You Need to Listen to 'Synthwave,' the Chillest Beats On YouTube

How the genre mined 80s nostalgia and modern dystopia to become a giant on YouTube.
October 18, 2018, 8:17pm
RoboCop pointing a gun.
Screengrab from RoboCop

De Lorra is the pseudonym of Matthias Hency, a 23-year old Soundcloud musician from the tiny town of Joplin, Missouri. The best track he's produced is called "Slow Drip"—a spellbound blast of magenta-hued synth that immediately teleports you to a neon beach, or a fallen city, or a glistening octahedral sunset. He calls his craft "synthwave," which has become a catch-all term coined for anything on the internet that mines the vectorized euphoria left behind by 80s cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Robocop. Those films are about dystopia, transhumanism, and the fatal incursions of capitalism, but strangely, De Lorra says his craft is focused on exactly one feeling: nostalgia. Hency was born in the mid-90s, and inherited a version of the Reagan years he could never touch himself, but that doesn't matter—"Slow Drip" has mustered nearly 300,000 plays on YouTube. The 80s are alive and well, and being curated by a group of kids who feel like something has been left behind in the lambent dream.

"I think our generation is in a very weird place, everything is so overwhelming," says Hency, when I catch him over the phone on a Sunday afternoon. "The 80s seem so much more simple. It's romanticized. I love that feeling of melancholy goodness. I grew up watching all those movies and listening to all those soundtracks, and even though I wasn't alive during that time, my brain has built an alternate reality of what it was like."

In many ways, the synthwave revolution has a lot in common with the swell of lo-fi hip-hop channels that have dominated YouTube over the past year. The music itself is distributed primarily through mixes, each of which are assembled by a cadre of scene adherents who troll through the dregs of Soundcloud for the latest, greatest, and most euphoric hits. Naturally, that is where I first discovered De Lorra—on a mix called "L O N G N I G H T S." It features an endlessly looped visual of a dirty, space-age metropolis where two cyberpunk rascals linger on a titanium balcony. They look both weary and effortlessly cool, as they exchange glances and drinks under the cold gaze of a roving security camera. In other words, perfect ambiance for a song like "Slow Drip."

The titles of these mixes reflect Hency's theory of a youth culture caught out of time and out of place in the chaos of the 21st century. One of the best examples is a two hour synthwave compilation uploaded by a YouTuber named Arherumor. Its inscription? "From a future we'll never know." (One of the top-upvoted comments belongs to a kid who writes under the moniker LordFhalkyn. "A past I've never seen, and a future I'll never know," he laments.) Perhaps the most prominent synthwave DJ on YouTube is an 18-year old from London named Michael Legros, who posts videos as "Michael Odysseus." Legros is an amateur digital artist who joins each of his playlists with one of his vibrant, technophiliac cityscapes. Every couple of days, another mix appears on his channel. Yesterday, it was a coked-out tribute to an alien South Beach in the form "Miami Nights." A week before featured a levitating car hanging in the blazing-pink moonlight, "Night Drive."

Legros tells me the first time he listened to synthwave he experienced a variety of emotions; euphoria, excitement, confusion, even despair. He chalks up the scene's renaissance to the popularity of Stranger Things and the gorgeously austere Blade Runner sequel, and mentions he's only been actively running his YouTube shop for about three months. (In that time, he's already racked up nearly 20,000 subscribers.) "In the end, it all seems to be the result of what is commonly called 'rosy retrospection'," says Legros, when I ask why synthwave resonates with someone like him, who was born in the year 2000. "It's a term that describes why many people seem to believe that the past is better than the present. Many people appear to relate more with the past than they do with the contemporary world. Maybe this is reason why such a large, new and young generation is appreciating synthwave music."

This is echoed by the mastermind behind a synthwave channel named Astral Throb, who tells me he prefers to remain anonymous. Synthwave is like heavy metal, he says. Someone who's in love with an artificial incarnation of the '80s understands that they're participating in a fantasy, just like how someone who loves Mayhem won't be inclined to "burn churches down and perform Satanic rituals."

Synthwave transports listeners to a past they may have never lived, but its popularity is also fueled by a present that feels very connected to the 80s movie dystopias its makers are so influenced by. "I feel like people are literally drawing similarities between [synthwave] and things going on right now" says Hency, later adding that when people are trying to thrive under a corrupt government, they'd "probably cling together, and they'd probably lose their prejudices and things like that."

In a world that at times can seem so far gone—a daily barrage of brutally bad news, an apocalyptic environmental report which has seemed to permanently seal the fate of human existence—a synthwave soundtrack fits like a glove. In times like these, it's easy to feel angry, gloomy, and particularly appreciative of the people around you. "Synthwave music conveys a familiarity, and many people connect with familiarity, as there is a predictable comfort in it," says Legros.

After all, when life gives you Blade Runner, you might as well lean all the way in.

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