Synth Pop

I have always been keen on synth pop.  Being too young to have been conscious of the golden age of synth pop in the 80’s, I only turned 12 in 1990, I had friends whose older brothers and sisters schooled us.  Various kinds of synth acts like New Order, Erasure, Depeche Mode, OMD, Pet Shop Boys, and Book of Love have taken space in my music collection among other lesser bands.  Now bands that draw influences from these acts like Haim, Chvrches, and The Chromatics have joined them as well.

Putting all these acts together is a little bit confusing, because they are all different.  It would be like comparing the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones just because they made pop songs in the 60’s and used real musicians.  What they all have in common, despite completely different aesthetics, is that at least for awhile they wrote in the pop song format and wrote primarily on synthesizer.  I did not include bands such as Kraftwerk or Daft Punk, because many of their songs are not structured like a traditional vocal dominated pop song.  All of these other bands threw monkey wrenches into the form at one point or another, but their discography is largely composed, at least during the 80’s, of songs that fit this bill.

However, aside from the form, what do these bands have in common and why do I like them?  First of all, despite relying at various times on synthetic instrumentation, these bands are all highly emotional.  They still let the human voice; the most emotional of all instruments, take front and center stage.  Although bands seem to be slowly getting back to passionate singing, over the last ten years it has been common to obscure the vocals in some way.  This is often done through effects or through mixing.  True synth pop usually has a very emotional vocal front and center.  That is all I need to become invested in music, a unique and passionate singer.  That’s not to say that I can’t get into a band because they have a great guitar player, but I usually will never love a band whose singing I can’t get invested in, unless that music is non-verbal in nature.  I would argue that bands like Kraftwerk and later period The Knife are almost non-verbal in their aims.  They are using the minimum amount of natural singing to get across their emotional content.

These bands are also masters at the pop song format.  The bands listed above have created many gigantic sounding sing along choruses.  If you have ever written music you understand how hard it is to write a really big catchy chorus.  This is not the work of amateurs.

I really believe that the 80’s, behind only the 1960’s, was a golden age in pure pop writing.  Pop at its best is a form that allows you to become invested in it without any heavy intellectual burden.  That is not to say that these bands couldn’t be intellectual or subversive.  Many of them were.  But your brain doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting to become emotionally involved in this stuff.

Sometime you should listen to something like early New Order and then listen to even a rock band on the radio nowadays.  Even though New Order might use any number of sequencers and synthesizers their music is much more human sounding.  Technology has always been a part of recording.  I’m not a Luddite and I do not feel that one recording technique is necessarily better than another, when in the right hands.  However, when things are completely perfect they can often lose the inherent emotional quality.  The best of synth pop can give one an idea about how technology and emotion can be married and married well.

Roads Still Yet to be Traveled

I’ve really become interested in electronic music lately.  Some bands that I’ve been listening to lately have been Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, OMD, and Book of Love.  I also love the Knife, though their music fits less moods than the others, as they are more abrasive and confrontational.  I also love the music on Johnny Jewel’s label, especially the band The Chromatics.  I’ve always loved synth pop.  I grew up on bands like New Order.

I’m interested in the idea of people getting emotion out of technology.  Also some of the best pop songs are in this genre.  Bernard Sumner from New Order can write endless melodies that never leave your head.

Although I grew up with bands like New Order, Electronic, and Depeche Mode, some of my current interest has been driven by the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.  He uses this music to great effect in films like Drive, Bronson, and Only God Forgives.  He understands that although this music is very synthetic on one hand, it is also capable of great emotion.

If country and folk music, which I also love, evoke pastoral settings, electronic music reminds me of the city at nighttime.  That’s not to say that electronic music can’t also be pastoral.  Brian Eno’s 70’s album Another Green World is an album that brings nature to mind more often than not.  Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album also has moments like this.  Although I love songs that have a message and am a fan of great lyrics, sometimes music is wonderful when it just creates space for dreams.

Haruki Murakami’s book After Dark creates a surreal dream like version of the city at night.  When I read things like this I often picture certain pieces by Kraftwerk and the Chromatics as being the perfect soundtrack to these worlds.

I grew up as a fan of the pop song.  More recently I’ve begun to be as interested in music that is non verbal.  Music that is non verbal has to create emotion and thought through pure sound.  This can be music that is instrumental or music that has the vocals obscured through production techniques.  Non verbal to me can even be bands that sing in foreign languages, where I can’t understand what they are saying, and the voice becomes just another emotional texture.  Often in electronic music, especially as you see with bands like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, only a few simple phrases will be repeated throughout a song.  Even though you understand what they are saying it is open to interpretation when combined with the music.  The words become almost just another sound that feeds into the music and vice versa.

Although I write in the pop song format, and it’s still my favorite format, there is something to be said about music that is non verbal.  The human imagination is a powerful thing.  In the place of words we will often find that our dreams take over and place meaning into things that may or may not be intended by the artist.

I’ve mentioned before how David Lynch liked using grainy digital video for the movie Inland Empire, because he wanted the human imagination to fill in the space that the imperfect images left.  I think a lot of electronic music, the kind that is non verbal or almost non verbal, does this same thing.  It allows for interpretation and dreaming on the part of the listener.

Well there are many forms of instrumental music, many of which I love, the sounds created by electronic instruments create a different headspace.  Again it is often, but not always, more urban and futuristic.  Some bands like OMD, who write pop songs and instrumental pieces, create a retro futurism.  It’s like the sonic version of a film noir that takes place in the past and the future at the same time.  One of my favorite albums right now is their album Dazzle Ships.  It is an album full of mystery, ideas, and dreams.

Too often I think people let cultural or tribal things get in the way of exploring new worlds.  People are more open now to new musical experiences than ever before.  Sometimes though, there still exists a certain tribal instinct that gets in the way of people enjoying different forms, based solely on what they might find “cool” or acceptable in their group.   The human imagination can go anywhere and should be given as much room to roam as possible.  Don’t listen to anything but your own gut.  There are many roads still yet to be traveled.