Passion Pit, La Roux[8], and even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who switched to an almost entirely electronic sound for their 2009 album It's Blitz! after being part of the garage rock revival movement earlier in the decade.

Out of all of the original 80s synthpop bands, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, and Depeche Mode, although nowhere near the peak of their popularity during the '80s and early '90s, are among the only ones that continue to achieve international success.


See also


  1. ^ Hot Butter bio by Allmusic
  2. ^ a b Allmusic Synthpop Genre
  3. ^ The Death of New Wave Theo Cateforis Assistant Professor of Music History and Cultures in the Department of Art and Music Histories at Syracuse University 2009
  4. ^ The 1980s revival that lasted an entire decade by Simon Reynolds for The Guardian 22 January, 2010
  5. ^
  6. ^ Allmusic Lights bio
  7. ^ Owl City Chart History Billboard
  8. ^ Allmusic La Roux bio

External links


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