Synthpop, the Left, and the Future That Refuses to Come

Depeche Mode have long suffered in the synthpop scene from what I call “godfather syndrome.” They aren’t the only act of massive influence who find themselves in such a position. Nor is it entirely, or even mostly, their fault. The irony of popular culture’s nostalgic time-loop is that it never really lets you see even the most influential acts through anything but layer upon layer of distorting filters.

Yes, acts like Chvrches, Grimes, and M83 arguably wouldn’t exist without Depeche Mode, but in the consciousness of many of these groups’ more casual (and let’s face it: younger) fans, Gahan, Gore, and Fletcher likely register as far shallower versions of themselves. They are important in some vague way but not really worth understanding as anything other than sugary predecessors to a genre that has become fuller and more fleshed out. It’s wrong of course, but a very real perception.

Simon Reynolds, in his own short written appreciation of them, confesses that he himself had to work through a perception of the group – persistent even when they were at their height – that they “lacked substance.” Add in a few decades and a music industry that prioritizes quality-obscuring levels of quantity, and it’s not hard to see why more people associate “Just Can’t Get Enough” with Depeche Mode than they do “Policy of Truth.” While even fewer recall songs like “Master and Servant,” “Blasphemous Rumours,” their strident anti-Thatcherism, or their dark commentaries on authoritarianism and religion.

A hazy memory can easily be siphoned off. When alt-right figurehead and aspiring punching bag Richard Spencer declared “Depeche Mode is the official band of the alt-right,” he might have gotten away with it if not for the direct intervention of the band. The quasi-martial rhythms of synthpop have always, for music journalists who honestly should have known better, conjured fascist affinities. Mick Farren’s label of Gary Numan’s music as the “Adolf Hitler Memorial Space Patrol” still unjustifiably sticks.

As for Depeche Mode’s own sense of their scene’s roots, it is best summed up in their most recent video:

Ultimately, the video is more than a little on-the-nose. As for the song itself, its music is far more interesting than its preachy “message.” Even at their sharpest, Mode have never been very good at talking politics. But “Where’s the Revolution?” also reveals something that is not often discussed. Namely that much of synthpop – particularly in Britain – viewed and positioned itself as an oppositional response to an increasingly right-wing modernity. And, in turn, the song reveals how far removed the cultural landscape is from that.

A recognizable reference point for those who didn’t experience this would be the “Pits and Perverts” concert portrayed in the move Pride, originally staged as a benefit for the UK miners’ strike by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and headlined by the Bronski Beat. This show rather exemplified a deliberate, class-conscious countercultural attempt to aesthetically perceive of working class and queer identities as complimentary of and overlapping with one another. It wasn’t for nothing that after leaving the group, Jimmy Somerville’s next project was named Communards. Nor, for that matter, is it coincidental that Depeche Mode’s own outspoken anti-Thatcherism came within this same time-frame. When the Left was still fighting not be marginalized rather than fighting to break out from the margins. When there was a sense of competing futures vying for influence.

Intentionally or not, Mode’s video comes off as a lamentation for what has become of the organized politics that interacted with this scene and made such artistic moments possible. The Eisenstein-esque usage of well-placed red on black and white film is both a nod to British synth’s constructivist influences and a statement of political sympathy. The title and refrain could be read either as berating the listener or just a kind of despair for the days when there was indeed some kind of opposition posed to the Trumps and UKIPs of the world that didn’t just rehearse the same nostalgic rituals as a method for sustaining itself. Inevitably, with enough triumphalist shouting, the crowd dwindles, ends up talking to itself, and the red flag becomes a useless ornament better left on the ground.

None of this is a done deal. The current environment may be one in which there is increasing room for the Left’s explanations of the world, but it’s also one defined by the stark lack of a force coherent enough to give those explanations corporeal form. Capital – not just its economics but its political and cultural institutions – refuses to relinquish its grip. It also has run out of any significant vision for the future. Earlier today, a tweet from Zero Books pointed out that “The future still sounds like Kraftwerk even though Kraftwerk is more antique now than Big Band music was in the 70s.” Very true. And the fact that so little had managed to sound new in forty years speaks to the kind of nostalgic ritual that neoliberalism has engendered in the cultural landscape.

This is a manipulative kind of nostalgia, particularly because it takes place in the context of very little being new to begin with. It is greatly responsible for the “godfather syndrome” I spoke of earlier, partially because it also makes it far easier for scenes and subcultures to appear unmoored from history. Ask any number of synth fans who are utterly oblivious to the above history. Ask, for that matter, and if you can stomach it, Richard Spencer. Given where many young people’s political opinions are at right now, they may be encouraged to learn about these connections between aesthetics and politics. Richard Spencer not so much.

Which is what makes “Where’s the Revolution?” poignant. Not as a battle cry or even as a sterling example of politics as art, but as a funeral dirge, an acknowledgement of mourning. Mourning that also necessitates a starting point of sorts. As art it succeeds in only the clunkiest way. As politics, it is ham-fisted. But as an artifact for the moment, it’s incredibly apt.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.