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 fashwave—the ‘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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
90s nostalgia is a key element in various aesthetics and subcultures. But what if an internet-born music genre revives tracks lost in the Windows 95 era and distorts them to a degree that is both recognisable yet remarkably different from its roots? Welcome to vaporwave, a viral music genre evoking nostalgia for an era that never truly existed yet feels eerily familiar.
Vaporwave music takes samples from the 80s and 90s Muzak, late-night infomercials, loungy elevator tunes and shopping mall music to later chop, scramble and pitch them to a point that is distinct yet unrecognisable. Eerie and dazzling, vaporwave is said to echo the sounds of a ‘synthetic underworld’ also known as the internet.
Vaporwave draws inspiration from the 90s but depicts the era in a futuristic setting. The internet-born and internet-existing genre is heavily populated by users who frequent 4Chan, Tumblr and Reddit forums. Many vaporwave artists use aliases to disguise their identities—a practice made easier given its digital context.
One of the most popular vaporwave albums is Floral Shoppe by Vektroid. One track, ‘Lisa Frank 420’, collected over 40.5 million YouTube views before it was taken down due to copyright claims made by Sony. Oneohtrix Point Never is another well-known vaporwave musician. His album Eccojams Vol 1 is credited with pioneering the genre itself. The artist has also collaborated with The Weeknd, whose recent Super Bowl show, with its cyborg choir, neon cityscape and levitating brand names, is deemed the “most mainstream manifestation of vaporwave yet.”
Vaporwave arrived on the internet’s music scene in 2009, and since then the genre has been repeatedly written off and declared obsolete. Unlike seapunk and chillwave, vaporwave continued to evolve. Google searches for the term peaked in 2017 and have remained steady ever since.
Various music forums describe vaporwave as the “chillwave for Marxists” given the fact that the genre is often aligned with anarchy and anti-capitalism. The genre mocks highbrow culture and is deeply rooted in DIY culture. Even its name is a spoof of the term “vaporware,” which refers to non-existent products that are promoted and marketed without ever actually being produced to keep competitors at bay.
The music genre also has a lot in common with punk. “Vaporwave is similar to punk in its low barrier of entry,” said George Clanton, a vaporwave artist in an interview with Document. “You don’t have to know how to play an instrument to make it. If you have a computer, you can open up an mp3 you stole from YouTube and start manipulating it with your mouse. Boom, you just made your first vaporwave track.”
Simultaneously lurid and obscure, vaporwave’s visual aesthetics can be summed up as “ecstatic exhaustion.” Think of an empty shopping mall with loungy elevator music, a swimming pool with pale pink walls or glitchy, neon-dipped streets ripped off a Japanese anime. The artworks related to the genre are dominated by palm trees, dolphins, pink and blue neon lights, synthetic sunsets, Greek busts and tech logos from the late 70s to early 00s.
Vaporwave is also synonymous with corporate imagery. Some of the most common brand names and logos associated with this aspect of the genre are Coca-Cola, Microsoft Windows, Macintosh Plus, PlayStation, Arizona Iced Tea and Fiji Water. Drug depictions, altered realities and glitches are also featured in the community’s artwork.
Vaporwave overall offers an aesthetic visual and sound experience that delights fans. The genre has also been credited with a number of sub-genres with new ones emerging ever so often. Some of the most pivotal ones are:
Eccojams are usually made from a single short loop of the source material. Featuring samples from the 70s, 80s and 90s, the sub-genre is distinct for its use of smothering effects like reverb and echo. Being one of the earliest sub-genres of vaporwave, eccojams were popularised by Oneohtrix Point Never with his album Eccojams Vol 1.
Termed vaporwave’s ‘happy-go-lucky’ sibling, future funk (also known as vaporboogie) takes samples from disco tracks produced in the 70s and 80s, and distorts them into groovy music. The sub-genre draws inspiration from French House and features looped GIFs of classic Japanese animes like Sailor Moon and Urusei Yatsura.
Mallsoft (also known as mallwave) is a sub-genre magnifying vaporwave’s lounge references. It seeks to elicit nostalgia using shopping mall imagery and remixed soft-rock muzak one might hear in a mall. Mallsoft depicts the concept of these centres as large, soulless spaces of consumerism with directionless and echo-heavy tunes.
Vapornoise music is subjected to a greater degree of chopping and manipulation than in classic vaporwave, with bursts of noise and static dispersed between verses, choruses and sound clips. The sub-genre, born in 2013, tends to emphasise hisses, static and post-industrial noises. Vapornoise is often confused with vaporgoth—a similar genre but with different goals and aesthetics.
Simpsonwave is a sub-aesthetic of vaporwave that emerged in 2015, characterised by its use of imagery from the iconic cartoon The Simpsons. The aesthetic was made popular by YouTuber Lucien Hughe and features videos mixing vaporwave music with clips from the American television series. Edited with VHS-esque distortion effects and surreal visuals, the video-based aesthetic is one of vaporwave’s most viral sub-genres.