Synth-pop was defined by its primary use of synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers, sometimes using them to replace all other instruments. Borthwick and Moy have described the genre as diverse but "...characterised by a broad set of values that eschewed rock playing styles, rhythms and structures", which were replaced by "synthetic textures" and "robotic rigidity", often defined by the limitations of the new technology, including monophonic synthesizers (only able to play one note at a time).
Many synth-pop musicians had limited musical skills, relying on the technology to produce or reproduce the music. The result was often minimalist, with grooves that were "typically woven together from simple repeated riffs often with no harmonic 'progression' to speak of". Early synth-pop has been described as "eerie, sterile, and vaguely menacing", using droning electronics with little change in inflection. Common lyrical themes of synth-pop songs were isolation, urban anomie, and feelings of being emotionally cold and hollow.
In its second phase in the 1980s, the introduction of dance beats and more conventional rock instrumentation made the music warmer and catchier and contained within the conventions of three-minute pop. Synthesizers were increasingly used to imitate the conventional and clichéd sound of orchestras and horns. Thin, treble-dominant, synthesized melodies and simple drum programmes gave way to thick, and compressed production, and a more conventional drum sound. Lyrics were generally more optimistic, dealing with more traditional subject matter for pop music such as romance, escapism and aspiration. According to music writer Simon Reynolds, the hallmark of 1980s synth-pop was its "emotional, at times operatic singers" such as Marc Almond, Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox. Because synthesizers removed the need for large groups of musicians, these singers were often part of a duo where their partner played all the instrumentation.
Although synth-pop in part arose from punk rock, it abandoned punk's emphasis on authenticity and often pursued a deliberate artificiality, drawing on the critically derided forms such as disco and glam rock. It owed relatively little to the foundations of early popular music in jazz, folk music or the blues, and instead of looking to America, in its early stages, it consciously focused on European and particularly Eastern European influences, which were reflected in band names like Spandau Ballet and songs like Ultravox's "Vienna". Later synth-pop saw a shift to a style more influenced by other genres, such as soul music.
Electronic musical synthesizers that could be used practically in a recording studio became available in the mid-1960s, around the same time as rock music began to emerge as a distinct musical genre. The Mellotron, an electro-mechanical, polyphonic sample-playback keyboard was overtaken by the Moog synthesizer, created by Robert Moog in 1964, which produced completely electronically generated sounds. The portable Minimoog, which allowed much easier use, particularly in live performance was widely adopted by progressive rock musicians such as Richard Wright of Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman of Yes. Instrumental prog rock was particularly significant in continental Europe, allowing bands like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Can and Faust to circumvent the language barrier. Their synthesizer-heavy "Kraut rock", along with the work of Brian Eno (for a time the keyboard player with Roxy Music), would be a major influence on subsequent synth rock.
In 1971 the British movie A Clockwork Orange was released with a synth soundtrack by American Wendy Carlos. It was the first time many in the United Kingdom had heard electronic music. Philip Oakey of the Human League and Richard H. Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire, as well as music journalist Simon Reynolds, have cited the soundtrack as an inspiration. Electronic music made occasional moves into the mainstream, with jazz musician Stan Free, under the pseudonym Hot Butter, having a top 10 hit in the United States and United Kingdom in 1972, with a cover of the 1969 Gershon Kingsley song "Popcorn" using a Moog synthesizer, which is recognised as a forerunner to synth-pop and disco.
The mid-1970s saw the rise of electronic art musicians such as Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, and Tomita. Tomita's album Electric Samurai: Switched on Rock (1972) featured electronic renditions of contemporary rock and pop songs, while utilizing speech synthesis and analog music sequencers. In 1975, Kraftwerk played their first British show and inspired concert attendees Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys (who would later found Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) to 'throw away their guitars' and become a synth act. Kraftwerk had its first hit UK record later in the year with "Autobahn", which reached number 11 in the British Singles Chart. The group was described by the BBC Four program Synth Britannia as the key to synth-pop's future rise there. Italy's Giorgio Moroder paired up with Donna Summer in 1977 to release the electronic disco song "I Feel Love", and its programmed beats would be a major influence on the later synth-pop sound. David Bowie's Berlin Trilogy, comprising the albums Low (1977), "Heroes" (1977), and Lodger (1979), all featuring Brian Eno, would also be highly influential.
Early guitar-based punk rock that came to prominence in the period 1976–77 was initially hostile to the "inauthentic" sound of the synthesizer, but many new wave and post-punk bands that emerged from the movement began to adopt it as a major part of their sound. British punk and New wave clubs were open to what was then considered an "alternative" sound. The do it yourself attitude of punk broke down the progressive rock era's norm of needing years of experience before getting up on stage to play synthesizers. The American duo Suicide, who arose from the post-punk scene in New York, utilised drum machines and synthesizers in a hybrid between electronics and post-punk on their eponymous 1977 album.
The Cat Stevens album Izitso, released in April 1977, updated his pop rock style with the extensive use of synthesizers, giving it a more synth-pop style; "Was Dog a Doughnut" in particular was an early techno-pop fusion track, which made early use of a music sequencer. Izitso reached No. 7 on the Billboard 200 chart, while the song "(Remember the Days of the) Old Schoolyard" was a top 40 hit. That same month, The Beach Boys released their album Love You, performed almost entirely by bandleader Brian Wilson with Moog and ARP synthesizers, and with arrangements somewhat inspired by Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach (1968). Although it was highly praised by some critics and musicians (including Patti Smith and Lester Bangs), the album met with poor commercial reception. The album has been considered revolutionary in its use of synthesizers, while others described Wilson's extensive use of the Moog synthesizer as a "loopy funhouse ambience" and an early example of synth-pop. In July 1977, Donna Summer released "I Feel Love", written and produced by Giorgio Moroder, pioneering the Hi-NRG genre, and influencing later synth-pop acts such as Divine and Dead or Alive. Around this time, Ultravox member Warren Cann purchased a Roland TR-77 drum machine, which was first featured in their October 1977 single release "Hiroshima Mon Amour".
Be-Bop Deluxe released Drastic Plastic in February 1978, leading off with the single "Electrical Language" with Bill Nelson on guitar synthesizer and Andy Clark on synthesizers. Japanese band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) with their self-titled album (1978) and Solid State Survivor (1979), developed a "fun-loving and breezy" sound, with a strong emphasis on melody. They introduced the TR-808 rhythm machine to popular music, and the band would be a major influence on early British synth-pop acts. 1978 also saw the release of UK band The Human League's début single "Being Boiled", and in the US Devo began moving towards a more electronic sound. At this point synth-pop gained some critical attention, but made little impact on the commercial charts.
British punk-influenced band Tubeway Army, intended their debut album to be guitar driven. In 1978, Gary Numan, a member of the group, found a minimoog left behind in the studio by another band, and started experimenting with it. This led to a change in the album's sound to electronic new wave. Numan later described his work on this album as a guitarist playing keyboards, who turned "punk songs into electronic songs". A single from the album, "Are Friends Electric?", topped the UK charts in the summer of 1979. The discovery that synthesizers could be employed in a different manner from that used in progressive rock or disco, prompted Numan to go solo. On his futuristic album The Pleasure Principle (1979), he played only synths, but retained a bass guitarist and a drummer for the rhythm section. A single from the album, "Cars" topped the charts.
Giorgio Moroder collaborated with the band Sparks on their album No. 1 In Heaven (1979). That same year in Japan, the synth-pop band P-Model made its debut with the album In a Model Room. Other Japanese synth-pop groups emerging around the same time included the Plastics and Hikashu. This zeitgeist of revolution in electronic music performance and recording/production was encapsulated by then would-be record producer Trevor Horn of The Buggles in the international hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" (1979).
1980 also saw the release of where "Video Killed the Radio Star" came from, the Buggles' debut album The Age of Plastic, which some writers have labeled as the first landmark of another electropop era, as well as what for many is the defining album of Devo's career, the overtly synth-pop Freedom of Choice.
The emergence of synth-pop has been described as "perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat". By the 1980s synthesizers had become much cheaper and easier to use. After the definition of MIDI in 1982 and the development of digital audio, the creation of purely electronic sounds and their manipulation became much simpler. Synthesizers came to dominate the pop music of the early 1980s, particularly through their adoption by bands of the New Romantic movement.
The New Romantic scene had developed in the London nightclubs Billy's and The Blitz and was associated with bands such as Duran Duran, Visage, and Spandau Ballet. They adopted an elaborate visual style that combined elements of glam rock, science fiction and romanticism. Duran Duran have been credited with incorporating dance beats into synth-pop to produce a catchier and warmer sound, which provided them with a series of hit singles. They would soon be followed into the British charts by a large number of bands utilising synthesizers to create catchy three-minute pop songs. A new line-up for the Human League along with a new producer and a more commercial sound led to the album Dare (1981), which produced a series of hit singles. These included "Don't You Want Me", which reached number one in the UK at the end of 1981.
Synth-pop reached its commercial peak in the UK in the winter of 1981–2, with bands such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Japan, Ultravox, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and even Kraftwerk, enjoying top ten hits. In early 1982 synthesizers were so dominant that the Musicians Union attempted to limit their use. By the end of 1982, these acts had been joined in the charts by synth-based singles from Thomas Dolby, Blancmange, and Tears for Fears. The proliferation of acts led to an anti-synth backlash, with groups including Spandau Ballet, Human League, Soft Cell and ABC incorporating more conventional influences and instruments into their sounds.
In the US, where synth-pop is considered a subgenre of new wave and was described as "technopop" or "electropop" by the press at the time, the genre became popular due to the cable music channel MTV, which reached the media capitals of New York City and Los Angeles in 1982. It made heavy use of style-conscious New Romantic synth-pop acts, with "I Ran (So Far Away)" (1982) by A Flock of Seagulls generally considered the first hit by a British act to enter the Billboard Top Ten as a result of exposure through video. The switch to a "new music" format in US radio stations was also significant in the success of British bands. The success of synth-pop and other British acts would be seen as a Second British Invasion. Synth-pop was taken up across the world, with international hits for acts including Men Without Hats and Trans-X from Canada, Telex from Belgium, Peter Schilling, Sandra, Modern Talking, Propaganda and Alphaville from Germany, Yello from Switzerland and Azul y Negro from Spain.
In the mid-1980s, key artists included solo performer Howard Jones, who S.T. Erlewine has stated to have "merged the technology-intensive sound of new wave with the cheery optimism of hippies and late-'60s pop", (although with notable exceptions including the lyrics of "What Is Love?" – "Does anybody love anybody anyway?") and Nik Kershaw, whose "well-craft synth-pop" incorporated guitars and other more traditional pop influences that particularly appealed to a teen audience. Pursuing a more dance-orientated sound were Bronski Beat whose album The Age of Consent (1984), dealing with issues of homophobia and alienation, reached the top 20 in the UK and top 40 in the US. and Thompson Twins, whose popularity peaked in 1984 with the album Into The Gap, which reached No.1 in the UK and the US top ten and spawned several top ten singles. Initially dismissed in the music press as a "teeny bop sensation" were Norwegian band a-ha, whose use of guitars and real drums produced an accessible form of synth-pop, which, along with an MTV friendly video, took their 1985 single "Take On Me" to number two in the UK and number one in the US.
Synth-pop continued into the late 1980s, with a format that moved closer to dance music, including the work of acts such as British duos Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and The Communards. The Communards' major hits were covers of disco classics "Don't Leave Me This Way" (1986) and "Never Can Say Goodbye" (1987). After adding other elements to their sound, and with the help of a gay audience, several synth-pop acts had success on the US dance charts. Among these were American acts Information Society who had two top 10 singles in 1988, Anything Box, and Red Flag. British band When In Rome scored a hit with their debut single "The Promise". Several German synth-pop acts of the late 1980s included Camouflage, Cetu Javu, CCCP and Celebrate the Nun. Canadian duo Kon Kan had major success with their debut single, "I Beg Your Pardon".
An American backlash against European synth-pop has been seen as beginning in the mid-1980s with the rise of heartland rock and roots rock. In the UK the arrival of indie rock bands, particularly The Smiths, has been seen as marking the end of synth-driven new wave and the beginning of the guitar-based music that would dominate rock into the 1990s. By 1991, in the United States synth-pop was losing its commercial viability as alternative radio stations were responding to the popularity of grunge rock. Exceptions that continued to pursue forms of synth-pop or rock in the 1990s were Savage Garden, The Rentals, and The Moog Cookbook. Electronic music was also explored from the early 1990s by indietronica bands like Stereolab and Disco Inferno, who mixed a variety of indie and synthesizer sounds.
Indietronica began to take off in the new millennium as the new digital technology developed, with acts such as Broadcast from the UK, Justice from France, Lali Puna from Germany, and Ratatat and The Postal Service from the US, mixing a variety of indie sounds with electronic music, largely produced on small independent labels. Similarly, the electroclash subgenre began in New York at the end of the 1990s, combining synth-pop, techno, punk and performance art. It was pioneered by I-F with their track "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" (1998), and pursued by artists including Felix da Housecat, Peaches, Chicks on Speed, and Fischerspooner. It gained international attention at the beginning of the new millennium and spread to scenes in London and Berlin, but rapidly faded as a recognizable genre as acts began to experiment with a variety of forms of music.
In the new millennium, renewed interest in electronic music and nostalgia for the 1980s led to the beginnings of a synth-pop revival, with acts including Adult and Fischerspooner. In 2003–04 it began to move into the mainstream with Ladytron, the Postal Service, Cut Copy, the Bravery and The Killers all producing records that incorporated vintage synthesizer sounds and styles that contrasted with the dominant genres of post-grunge and nu metal. In particular, The Killers enjoyed considerable airplay and exposure and their debut album Hot Fuss (2004) reached the top ten of the Billboard 200. The Killers, the Bravery and the Stills all left their synth-pop sound behind after their debut albums and began to explore classic 1970s rock, but the style was picked up by a large number of performers, particularly female solo artists. Following the breakthrough success of Lady Gaga with her single "Just Dance" (2008), the British and other media proclaimed a new era of female synth-pop stars, citing artists such as Roisin Murphy, Little Boots, La Roux, and Ladyhawke. Male acts that emerged in the same period include Calvin Harris, Empire of the Sun, Frankmusik, Hurts, Kaskade, LMFAO, and Owl City, whose single "Fireflies" (2009) topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 2009, an underground subgenre with direct stylistic origins to Synth-pop became popular, Chillwave. It sprouted new stars in the independent music scene like Washed Out, Neon Indian, and Toro Y Moi.
American singer-songwriter Kesha has also been described as a synth-pop artist, with her synthesized debut single "Tik Tok" topping the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks in 2010. She also used the genre on her comeback single "Die Young". Mainstream female recording artists who have had success in the genre in the 2010s are Madonna, Katy Perry, Jessie J, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé.
In Japan, girl-group Perfume, along with producer Yasutaka Nakata of capsule, produced technopop music combining 1980s synth-pop with chiptunes and electro house from 2003. Their breakthrough came in 2008 with the album Game, which led to a renewed interest in technopop within mainstream Japanese pop music. Other Japanese female technopop artists soon followed, including Aira Mitsuki, immi, Mizca, SAWA, Saoriiiii and Sweet Vacation. Model-singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu also shared the same success as Perfume's under Nakata's production with the album Pamyu Pamyu Revolution in 2012, which topped electronic charts on iTunes as well as the Japanese Albums chart. Much like Japan, Korean pop music has also become dominated by synth-pop, particularly with girl groups such as f(x), Girls' Generation and Wonder Girls. Other 2010s synth-pop acts include Chvrches, M83 and The C.I.P.
Synth-pop has received considerable criticism and even prompted hostility among musicians and in the press. It has been described as "anaemic" and "soulless". Synth-pop's early steps, and Gary Numan in particular, were also disparaged in the British music press of the late 1970s and early 1980s for their German influences and characterised by journalist Mick Farren as the "Adolf Hitler Memorial Space Patrol". In 1983, Morrissey of The Smiths stated that "there was nothing more repellent than the synthesizer". During the decade, objections were raised to the quality of compositions and the limited musicianship of artists. Gary Numan observed "hostility" and "a lot of ignorance" toward synth-pop, with detractors erroneously believing that "machines did it".
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark frontman Andy McCluskey recalled a great many people "who thought that the equipment wrote the song for you", and asserted: "Believe me, if there was a button on a synth or a drum machine that said 'hit single', I would have pressed it as often as anybody else would have – but there isn't. It was all written by real human beings, and it was all played by hand".
According to Simon Reynolds, in some quarters synthesizers were seen as instruments for "effete poseurs", in contrast to the phallic guitar. The association of synth-pop with an alternative sexuality was reinforced by the images projected by synth-pop stars, who were seen as gender bending, including Phil Oakey's asymmetric hair and use of eyeliner, Marc Almond's "pervy" leather jacket, skirt wearing by figures including Martin Gore of Depeche Mode and the early "dominatrix" image of the Eurythmics' Annie Lennox. In the U.S. this led to British synth-pop artists being characterised as "English haircut bands" or "art fag" music, though many British synth-pop artists were highly popular on both American radio and MTV. Although some audiences were overtly hostile to synth-pop, it achieved an appeal among those alienated from the dominant heterosexuality of mainstream rock culture, particularly among gay and female audiences.
By the mid-1980s, synth-pop had helped establish the synthesizer as a primary instrument in mainstream pop music. It also influenced the sound of many mainstream rock acts, such as Bruce Springsteen, ZZ Top and Van Halen. It was a major influence on house music, which grew out of the post-disco dance club culture of the early 1980s as some DJs attempted to make the less pop-oriented music that also incorporated influences from Latin soul, dub, rap music, and jazz.
American musicians such as Juan Atkins, using names including Model 500, Infinity and as part of Cybotron, developed a style of electronic dance music influenced by synth-pop and funk that led to the emergence of Detroit techno in the mid-1980s. The continued influence of 1980s synth-pop could be seen in various incarnations of 1990s dance music including trance. Hip hop artists such as Mobb Deep have sampled 1980s synth-pop songs. Popular artists such as Rihanna, UK stars Jay Sean and Taio Cruz, as well as British pop star Lily Allen on her second album, have also embraced the genre.