Dark Wave & the Shadows Above

Back in August, the dark wave musician Black Marble tweeted this and it’s kept me thinking:

@blackmarblenyc:
Why do normie US press outlets give no love to synth projects? Always called “throwback” or “80s” but u never hear them call a guitar band “60s”. 99% of indie bands are guitar + drums. Never get tired of that, but when talking synths, always call the genre “ever crowded” lol

Right after reading, I went scrolling through the YouTube comments of Black Marble tracks. I spend most of my time swimming (and drowning) in the pools of comments under YouTube videos. I’ve always found the comments section to be one of the most entertaining, honest and vulnerable places on the internet, regardless of the video in question. In quarantine, during peak feelings of isolation, I continuously come crawling back to the comments under this video of Stevie Nicks for some reassurance that maybe, just maybe, we’re all gonna be okay.

In the comments of Black Marble’s most popular track, “A Great Design,” users are overwhelmed with feelings of nostalgia because this song brings back “sounds from a better time in music.” Joy Division comparisons are sprinkled all over, and though this comparison is objectively a great accomplishment worthy of celebration, compliments rooted in comparison can strip the artist of their autonomy, limiting them in their perceived genre. Sure, YouTube users are not the “normie US press outlets” that Black Marble’s Chris Stewart is addressing, but these comments represent the mass perception of this genre that is then echoed among mainstream publications.

Meanwhile, Cold Cave, another dark wave musician, got lots of Depeche Mode comparisons, bringing one user into “a time machine,” and Choir Boy’s music resulted in this incredible exchange:

The post-punk emergence of new wave in the late 70s and early 80s categorized most (if not all) use of synthesizers under this broad, new genre. The label of genre, among other methods of categorization, is arbitrary and can be simultaneously helpful and harmful for artists. Helpful, say when a new artist gains traction from being included in one of Spotify’s many genre-specific playlists, and harmful when an artist is misunderstood as incapable of existing outside the borders of that genre.

The many eras and subgenres under the new wave umbrella can get overwhelming very fast. You got synth artists like Kraftwerk who are more techno/robo-pop heavy, others like Brian Eno and Aphex Twin who are well regarded in the electronic-ambient niche, and then someone like Oneohtrix Point Never who works with a more experimental (and even plunderphonics-y) take on synth. And if synth-pop is a spectrum, “brighter” synth artists like Charli XCX and CHVRCHES lay opposite to the darkness of Black Marble and Cold Cave.

I have always understood the dark/cold wave subgenre as a form of new wave that uses low-fi, melancholic tones to produce a more gothic and somber sound. It still makes you want to dance, but more of a bowed head, contorting in a dark room kind of dancing. Modern synth-pop artists like Grimes and Future Islands are able to avoid an overwhelming amount of comparison to 80s music, so what is it about dark wave specifically that seems to be far more heavily associated with nostalgia than other synth music? Is it the way artists like John Maus muffle their deep voices? Or is it the melancholic beat that sends listeners back 40 years? Aren’t we all just as depressed now as they were then?

The universal (or mostly American) nostalgia for the 80s that has seeped into fashion, film, and many other pockets of the mainstream culture does a great deal of romanticizing the era. Even non-synth artists have dipped into this “trend”—The Weeknd’s “In Your Eyes” dwells on 80s thrasher films, and the synth intro to “Blinding Lights” feels reliant on sounds from forty years ago rather than appreciated as a modern adaptation. Shows like Stranger Things and films like It and Mandy seem to be driven by this idealized 80s nostalgia and the desire to see only in bright, neon colors as 120 bpm tracks pulse through and overtake our bodies as we watch the colors of the sunset morph in the sky. We’re all just living in the simulated reality of San Junipero.

I was discussing this with a friend of mine and he made a really good point: no one wants to listen to The Beatles as a 2020 band, they want to listen to them as a 1965 band. Context is the foundation under which we understand and appreciate people, places and art. It’s like if your xenophobic grandfather was a 25-year-old stranger in corduroys sitting on the barstool next to you, would you have a beer with him? Or do you only regard him in a “respect your elders” sort of way? When the context is retro, there is an additional layer of respect, in a they-don’t-make-music-like-this-anymore sort of way. We tend to associate the past with simplicity, assuming that as time passes, complexity increases. A bitterness for the present drives the longing for a different time, both from those who were alive during that other time and those that weren’t (again, San Junipero).

Any form of art that evokes nostalgia will inevitably elicit an emotional response, strengthening the audience’s attachment with said piece of art. But this “80s revival” is not necessarily productive for modern musicians (or filmmakers, fashion designers, etc.) to progress when their reclamation is belittled to a throwback, i.e., when they’re regarded as a throwback, how are they able to compete and make a space for themselves in the present? Is the inability to separate dark synth music from the 80s similar to boomers’ inability to disassociate high-waisted jeans from the 80s? The line between influenced by and akin to is blurred when it comes to this genre, and only as it becomes more widely recognized in the current marketplace will the masses no longer confine dark synth to the shadow of its ancestors.

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