The future is so yesterday: A synth-pop timeline
British musician Little Boots is part of the new wave of synth-pop acts. (Warner Music Canada)
The future is so yesterday
A selective history of synth-pop
By Jason Anderson, CBC News
A worldwide economic recession is not the only thing our era shares with the early ’80s. Robotic yet sexy, electro-pop is once again the au courant sound — what with Lady Gaga as the pre-eminent pop sensation, indie hipsters getting down with Cut Copy and Yacht and synth-savvy folks like La Roux, Little Boots and Canada’s own Lights looking like the hot new thing.
Whether you regard the combination of traditional songcraft and sleek, machine-made textures as vanguard music or retro chic, you have to admit that this vision of pop’s future has been with us for a long time. Here’s a look back at some key moments in the ever-evolving story of tomorrow’s sound.
1919: Russian inventor Leon Theremin introduces the instrument that would bear his name, the first electronic musical device to gain widespread use. Though players like Clara Rockmore would use the theremin to perform classical compositions, its keening, eerie sound would gain its greatest exposure on the scores for such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still.
1953: Karlheinz Stockhausen composes Study 1, the first piece of music to use synthesized tones. The iconoclastic German composer’s work is part of a flurry of research in electronic music and musique-concrete taking place at sites like Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s GRMC in Paris. Iannis Xenakis and Canada’s Udo Kasemets are also busy making music with computers and other contraptions — sadly, the lack of innovation in the field of hair design meant none of them would have viable careers in the emerging pop market.
1969: The Beatles use a Moog synthesizer on Abbey Road’s mellowest track, Because. In the coming years, the sounds of the synth become more pervasive thanks to Stevie Wonder and prog-rockers like Keith Emerson of ELP and Tangerine Dream’s Edgar Froese. Yet the most influential electro-pop song of 1969 turns out to be a catchy little number by Gershon Kingsley, a German-American composer who liked the sound of a popcorn machine so much, he made a musical tribute on his Moog. Three years later, a cover version by Hot Butter made Popcorn a staple of the pop charts and children’s television programs worldwide.
1974: The Germans’ dominance of the synth continues with the release of the Kraftwerk album Autobahn. Shortened from the 22-minute version to a three-minute single, the title track is a sleek hybrid of machine precision and sunny melodicism. A year later, German producer Giorgio Moroder combines throbbing synth pulses and Donna Summer’s ecstatic cooing to create Love to Love You Baby. Disco enters the space age.
1978: The British punk scene gets a frigid blast of futurism when film editor Daniel Miller records a deadpan homage to J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash on a Korg synthesizer and calls it Warm Leatherette. In the process, he also founds Mute Records, later home to such synth-pop pioneers as Depeche Mode, DAF and Yazoo.
1979: Once again, automobiles prove to be a hardy lyrical subject as Gary Numan’s Cars becomes a worldwide electro-pop anthem. Men everywhere adopt a grim, deathlike pallor in hopes of increasing their appeal to women who wear shirts with unfeasibly high collars.
1981: The popularization of the synth leads to a new British Invasion as the Soft Cell’s Tainted Love and the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me become ubiquitous in wine bars and aerobics classes. At long last, the world’s hair stylists are able to keep pace; the alliance between synthesizers and Vidal Sassoon products soon yields A Flock of Seagulls.
1982: Cybotron’s club fave Clear provides a way forward for a smattering of young African-American musicians and DJs in Detroit and Chicago, who are developing their own spin on the music of Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. These sounds are the first flickering of what would variously become known as electro, techno and electronica (but never Technotronic).
1986: Stacey Q reaches No. 3 on the Billboard charts with Two of Hearts, a cheap, tacky, cheerfully synthetic hit that would nonetheless become a blueprint for countless mall-ready electro-pop tracks. Most shocking, perhaps, is the fact that every outfit she wears in the video can currently be found in the pages of fashion magazines.
1992-1997: Though hair metal, grunge and hip-hop pushes it off North American radio playlists, electro-pop remains predominant in Britain and continental Europe, thanks to the acid-house and rave scenes of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Though the many trance and Eurohouse tracks that hog the charts rarely make the trans-Atlantic crossing, Sweden’s Ace of Base score a series of hits starting with 1992’s All That She Wants. The Scandinavian onslaught reaches a terrifying peak of intensity with Aqua’s Barbie Girl.
2000: Electro-pop’s campaign to re-take North America begins in earnest as Madonna teams with French producer Mirwais to make the highly Moroder-esque single Music. Meanwhile, a new school of so-called electroclash acts such as Peaches, ADULT. and Miss Kittin gain favour among the cognoscenti with an aesthetic that harkens back to the era of skinny ties, Kohl eyeliner and expensive cocaine.
2004: Not to be left behind, the Scandinavians score a key victory when Norwegian singer Annie tops Pitchfork.com’s list of the best singles of 2004 with the instant electro-pop classic Heartbeat. With Robyn and Roisin Murphy, she’s one of a wave of new female singers who dabble at dance music’s experimental fringes while maintaining a loyalty to the principles of pop. These women have a leader, and her name is Kylie Minogue.
2007: Though Lady Gaga and La Roux would soon grab the glory that was rightfully hers, former Disney princess Hilary Duff displays considerable courage by going electro on her album Dignity, which is launched with a disturbingly Cybotron-like single called With Love. That the song is virtually indistinguishable from the music of Crystal Castles does not help Duff gain any more cred with the cool kids. But if there’s anything that we’ve gained from this new bounty of electro-pop, it’s the knowledge that no boutique hotel lobby need ever go quiet again.
What is your favourite synth-pop song? Leave your suggestions below.
Related: 21st century girls: A look at the fashionable first ladies of synth-pop
Jason Anderson is a writer based in Toronto.
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