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Why fashware, the electronic music genre of the alt-right is so problematic

By Malavika Pradeep

Apr 11, 2021

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Our lifestyle has a huge influence on the music we choose to listen to and vice-versa. For example, if you harbour nostalgia for a synthetic Windows 95 era, then vaporwave playlists are your go-tos. If anti-capitalist and DIY are your top-ranking interests then folk punk may just be your musical haven. And if you are looking to dip your toes into fraudulent activity, then the world of scam rap awaits to be of service. However, if you are plainly curious as to what the alt-right ‘sounds’ like, then let me introduce you to fashwavethe ‘suicidal, retro-futuristic’ music subgenre co-opted by the far right. Caution though: my aim is not to promote the genre in any way, but more to highlight the impact it may have on the alt-right’s influence.

What is fashwave?

A portmanteau of the terms ‘fascism’ and ‘wave’, fashwave is the musical hybrid of synthwave and vaporwave. Associated with alt-right beliefs like anti-semitism, ultra-nationalism and rejection of post-modernist thoughts, the subgenre is the breeding ground for neo-Nazis, neo-confederates, white nationalists and skinheads.

Synonymous with aesthetics like hitlerwave, laborwave and Nazi-chic, the subgenre was born in the wake of the Paris terror attacks in November 2015 with pioneering tracks like ‘Galactic Lebensraum’ and ‘Right Wing Death Squads’ by the leading fashwave artist Cybernazi. In an interview with THUMP, the artist admitted that his music was inspired by the horrors the event had instilled in him. Although both the soundtracks as well as the artist’s YouTube channel now stand terminated, its influence was quick to manifest into a theme currently evident throughout the subgenre.

Where 80s electronica meets fascism

Fashwave music may not sound any different from normal synthwave on the first listen. When played in a loop, however, one can easily pick up subtle differences between the two. Marching sounds along with distorted speeches by well-known fascists and white nationalists are effortlessly weaved into synths to create fashwave music.

The subgenre is immersed in synths to foster an ambient atmosphere that is not too upbeat—of course not. The music is largely lyric-free apart from the distorted speeches—helping dodge censors on various video and music sharing platforms. Another key difference between fashwave and synthwave is the absence of experimentation in the former, which is why the subgenre is critiqued as ‘low effort’ and ‘lazily produced’ by many.

Fashwave music is described as “undercooked, nap-inducing synth music made by and for mouth-breathers living in their parents’ basements, working off cracked copies of FruityLoops in between posting on 4Chan.” One of the earliest articles on the subgenre elaborates fashwave as “the soundtrack to a vintage buddy cop movie, only instead of a black cop and a white cop, both cops are white and neither believe in the Holocaust.”

Various neo-Nazi sites, however, explain the music in great detail as the “sound of driving a futuristic, glistening sports car (with its top down), through a twinkling neon cityscape to catch a light ship heading to an off-world resort, with your children and the woman you love.” But one remark in particular stands out in the description of this ‘off-world resort’: “Where only whites are allowed,” the site concluded, labelling the subgenre as the “whitest music ever.”

Andrew Anglin, founder of leading neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, christened fashwave as the “official soundtrack of the alt-right.” An article by Vice tracked a feature called ‘Fashwave Fridays’ posted by the founder, which included a synthwave playlist. “Fashwave is the spirit of the childhoods of millennials,” Anglin wrote on The Daily Stormer. “Our souls are wrapped up in these sounds.”

The aesthetic workshop of the ‘art’-right

Fashwave is heavily populated by fans who frequent dedicated channels on 4chan, Tumblr and Reddit. These platforms feature advice and online workshops on how to nail the visual aesthetics of the subgenre. “Consider your color scheme in advance, build your image in sections of thirds, abandon gradients and add a soft stroke to the text,” a typical post on the forum reads.

The graphics associated with fashwave can essentially be described as a ‘neo-Nazi customisation of vaporwave’. It takes typical vaporwave motifs such as the Windows 95 logos, Japanese characters, and Greco-Roman statues placed against neon backgrounds to then incorporate Nazi iconography and pictures of Donald Trump or Adolf Hitler with slogans like “Build a wall, deport ’em all.” Hitler in a Hawaiian shirt is a common visual leveraged by artists of the subgenre.

“It’s some kind of synthesis of traditional form and post-industrial disillusionment of the human condition, but in a way that embraces this existential pain in a surrealist fashion,” reads a post, attempting to define the medium on an online chat server for ‘fashthetic’ artists.

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The ‘direct heir’ of futurism rooted in copyrights

In 2016, Rave News reported about a meeting held in Montreal among vaporwave artists. Organised by the Brooklyn-based DJ Karoda Night, the meeting discussed the growing fascism in the movement.

“It’s getting a little ridiculous,” Night told Rave News at the time. “Vaporwave has a good chance of becoming the future of techno, but not if we let fascists co-opt the genre.” The DJ stated the fact that if neo-Nazis keep using his tracks in their propaganda videos, he might have to stop releasing more albums. “I don’t want to help enable their hatred. Music should be about bringing people together.”

Although fashwave is termed the de-facto soundtrack of the alt-right, some of the music tends to be a direct rip-off of the original synthwave as well. In an interview with The Guardian, the Swedish synthwave producer Robert Parker became aware of how his music had been co-opted by the far-right. “I have no control over how my music is shared,” he admitted. Producing music for over six years, the artist highlighted the fact that his music is not difficult to download or spread.

Condemning the politics of the fashwave fans and artists, Parker pointed out that he’s never done or said anything to attract fashwave artists to his music. “I do not use any language or imagery that can be connected with it. I don’t want my music to be looked at as something that uses stereotypical images of women, for example. I don’t want to associate my music with that.”

Yet, he thinks there are reasons why synthwave has been picked up by neo-fascists. “I had my suspicions that music like this could be picked up in this way,” he said. “It’s not surprising. 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.”

Scooting over the right, however, fans admit to loving fashwave. “Sometimes when I’m doing business, busy-work, I’ll just flip on Xurious or Cyber Nazi on SoundCloud or YouTube and just listen to it,” said Richard Spencer—president of white nationalist group the National Policy Institute widely regarded as the inventor of the term ‘alt-right’—in an interview with Vice. “I think it’s great that we have our own culture, even if it’s small.”

Fashwave was virtually unknown beyond alt-right circles until Buzzfeed jumped on the subgenre, bringing it into mainstream attention. Within hours, the article was picked up by various alt-right websites. “This reveals how the alt-right and anything associated with it is quickly becoming the trendy counter-culture of this era,” blog posts on the websites read. The Guardian noted how users on these platforms labelled themselves as “the cool ones rebelling against a tyrannical system,” predicting fashwave to become “more and more alluring to the younger generation who are coming of age as time moves on.”

Proclaimed to be the “direct heir” of futurism, the alt-right have now set their sights on remaking culture with fashwave, consolidating and promoting a music scene they can call their own. Going as far as creating ‘Bidenwave’ edits, the creation of such subgenres are increasingly discrediting original movements like vaporwave backed with a good cause and a favourable future.