Why Synthwave Isn’t Synthpop (And Why It Matters)

neon synthwave art vs black and white photo of synthpop band Kraftwerk

(Synthwave vs. Synthpop cover images: Signal Noise / Kraftwerk)

Synthwave existed contentedly for over a decade with little or no confusion about the fact that it was a separate genre from synthpop. Yet in the final months of 2018, synthwave fans abruptly and somewhat inexplicably began using the two terms interchangeably, and even prominent artists have begun unnecessarily conflating the two names for their music.

Along with the increasing misuse of the terms has come an increasing amount of confusion and questions about how synthwave is different, if at all, from synthpop.

Synthpop, like synthwave, is a specific genre of music, and the term is not a catch-all for music made with synthesizers or synth-based music with vocals. It is not a blend word for pop synthwave (popwave), and synthwave is not a revival of synthpop. With few real exceptions, synthwave and synthpop are separate genres of music with strikingly different backgrounds.

Why Does it Matter?

Using the terms “synthwave” and “synthpop” interchangeably obscures understanding of the music. This makes it more difficult for fans to locate music that appeals to their specific tastes, causes confusion in conversations, and glosses over important creative differences between artists in both genres, disregarding decades worth of beloved synthpop and synthwave creations in the process.  

Importantly for creators of synthwave music, adopting the older and generally unrelated term “synthpop” makes it more difficult to connect with interested fans and build an engaged audience. Fans of traditional synthpop are not necessarily likely to enjoy synthwave, which leads to misspent advertising money and unnecessary legwork that could be avoided by sticking with the increasingly prominent and recognized “synthwave” label, which represents a vibrant and specific niche of music.

Making a distinction between terms is also relevant for fans and listeners. As with all art appreciation — as well as appreciation of food, wine, craft beer, birdwatching, and an endless number of other aspects of life — category labels are a fundamental element of recognition and comprehension. When used flexibly and as a means of description, they are indispensable tools for understanding and communicating with one another about our shared experiences with music, enhancing our enjoyment of it in the process.

A full explanation of the importance of music genres can be found here, and it is the firm underlying basis for this article.

This discussion is meant to clarify and embrace creative differences between artists, and it recognizes that genres exist on stylistic spectrums with different shades and combinations. It is often relevant to describe the style of individual songs with more than one adjective and genre term, a fact that will be evident throughout this article. 

Despite understandable confusion over the similar names, the differences between synthwave and synthpop are quite easy to hear, and there are decades’ worth of examples of synthpop music for us to delve into for reference.

What is Synthpop?

To understand how and why the genres are different, it’s of course necessary to establish what each of them is in the first place. There is already a full history of synthwave along with descriptions of its subgenres in What is Synthwave? 2018 Edition, so this article will primarily focus on synthpop in order to make the differences between the older genre and synthwave plain to hear. 

Note that the goal of this article is not to detail the complete history of synthpop, but to pinpoint its most prominent and readily identifiable characteristics in order to establish an identity for the genre and use it as a means of comparison to synthwave music.

Synthpop is one of the earliest forms of electronic music, and like almost all electronic music, has its roots in the work of the German group Kraftwerk in the 1970s. However, as with many music pioneers, much of Kraftwerk’s early music falls outside or on the edges of the genre they helped pioneer (much as Black Sabbath’s releases from the 1970s were not yet heavy metal). 

Instead, the best examples of synthpop from Kraftwerk came later, particularly on the group’s 1986 album, Electric Café. In fact, it’s worth jumping ahead momentarily and pinpointing “The Telephone Call” from that album as an ideal example of true synthpop music. 

Genres are based on patterns, and dense areas of common creative elements form the heart of genres while less common approaches and techniques form the edges. When synthpop is viewed broadly with decades’ worth of contributions in mind, “The Telephone Call” lands very near to the center of the synthpop style.

While listening to “The Telephone Call,” note the stiff, mechanical beat, machine-like effects and melodies, and dispassionate, spoken vocal delivery, as these are all essential aspects of synthpop music and crucial points in this discussion of the genre.

True synthpop from the fathers of electronic music, Kraftwerk, 1986

Early Synthpop

Although much of ‘70s-era Kraftwerk was not yet synthpop in its full sense, the group helped to spark a growing interest in synthesizers as instruments, an interest that was shared by young artists in the UK in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It is there that synthpop (originally hyphenated as “synth-pop”) developed a stronger identity and first established an identifiable pattern of music. 

Among the earliest and most notable pieces of British music to shape the synthpop sound are Gary Numan’s “Cars” from 1979, as well as Human League’s “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” Ultravox’s “The Thin Wall,” and Depeche Mode’s “New Life,” all from 1981. Once again, note the rigid, minimal rhythms, cold production, and partially spoken vocal delivery in each of those songs.

An upbeat, early synthpop track from genre pioneers Depeche Mode, 1981

Many of Depeche Mode’s most popular early songs lean toward a more energetic style of music than other synthpop creations, though they share all of the genre-identifying characteristics mentioned for “The Telephone Call.” 

Sythpop’s defining elements — mechanical rhythms, understated compositions, spoken vocal deliveries — were the result of a few different factors, including the performers’ modest technical skills and the limitations of the early synthesizers available to them. However, in many cases, the music was also a reflection of the creators’ underlying conceptual interest in machines, with synthesizers frequently represented as the instrument of artificial lifeforms.

That aspect has remained a vital characteristic of the synthpop genre throughout its history, and it’s plain to hear and see in the performances of songs that planted seeds for the entire genre, including Tubeway Army’s “Are Friends Electric” and Kraftwerk’s “Das Model” of the late ‘70s. 

In the case of Kraftwerk — who wrote songs with titles like “The Robots” and “The Man Machine” — the members literally performed their music as though they were androids. (This robotic aspect of the band’s performances, as well as its relationship to German minimal art culture, was famously parodied in Mike Myers’ Sprockets skits using a sped-up loop of Kraftwerk’s “Electric Café” for the theme music.)

The mannerisms of the performers as well as the relative style of the music is echoed in Tubeway Army’s “Are Friends Electric” from 1979. “Are Friends Electric” is a rock-based precursor to true synthpop, and although it does not represent the genre as fully as “The Telephone Call” or even Gary Numan’s “Cars” from later in 1979, it is an essential part of the genre’s genesis and exemplifies nearly all of its defining characteristics.

The music’s icy atmosphere, minimalist delivery, and Numan’s android-like performance in the video below make this an immediate and vital example of synthpop’s origins.     

A formative example of early British synthpop, 1979

This interest in machines, both directly through the electronic instruments and indirectly as part of culture’s increasing shift into computer-based society, results in a very rigid sound that is present in all true synthpop music. A crisp, often forceful 4/4 rhythm combines with emotionless vocals and punctuated melodies for a sound that often feels like it was written and performed by synthetic life forms. 

As the style developed a clearer identity in Britain at the start of the new decade, its early sound was embraced and began to flourish more widely back in Germany. For example, The Twins released Passion Factory in 1981 and Modern Lifestyle in 1982. Both albums feature songs with unmistakable similarities to the early synthpop explored by British acts at the time, including the minimal, robotic sound of the music along with semi-spoken vocals.

Early German synthpop from The Twins, 1982

Creations from the first several years in synthpop’s history are particularly sparse and free of embellishment, and it’s often relevant to recognize them as their own form of “early synthpop” music, especially as the style has undergone its own careful and explicit revivals. For example, artists like Sector One, Datapop, and Unisonlab have created early synthpop music in the 2010s with strong influences from Kraftwerk recordings of the late ‘70s.

(On a side note, it’s worth observing that this revival of early synthpop music is drastically different in terms of style from synthwave, which is not an explicit throwback to any music from the 1980s.)

Early synthpop from Britain and Germany — accented by experimental synth creations from Yellow Magic Orchestra in Japan — form the foundation of the genre. However, it’s worth mentioning again that the recordings from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were later pushed to the edges of the synthpop genre as the pattern of music expanded and concentrated more heavily on a slightly evolved sound, epitomized by Kraftwerk’s “The Telephone Call” from 1986.  

Early Synthpop’s Broader Context

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, synthpop was fundamentally a subgenre of new wave, which referred to a massive cultural shift in songwriting styles coming from Britain, and shortly after, the US. There are several distinct facets of new wave, and the label is more relevant as a descriptor of music innovation from the era than of a particular creative approach. That said, new wave can very generally be described as a rock-based evolution of punk music.

Synthpop began as a specific style of this new wave music revolution and later evolved into its own complete genre. However, because of the interrelated nature of the two, there is a significant amount of gray area between synthpop and new wave throughout the ‘80s. Artists often leaned toward one style or the other, even fluctuating from one track to the next on the same album. 

For example, Ultravox’s “We Came to Dance” from 1982 is a clear synthpop song with its no-frills composition and stiff delivery, while the song that precedes it on the group’s Quartet album, “When the Scream Subsides,” is a new wave track driven by an electric guitar and a powerful vocal performance by Midge Ure.

Robert Palmer, the decade’s master of pop music experimentation, embraced the minimal early synthpop sound with his 1980 hit “Johnny and Mary,” while the very next track on his Clues album, “What Do You Care,” is a funk-driven rock piece that more closely recalls his recordings from the ‘70s.

Early British synthpop from genre chameleon Robert Palmer, 1980

Naturally, the interrelated nature of new wave and synthpop led to much of the later historical confusion around synthpop, with artists like Duran Duran receiving the label despite their music predominately being an elaborate style of upbeat rock music with warmly melodic vocal hooks. 

This confusion was further compounded in the ‘80s as early synthpop was incorporated into a larger melting pot of commercial music that blended the characteristics of synthpop and new wave with funk, soul, hip-hop, and a high number of other styles. As the genres evolved into newer and increasingly unrelated styles, a lack of familiarity with synthpop’s origins and defining characteristics caused the synthpop label to be passed along indecisively to new genres.

The Pointer Sisters’ 1984 album Break Out is a great example of this melting pot of music ideas, and it contains previously unrelated genre elements like R&B and synthpop alongside one another on the very same songs. Despite the influences of synthpop on the album, however, none of the entries on Break Out can be properly classified within the genre, and it is more accurate to refer to it as “‘80s commercial pop” or simply “‘80s pop.”

The following genre map is helpful as visualization tool for understanding how synthpop, new wave, and ‘80s commercial pop are interrelated, but often separate genres of music. Note that it is impossible to fully categorize genre evolution in this way, and so the diagram is meant as a visual reference and not a complete classification system. 

synthwave vs synthpop genre map colorful venn diagram

It’s worth revisiting the topic of ‘80s pop later, but while mainstream culture was adopting pieces of synthpop for its own purposes, the cold, robotic heart of the music continued to connect itself firmly with a very different culture and style of music, particularly in Germany and its surrounding countries.

Synthpop, Industrial, and Darkwave

Significantly, synthesizers were often frowned upon by the established music world of the late ‘70s. They were not serious musical instruments in the eyes of many professional songwriters and producers of the era, and so the artists who embraced them — and the venues and labels who supported the artists — often held a counterculture mindset and a dedication to underground music. 

This meant that early pioneers of synthpop frequently shared their performance spaces with post-punk and industrial musicians, a fact with immense implications for the future of multiple genres.  

For those who are familiar with synthpop and industrial music, that fact will immediately connect the dots in the ancestry of those genres, including their sound and visual aesthetic. Synthpop and industrial music have shared their DNA in each other’s creations for decades, and they have similarly carried their punk heritage with them across the years, as in rivethead culture.

Soft Cell is a famous example of a synthpop act who exhibited the genre’s lingering ties to punk culture. Another example is the German group Boytronic, whose synthpop track “You” from 1983 perfectly represents the triangular relationship of synthpop with industrial and post-punk music. The cold, mechanical rhythm of “You” borrows from the percussive sting of industrial tracks while the punk and post-punk influences shine through in the vocal delivery and aesthetic of the music video. 

German synthpop with close ties to industrial and post-punk, 1983

Boytronic produced numerous examples of synthpop in this style, including “Diamonds and Loving Arms,” “Luna Square,” and “Photographs,” all of which feature a leaden atmosphere with sharp percussion, robotic synthesizer tones, and unsmiling, semi-spoken vocals.

To fully understand the close relationship of synthpop and industrial music, it’s worth examining the work of industrial pioneers SPK. When the act released their Machine Age Voodoo album in 1984, it was a marked departure from the experimental industrial noise they made on earlier releases like 1982’s Leichenschrei. Instead, the recording incorporated elements of the synthpop style that was rapidly gaining momentum and identity in the first half of the 1980s.

The result is tracks like “Seduction” that feature a vicious, striking rhythm with detailed percussion and prominent vocal leads, all delivered with steely production. These creations perfectly represent the deep bond between industrial and synthpop music in the emerging years of both genres. 

A hybrid synthpop-industrial creation from industrial pioneers SPK, 1984

Because of their close genesis alongside one another in underground clubs, it’s accurate and relevant to think of synthpop and industrial music as fraternal (non-identical) twins. This tight, nearly inextricable relationship between the two has persisted without interruption for nearly 40 years. 

Crucially, true synthpop music always bears a mechanical, robotic edge, and more often than not, percussive elements with an industrial touch. The more a music creator disconnects from this mechanical sound, the harder it becomes to classify their creations as synthpop. 

This melting pot of creative ideas between synthpop, industrial, and post-punk music will also be familiar to fans of darkwave (not to be confused with dark synthwave, aka darksynth), which emerged from the same underground creative spaces. As post-punk evolved into increasingly diverse forms of music like darkwave, it frequently brought the synthpop and industrial twins with it. 

As a result, synthpop has remained a prominent aspect of darkwave music throughout the decades. For example, darkwave pioneers Clan of Xymox’s self-titled album from 1985 carries clear examples of its relationship to synthpop, particularly on the songs “Stranger” and “No Human Can Drown.” Synthpop and industrial elements are present in an evolved, modern form on the act’s newer recordings like “Your Kiss” from 2017.

Wolfsheim’s 1991 song “The Sparrows and the Nightingales” is an excellent example of a darkwave track that can also be properly classified as synthpop.

Dark synthpop from Germany’s Wolfsheim, 1991

This relationship became even more concrete after the early ‘90s when mainstream culture abruptly rejected its love of ‘80s synthesizers (as well as other popular ‘80s genres like traditonal metal and hair rock) in favor of new music including grunge, alternative rock, and a revival of folk rock. The result was that synthesizers were once again forced to retreat into the underground to mingle with darker genres.

During the ‘90s and ‘00s, synthpop’s relationship with darkwave and industrial became especially visible within the context of the ever-expanding EBM culture and several of its subgenres and outgrowths. For example, many futurepop creators incorporated a direct and immediate evolution of synthpop music into their songs, bringing along touches of darkwave and industrial.  

Several of Solitary Experiments’ songs from the ‘00s capture the essence of this mixture well, adding modern production and EDM sensibilities to the blend, as on “Delight.” As with many synthpop creations, “Delight” contains a dispassionate, android-like vocal delivery along with a stark, industrial-spiked rhythm section.  

A dark synthpop track with futurepop production, 2005

Covenant’s “Dead Stars” has a lighter tone than “Delight” and is a modern synthpop song by every definition, including its rigid and forceful 4/4 beat, dramatically robotic synth melodies, and sterilized vocal delivery.

Another excellent example of this direct, future-minded evolution of synthpop is Colony 5’s “Heta Nätter” from 2005. Despite the modern production on the track, its ties to pioneering synthpop creations is unmistakable, and because “Heta Nätter” has a direct and immediate stylistic connection to early ‘80s synthpop from Depeche Mode, it is fully accurate to classify it as a synthpop song. 

Synthpop with futurepop production, 2005

Why is Everything Else Called Synthpop?

Although synthpop blends evenly into many different styles of rock and electronic music, it’s defining characteristics are often easy to spot. Yet the term is applied to an enormous range of music whose creations at opposing ends hold no stylistic connections to one another. 

Like many other popular music genres, such as heavy metal, fans, journalists, and musicians continued to use the term “synthpop” to refer to new forms of music that developed well beyond the genre’s signature sound. As mentioned earlier, this is partly due to its close connection with the rock-based sounds of new wave music and the ways in which synthpop and new wave were incorporated into popular music of the 1980s.

As with many older and widespread genre labels, however, the misuse is also the result of a lack of familiarity with synthpop’s origins and a failure to create or embrace new terms that can properly pinpoint new forms of music.

The result is that the term “synthpop” has become very broad and ambiguous for listeners who are not familiar with the genre. Once the name became unmoored from its original sound and was carried into mainstream pop of the ‘80s, it began to float around in general public consciousness without anything concrete to attach itself to, and so new fans and creators began assigning it to unrelated genres without understanding what it meant or where it came from.

The result is that artists like Thompson Twins and Howard Jones are sometimes placed under its banner, despite them making non-synthpop music that is better defined as “new wave” or better still, “‘80s commercial pop.”

Although this misconception of synthpop sometimes reaches extremes (as we’ll see later with pop synthwave artists), there is plenty of gray area to justify the confusion. Madonna’s first two albums, for example, show unmistakable influences from synthpop. “Burning Up” from her 1983 debut holds a strong connnection to synthpop with its stiff, synthetic rhythm, though it would be difficult to fully classify it under that label, as the music is largely disconnected from the robotic, understated feel of the genre and instead has a friendly, inviting production tone with a hook-heavy singing style. 

‘80s commercial pop with synthpop influences, 1983

Once again, it’s much more accurate to identify the song as simply “‘80s commercial pop” or “‘80s pop.” Although a name like “‘80s pop” may sound generic, it’s actually fully relevant as a genre descriptor and represents the melting pot of ideas that was happening at the time. ‘80s pop artists came from very different backgrounds, though they gravitated toward a central music idea and created a diverse but creatively harmonious genre of music.

Pet Shop Boys provide another example of artists blending synthpop with outside styles, and their music is a significant source of the confusion over the term.

Although the duo’s earliest tracks like “West End Girls” are clearly synthpop-related, the music is missing some of the rigid, android-like tone of the genre and favors a more accessible, commercial sound. Where the real confusion sets in is on later releases, as the act rapidly shifted away from their synthpop roots and began incorporating stronger dance influences, free-flowing melodies, and other distinctly different elements for a remarkable new sound.

This is plain to hear on Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 track “It’s a Sin,” whose lush instrumentation, sweeping orchestra, powerful vocal delivery, and rich production style pull it remarkably far away from synthpop. 

‘80s commercial pop and dance music with distant roots in synthpop, 1987

A similar type of evolution can be tracked within the discography of Depeche Mode, who by 1990’s Violator album had shifted into a more graceful style of music that aligned with commercial pop of the era and was difficult to classify as synthpop. This type of shift within a single artist’s discography is far from rare, particularly among music artists who find widespread commercial success. (For example, Judas Priest was best classified as hard rock in the late ‘70s, heavy metal in the early and mid-‘80s, and power metal by the time they reached 1988’s Ram it Down and 1990’s Painkiller.)

Numerous other artists from the era, including Alphaville and Eurythmics, fall into similar creative spaces as Pet Shop Boys, crafting detailed compositions with diverse instrumentation and powerful vocal leads that are only distantly related to synthpop. In spite of the fact they are often associated with the label, none of their songs fit cleanly within the synthpop genre.

Although a large percentage of true synthpop music has been properly classified over the years, a combination of factors has caused the genre label to drift over to new and unrelated sounds. The three largest causes of misuse of the genre name have already been identified but are worth mentioning again: mainstream pop’s inclusion of synthpop elements, the evolution of popular synthpop acts like Depeche Mode into new and increasingly unrelated styles of music, and general misconceptions among fans, journalists, and musicians about the origins and defining characteristics of synthpop.

The result has caused the name “synthpop” to float around among unrelated music styles for decades, frequently causing confusion when it turns up. 

Synthwave is simply the latest form of music to inherit the synthpop label without owning a direct and immediate connection to the genre.

Is Synthwave the Same Thing as Synthpop?

Synthwave is not the same genre of music as synthpop, nor is it a subgenre of synthpop. It is also not a revival of the older genre.

Synthwave largely grew out of EDM of the mid-‘00s, and it tends to have softer percussion and bright, detailed melodies with a warm production style. Its pioneering creations pull heavy influences from funk, disco, and the original form of electro, as well as from film scores and video game soundtracks. The sparse, mechanical aspects of synthpop, as well as its steely production, are absent from synthwave-defining creations like Mitch Murder’s “Midnight Mall” from 2010.

Instead, note the prominent and elaborate bassline, nuanced percussion, and diverse melodic touches in the song below.

True synthwave (outrun) music with no similarities to synthpop, 2010

It’s true that some outrun releases like those from Miami Nights 1984 and Lost Years are at least peripherally related to synthpop, though in the early and mid-2010s their creations were virtually never mistaken for the older genre.

It’s roughly accurate to think of synthpop and outrun (the original form of synthwave music) as musical neighbors, living on the same block and waving to one another in passing, but rarely ever sharing direct conversations with one another.

True synthwave (outrun) with minor similarities to synthpop, 2013

The strongest similarity between most outrun and synthpop is the 4/4 time signature and crisp rhythmic elements that appear on many songs in each genre. However, these elements are widespread throughout many forms of music, including unrelated ones like jazz and folk rock, and alone are not a strong basis of comparison. If they were, Bob Dylan’s 1985 track “Tight Connection to My Heart” and Bon Jovi’s 1986 hit “Livin’ on a Prayer” would be synthpop songs. (They’re not.)

The current confusion over the synthpop name seems to stem from the increasing prevalence of vocal tracks within the synthwave genre and the shift away from linear song structures into pop formats with distinctive verse and chorus sections. Although it seems logical to shorten “pop synthwave” to “synthpop” or simply to connect synthwave with the ambiguously-used name for the older genre, this is often done without realizing the depth and extent of synthpop’s history as a specific style of music.

In a distinctly ironic twist, the most popular artists making the shift into pop music, such as The Midnight and FM-84, are actually evolving away from synthpop and into a soft, commercial style of the late 2010s that holds no meaningful connection to the sounds of synthpop music. 

So, What is Pop Synthwave?

Pop synthwave (popwave) music is a significant and rapidly expanding evolution of synthwave that has primarily grown out of the subgenre of dreamwave and become immensely popular in the past two years. The most visible artists in the style include The Midnight, FM-84, Timecop1983, and Kalax. Once again, despite superficial similarities in name, popwave is very different from synthpop and is actually trending in the opposite creative direction.

A blend of pop synthwave and dreamwave with no connection to synthpop, 2018

Not only is this music fully disconnected from synthpop, but its ties to traditional synthwave have become increasingly thin. In contrast with early synthwave, which borrowed heavily from ‘80s music culture like Euro disco, electro, and video game soundtracks, popwave increasingly turns to contemporary forms of EDM and commercial pop music for its inspiration, combining modern mainstream sounds with retro synth tones for a unique and fresh blend of styles.

Compare songs like The Midnight’s “Lost Boy,” The Bad Dreamers’ “New York Minute,” or FM-84’s “Bend and Break” to any of the synthpop examples in the section above, such as Kraftwerk’s “The Telephone Call,” and the differences are remarkable. FM-84’s “Bend and Break” is an excellent example of a popwave song with no connection to synthpop music. 

Pop synthwave (popwave) with no ties to synthpop, 2019

Popwave is a colorful and lush style of music with fluid rhythms, bright synthesizer tones, and powerfully emotive vocals with strong melodic hooks. It differs dramatically from the mechanical beats, sparse compositions, and robotic vocal delivery of synthpop music, and the two styles are fundamentally unrelated. 

In fact, it’s increasingly accurate to think of popwave music as a subgenre of ‘10s commercial pop. For example, aside from its retro synth tones, “Bend and Break” has a strikingly similar production style and songwriting feel to The Jonas Brothers’ “I Believe,” also from 2019.

‘10s commercial pop with strong similarities to popwave, 2019

To further illustrate the vast creative divide between most popwave and synthpop music, it’s worth comparing “Bend and Break” side-by-side with a retro synthpop creation from the same decade. And One’s “Dancing in the Factory” from 2011 is a true synthpop track unmistakably written and performed in the style of early Depeche Mode creations like “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

A true synthpop track created in the modern era by And One, 2011

“Dancing in the Factory” can be tied directly to pioneering synthpop creations and is a synthpop song in the fullest sense possible. In contrast, it would be necessary to backtrack through numerous genres, eras, and several branches of post-synthpop evolution to even begin to connect FM-84’s music to the roots of the synthpop genre. Those tangled and numerous degrees of separation make it impossible to classify songs like “Bend and Break” as synthpop.

FM-84, The Midnight, The Bad Dreamers, and dozens of others are innovative and pioneering acts forging an exciting and increasingly popular style of synth-based music worthy of new terms and new discussions about synthwave. However, if a general or broad term is needed to describe the music in casual conversation, it is much more relevant and less confusing to simply call their creations “pop music” or “mainstream pop” instead of synthpop, as they share much stronger similarities with commercial genres of the past decade than with any form of synthpop or other music from the 1980s.


Related: The Top 10 Popwave Albums of 2018


On the other hand, if generalities are to be avoided, fans, journalists, and artists should embrace more specific, relevant labels like “synthwave,” “popwave” or a new term that does not already have decades worth of deep, concrete associations attached to it for millions of listeners.

But There’s Some Overlap Between Synthwave and Synthpop, Right?

Absolutely. As with nearly all genres, there is some overlap in styles between synthwave and synthpop, and there are clear examples of music that can be accurately classified within both genres. 

In these cases, it is predominately the songwriting and performance of the music that makes it synthpop while the retro synth tones and production shift it into the realm of synthwave. 

Mecha Maiko is one of the few artists making a hybrid form of synthpop and synthwave. Her previous project, Dead Astronauts, created numerous songs that can be accurately classified as both synthpop and synthwave, such as “Black Echo.”

“Electric Heat” from her 2018 solo album Mad But Soft similarly contains the industrial-tinged percussion, stiff rhythms, cold production, and reserved vocal tone that define synthpop music. “Electric Heat” easily falls within the same scope of music as all the synthpop songs discussed above, including tracks like Boytronic’s “You.”

Synthpop with synthwave production, 2018

Many of the songs on Alex’s Simulations album from 2018 can also be properly classified as synthpop, particularly tracks like “Game Over” and “Random Access Fantasies.” In fact, these songs arguably have more in common with synthpop than synthwave.

A high number of songs in Compilerbau’s discography are fully classifiable as synthpop, including vocal tracks like “Talking Machines” (once again featuring the theme of sentient robots) and “Far Away.”

Several Maxthor creations, particularly the artist’s collaboration with The Foreign on “The Streets of 1987, Pt. 2,” also blend the songwriting and delivery of synthpop music with synthwave production. Notice the robotic vocal delivery, minimal rhythm, and quick snap of the percussion in the song below.

Synthpop with synthwave production, 2015

These creations and similar ones constitute a small slice of synthwave, though roughly five percent or less of synthwave creations could be classified as any form of synthpop music. Generally speaking, synthpop and its defining characteristics are absent from the broader synthwave genre.

On a related note, the excellent revival of post-punk and darkwave music that is currently underway contains many songs that can be properly classified as synthpop, such as “Geometric Vision’s “Jelly Dream” and Minuit Machine’s “Empty Shell.” This revival of music is much more closely related to synthpop than either synthwave or (especially) popwave, a fact that makes perfect sense from a historical perspective. 

She Past Away has produced numerous darkwave tracks with strong synthpop underpinnings over the past decade, and tracks like “Katarsis” provide an unmistakable modern example of darkwave and synthpop’s decades-long relationship.

Darkwave with a strong synthpop foundation, 2016

Although it’s true there are some gray areas areas between synthwave and synthpop, demarcation lines must exist somewhere or else every song in the world becomes a synthpop song. 

To borrow a quote from Why Darksynth Deserves its Own Genre, “it’s possible to identify a steady stylistic continuum across nearly every musical genre imaginable, from acoustic folk to death metal or early synthpop to brutal dubstep. Exactly where the line between styles should be drawn is subjective and a matter of personal preference, though at some point logic has to step in and point out that Bob Dylan does not sound like Cannibal Corpse, and arguing that they each use guitars and drums in their music is irrelevant.”

Synthwave and synthpop have remarkably different characteristics and historical evolutions, and within the scope of synth-based music, are separate genres that often appeal to separate demographics of listeners.

To reiterate the analogy from earlier, they are much more like musical neighbors than housemates or family members.  

Another look at the genre map from earlier reveals the pattern of evolution across genres through specific songs. Once again, it’s important to note that it’s impossible to fully classify music in this way, and so the song locations are approximations meant as a visual reference, not concrete categorizations.

synthwave vs synthpop song map with colorful venn diagrams Iron Skullet
(Click to enlarge genre map.)

Conclusion

The decision to begin calling synthwave “synthpop” causes real confusion for listeners of both genres, complicating the process of connecting interested fans with artists they will enjoy. Synthwave has its own name and identifying characteristics, and there’s no need to retroactively borrow the name of a different and beloved genre of music. (Particularly as “synthwave” was already co-opted from a more loosely defined term for synthesizer music in the 1980s.)

This fact would’ve been true of synthwave five or six years ago, though it’s more relevant now than ever. Fans of the stark and often industrial-minded sounds of synthpop are not always likely to embrace the soft, rich, and sentimental music of current popwave and dreamwave artists, whose vocal-driven compositions are a significant source of confusion over the name. 

Like all aspects of language, the fundamental purpose of music genres is to help us identify our shared experiences and communicate ideas with one another. To that end, the goal is always to be as clear as possible, thereby minimizing confusion, improving comprehension, and most importantly, enjoying and sharing the music we love.

Synthwave and synthpop are not the same form of music. They are distinctly different genres that occasionally mingle at their edges and are otherwise content to mind their own business. They are each unique and wonderful genres with thousands of contributing artists who have helped define the shape and substance of their individual styles, and they each deserve to have their names reserved for their specific creative approaches. 

Early British synthpop from Ultravox, 1982

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Dynamite Stranger

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Enjoy the best synthpop songs from this article along with many others in Iron Skullet’s new playlist, Real Synthpop for Real Androids.

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