From its inception, the alt-right has attempted to paint itself as “normal,” just a growing movement of average American white men who happen to be obsessed with racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny.
“We are trying to create a mass movement,” wrote neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin in an alt-right manifesto on aesthetics titled “PSA: When the Alt-Right Hits the Street, You Wanna Be Ready” on his white nationalist website the Daily Stormer. “We want millions of people to agree with us.”
To that end, the alt-right has attempted to look as standard and non-threatening as possible. As the Washington Post observed after the deadly “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Virginia, “In the multitude of images from Charlottesville, the race-baiting protesters are decked out in white polo shirts and khakis. Others are wearing neat jeans, button-down shirts, cargo shorts. They are wearing jeans and striped pullovers that look like they could have come from the sale rack at a local Gap … For an observer cognizant of the internal symbols and visual language of white nationalists, there was a lot to read: neo-Nazi, Proud Boy, skinhead, alt-right. But for the uninitiated, the style of dress was unremarkable. This wasn’t a crowd filled with white robes and hoods.”
“The core of marketing is aesthetic,” Anglin wrote in his screed. “We need to look appealing. We want to hit the average. We want normal people. We have to be hip and we have to be sexy.”
Richard Spencer, the alt-right figurehead and leader of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, personifies the aesthetic Anglin advocated: educated at mainstream American universities, dressed in fashionable suits and ties, haircut well maintained … and then there’s the music: Spencer has often cited ‘80s synth heroes Depeche Mode and New Order has his favorite bands (an affinity Depeche Mode strongly rejects).
The alt-right struggled to find a sound appropriate to its carefully constructed façade; the aggro sounds of Oi!, punk, and metal affiliated with previous incarnations of the white supremacist cause wouldn’t do. “The forms of music associated with previous White Nationalist movements, various forms of rock music, are pretty dated,” Anglin wrote on the Daily Stormer. “No one would condone allowing rock music to be played in the Holy Temple of KEK.”
In August of 2016, Anglin explained, “An official sound to the movement has not happened organically,” before announcing what he declared in the headline as “The Official Soundtrack of the Alt-Right.” Anglin called it “The Whitest music ever: Synthwave. Synthwave represents the truest sound of the Alt-Right, in the same way KEK defines our visual presentation.”
Synthwave and its derivative, vaporwave, are descendants of the synthesizer-based music Depeche Mode and New Order popularized in the 1980s. Now, the alt-right has coopted synthwave and vaporwave, calling it “fashwave,” in another facet of the movement’s attempt at normalizing hate.
“Defining [synthwave and vaporwave] from a purely musical standpoint is about as abstract as the music itself,” says Portland-based musician and producer Lawrence Hearn. The music mostly lacks lyrics, is ambient rather than dancey, and hearkens back to 1980s TV theme songs and video game soundtracks. If you’ve watched the Netflix hit show “Stranger Things,” you’ve heard synthwave in the theme song by Austin-based S U R V I V E.
“I think you have to start with an understanding/awareness of the rise of internet memes, combined with satirical, ironic nods to ‘80s and ‘90s pop culture and the increasing availability to produce, sample/edit music without the need for any real training, let alone a recording studio,” Hearn says. “There’s a vapidness to most vaporwave, almost like a vacuum of emotion. It’s hard to tell if this is by design or if the process just lends itself to it, but the music generally evokes the kind of emotionless void that I imagine one would get from a love story about two household appliances.”
When Anglin wrote about synthwave, most of the artists he recommended had no apparent connections to white nationalism. Anglin pointed readers toward the NewRetroWave YouTube channel, whose founder, who goes by Ten S., told Buzzfeed he’d “noticed guys posting things on our videos about ‘fash’ this and ‘fash’ that.” (The “fash,” as in fashwave, is for fascism.) “We do not approve of bigotry or hate,” he told Buzzfeed.
Fashwave seems to have first appeared on the internet in November 2015, when the “artist” CyberNazi posted the song “Galactic Lebensraum” to YouTube. (Lebensraum was the Nazis’ policy of colonialism and resettlement across Eastern Europe.) The music is composed of unremarkable synthesizers and samples; like much of CyberNazi’s music (he seems to be the most prolific of the very few fashwave producers, along with Xurious), you likely wouldn’t realize this was white nationalist music until you read the song titles.
Fashwave sounds innocuous, which is precisely the alt-right’s goal.
“Its compatibility with the mainstream is the potentially poisonous thing about fashwave,” concluded an article in the Guardian. “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.”
Fashwave is so banal, Hearn says he “accidentally” produced an early track from the genre. An acquaintance approached him with a handful of songs in 2014, then “I added a bunch of other beats, synths and sound design and he did the vocals. At the time I had never heard the terms ‘vaporwave,’ ‘alt-right,’ or ‘white nationalist,’ and it wasn’t anything he ever talked about until a close friend of mine came over to my house while I was mixing him and they got into a conversation about Richard Spencer or something. Later, my friend took me aside and told me [the artist] was a ‘Nazi’ and I remember just kind of laughing at the notion. Once I had a chance to do a little more research and educate myself about the white nationalist movement, I cut all ties with him.”
Many synthwave and vaporwave artists had no idea their music was popular with this latest white nationalist movement until Buzzfeed reported on fashwave in December 2016, with the Guardian following suit later that month, and an article in Vice showed up the following month.
But a fake news story on a site called Rave News seems to have been the first bellwether for the alt-right’s appropriation of synthwave and vaporwave. “Vaporwave Artists Mad That Their Music is Popular with Fascists,” the headline read, and the article went on to (falsely) claim that dozens of vaporwave artists had held a summit to address the genre’s fascist problem.
Indeed, the Daily Stormer promoted regular synthwave artists alongside fashwave songs on its “Fashwave Fridays” feature.. Swedish synthwave artist Robert Parker, one of the producers who’s ended up on fashwave playlists, told the Guardian, “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, Parker recognized its appeal to the far right, stating further, “This style contains a lot of clichés from the ‘80s, and I think [the co-option by the far right] comes from people thinking things were better 30 years ago.”
Indeed, the alt-right has a tendency to fetishize the Reagan-era and the music associated with it. Spencer told Vice they see the era “as halcyon days, as the last days of white America.”
Anglin described the music as “the sound of reading the Daily Stormer, the sound of sending Auschwitz uniform pics to Yulia Ioffe on Twitter, the sound of tens of thousands of university printers printing off Nazi propaganda, the sound of an old guy punching a Black Lives protester in the face at a Trump rally, the sound of watching a goofy Black guy mention Andrew Anglin and the Daily Stormer on a congressional hearing livestream. It is the sound of revolution. Our revolution.”
But like the carefully chosen aesthetics with which the alt-right cloaks its hate, Anglin’s statement itself is nothing but propaganda.
Vice concluded, “With its tinny musical quality and tiny scope, however, fashwave is a long way from exuding any real cultural power, and might flame out any day.”
Hearn agrees. “All this stuff sounds like a million other ‘80s synth throwback tracks I’ve heard. Doesn’t really strike me as the soundtrack to a revolution as much as a music bed for acting credits and freeze frames. It just sounds lazy to me.”