The Guardian - 14 December 2016
'Fashwave': synth music co-opted by the far right
Fascist bloggers and musicians have expressed their liking for an 80s-obsessed variant of instrumental electronica
The more accomplished tracks on fashwave playlists come from pre-existing synthwave artists, who have done nothing to associate themselves with it.
The more accomplished tracks on fashwave playlists come from pre-existing synthwave artists, who have done nothing to associate themselves with it. Photograph: Alamy
by Michael Hann
It didn’t take long for the fascists to come out of the woodwork. On Tuesday, Buzzfeed published a long piece by Reggie Ugwu, looking at how a variant of instrumental electronic music had become the favoured soundtrack of the “alt-right”, the US-based far-right movement. Within hours, a website whose strapline declares it is “destroying Jewish tyranny” had picked up on the piece.
“The Jew-owned Buzzfeed blog has done an article about how fashwave has become the musical soundtrack of the alt-right,” the piece said. “The fact that sites like these are covering this sort of thing reveals how the alt-right and anything associated with it is quickly becoming the trendy counter-culture of this era. There is no question about this. We have become the cool ones rebelling against a tyrannical system. This will become more and more alluring to the younger generation who is coming of age as time moves on. Especially considering we live in societies polluted with political correctness and all sorts of nonsensical bullshit.”
Actually listening to “fashwave” – the fash from fascism, obviously, the wave from synthwave, the musical style it derives from – suggests the desire to be “the cool ones” is genuine, albeit unlikely. The few makers of actual fashwave tend to produce music that’s clunky and derivative, while the best tracks on fashwave playlists come from pre-existing synthwave artists who have done nothing to associate themselves with fashwave, other than make records that members of the far right like.
“I have no control over how my music is shared,” says the Swedish synthwave producer Robert Parker, who crops up on fashwave playlists. “I don’t have the time to find the people who share my music. I’ve been putting it out for six years – it’s not difficult to download or spread it.”
He became aware last week, he says, that his music had been co-opted, and he was horrified. He condemns the politics of the fashwave fans and artists, and points out he’s never done or said anything to attract them. “I do not use any language or imagery that can be connected with it. I don’t want my music to be looked on as something that uses stereotypical images of women, for example. I don’t want to associate my music with that.”
Still, he thinks there are reasons why synthwave has been picked up by the neo-fascists. “I had my suspicions that music like this could be picked up in this way,” he says. “it’s not surprising. This style contains a lot of cliches from the 80s, and I think [the co-option by the far right] comes from people thinking things were better 30 years ago. And it promotes body ideals.”
He notes, too, that synth music was hijacked by the far right in Sweden in the 1980s, so it’s not a new thing. As for dissociating himself? “I don’t know what to do, really,” he says, despairingly.
The proponents of fashwave describe it much as the proponents of synthwave would their own music. “It is the sound of driving a futuristic, glistening sportscar (top down), through a twinkling neon cityscape, to a space port, to catch a light ship heading to an off-world resort, with your children and the woman you love,” says one neo-Nazi site. But one thing marks out this off-world resort: “Where only whites are allowed!”
Another post on the same site explained the reasoning behind the choice of synth music as “the official soundtrack of the movement”: “The forms of music associated with previous white nationalist movements, various forms of rock music, are pretty dated … In the end, the solution to this problem had been staring me in the face all along. The whitest music ever: synthwave.”
The graphics associated with fashwave look like those of synthwave, too: the same reliance on 80s sci-fi, especially Tron. It’s the same look and sound that was co-opted by the posters and soundtrack for the film Drive. You see and hear it in Stranger Things. What fashwave adds is swastikas, pictures of Donald Trump or Adolf Hitler, and slogans: “Build a wall, deport ’em all.”
Tron … A visual inspiration for fashwave Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/DISNEY
Its compatibility with the mainstream is the potentially poisonous thing about fashwave. It’s the first pop music of the far right that doesn’t sound like it was made by and for people who had chosen to completely alienate themselves from the world.
In the early 80s, the Oi! music that soundtracked the far-right skinhead movement in Britain – and which gained a new set of admirers later in the US, where a second wave of racist punk bands emerged – made no concessions to the mainstream in either music or image. The songs were nasty, brutish and short, with lyrics that hammered home their message in the bluntest of sloganeering: “If you stand and look around you / You’ll see your cities taken away / We can only stand and watch them / As the white youth’s got no say,” as British Standard put it in Keep Britain White.
In the early 90s, the Scandinavian black metal movement became associated with neo-Nazism, not just because some its prime movers – such as Varg Vikernes of Burzum – were public in their support for it, but also because its themes of paganism, of longing for rule by force, of reverence for pre-Christian mythology, tied in with far-right ideas about national identity. And black metal remains a potent force because it managed to create something new artistically, which still appeals to music fans, even those who would condemn the beliefs of some of the music’s makers. The linkage between metal, norse mythology and fascism has been established, and it remains troubling to those who are interested in the first two but not the third – in the Faroe Islands this summer, I was talking to the manager of a “Viking metal” band who, before I could even formulate the question, was at pains to insist they were not in any way far-right in their political views.
To be a fashwave artist or fan, you don’t need to have a shaved head and 18-hole boots, like the Oi! bands. You don’t need to have long hair, lots of leather and a tolerance for blast beats, like the black metal bands. Fashwave is the music that normalises fascism, even if coolness is a way away. If it comes up on your streaming service, you’ll just hear instrumental synth music, though maybe with some odd touches – why does the beat sound like marching jackboots? It’s only when you check the artist and track title you realise something is up: hmmm, this one is called Galatic Lebensraum and it’s by Cybernazi.
The Buzzfeed article, though, has woken up those platforms that have been unwittingly promoting fascism. Since it was published, Cybernazi has been kicked off Soundcloud – or, as his supporters on social media put it, “shoah’d”. That said, you can still find Stormcloak there (with antisemitic artwork, and tracks including Right Wing Surf Squad), and Xurious, with its swastika-adapted logo.
Nevertheless, it’s perhaps wise not to get in too much of a lather about this new wave of fascist music. It may be played at alt-right rallies, but it doesn’t seem to have developed much traction beyond the hardest core of hardcores. Xurious has just 813 followers on Soundcloud; Stormcloak has 194. Cybernazi, the notional “star” of fashwave, has fewer than 3,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.
The chances are fashwave will, like Oi!, never impinge on the mainstream. The writer Stuart Maconie described Oi! as “punk’s stunted idiot half-brother, musically primitive and politically unsavoury”. It’s hard not think that if anyone is still talking about fashwave in 20 years’ time, they’ll be using similar language.