Synthwave is an aesthetic which seeks to modernize the visual styles contemporary to the 1980s and ’90s. It is unique in that along with a distinct visual style, synthwave has an accompanying style of music (of which synthwave-style artwork often serves as the album cover). It prominently features shades of neon pink and cyan, retro-style computer generated graphics, grid lines, and often stylized depictions of sunsets. It is also known as Neon-noir, Outrun, and Retrowave.The origins of synthwave are wide-ranging. Heavily inspired by graphics of the ’80s and ’90s, the aesthetic appears to draw inspiration from retro-futurism (and its sub-genre cassette futurism)—a neighboring aesthetic which depicts the future in a noir-type setting with futuristic versions of 1980s technologies, most notably cassette players terminal-style computers. Mainstream works that evoke this style are Blade Runner (1982), Back to the Future (1985), and TRON (1982).
The Visual StyleOne of the most recognizable features in the synthwave aesthetic is the omnipresence of hues of neon pink and cyan. The origins of this distinct style aren’t well-known; Joel Chan asserts in an article he wrote for Medium in 2020 that the use of pink and cyan stems from the limitations of computer graphics in the early ’80s. Computers at this time were just starting to get color (as opposed to the iconic green phosphor monitors of the ’70s) and were often very limited in their color choices. The IBM Color Graphics Adapter from 1981, which Chan mentions, offered a popular 4-color graphics mode in white, black, pink, and cyan.
Other notable features include the presence of an oversized sun at dusk, stylized in yellow-red hues with stripes reminiscent of vintage t-shirts; retro-futuristic cars such as the DeLorean DMC-12 from Back to the Future; and a combination of bold, chrome sans-serif text with handwritten text in a neon color (see the mock Cybertruck ad poster in Chan’s article).
The Musical Style
Synthwave draws heavily from ’80s Synthpop music from bands like Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, but it would be irresponsible to label these contemporary bands as synthwave. The distinction is most likely that synthwave, by definition, seeks to emulate the music of the 1980s out of reverence, or at the very least because of the aesthetic appeal. Starting in the early 2000s with musicians creating music that emulate film scores of the ’80s (especially Blade Runner), the genre has continued to increase in popularity to the point where there’s a 24-hour live stream on YouTube of synthwave music.It wasn’t until recently that synthwave music started to “leak” into popular songs. In 2020, The Weeknd released the hit single “Blinding Lights”—a pop song at heart with tangible synthwave influences. These influences go beyond just the presence of synthesizers in the music—the upbeat music juxtaposed with melancholy lyrics set a tone very much inline with the “neon-noir” that synthwave represents.
. Featured image. Created by artist “visionsofelvedon”, obtained from https://artgrab.co/art/visionsofelvedon.