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.