Oct 21, 2018

Synthwave is the perfect travel music

My train was approaching Leiden Central Station as the engulfing blackness of the South Holland countryside gave way to the lights of the town. The trees and straight-banked irrigation canals punctuated the farmlands, green by day, black and shapeless by the night’s eye behind me – broken up by the occasional middle-of-nowhere village. The red brick of the buildings, with accents of solid colours occupying the spaces between those bricks in variations of rectangles, stretched on both sides of the tracks as the empty streets and squares rested after a day’s use. Quiet, alone, basking in the night’s stillness, like me.

I had been working for a client on a project with two friends in Den Haag (The Hague), and it was around midnight on a random Wednesday. We had a few beers after work (including a sledgehammer of a beer that was 21%), and as I gazed out of the train’s window towards the square of red brick outside, lit by the streetlights to a dark bronze colour, I was lost in thought. The flow of thoughts, penetrated at times by a reminder tied to a physical object outside like a symbol in a dream, proceeded in a strange rainbow shooting through thoughts of my upcoming trips, recollections of the day and of my life, with inevitable adventures in diversion.

There’s been a genre of music I’ve lately really been obsessing about, one that is the perfect music for times like the ride on the train. Synthwave. It brings the 80s to life again as we collectively remember them in our society’s genetic memory of what we have left of the decade: the music, the TV shows and movies, and what distills down from them is a feeling, an attitude, a state of mind. This memory feel of the 80s is a contradiction because it mixes possibility and limitations. The outrageous colours are muted by the limitations of VHS tape imperfections. The revolution in music of the synthesiser has ironically dated the music of the period with its distinct sound. The hair and outfits, meant to stand out in a crowd, merely became tools to conform. And the feeling of the 80s is some kind of absurd combination of Knight Rider and Back to the Future, but strangely mixed with with a futuristic cyberpunk Tokyo-like aesthetic reminiscent of something from Neuromancer.

That’s what Synthwave feels like to listen to. It’s like the 80s we want to remember, embracing the dated compositions and stylistic approaches of the decade but fusing it with the energy and la vie électronique of modern house and electronic. It’s a nostalgia of a decade that a lot of listeners never even remember (I was born in 1986, so I hardly remember much of it myself), but feel through the memories of our new digital society. In effect, the 80s were the first to embrace the beginnings of technology as we know today, and their early pioneering experimentation into digitalised life, style and music formed the childhood we all share as that nostalgia. They brought with them a sense of naivety and exploration not as present today.

Indeed, it is thought that genetic memory exists in nature, where an individual of a certain species can remember something, despite lacking the sensory experience itself. Perhaps that’s what the 80s is to us, and that’s why a revival of the sound (and most importantly the feel) is something I love getting lost in. To ride in a train at night, listening to synthesisers (and outrageous saxophones) makes me feel those contradictions encoded in my digital memory, and so is sitting here, tonight, looking out from my spot by the window overlooking my streetlight-lit street. And as I navigate the chaos of the Amsterdam bikes during rush hour – people getting home after work. And when I’m coding, there is no better zone to get into than when the feeling that I’m basically Kevin Flynn exploring cyberspace in TRON.