Cultural Life-Cycles - What's the Rush?
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
As I listen to, and borrow from the musical style of Synthwave a lot in my music, I closely follow a large amount of Synthwave related people (and things such as labels, blogs, radio shows etc) on the social network. In recent months I've observed rising tensions (among some in the community) over the state of the scene/genre, the quality of music currently being released and the apparent bleak, possibly non-existent future of Synthwave.
There are strong concerns voiced by some in the community that the music being produced by the younger, newer crop of Synthwave artists isn't as good as the music that helped forge the genre in the first instance (some ten or more years ago). There are also accusations of an overly-positive, back-patting culture within the scene, that doesn't prompt, push or probe critique of artists sufficiently to help them develop and improve.
There are detailed and lengthy arguments put forward from both sides of these discussions, along with a little heated animosity at times (which is a shame). What's curious is that some are likening these debates to other music scenes which have apparently undergone similar ascensions and demises. This notion of the natural rise and fall of any genre's cultural impact is something that, in the case of Synthwave perhaps deserves a little more prominence in the ongoing debate.
It's All Just a Little Bit of History Repeating...
Firstly, I want to discuss the idea of a genre ceasing to exist and/or dying. I think it's fair to say that most genres have their moment to shine; their five minutes of fame, if you will. Whether it be Romantic Classical, Bebop Jazz, Rock'n'Roll, R'n'B, Punk or any other genre, the (new at the time) style of music will have ballooned in popularity, made a meaningful cultural impact and then withdrawn from prominence to make way for the next trend.
I suspect (although this is pure conjecture) that in most, if not all cases, as a music scene withdraws from prominence, it will do so amidst cries of "they don't make them like they used to" and "it's not as good as it used to be, when it started".
Imagine a large vat of still water. Now throw a bucket of water into the vat of still water. There's a large splash, ripples and waves; the splashes make their own ripples and smaller waves, but after a minute or two the water is still again. Things are calmly in balance once more, only this time, the vat is a little deeper (with the addition of the water from the bucket).
Now imagine that vat of water is global music culture and the bucket of water is a new genre of music. It creates a big splash and has a ripple effect on many aspects of the wider music culture. After a while, the splash and its subsequent turmoil subsides, however the contents of the new genre is now and forevermore an integral and ever-present part of the wider, global cultural canon.
Inevitably, as the splash subsides and other aspects of culture absorb energy out of the splash, music attempting to recreate the splash will never quite feel as impactful, nor will it have the same surprise or shock factor. Meaning of course newer music in the genre doesn't stir you or move you in the way the original stuff did. I liken it to rewatching a horror film and being disappointed at not being shocked by the jump-scare you knew was coming. Moreover to argue that any kind of music doesn't have the impact it once did is somewhat of a moot point. It's a normal part of all genre life-cycle.
Furthermore, it's a given that cultural trends are cyclical; Synthwave itself is the result of recycling pop culture from the 1980s with a modern twist. It gave us lots of great music, cool movies, gripping TV shows, colourful clothes and more. Over-saturation however, is a given in every trend, as is the subsequent decline in interest. It's not the be all and end all though, as History proves another wave or trend will come in the future. Synthwave will quieten and become a very small niche for a while, only to rise again in years to come, giving the stylings and aesthetics of the movement another period in the spotlight.
This poses the question: what's more important to you, the splash or the lasting cultural impact?
Coping with Change
With the above in mind, genres don't end or die; they change and becomes absorbed into wider musical culture. I believe we shouldn't worry, lament or pine over an apparent death of a musical style, but be glad that it emerged and look forward to how it will permeate wider musical culture.
There is a strange (to me) fixation amongst many in society of fearing change. It's the basis of various political, social, artistic and cultural causes, yet I've never fully grasped the benefit of resisting change and looking to conserve the status quo.
There are ideas in Buddhism (stick with me...) that view change as integral and normal to existence and that attempting to preserve the status quo as wholly unnatural. Consider life on a global, even cosmic scale; everything is constantly changing. Be it weather patterns, the seasonal changes from day-to-day, the constant ageing and growth of all living matter (ourselves included), the constant erosion and recreation of all non-living matter such as landmass, the decomposition of dead matter that eventually feeds new life, everything being in a state of decay, the expansion of the universe that will eventually lead to it collapsing in on itself under its own weight... I could go on, but you get my point! Change is all there is. It's the only true constant in the universe and therefore should be embraced. This is especially true in art, in my opinion.
From time to time, events occur in society that instigated large and sudden change. We either celebrate these events as positive steps in history (the advent of a new art-form, scientific invention, political revolution, etc), or commemorate them as dark and sorrowful lesson to be learned from, so as not to repeat the same mistakes (war, genocide, preventable natural disasters, etc).
Let's take this rather grandiose philosophical notion and scale it down to the emergence of a new musical genre. The new music will arise, instigate change and we should celebrate that this happened, but not look to hold on to it and/or resist change or the above-mentioned dispersion of genre into wider musical culture. To do so would be a disservice to the art-form and moreover, the dispersion/dilution of the art-form into wider culture is inevitable (and more important in my opinion).
Instead, we should simply be thankful that we were there to experience it first-hand; be thankful that future generations will learn of it and continue to be inspired by it, and more importantly enjoy how it evolves and changes in the years and decades to follow. Once the genre changes beyond what we individually like, we should heed the wise words of Dr Seuss: "Don't Cry Because It's Over, Smile Because it Happened".
It is for this reason that I don't believe there's any merit or value in discussing whether or not any musical style can die or cease to be. Genres are subjective and interweaved ideological constructs. They don't live and die; they're ideas and aesthetics; things to be read about by future generations in history books. They form part of the artistic discourse and will always exist to inspire music creators to try different things and take on new forms. I believe this is of more value than examining genre as self contained entities that have shelf-lives and require rallying cries and second waves in order to be kept "alive".
The Journey or the Destination?
The second point I want to discuss in this article is another point of contention in recent debates I've witnessed online; the issue of a back-patting culture, lacking sufficiently challenging critique of composers, leading to inferior music making.
I believe most musical scenes will have a lot of aspirational producers and a lot of dedicated fans who say nice things to aspiring producers. I don't consider this a bad thing, but neither is it straight forward.
It's not as simple as always telling people they're good when they're not. That does hinder and hold back progress. It's more a question of stressing the positives and the improvements they've made since their previous release. That's not hard to do, and it can build a confidence and willingness in the artist to develop new ideas and directions, which could lead to amazing things.
I have worked in education since my early 20s and if I was to sum up my observations I'd say that everybody's on their own journey and there's no knowing how long it will take to reach certain milestones. Some students hit the ground running and become musical powerhouses by their mid 20s. Others take more time to find themselves and reach that sweet spot of unique creativity. For example, I'm 35 and only now feel that I'm the musician I wanted to be when I was 21.
In both schools and colleges, I have used and witnessed the positives of both the stern, task-master approach and the softly-softly approach. The stern, harsh, critical approach however is one that has to be handled with care and consideration. With great power comes great responsibility and all that... Stern, harsh feedback may work for a few, but there are countless studies and articles that discourage this approach in teaching on the whole. The likelihood of adverse reactions in the recipient are high, leading them to disregard critique, give up and in extreme cases causes lasting damage, with an unhealthy response to all critique, as well as problems of trust and inter-personal sociability.
I agree that there's a debate to be had about wider issues of resilience and the ability to take critique within society, however in my experience, this is something the giver of critique has to be acutely aware of and act upon with discretion. For example, I've had strong-willed, determined students who have the emotional faculties to cope with stern, blunt criticism. Typically, we will have worked together for a while, understand each other and have the relationship whereby we can be blunt with each other. Furthermore, I always make it a two-way process, whereby I allow them to be equally as harsh to me when allowing them to critique my work-in-progress. This invokes trust, which is vital for the stern feedback approach and only with this trust established, can this style of feedback be a highly effective one.
My default approach when teaching is one of softly-softly, encouraging perseverance and emphasising the positives, gently coaching areas in need of development through suggestion and signposting, as opposed to commands and insisting methodologies. I often echo the mantra of Jake The Dog from Adventure Time: "Sucking at something is the first step to becoming sorta good at something". It's important to allow students the opportunity to discover things in their own time, understanding the negatives alongside the positives. This makes for a more valuable learning experience that allows for engagement with the learning on an emotional level. Engaging with learning emotionally moves us into the realm of Threshold learning, whereby skills learnt more easily become instinctive and intuitive second-nature in practice. It's often a slower process, but yields a higher quality end product coupled with a healthy overall wellbeing and progressive always-learning, always improving mentality.
With regards to stern, harsh feedback, I have witnessed self esteem and the desire to study a subject completely destroyed by teachers who took the stern task-master approach with an individual who wasn't ready to hear that sort of critique. This has deprived the student, and the wider society of potentially benefitting from that person's potential, and few things are sadder than needlessly missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential.
With this in mind, if a newcomer posts a song in a Facebook group, it's arguably the more humane thing to stress the positives in order to build confidence and encourage them to work and develop those strengths. If the community waded in with harsh, technical critiques, it would more than likely negatively impact on the aspiring newcomer, who for all we know, with the right encouragement could go on to be something great for the scene.
Considering Synthwave, many people (myself included) regard Mitch Murder as the top-dog. His ability is without question, but it will have come at the cost of countless hours spent honing and refine his art. Imagine if, as a younger producer, lacking confidence, someone weighed in on something he made with a very harsh critique that discouraged him; we might not have the Mitch Murder we have today.
Therefore, I don't see there being any harm in looking to the positives and gently encouraging people along, even if you're not overly moved by their work. What they make tomorrow is more important than what they made yesterday, and that's worth waiting for; worth taking a little more time to cultivate.
Do it Fast, or do it Right?
To take a more bullish attitude of harshly critiquing everyone in the hope that it improves quality, could theoretically have short-term benefits. Harsh critique, as well intentioned as it may be, often doesn't come across as well intentioned or encouraging, especially if it's in a situation where there isn't a pre-established trust. I believe it would lead to a drop-off in the number of wannabe newcomers, restricting the scene to those with a thick enough skin to withstand the negative critique alongside the already established producers in the scene. Whilst this could make for a more focussed and concentrated scene in the short-term, long-term, it would also make for less of a scene in general; less people willing to be emotionally invested due to the cutthroat nature in the scene. Perhaps I'm unusual, but I'd rather be part of a large, slowly cultivated and friendly scene with a broad spectrum of abilities, as opposed to a small, explosive, cutthroat scene of only the very best ("very best" according to subjective tastes of record labels and reviewers).
If a "scene" is to have a long and healthy life, I believe it needs to build its foundations on the solidity of positive and encouraging fan-feedback. If you want stern and technical feedback, you can probably find the right people to talk to (trusted peers and fellow producers), but on the whole, a general atmosphere of cheering along every have-a-go hero, isn't a bad thing, and given enough time, I believe will reward the scene with a higher number of top-class artists.
So, What's the Rush?
To tie everything together, when new musical styles emerge, they sew seeds from which can grow mighty trees. It's the community's responsibility to cultivate and grow a healthy, friendly and positive environment for these mighty trees to take root in and grow. For example, the first Rock'n'Roll record is widely believed to be 1951's Rocket 88. Rock'n'Roll had its heyday through the 1950s, yet without it we wouldn't have had The Beatles, and you don't need me to explain the impact they had on popular music. Furthermore, Rock'n'Roll emerged in 1951 culminating in The Beatles' earth shattering Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, some 16 years later. How does this time lapse relate to Synthwave?
If we consider Synthwave in a similar time scale, there's some debate over the exact starting point, but it's believed to be in the mid 2000s, culminating with a coming age in 2011, with the advent of the movie Drive (which borrowed heavily from Synthwave in both musical and visual aesthetic). It's widely regarded that 2011's Drive switched people on to Synthwave on a larger scale and that this was the turning point for the genre. Therefore, depending on when you consider the starting point, the genre is somewhere between the age of eight and fifteen.
Paul McCartney was nine years old when Rock'n'Roll was born. Synthwave according to some is barely nine years old itself. I'd therefore summarise that we have absolutely no way of knowing how what we (the current crop of Synthwave producers) will or will not go on to influence and/or inspire in the next generation of creators.
Furthermore, of course Synthwave is today, almost unrecognisable from its inception. I'd expect nothing different. It's evolution and is a normal characteristic of most, if not every genre that's ever existed. It's popularity and influence on wider culture will ebb and flow through coming decades and generations and it isn't a matter of living or dying.
It's fair to say I don't always connect with modern Synthwave and I generally still return to the earlier stuff such as Mitch Murder's music, when casually listening for pleasure. I would love for there to be more of music like it, but I'm comfortable with the change. Realistically, if every hit was a home-run, the home-run wouldn't be special and perhaps what made that brief moment when Mitch Murder and his contemporaries peaked in the late 2000s/early 2010s so special is that is was a one off splash of cultural explosion, the likes of which rarely happen more than once or twice in a lifetime. I'm not sad it's not like that now; I'm very glad it happened and I'll enjoy observing the ripples from that splash in the years to come.
Lastly, let's not forget the numbers. There are nearly 7.3 billion people on Earth today, weaving a mind-blowing complexity of cultural art, all inspired by the things they see around them. Synthwave forms a tiny part of that landscape, alongside an immeasurable amount of other influences. There's no way of knowing what Synthwave will become or influence in the years to come, but remaining open-minded, riding the waves of trend and change, and encouraging every aspiring music maker along the way can surely, only be a good thing.
Genres aren't in some almighty battle with other genres and there's no reason to force change or a competitive nature within any scene. For all we know Synthwave's Sgt Pepper is in development right now, by someone you've never heard of, who felt buoyed up after some nice things were said to them in a Synthwave producer's group on Facebook, or by a critic on Twitter. Synthwave, like all genres, will always be changing; it's not like it was yesterday and it will be different tomorrow. That's the natural cycle, and that's a good thing.
Peace out, Synthfam, and keep on keeping on.