Synthwave car culture: A new wave of automotive enthusiasts

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I was once a man of loosely defined, youthful ambitions: I wanted to pursue a career in automotive design and meet folks that would forever alter my path. The Glassell School of Art introduced me to a woman in her late 50s who, at first glance, seemed like another free spirit seeking inspiration via afternoon workshops. That changed when she busted out a copy of Blood Sugar Sex Magik in an open studio. The past 23 years fogged my memory, but one comment remains clear:

“I crave the music that young people enjoy. I need their inspiration, their energy to create … the Red Hot Chili Peppers motivates me.”

After that exchange, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing that crazy diamond gettin’ her shine on. Perhaps that’s why I’m following in her footsteps with the electronic music of Gen Z and millennials, which I discovered because of their bottomless love of modern classics on YouTube. I stumbled upon a trove of videos starring everything from a Nissan 240SX or BMW E36 to a Corvette C4, Lexus LS400, or Mazda RX-7, all overlaid with synthesized tunes. This isn’t some obscure corner of the internet; it’s a full-blown automotive subculture.

The C4 Corvette’s brutally minimalist style, long clamshell hood, digital gauges, and pop-up headlights pair well with modern electronic music and YouTube production values. However, I’ll admit my first reaction to the above video came from the title’s poor grammar—on second thought, I realized the author is from Kuwait and likely speaks his mother tongue better than most of us. Which proves this new subculture is a global phenomenon, as millennials and Gen Z take a reincarnated sound, implement the latest video production technology, and spread their “message” via social media.

So what’s the sound?

Synthwave. It’s a low-fidelity electronic sound influenced by 1980’s New Wave and it happily lives on less-mainstream streaming platforms like SoundCloud, far below the surface of pop chart popularity. Well, until The Weeknd’s synth-heavy single “Blinding Lights” dropped last November and spent most of April at the number one spot on the Billboard 200. The song came with a suitable chariot for that synthwave sound: The accompanying music video’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas theme had a Mercedes-Benz AMG GT droptop playing the role of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1973 Chevy Caprice.

More to the point, synthwave isn’t necessarily bright and cheery. While you might imagine contemporary synth-pop to riff on Cyndi Lauper’s bubblegum sound, the lo-fi sound speaks to directly to low-key film noir fans who gravitate to the seedy subject matter beneath the neon and pastel veneer of Miami Vice. That famous scene with Crockett and Tubbs (and Phil Collins, natch’) could very well be the godfather of all car-focused synthwave music videos.

Synthwave car culture videos are usually low-budget affairs that often repackage other video clips into a modern interpretation of film noir. Once again, the C4 Corvette works well with deconstructed music and dark themes, just as that (fake) Ferrari Daytona did cruising the streets of 1980’s Miami.

It’s also cool to spell words W I T H  S P A C E S in a title. Which I get, because it stands out on the respective newsfeeds of YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. It’s brilliant marketing, if nothing else.

This C4 video from Poland transitions to another aesthetic element of this subculture: stanced (i.e. lowered) vehicles and their inferred connection to the global automotive drift scene. Note how the C4 driver’s head bounces up and down on a slammed, cambered, and somewhat-suspended suspension, pointing to a prioritization of style over performance.

Speaking of style, it’s time to get phonky.

Phonk: Synthwave for Gen Z?

If synthwave is red chili powder, phonk is a basket of Carolina Reapers. It still possesses lo-fi sound engineering but reveals a harder tone sampled from the 1990s Southern hip hop scene (mostly from the Memphis “horrorcore” subgenre). Based on phonk’s popularity on SoundCloud, and judging by the taste-making videos on YouTube, it’s the best soundtrack for car enthusiasts that love to drift (professionally or otherwise)—but not necessarily. Younger enthusiasts might plug in the aux cord and crank some synthwave to cruise around in a pavement-grazing ride whose stance approaches Oni Camber levels of extreme—or simply grab the keys to whatever ride happens to sit in their driveway.

If there’s a house style for car videos with phonk music, the person(s) behind FLRSH nailed the formula. I’ve spent many a quarantined evening relaxing in this dark, lo-fi automotive trance, much to the delight of my 12-inch Klipsch subwoofer and terrazo floors.

Yes, the videos glorify automotive excess, but you can find the same slice of car culture at your local cars and coffee. It’s the same aesthetic that pulls the Yeezy-wearing highschoolers and their iPhones away from your ’65 Mustang and to the matte-black Maserati GranTurismo instead. The Nissan 240 SX/Silvia might be the poster child of the synthwave subculture, but all manner of late-model, modern classic, performance and luxury vehicles get the treatment.

Judging by all the donut residue and burnout trails I see in Houston intersections (extensively chronicled in Vice episodes), this automotive movement reflects a universal automotive truth dating back to the days of hot-rodded Model As and Tri-Five Chevys: Burnouts and street racing are illegal, but let him who is without sin cast the first stone. You didn’t deck out your Z/28 with LED mood lighting, we know, but you’re more likely to find kindred spirits behind the wheels of these stanced imports than you might expect.

Why should you care?

Hagerty’s mission is to save driving and that means ensuring that younger generations remain engaged with car culture. You may occasionally hear frantic predictions that ride-sharing technology will subvert traditional automobile ownership, or that social media and video conferencing apps will bypass the need to spend hours roadtripping to see friends face-to-face. However, years of boring actual research suggest otherwise. The truth sets us all free, and there’s ample reason to believe Gen Z will shoulder the mantle of automotive enthusiasm. The phonk don’t lie. 

While a $40,000 crossover or $70,000 half-ton truck isn’t on many a Gen Z or millennial short list, their tighter budgets won’t stop them from buying and tricking out a cool ride. We’re witnessing a global phenomena of fully depreciated dream machines purchased from Europe, Japan and the U.S.A. backed by New Wave and Southern hip-hop beats, with stylish videos collectively racking up tens of millions of clicks.

The automotive community is beyond lucky to have this new generation of creatives and driving-obsessed fanatics amongst our ranks. I can’t get enough of the vibe, and I’m sure my former art school classmate approves.

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