Synthpop Flocks Like Seagulls


I forget who might’ve said it, but I remember the occasion well: It was the summer of 1983, with postpunk a receding memory and Euro-synthpop sprawling out all over the college radio playlists. A bunch of us spiker kids were sitting around at the designated hangout spot outside CBGB, griping about the whole state of affairs. “Aah,” someone essayed, “mark my words: This whole electronic fad is bound to blow over soon.”

Okay, that was me with the big prediction. We were all young once—and boy is my face red, etc. In subsequent years, of course, the canonical synthpop formula (dancy drum machine with moderate-to-heavy science over the top) would metastasize into modern hip-hop and r&b, techno and industrial, Disney soundtracks, teen-pop, Broadway show tunes, and pretty much the entire rest of the world’s pop-musical corpus, straight through to Lebanese club music and Chinese MOR. Taken unit by unit, worldwide, it’s pretty much all synthpop now. But what’s even harder to live down is the fact that the original ‘wavo variety never blew over either—it turned into punk. Although you never hear anything about it, purebred synthpop went DIY after its currency finally crashed, and began evolving in parallel, marsupial fashion alongside the techno-dance mainstream.

That doesn’t just mean a dozen stalwart bands, and the occasional new Alphaville CD. It’s more like a couple hundred bands, new and veteran; a comprehensive scene infrastructure; and a unique, binding aesthetic. The crucial distinction between technopop and techno is that if the latter tends to be about whomping rooms of people over the head with sheer technik and whirling them gaping off to Oz, the former has always been more about human-scale experiences and individual style—about playing dress-up and mirror-tag.

In the European context, that sort of sensibility generally registers as elegance—such that multitudes of Young Werthers lofted Germany’s spectacular Wolfsheim onto the continental top-40 charts as recently as this summer. In America, on the other hand, it just tends to come off as fagginess, which most kids don’t get into. Synthpop’s last great stand in the States was around the turn of the last decade, when the gay audience helped launch tracks by Erasure, Information Society, Anything Box, and Seven Red Seven onto the domestic dance charts. But barring that sort of anomaly (and demographic spikes like the one responsible for Savage Garden), synthpop is thoroughly, unredeemably out of fashion in America. It’s true punk in that its effetism and grandiloquence, its emotional vulnerability and unalloyed pretense, are about the most shockingly wrong things that a band could try to pull off these days—and because nobody involved seems to give a shit. When song-based synth music does blip now and then onto the stateside radar, it’s generally in some kind of tee-hee boho-camp context: as with the Moog Cookbook, or the gentler self-ironicism of the Rentals. But the real synthpop scene nowadays isn’t even any good as retro. It’s a living tradition; and as such, there aren’t any huge, winged haircuts or ruffled Fauntleroy suits to giggle at. Nobody here does the robot with a big, cheesy smirk, or arrives onstage in Gary Numan’s golf cart. All of which invites the question: What’s the stuff good for, anyway?

It’s good for Anything Box’s Elektrodelica, on Jarrett Records, a sprawling, multifarious pileup of an album, part Polyrock and part Krautrock, with some of the loveliest and most cunningly arranged pop music around today. It’s good for Sweden’s intermittently awesome S.P.O.C.K., welterweight stars on that country’s charts, and something like a European Man . . . Or Astro-Man?, except the ultimate referent isn’t Devo, but Mister Mister. The band De/Vision, owners of the Synthetic Product label, do edgy, somewhat Teutonic pop; while Synthphony Records (home of many Erasure and Depeche Commode knockoffs) has No Decay, a winningly tuneful, low-tech East German ensemble with a hint of early OMD. Different Drum Records puts out great, jam-packed CD compilations (such as the current Mix, Rinse, and Spin Vol. II) and carries an unfathomable number of releases. Seven Red Seven, also on Jarrett, have been drifting toward drum’n’bass for quite a while now, but still let the hooks do the talking.

At a packed CMJ synthpop showcase last month at Manhattan’s Downtime, Sweden’s KieTheVez, big wheels on the scene, rated a near-10 for the husky, Saxonoid singer’s emotive croon and flowing hand-dances. Hometown act Carol Masters didn’t quite live up to their Do You Hear It EP, where their cool New Ordery soulpop isn’t hampered by sloppy guitar playing. And anything Box, once suave Jersey goths, are now little California techno trolls: short, swarthy, and balding in a jaunty working-class sort of way, and clowned-out in thrift-shop athletic wear. Their set was loose around the edges, like a casual homecoming gig, but record-perfect as soon as the sequencers came on. The crowd blew up like a bomb. It’s hopeless, though: when singer Claude warmed up into “Living in Oblivion” with an a cappella chorus, bobbling around like a Jersey teamster while falsettoing, “I’m so afraid,” it was way too cool for the big leagues. Call it faggy; it was elegant. It was punk.