In his ground-breaking work Ghosts of My Life (all quotes from this, searchable, online edition), the late British philosopher and music critic Mark Fisher tells us that:
Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and
incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier
era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms. Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st-century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared.
This statement might be true or false. In fact, it is quite hard to settle it either way, since the plurality of music being released today makes it impossible to accurately analyze and decipher any of it. However, it is without doubt that we can say that this statement is certainly true for vast swathes of music, and culture beyond music; everywhere we look, we find “retro” movements like the traditional heavy metal revival, rockabilly, and, indeed, synth/retrowave (from here on out, I’ll be referring to both of these sub-genres as “synthwave”). That last one should probably stand out, but only a little. While synthwave is indeed the most flagrant of these “throwback” genres, reveling in its lust for and celebration of a slice of time which lies in our past, it’s not that much more flagrant than the trappings of, say, traditional heavy metal (which has the word “traditional” in its name, for god’s sake).
Nor should these ideas be interpreted as simple critique or an aversion to said genres; I listen to and write about both synthwave and traditional heavy metal (though I will readily attest to an aversion to rockabilly). Instead, it’s more interesting to use these genres and their relationship with the past (and, through the past, the present and the future) to ask important questions both about the genres themselves and what they say about the culture which they’re a part of, our culture. Turning once again to Mark Fisher (and, through him, to countless other philosophers who have been asking these questions), we find the object of our inquiry divorced from questions of quality; the question we’ll try to ask here is not whether synthwave is “good” or “bad”. Instead, we’ll try and investigate what kind of past (and future and present) synthwave offers us, how that past differs from the “real” past, and what synthwave chooses to borrow and discard from the past as it existed.
More to the point, I want to look at synthwave’s problematic approach to women, an approach it has chosen (not “chosen” in the conscious sense, of course) to import almost directly from the 80’s. While embracing the aesthetic of slasher films, sexploitation, pulp sci-fi, dystopia, cyberpunk, and diverse other cultural genres, synthwave has also inherited an extremely problematic image of women. This image moves between victim (a “pure” object to be defiled by the killer’s knife, ever a phallic symbol), femme fatale (a representation of women which claims to be “feminist” and is anything but), and a mysterious, nebulous Other to be desired and acted upon (like the proverbial manifestation of an AI through an avatar). It is rare, though not impossible as we shall see at the very end of this post, to find synthwave (or, indeed, any other electronic music) which even looks at femininity in a positive light, not to say centers it in its discourse. In its visions of the future through the eyes of the past, what is dubiously called “retro-futurism”, synthwave rarely sees a proper, agency filled role for women.
In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher describes a perspective, an aesthetic, a mode called “formal nostalgia”. This term, which he borrows from famed post-modern philosopher Fredric Jameson, signifies not the “normal” nostalgia with which we are experienced from our daily lives. This is because, as we will see in synthwave’s case but also in general, the yearning here is for a past which never really existed and is not well located chronologically; it’s not about a specific memory or special period. There is no way for this nostalgic to recall a specific time and pine for it, since they’re not reminiscing on their own experience. This is easily applicable to synthwave; many of the artists which make the music were either children or not even alive during the 80’s from which synthwave takes its aesthetic. Instead, what is being pined for is a certain way of life, a certain perspective on the world, a certain ideology or aesthetic approach. Thus, “formal” nostalgia in that it longs for a form, a way of being, rather than a time in which the nostalgic subjects actually were.
This last point explains why it is especially important to interrogate and challenge synthwave on this point. The fact that synthwave is explicitly “futuristic” (that is, aesthetically conforms to styles we understand as “futuristic” and claims to present a future vision) combined with its nostalgia for inherently sexist forms of culture makes it a virulent breeding grounds for sexism as a legitimate, and even desirable, form. Since synthwave not only longs for a past but also longs for a future as it was seen in that past, it has a tendency to “import” other ideas from that past and project them onto our future. In its often sexist futurism, synthwave doesn’t “merely” yearn for a certain past or describe an existing present but, rather, also paints a proposed and romanticized future.
This last point is important. Even though synthwave’s future is often painted as undesirable and dystopic, there is still the romantic craving for it, and, even worse, the deterministic and fatalist hint that no other future is possible. This is a common fact in dystopian works, like that of a Mad Max or The Matrix or, indeed, a Neuromancer. These romantic visions assert that their future, a future of brutality, austerity, and struggle is all that’s waiting for us. Thus, we might as well “get on with it” since at least that sort of future births the hero, the just savior, and we all have a chance to be him (implicitly, almost always, him). Even worse then “just” nostalgia, this craving for the future presents a longing to return to the “days of yore”, to the world as it was, to culture as it was experienced when the works, ideas, and styles referenced were first made. It is a deep, often repressed, yearning for the values and ways of lives presented by their visions. By juxtaposing the role of women in 80’s culture, a violent, sexualized, and objectified role into the future, synthwave is whispering (mostly to itself) that maybe those days were fucked up but also weren’t they quite nice, really? At least, we knew who the good guys were, right? As Fisher says (when discussing Star Wars, but let’s not get into that right now):
[…]it is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artefacts through once again.
Belying its origins in these fusty adventure series forms, Star Wars could appear new because its then unprecedented special effects relied upon the latest technology […] the nostalgia mode subordinated technology to the task of refurbishing the old. The effect was to disguise the disappearance of the future as its opposite.
It should be pretty clear how “the nostalgia mode subordinates technology to the task of refurbishing the old” when it comes to synthwave. The latest production, composition, and performance tools take the sounds of the past and repackage them, make them more palatable to our ears. If you think that synthwave “really” simulates what music sounded like in the 80’s, you’re mistaken; there are countless of processes running on this music to make the style listenable to modern audiences. Thus, there’s a guise, a sort of cowl that’s applied to the past from which synthwave draws, engineered to make it same modern-yet-still-old. As part of this guise, the vision for the future which synthwave holds is also fed to the listener; in the words of McLuhan, now forever shrouded in cliche: “the medium is the message”.
So, let us attempt here to “un-disguise” the future which synthwave presents us with. Let’s try, by exploring examples from the genre (both “good” and “bad” in relation to our subject), to interrogate and consider the “future” in synthwave’s “futurism”, it’s relationship with the past from which the genre draws, and the values, forms, and aesthetics which it has drawn alongside its influences. More than anything, let us try to examine the role and depiction of women within the genre and maybe, closer to the end of this investigation, consider some better, more well-rounded, and innovative places for synthwave to draw from “in the future”.
Get it? Let’s get started.
Vantablack – Cyberpunk and Our Cancelled Future
Cyberpunk has “punk” in its name, so you know the movement would at least like to be radical. When cyberpunk “first” arrived on the scene, in the mid-80’s, it positioned itself in direct opposition to the techno-messianic narrative which American and British culture was starting to adopt to cover for the rise of neo-liberalism and its many ills. “First” here in quotation marks because the genesis of such things is inherently impossible to pin down; Philip K. Dick is, arguably, the first cyberpunk author but no one locates the emergence of the genre in the late 60’s, when Ubik, for example, was released. Instead, more than any chronological identifiers, cyberpunk is defined by a shared approach to technology, aesthetics, and, most crucially, the future. It is a genre in which the machines which were supposed to deliver us into Paradise instead create a sort of simulated, low-key Hell, in which the heroes struggle for independence and identity. This attitude towards the future appears in all the greats of the genre: Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling, and others.
Of course, even this identification of cyberpunk with a group of men and their distinct vision of a dystopian future (troubled with the sort of problems which trouble the sleep of such men) is itself an ideological position. Cyberpunk could as well be associated with writers like Donna Haraway (who wrote the influential A Cyborg Manifesto but who’s name appears to be always suspiciously missing when discussing the “A List” of cyberpunk), Pat Cadigan, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon), or Lisa Mason, to name just a few. In the visions of these women, and countless other writers, a more radical, free-ranging, and queer vision of cyberpunk can be read.
But here’s the thing: cyberpunk (at least the original mainstream we’re referring to here, there’s plenty of actually radical cyberpunk) is not really radical. Sure, it presents a future where corporations have taken over our minds or, to be more abstract, technology itself has risen on its master with a faint sort of finger wagging which says “this is Bad and not Good”. There’s a criticism in that future, a warning to change course. But it also makes that future incredibly sexy and cool. Some of those women authors do that as well but you’ll find much more deep re-imaginings and potentials in their writing than you will in some of the classics of the genre (in their defense, the men who occupy the genre’s front and center, at least most of them, have gotten a lot better in the last two decades or so at this). The dystopian future depicted in most cyberpunk books gives rise to the hero, whether edgy hacker or empowered Jesus figure, and, with the hero, the quirky love interest, the female second violin. Even when a woman is at the center of the story, they are often an object of desire, out of reach, and tantalizing. This is also, and especially true, for the often feminine avatars of AI; they are the ultimate Other, essentially non-human but presenting in human form, sexualized and yet inherently a-sexual, to be desired but never quite “conquered”, represented a perfect transfixation of how men see “actual” women in the day to day as ineffable, mysterious, Other, and desirable objects. Cyberpunk might try to critique the future but in many cases, especially when discussing gender roles, it merely replicates the extant power dynamics and hegemony.
Synthwave, in its basic tethering to cyberpunk as an aesthetic palette, loaned all of these tropes and then some. More importantly, it also borrowed the kind of “future remembrance” which plagues a lot of cyberpunk, projecting the limitations, power-plays, and structures of the present and the past into the future. But, you see, synthwave has a kicker to it, that “formal nostalgia” we mentioned earlier. When cyberpunk was starting out, it was breaking free of the culture which had spawned it. As part of the New Wave of Science Fiction (which was the hotbed from which cyberpunk emerged), the literary style was firmly in the camp of the innovators, the weird, and the non-traditional, no matter the shortcomings we can now point out in the project. Synthwave isn’t like that, at all; the entire genre, especially in its twinned name of “retrowave”, is all about a return. Synthwave is not about making something inherently new or breaking away from societal norms but rather about bringing something back, returning to a previous aesthetic and state.
But a return to what exactly? Synthwave doesn’t pine for the 80’s themselves; remember, “formal nostalgia” is not chronologically located. Instead, synthwave suffers from a weird phenomenon called “dyschronia”, where the past, the present, and the future all intermingle in some sort of “non-time” in which formal nostalgia can breed. Fisher describes this “dyschronia” in two brilliant passages, drawing heavily on the aforementioned Jameson:
What blocks Body Heat from being a period piece or a nostalgia picture in any straightforward way is its disavowal of any explicit reference to the past. The result is anachronism, and the paradox is that this ‘blurring of official contemporaneity’, this ‘waning of historicity’ is increasingly typical of our experience of cultural products.
If the late 1970s and early 80s were the moment when the current crisis of cultural temporality could first be felt, it was only during the first decade of the 21st century that what Simon Reynolds calls ‘dyschronia’ has become endemic. This dyschronia, this temporal disjuncture, ought to feel uncanny, yet the predominance of what Reynolds calls ‘retro-mania’ means that it has lost any unheimlich (uncanny, weird -EK) charge: anachronism is now taken for granted.
This description so aptly fits synthwave. Synthwave’s longing for an 80’s past which bears almost no actual, specific, chronological identifiers should feel weird to us. Where is this city in the rain, with the silhouette of the hero in the dark alley? Through where is this semi-futuristic bicycle speeding? When is this all really taking place? In the past? In the future? It seems futuristic; you might see spaceships or lasers or massive skyscrapers. But it’s also inherently in the past, with 80’s clothes and mannerisms dominating the aesthetic. This anachronism should bother us but it doesn’t, since we’ve gotten used to this kind of “anachronistic reflection”, this dalliance with a disjointed and impossible to locate past. So what still anchors us to the 80’s? How do we know that synthwave indeed longs, in the formal sense we described above, for this specific decade? Two things can tell us that this is so. First, there’s the aesthetic which we mentioned above. It is undeniable, though less interesting to our needs, that the synthwave movement draws directly from the clothing, the makeup, the architecture, and the look of the 80’s. There’s probably an entire separate essay to be written about this but I’ll leave it to someone smarter than me to do so.
Secondly, and more important to our needs, there’s the future. Synthwave’s vision of the future is inherently that of the bleakest parts of 80’s culture, of cyberpunk; corporate power is rampant, technology creates fake/real worlds in which we’re lost, the individual is oppressed by consumerism, and pollution is everywhere. But why? What’s in it for synthwave? Why adopt this nostalgic mode, why yearn for the future as the 80’s painted it? This is an incredibly complex question and probably any answer which I give here won’t be satisfactory. So I’ll tell you why I’m drawn to this vision. I’m drawn to it because, as I hinted at above, at least the hero exists in that vision. When you look at the present, there is no hero; we live in the post-modern age, the late-capitalist age, and around us, all is confusion. Telling the “real” from the “fake” is not just impossible, it’s pointless. As French philosopher Jean Baurdrillard reminds us in the very first lines of The Precession of Simulacra:
The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.
In a sense, this is the very idea against which cyberpunk rebels. Many are the genre’s stories in which the hero struggles with the real and the fake, let’s say between the virtual space (Tron, Ready Player One) and the physical space. But, too often, the answer to this struggle is a sort of Nietzschean self-affirmation (look, I’m trying to name-drop as rarely as I can but some really smart people wrote about this stuff), where the hero realizes that reality is his own device to fashion, just like the virtual is. Synthwave is the same and that shouldn’t surprise us since cyberpunk and synthwave were both reacting to the same thing; synthwave also struggles with these questions, repeatedly obsessed with the virtual, the actual, the possible, and the political.
Thus, we find that the “real” binding force between synthwave and cyberpunk is, you might have guessed it, capitalism! And, specifically, this sprawling, mutated, weird thing called late-capitalism, a force which tears up the very epistemological underpinnings of our lives. Both genres are reacting to it, both genres are trying to come to terms with it, both genres are trying to (in their way, sometimes) understand it. However, cyberpunk was created on the cusp of this monster, coming to life at the exact moment where Reaganomics and Thatcherism were shambling to life, wrapping their corrupted fingernails across the entire planet. Back then, there was still the ability, the chance, the opening for new imaginations. Back then, new futures could still be produced in parts of the culture, although barely and with a destiny of fringe existence until they were swallowed, cleaned up, and re-marketed to the masses (think The Matrix as one of the first, true scions of this “sterile” cyberpunk). But today, as Fisher suggests, leaning on leftist theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi:
Or, as Berardi has argued, the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state, Berardi claims, culture becomes de-eroticised. The art of seduction takes too much time, and, according to Berardi, something like Viagra answers not to a biological but to a cultural deficit: desperately short of time, energy and attention, we demand quick fixes. Like another of Berardi’s examples, pornography, retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction.
I swear we’re getting to the point. So, where cyberpunk was able to imagine a future somewhat divergent from the narrative which was dominant at the time, able to imagine something new and interesting, synthwave can no longer do that. All it can do is look back, look for variations on the already familiar, and what it looks back on is cyberpunk. Is it a coincidence that synthwave is inherently a millennial genre? Is it a coincidence that it rose to prominence in the early years of the previous decade, as my generation was starting to understand how bad the financial crisis of 2008 had really screwed them? I think it isn’t a coincidence; that loss of faith, that rude awakening into the inescapable financial and social reality we were living in, created cultural panic, a need to grab on to something new. But in the messy haze of that same culture there was nothing new to grab on to; capitalism, in its pursuit of the realist throne, in its attempt to convince us that this is all there is, had already cancelled the future. And so, devoid of any prospects ahead of us, culture looked back and nowhere did it do that in a more blatant way than with synthwave, wholly embracing a “past future”, the future as it looked like from the end of 80’s if you were a writer of cyberpunk, accelerated and developed to fit the current state of things, which was much worse.
The problem with this, beyond those of creativity and innovation which we covered above, is that along with cyberpunk’s aesthetic and vision of the future, synthwave also adopted a string of assumptions about technology, violence and, among these assumptions, the role of women. Ah, yes, remember? That’s the entire point of this post. And now that we have the theoretical underpinnings out of the way, now that we’ve set out our thesis, that synthwave, like so many of modern culture, fails to produce its own future and thus imports a future from another time, we can turn to some examples and, finally, to how all of this translates to sexism and, in the more extreme cases, misogyny. Hold on tight!
Sexkiller On The Loose – Retro, Violence, and Music
The time has come, I think, to start listening to some music. Let me tell you that there is a lot of music I could have linked to here but I chose the three tracks below because 1) I like them all musically, 2) they really make my point in a way that’s easy to explain and is accessible and, 3) I chose only them for the sake of brevity (yes, I know we’re 3,000 words into the post and no, I won’t spend less time on theory). We’ll start from the lighter and slowly progress up the levels of violence and creepiness, so you’ve been warned. Some of the stuff discussed in the last example is really bad.
Alright, so our first stop is Gunship‘s “Dark All Day”. This is the title track and leading single from their 2018 album. It’s a very good indication of what the band is about, namely channeling the extreme cheesiness of 80’s pop-rock into the synthwave formula, adding in saxophone, over-the-top synth tones and saccharine vocals to really round off the nostalgia of the base genre they work from. I love it; this album was probably one of my favorites from 2018, certainly within the synthwave genre, and, aside from the one track that’s a weird cover of “Time After Time”, it rarely misses. Another big drawing point for me were the lyrics; vocals aren’t especially common in the synthwave genre, which makes sense, considering that it grew out of things like EDM. But on Dark All Day, as with several of their previous releases, Gunship use each track to build a story, whether it be the Stranger Things-esque tale of losing your childhood in the form of “When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies” and its accompanying video or the cyberpunk trappings of “The Drone Racing League”.
The title track is no different, doubling down on the cyberpunk influences to paint a classic trope of the genre: that of the gang fighting against all odds (think Akira). I had gathered enough bits and pieces of the lyrics to entice me and so, I set down to actually read them. To say I was surprised would be false; disappointed was more like it. I wasn’t surprised because, at this point, I’ve come to expect this kind of sexism and casual violence towards women from the genre. But I was disappointed because Gunship seemed different and I had hoped they would step out of the tired, belabored, and pointless sexist tropes of the genre. Here’s what I found:
As he takes from me my last breath, inhale
I’m picking up the scent
What a hell of a feeling
It is dark all day
But there is something in the sky that glows
What a hell of a feeling
With such a brilliant mind
Can you feel those chemicals in the air tonight
I will see you on the other side
I am your night girl, rip my heart out
Darkness falling yet another night
Come on Lost Boys, let’s stay alive
What a hell of a day to embrace disorder
And there is something in your eyes that burns
Light up. Drag the river
Can you see there are chemicals in the air tonight
I will see you on the other side
I am your night girl, rip my heart out
Darkness falling yet another night
Come on Lost Boys, let’s stay alive
I will see you on the other side
I am your night girl, rip my heart out
Darkness falling yet another night
Come on Lost Boys, let’s stay alive
Goodnight my Lost Boys
Thou shall not fear
Goodnight my sweetheart
Oof. Where even to begin? Perhaps the beginning of the track, since it literally opens with the image of a woman dying at the hands of a man. Not only that, but this nameless protagonist seems to enjoy it? At the very least, the trope of “only alive when you’re on the edge of death” is heavily used here to evoke the sense of romantic danger that is cyberpunk’s staple. These “Lost Boys”, our gang of scrappy heroes fighting against the night, are of course in danger but how dashing, how alluring, how tempting that danger! The night alights with chemicals, can’t you feel them? We embrace disorder. Beyond just the tiredness of the trope, which can be excused in a work clearly paying homage to its genre, the track continues to employ this danger mainly against its feminine protagonist. Moving on from the beginning of the track, we find the strange line “I am your night girl, rip my heart out”. There’s really no good way to read this one: is the protagonist a stand in for the city, the “night girl” which the gang must conquer? Is she a member of the gang sacrificing herself for the greater good? Or some sort of goal, a princess to be rescued by this intrepid group of boys? Whichever one is true, this is a classic of Othering; the woman in this tale is either something precious to be protected or something dangerous to be desired. Certainly not a subject with agency or impact.
I told you we’d start from the lighter examples and I wasn’t lying; I’m not saying that anything is reprehensible with this Gunship track nor is the point of this to “call them out” or “cancel” them. Again, I love Gunship. But even under the most charitable of readings, this track shows the problematic conjuring, almost offhand, of violence against women. In other places on the album, women are rarely seen in a more flattering light; whether femme fatale, damsel in distress or the rare figure filled with agency, Gunship’s lyrics, like so many of the genre’s in general, deploy a problematic feminine role (again, drawn directly from cyberpunk’s bank of tropes) without any consideration or, indeed, even much attention (check out “Black Blood Red Kiss” for another, arguably worse, example of this, as it portrays sex work in a…less than subtle light).
As we head into the second example of this part of the essay, I feel compelled to once again warn you: stuff is going to get much darker and much more fucked up real fast. If you’ve seen Carpenter Brut live, took the time to watch one of his music videos or even superficially engaged with his track titles and aesthetic, you probably know what’s coming next. Brut, as we shall henceforth call Franck Hueso, is a name you cannot ignore when discussing the rise and rise of synthwave in the last decade. From his more obscure releases, sent out to the world as EPs at first, through the insane spike in his popularity via their collection into Trilogy, Brut is one of the most easily recognizable names and sounds within synthwave (although I should perhaps revert to retrowave for this section, since this is more in line with what Brut plays, but for the sake of consistency, I’ll stay with synth). His bass-heavy, filth-centered synth tones are some of the most satisfying sounds in the genre. And, if you’ve seen him live, he also puts on one hell of a show.
However, these shows are also exactly where my concerns around Brut and his rising popularity started to creep over me. I don’t really care about music videos so I hadn’t seen any of those which had been released up to that point. Thus, I was not prepared for the video that Brut brought with him to this show. Of course I knew by then, going off cover art and track names alone, that Brut drew heavily from the B-movie, grind-house, sexploitation movies of the 80’s. These influences were pretty hard to ignore, what with track names like “Le Perv”, “Turbo Killer”, “Anarchy Road” or “Disco Zombi Italia”. The overtly romantic vision of sexual predators and killers in these names had made me feel uneasy before but I didn’t think too much of it, perhaps mistakenly.
But that night at the club in Brooklyn, I got to taste the true depth of the adoration and adulation that Brut (him and his crew, probably, more on that soon) felt towards these genres and their aesthetic. All over the walls were plastered reels from these kinds of movies. The footage itself appeared to be from actual films, ridiculous as some of them were (the 80’s were fucked up y’all) but they were heavily edited and embellished with titles that fit Brut’s own track names. In this footage, women were ritually murdered in scenes straight from the occult horror scene of 80’s Italy and its punk/electro/film culture. Women were also “just” plain out murdered in homages to slasher films. To be sure, men were killed too but never in such graphic detail and obvious pleasure as when it came to women. You’ve probably seen one of these films, so you know what I’m talking about: men are shot or briefly seen as hurt, while women agonize over knives, stakes, and their own wounds.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I love horror movies and I’m not a puritan. There’s nothing inherently wrong with showing violence on screen, against women or men. But it has to have a point. It has to say something, whether politically or aesthetically. And that’s why I’m not a fan of this type of “trash cinema” and its glorification of violating women, all in the name of an “aesthetic”. And I was even less a fan of hundreds of people (plenty of them men, of course) dancing and cheering along to these images displayed in brief cuts all over the walls of a club, devoid of all context, grander meaning, or subversion. It was just glorification of the violence for the sake of either edge or the earnest expression of love for these violent, sexist genres of cinema. And you know what? If you sit at home and you enjoy these films, even if you, for some reason, sample them in this cut up and de-contextualized way, that’s fine. I don’t really have an interest in peering in your living room or your computer and taking you to tax over what you enjoy. But when you decide to turn your live shows into flagrant displays of these things, that’s when problems start to arise, since now your art/hobby/preference exists in a wider, public context and discourse.
Alright, this in and of itself is not great but it’s not such a huge deal, right? Let me tell you, I wish that was the end of my beef with Brut. However, I then got to “meet” Brut two more times: once at ArcTanGent festival and the other time through a short “film” (actually just an extended music video) called Blood Machines, which gave this essay its name. But let’s start with ArcTanGent; I was pretty stoked to see Brut. Leather Teeth, his followup to Trilogy, had already released and seemed more willing to engage with and comment on the 80’s horror motifs that Brut had simply hinted at with the previous releases. There were lyrics this time (and excellent vocal guest spots to articulate them) and I had hoped that some of them were shining a more nuanced, subtle light on the cinematic influences replete throughout Brut’s previous work. His performance at ArcTanGent put those hopes to bed. Brut was accompanied by lavishly made videos this time around, videos which told the story of Leather Teeth with none other than Carpenter Brut himself in the role of the brutal killer. The story was pretty simple: nerd gets bullied by jocks and covets their girlfriends (who ridicule him cruelly). Nerd gets into disfiguring chemistry lab accident, which awakens the killer within him. Nerd then proceeds to very graphically slay his class mates but, in the case of women, also stop just short of raping them on screen.
Instead, the sexual nature of these killings is constantly hinted at, with crotch shots, knives caressing dewy skin, and women’s bodies violated at every turn. It didn’t help that instead of club walls, these images were now being displayed on a giant screen, constantly in sight behind the stage. The set was good; me and a bunch of my friends left in the middle of it because it was just plain creepy. It wasn’t just the images that were being displayed; I could have, and had, lived with that before, as much as it was repungent to me. It was, rather, that Brut had chosen to cast himself, or rather his stage persona, so blatantly into the role of the “sexkiller on the loose” (oh boy, that track name should really have tipped me off earlier, huh?) In the story, Brut not only kills his class mates but goes on to capitalize (quite literally) on his new persona and becomes a rock star, complete with an 80’s leather jacket and aesthetic. A rock star who kills people on tour. You know, like the tour that Hueso himself, the man now rather than the persona, is on? While wearing a leather jacket and an 80’s aesthetic?
Now, before I get sued for libel, I’m not actually saying that Hueso is a killer, yeah? I don’t actually think that he’s going around killing people while on tour. But I definitely think that the adulation of exactly that kind of career went way too far during that show (and all shows on that tour, probably, and all future shows, probably). It’s exactly that formal nostalgia we spoke about before: Brut is not referring to a specific, chronologically located killer in his works. He’s not throwing hints towards a Manson or a Dahmer, telling their specific story. Instead, his art is referring to and invoking a kind of mish-mash of those people, an idealized, dyschronia infused, formalized image of the killer. The yearning here is for the values of the killer, for the perspective of the killer, for the revenge, the violence and, yes, for the objectifying, violating, and destroying of women’s bodies. Once again, obviously Brut doesn’t want to kill women nor does he want others to kill women. But that’s not how culture works and by romanticizing this kind of role for women, Brut is towing a dangerous, messed up line.
Hold on though. Brut is a pretty talented guy but I’m pretty sure he’s not making all of these videos, right? Right. A few weeks ago, I got to watch (and screen, at a science fiction festival I consult for) the film Blood Machines, made by Raphaël Hernandez, Savitri Joly-Gonfard (who operate together under the pen name of Seth Ickerman). By this time I had seen Brut’s other videos, specifically the one for “Turbo Killer”, but I hadn’t paid too much attention to who had made it and I had no idea that Blood Machines involved Brut. Nor did my screener include the opening titles, so I didn’t get the obvious credit he is given at the start of the film. But I recognized those synths pretty quickly and the appearance of Brut’s distinctive “diamond-flower logo” gave away the clue. Another thing that was in this film which immediately made me think of Brut? You guessed it, violence, objectification, and obsession with women’s bodies. You see, in the movie, all AI is female. Kept under strictly male pilots, these mechanical shells house biological bodies. These bodies, like in “Turbo Killer”, are adorned by a reversed cross and are inherently powerful, dangerous, and desirable (nudity is featured heavily in the film and all the actresses used conform pretty damn well to Western beauty standards).
Of course, these bodies are also to be oppressed. In the movie, a cult of women seeks to free them and, after seducing and killing one pilot with his own phallic stand in (a gun) and cruelly depriving the other of his mother/wife figure and bringing about his death by heart attack, they succeed in doing so. Upon which a giant spaceship belonging to the “Whatever Marshall of the Big Bad Space Empire” (the movie doesn’t really spend much time on world building, so I just made that up) literally in the shape of a giant penis proceeds to show up and try to take these women/AI/cultists down. It is, of course, defeated, its spear-like weapon shredded at the tip when it slams into the now massive conglomeration of AI/women, who is then seen to be impregnated by it, with the aforementioned dead pilot trapped forever, and in torturous pain, at the center of it/her. If you think the music video that preceded this movie is that much better because it’s shorter, you’re wrong. In it, a woman (probably one of these AIs on the run) is trapped (because of course she is) and is promptly rescued by a hero. It sucks.
As the kids say, “whew lad“. I think I’ve made my point by now and there’s really no need to break down the misogyny in Blood Machines, but I do want to make thing super clear: it really doesn’t make it better that the women “win” at the end or that they are presented as powerful. The femme fatale phenomenon and its misogynistic underpinning, especially in the way that it’s used here (where women only want to destroy and undermine men), is well documented. Blood Machines then remains just another disappointing point in an already disappointing trajectory, showing exactly how deep Brut and co’s formal nostalgia runs. In their longing for a decontextualized 80’s and the values which run rampant in its vision of the future (don’t forget, both “Turbo Killer” and Blood Machines are science-fiction and take place firmly in a retro-futuristic future, as denoted by all that pink and teal), these men are more than eager to also export the role and vision that period and its culture had towards women and, to say the least, it is not great.
But hey, you might say, at least they didn’t literally fantasize about killing women, right? There’s a light where some of this is redeemable, you might say (you, not me), as an artistic vision, maybe ironic, maybe deeper than what I’m allowing for here. OK, I might be willing to concede this point but only as a rhetorical device for the next part. There’s no way we’d find perhaps the biggest name in synthwave, even bigger than Brut, openly romanticizing and fetishizing murder, right?
Sorry folks, but I’m sad to say that the worst is yet to come.
This last example honestly makes me feel incredibly dirty and disgusted, so I’m not going to spend as much time with it. I also think that the lyrics speak for themselves and this post is already quite long enough as it is, so I’m going to try and give you some context before I move on to wrapping up this part of the post before I throw up. Perturbator is perhaps the single name most associated with the rise of synthwave. Coming out with Carpenter Brut and others out of the Hotline Miami soundtrack, an ultra violent game steeped in 80’s culture which helped launch synthwave as a genre, he is probably the artist most immediately recognized out of the bunch. His album Dangerous Days, with its provocative and already suspect cover art, is considered by many to be the watershed moment for synthwave’s online explosion and popularization, it regularly sells out, as does anything else the artist does. I love that album and plenty of Perturbator’s other work, even though I don’t think he’s since captured Dangerous Days‘s allure and quality.
Which is why it was incredibly disappointing to read the lyrics to the track “Vantablack” from his most recent release in 2017, New Model. Honestly, the rest of the release is fine; it even features way more abstract art that doesn’t objectify women (what a concept, right?) Nor do any of Perturbator’s previous tracks with lyrics betray anything as close to this. But “Vantablack” more than makes up for the absence of these ideas elsewhere in the artist’s career and has honestly soured me on the entire body of work. You know what, I’m getting queasy so let me just post the lyrics right now:
Lay your poisonous eyes on me
And taint me if you dare
Ya’ taint me if you’re so smart
Scotch and soda in my blood
Where, can, I, get
I’m taking you home
I’m taking you home
I’m making a point
I’m taking you
Please allow me to play with my shiny stainless blade
And stroke your marble skin
And feel the steel slide between your thighs
You are not leaving this couch
Or I’ll smash every tooth in your mouth
Let me do a little dance
Let me show you some romance
Let me be a gentleman
Let me put on some jazz
Let me fetch some candles
Let me turn up the heat
Let me light up a Partagrás
Let me tie your ankles
Let me treat you like a queen
The pulse in your throat
The pulse in your throat
Beating louder now
Beating faster now
Digging my fingers
Into the flesh of your neck
Into the flesh of your neck
Panting, both of us, panting
The pulse in your throat
The pulse in your throat
Beating slower now
Beating slower now
Beating slower now
I just…can’t. Hopefully I don’t have to break down this track for anyone to see how awful it is. The glee, the derision (“Ya’ taint me if you’re so smart”) towards women, the absolute delight, and the excruciating details with which the very real act of murder is described are, simply put, fucked up. Listen, I don’t know James Kent personally, just like I don’t know any of these other artists personally and, here at the outset of this part of the essay most focused on people, I want to remind you that the point of this is not to “cancel” anyone.
The point of this is to look deeper into the values, images, and ideas that one of the fastest growing genres of the past decade conveys to us from the past (arriving in Perturbator’s lyrics in the form of “scotch and soda” and “Partagrás”, luxury items which aren’t exactly contemporary) and its own highly politicized version of the future. The point is to describe, analyze, and point towards these phenomena, which are inherently tied to broader phenomena in our culture as I hope the first part of this essay shows, so we can come to terms with them. Why do these artists like these images and ideas? Why do we like them? Why did it take me so long to be creeped out by the obvious sexism and misogyny in these artists’ music? How can we do better next time?
Ultimately, I think it’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Look, when politicians say that violence in video games causes mass shootings or that violence towards women in video games causes revenge killings, it’s easy to scoff and say that it’s absurd. Because it is absurd; such a clean, clear, and precise vector from art and culture towards real crime and pain is way too simple to have any meaning. But in scoffing at these reductive arguments, we also have a tendency to use those same arguments as convenient straw-men and blunder on through, completely swiping aside the very real, important, and subtle version of that question. What are the ties between culture and violence? How do the images which we consume, as children and as adults, inform the way we look at life, the way we look at others? I don’t think anyone who will read this will want to claim that there’s zero connection between culture and violence; that’s a ridiculous thing to claim. How then does the fact that women are constantly objectified, acted upon, and violated in media affect the possibilities of actions against them “in real life”? In what way do these songs, images, lyrics, and artists participate in the real blood machines, the machines of culture which continue to roll over the rights and safety of women?
That’s why these questions are important. That’s why we must demand from our artists, in general and in synthwave, to do better, to stop normalizing the role of women as either an object to be acted upon, a danger to be avoided/subjugated, or a body to be desired/violated. That’s why we ought to form a more nuanced answer to the question of culture, one that contextualizes it within the society in which it operates and within the neuroses, obsessions, and ideologies of that society. Of course it’s not about wiping the slate clean and getting rid of any sight of cyberpunk; I love cyberpunk and I love synthwave made about cyberpunk and with cyberpunk in mind. Not every mention of these tropes is heinous; purity is not my objective. My objective instead is that when these references crop up you ask yourself: what else is being referenced? Is this just love of the aesthetic or is their more being talked about and referred to here? How far does my nostalgia go? How far does this artist’s nostalgia go? What, exactly, is being brought from the past and into the present and the future, hidden in the medium and in the message, sneaking into my view of the world?
Aspire – A New Hope for Synthwave?
I probably should have ended this post with the above paragraph. It’s punchy. But I just can’t end it on that note; I truly do believe that synthwave is a great genre and that there’s plenty of music out there which moves away from the 80’s-inspired, cyberpunk drenched aesthetic and into realms which are much more interesting. Much more interesting both aesthetically and musically by the way; how many times can you hear the same “dark” synth tones, mechanized drums, and particular galloping beat? Even though that style continues to dominate the mainstream of synthwave in many ways, there’s excellent music being released with a fresher vibe to it. And, guess what? It seems to be completely devoid of violence against women or sexism, even centering women in its narrative. Almost as if when you remove the aesthetic underpinning of cyberpunk and the formal nostalgia which comes with it you also get rid of the impetus to fantasize about oppressed women and what you’re going to do them. Interesting.
Anyway, this post grows long so what I’ll do is include a few links at the bottom here, alongside a couple of sentences describing the music, why I love it and how it counters the aesthetic of the stuff we saw above. Hopefully you can find something new in here and, like me this past year, rediscover a more meaningful, healthy, and subtle relationship with one of the most important genre of the past decade. Happy listening.
Micronode – Personal Computer
Citing this one under the “less nostalgic” category is quite funny, since the Bandcamp description for the Micronode reads: “Built in 1996, Micronode programs music from a time that never existed for places no one has ever been.” But in cover art, track names, and musical style, Micronode dodges many of the pitfalls of cyberpunk described above and conjures a brighter, more fascinated view on technology and the human within it. Personal Computer is a joy to listen to and explore, relying more on good tones, clever beats, and an overall feeling of exuberance than on edgy themes and noir cityscapes (though the project’s previous release is way more cyberpunk, it also manages to put a fresh face on things).
She – Aspire
I really hope you’re already familiar with She, the excellent chiptune/synthwave project from Lain Trzask. Drawing on fresher aesthetics from anime and vaporwave, She is filled to the brim with great vocal guest spots, empowering, personal lyrics, and an overall futuristic vibe which is way more interesting that your run of the mill gritty sunglasses on chrome motorcycles sort of thing. It also helps that the music is excellent, delivering some of the hardest and most engaging beats of recent years.
Waveshaper – Artifact
Waveshaper literally has an album called Retro Future but the project is also determined to approach these ideas from a different angle. Focusing on the marvelous, the imaginative, and the fantastical, Waveshaper channels a vision that is definitely cyberpunk but is also littered with brighter, more “open” ended ideas and images. Once again, it also happens that his music is just a cut above the rest, although he is closest to the mainstream of synthwave from this list. Waveshaper is one of the veterans, emerging from the same scenes as the bigger artists listed above. Regardless, the way he effortlessly navigates the tropes of the genre makes for a really interesting listen and his latest release is a masterclass in the genre.
City Girl – Somnolent Nova / Chroma Velocity
There was really no other option that finishing up this listening list/essay than with City Girl. The project released two incredible albums last year, re-contextualizing familiar terms like urbanity, relationships, femininity, technology, melancholy, and more. The way in which the excellent lyrics throughout both releases display more subtle and interesting images is a lesson that anyone operating within these genres needs to heed. It is possible to tell good stories, stories which say something about people, which open up new avenues of approach rather than pining for old ones, through synthwave and synthwave adjacent music. Honestly, just let these albums wash over you; you won’t regret it.
ZETA – ZETA
If you look at the above list of names, even the ones which I recommended, you’ll find something missing: women. Synthwave continues to be dominated by men, even though this is beginning to change and that’s a very good thing. That’s why I wanted to end this post with two women-helmed projects, first City Girl and now ZETA which sports the incomparable Katie Jackson (alongside one Dan Tompkins and Chimp Spanner, names which should be familiar to you progressive metal fans). Together, the trio explore heavy cyberpunk influences but manage, with excellent lyrics, to recontextualize the setting into more personal, radical, and interesting stories than your run-of-the-mill neo-dystopia. It’s also one fantastic album and a perfect closer for this post.