Purple Skies, Cyan Grids: The Synthwave Aesthetic

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Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022).

Sharp pinks and glowing reds. Palm trees speed past a white Lamborghini underneath the looming digital sun. Heavy synth and punchy drum loops play through an unwieldy, shining silver boom box. Stuck somewhere between the 1980s and a future that never came to pass, synthwave is an aesthetic that persists across the pop culture landscape. As an unashamed fan of synthwave in all its media forms, it's the first thing I associate with retrofuturism.

Films, TV, video games and music have all presented their own synthwave media. As products of the '80s, Blade Runner or the music of Jean-Michel Jarre might serve as the backbone for synthwave, but its maturation has occurred throughout the 2000s, 2010s and 2020s. To my eye, synthwave represents far more than '80s nostalgia. Many would assume synthwave to simply be a romanticisation or re-packaging of popular '80s iconography and media, but its complexity is perhaps why it has been so persistent in recent decades. Admittedly, the '80s are it's cultural basis, but its true flourishing post-Y2K means that it has a distinctly anachronistic flavour. While media like Blade Runner have their impact on it, their gritty, dystopian tilt is filtered out-replaced by vibrant neon colour scapes, endless digital worlds and superficial insertions of 80s iconography. The allegories and subtext of '80s media, such as the societal damage occurring under Reagan--and Thatcher--era neoliberalism, is switched out for the question, "What if Miami Vice and Tron met in a blender?" Perhaps synthwave best reflects the failed utopia of 21st-century life, and the desire for media that preferences pure, uncut escapism over underlying social commentary.

More than other retrofuturistic aesthetics, synthwave is undoubtedly more style than substance. Notably, there is a tendency for synthwave to be used in service of parodying 1980s cheesiness. The 2015 short film Kung Fury is perhaps the purest example of this trend, in which all of synthwave's aesthetic values are used emphatically to punch up the absurd tropes of '80s action films. While it leans heavily into the ridiculous (including an original song by David Hasselhoff, time-travelling Hitler and Viking dinosaurs), Kung Fury contains some fantastic visual interpretations and a wholly original synthwave score. Blood Dragon, the 2013 expansion to the video game Far Cry 3, similarly utilises the synthwave aesthetic with a parodic sensibility towards '80s media. Taking place in the "future" of 2007, Blood Dragon puts the player in control of cybernetic soldier Sergeant Rex "Power" Colt, tasked with killing a rogue colonel on a neon-soaked tropical island. The game is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek, but even while being so, manages to produce a unique use of the aesthetic--once again producing a high-quality synthwave soundtrack (from Australian duo Power Glove) and successfully transplanting synthwave onto the digital bones of a "modern" video game. It seems that synthwave thrives in being self-deprecating--fully embracing parody and historical inaccuracy to produce genuinely "new" cultural products.

Much like its visual motifs and the keyboards of its music synthwave is purely synthetic. The neon lights, digital landscapes and compressed sound files that define it are far removed from any semblance of mundane reality. It reeks of inauthenticity and caricature but looks back with fondness, while presenting its own unique twists. Whether synthwave bastardises its influences or engages in a fabricated retro aesthetic is a rabbit hole not worth falling into. The important thing is we don't categorise it as simply an aesthetic of nostalgia. While children of the '80s would likely appreciate synthwave on a more nuanced level, most producing and consuming its media are likely too young to truly compare it to a lived reality. Consider, for instance, the "nostalgic" qualities of Stranger Things and the popularity of its pseudo-romantic depiction of 1980s middle America amongst the TikTok generation.

Nevertheless, there are obvious limitations to the use of the synthwave aesthetic. As we've established, it comes with a certain type of winking self-parody, which doesn't suit every thematic structure. There's also the fact that while the aesthetic is striking, it is well-defined and potentially leaves little room for creative expression. Despite this, its persistence from the 2000s (and arguably the '80s) through to today proves that it has cultural longevity on its side. Maybe it's too derivative. Maybe it's too superficial. Whatever criticisms synthwave undoubtedly deserves, there's a magnetism that it has over our media world that is strong enough to wipe a VHS tape.

Most importantly, synthwave so inelegantly embodies the concept of retrofuturism: taking inspiration from an era that never truly existed, projecting a future that will never be.


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