From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Synthpop is a subgenre of New Wave in which the synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument. It is most closely associated with the era between the late 1970s and early to middle 1980s, although it has continued to exist and develop ever since. Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra are often hailed as the pioneers of the style.
Mid 20th Century avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen were pioneers in the development of electronic music. The use of synthesizers in rock music began in the 1960s, notably by The Beatles, however, the instruments were highly complex, temperamental, and expensive. In the late 1960s there was a surge of Moog synthesizer-affected albums by artists like Perrey and Kingsley, Dick Hyman and, most notably, Wendy Carlos. Synthesizers became more widely used by progressive rock and jazz fusion groups such as Pink Floyd, Yes, ELO, Genesis, Return to Forever, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Weather Report. Many Krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk heavily incoporated synthesizers into their music as well. The late 1970s Kraftwerk albums, such as Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine, were particularly influential in the creation of the Synthpop sound.
The mid-1970s, saw the rise of electronic art music musicians such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Brian Eno, and Tomita, who were a significant influence of the development of New Age Music. In the late seventies, Suicide, a duo from New York, combined vocals and keyboard in a harsh, avant-garde and often very controversial form. Italian producer Giorgio Moroder was also a significant influence on the further development of electronic music, producing synth driven hits for many artists, most notably Donna Summer.
Late 1970s to mid 1980s
1977 could be considered the first year for synthpop, as it was the year Giorgio Moroder paired up with Donna Summer to release I Feel Love. While a disco song first and foremost, the programmed, arpeggiated beats had a profound impact on the bands which would soon be known as synthpop. It was also the year that Ultravox member Warren Cann purchased a Roland TR-77 drum machine, which was first featured in their October 1977 single release Hiroshima Mon Amour. The ballad arrangement, metronome-like percussion and heavy use of the ARP Odyssey synthesizer was effectively a prototype for nearly all synthpop bands that were to follow.
In 1978, the first incarnation of The Human League released their debut single Being Boiled. In the US Devo, who had used synthesizers since their beginnings in 1975, moved towards a more electronic sound. While in Japan The Yellow Magic Orchestra released their first album although it was with their 2nd album Solid State Survivor (1979) that they lead the way in what the music press would later define as synth pop.
In the UK the original synthesizer bands had a sound that was generally dark, moody and robotic and were more founded in the avant-garde, art rock genre. Fad Gadget aka Frank Tovey, who was signed to Daniel Miller's Mute Records, was particularly dark and menacing and his stage shows had a Performance art quality to them. Daniel Miller himself had a role in the emerging futurist movement as a performer under the name The Normal which released a one-off single Warm Leatherette, a cult favourite.
In 1979, Giorgio Moroder collaborated with former glam rock group Sparks on their album, No. 1 In Heaven, perhaps one of the first bands to 'crossover' to synthpop. But others were soon to follow. LikeTubeway Army a little known outfit from West London, dropped their punk rock image and jumped on the band wagon, topping the UK charts in the summer of 1979 with the single Are Friends Electric?. This prompted the singer, Gary Numan to go solo and in the same year he release the Kraftwerk inspired album, The Pleasure Principle and again topped the charts for the second time with the single "Cars".
This Zeitgeist of revolution in electronic music performance and recording/production was encapsulated by then would be record producer, Trevor Horn of The Buggles in the international hit Video Killed the Radio Star. With the success of this single synth pop had firmly arrived in the mainstream and the music landscape changed for ever.
As avant-garde of Futurism (music) fused with the pop sensibilities of the New Romantics the sounds of synthesizers came to dominated the pop music of the early 80s as well as replacing 70s Disco in dance clubs in Europe. Albums such as Yellow Magic Orchestra's Solid State Survivor 1979, Devo's Freedom_of_Choice 1980, Visage's Visage (1980), John Foxx's Metamatic (1980), Gary Numan's Telekon (1980), Ultravox's Vienna (1980), The Human League's Dare (1981), Depeche Mode's Speak and Spell (1981), Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (1981), Duran Duran's Duran Duran (1981), Landscape's From the Tearooms of Mars...to the Hellholes of Uranus (1981), and Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) all typified the early synthesizer based pop sound.
Other key artists from the early-mid 1980s include Eurythmics, Talk Talk, A Flock of Seagulls, Tears for Fears, Pet Shop Boys, Devo, OMD, Japan, Thomas Dolby, Alphaville, Thompson Twins, Bronski Beat, Heaven 17, Howard Jones, Blancmange, Paul Haig, Norman Iceberg, Animotion, Propaganda, Modern Talking, Ultravox, Missing Persons, Real Life and The System
Late 1980s - Present
In Europe, South America, Australia, and Asia, Synthpop remained more widely accepted. Eventually, the global synthpop scene re-emerged in the United States with the growing success of American record labels such as A Different Drum. Synth-pop pioneers in Latin America during the 80s were Virus.
Some bands embraced by modern synthpop fans like Red Flag and Anything Box were dropped by their labels and began self-releasing new albums. Some Christian bands, such as Joy Electric and Declaration, were influenced by formerly 1980s acts like Depeche Mode and Erasure. Low-fidelity synthpop artists Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Microfilm, and Ariel Pink have found success on independent labels.
Since 2008 there has been a trend toward individualistic solo female singer songwriters such as Lady GaGa who uses synthesizers in a 1980s style.