Vaporwave and Donald Trump-inspired art by @Vaportrump.
Last February, a website called Rave News reported that leading vaporwave producers were gathering in Montreal for an emergency summit to discuss “creeping fascism” in the scene. Vaporwave, an electronic subgenre conceived on the web in the early 2010s, is perhaps best described as post-apocalyptic mall music, with producers like Macintosh Plus and Saint Pepsi (now Skylar Spence) warping muzak, smooth jazz, and dated adult contemporary into airless, warbling soundscapes. It was a progressive-leaning genre that seemed to satirize consumer culture. “I always assumed it was transparent through my work that I leaned left,” vaporwave pioneer Ramona Xavier, the woman behind Macintosh Plus, told THUMP.
But now, according to Rave News, vaporwave was mysteriously attracting fascists.
The article’s comments section was quickly swarmed by neo-Nazis eager to defend their interest in vaporwave. “The National Socialists who lived in the time of Hitler were big fans of Richard Wagner,” one wrote. “But in modern times, it is appropriate for us to turn to modern music.” There was just one problem: the report, like everything else on Rave News, was fake news. No anti-fascist meeting of vaporwave artists had actually taken place.
“Our souls are wrapped up in these sounds.”Andrew Anglin, Daily Stormer founder
The point of The Onion-like satire wasn’t clear. But knowingly or not, Rave News had hit on a real trend. On SoundCloud and Bandcamp, self-identified fascist musicians really have appropriated vaporwave, along with synthwave, a genre that nostalgically recapitulates the soundtracks of early video games like Sonic the Hedgehog and 80s movies like Blade Runner and Halloween. Today’s fascists have stamped synthwave and vaporwave with a swastika and swirled them together to concoct a new electronic music subculture called fashwave (the “fash” stands for “fascism”), and another related microgenre called Trumpwave. The aesthetic of both might be summed up as Triumph of the Will on a Tron grid.
Fashwave is almost entirely instrumental, and wholly unoriginal. If it weren’t for the jarring track titles”Demographic Decline,” “Team White,” “Death to Traitors,” to cite a few by fashwave artist Xuriousyou might not be able to tell the difference between fashwave and the microgenres from which it draws inspiration. Occasionally, though, a track will interrupt its celestial synth atmospherics or arcade-like 8-bit bloops with a sample of Adolf Hitler ranting at a rally, or President Trump’s speeches spliced together to make him boom, “The heroes are those who kill Jews!” The effect is a hammy nightmarethink Jane Fonda leading one of her 80s exercise routines at a Nuremberg rally.
Fashwave has become propaganda for the neo-fascist movement known as the “alt-right,” a term that originated on America’s far-right fringe in the early 2010s. Proponents of the loosely configured movement tend to reject “political correctness,” trade, immigration, Islam, feminism, the left, “globalism,” and establishment conservatismwhich are also more or less the targets of Trump and, after his takeover, much of the Republican Party. Like fascism through the decades, the alt-right is shot through with contradictions; many of its followers disavow racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. But its underlying motive is still that of the fringe from which it sprang: white ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism.
With Trump’s election and the spread of far-right parties in Europe, the alt-right is on the ascent. Like its Nazi and Italian fascist forerunners, it wants to infiltrate and remake popular culture. And fashwavewith its sonically inoffensive, largely lyric-free instrumentalsis the first fascist music that is easy enough on the ears to have mainstream appeal.
On 4chan’s /pol/, the web’s unofficial alt-right headquarters, posters talk frankly of fashwave as a “trap to make our ideas seem friendly and approachable,” as one user wrote. Another warned that the slogans on fashwave-related art work needed to be softened for wider consumption: “Careful guys, the phrase needs to be oblique and vague, not direct ‘GAS THE KIKES’ /pol/ memes. Try some subtlety.”
“I think it’s great that we have our own culture, even if it’s small.”alt-right leader Richard Spencer
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. Until Buzzfeed brought the music into mainstream awareness with an article in December, it was virtually unknown beyond alt-right circles. There are only a handful of major fashwave artists, and they’re not headlining any fascist raves or military parades. Instead, they’re toiling in the internet’s depths, getting a few thousand listens for every track. Leading fashwave producer Cyber Nazi’s two biggest hits, “Right Wing Death Squads” and “Galactic Lebensraum,” cracked 50,000 YouTube viewsrespectable, but hardly a cultural Reichstag fire.
Still, the alt-right’s gatekeepers have adopted fashwave as the movement’s signature sound. Black Sun Radio, an online neo-Nazi station, is saturated with both fashwave and non-fascist synthwave. Andrew Anglin, founder of leading neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, last year christened synthwave the “soundtrack of the alt-right,” praising it as “the Whitest music ever a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?” “Both and neither,” he continued. “These musicians can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound.”
The development of vaporwave ran parallel to that of synthwave, which emerged in the mid-2000s, rebooting the synthy 80s film scores by composers like John Carpenter, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream. Within the past two years, the semi-ironic nostalgia of synthwave and vaporwave has outgrown its subcultural roots and seeped into the mainstreama process exemplified by MTV’s use of vaporwave in branding, and the popularity of the soundtrack to hit Neflix series Stranger Things, by Austin synthwave group S U R V I V E.
At the same time, fascists have flipped this retromania around, collapsing the ironic distance into a vortex of nostalgia for the worst elements of the Reagan era. According to Spencer, the alt-right’s fascination with the 80s stems from looking back on the decade “as halcyon days, as the last days of white America.” Fashwave, then, directly links pop culture’s generalized 80s nostalgia to the alt-right’s racist ideology. The “one connecting factor” of white nationalism, an alt-rightist declared on Twitter, is “a belief in the supremacy of the 1980s. This is the goal.”
Stefanie Franciotti, who records under the alias Sleep Over, emerged from the same Austin-based, synthesizer-centric scene as S U R V I V E. She is decidedly anti-fascist, and described fashwave to THUMP as “weaponized nostalgia.
“By connecting an easily digestible message to the soundtrack of our youth,” she said, “the alt-right seeks to subvert our critical thinking and directly appeal to our emotional selves.”
Today, arguably, the 80s are back, but with a few modifications. The Reagan rictus smile has slumped into a scowl, and the Shining City on a Hill is to be ringed by a great wall. At the center of it all is Trump, a living time-capsule of 80s capitalist excess and garishness, and thus the ideal subject for fashwave. In “Trumpwave,” a track by the synthwave artist iamMANOLIS is annexed to play over footage of a younger Trump wrestling at WWE, hitting on women, and eating stuffed-crust for a Pizza Hut commercial. Below the video, a YouTube commenter wrote: “When you see all these older videos it all makes sense. It’s not that Trump is weird and we’re going towards some parody of a society, it’s that we already live in a parody. Trump is bringing back the sanity of the good old days.” Another wrote simply: “The Donald is here. I feel the capitalism! <3 "
“Trumpwave” is an exemplar of the genre by the same name. Trumpwave shares an alt-right audience and at least one producerCyber Naziwith fashwave. But the fashwave off-shoot is distinct in appropriating mainly vaporwave, and in its emphasis, through both sampled audio and video clips, on The Donald himself. In Trumpwave, he is recast as the modern-day inheritor of the mythologized 80s, a decade that is taken to stand for racial purity and unleashed capitalism. “Ivanka Vaporwave,” a production by an alt-right YouTube channel, slows down the Cosmat Angels’ 1985 “I’m Falling” over old clips of Trump’s daughter Ivanka modeling as a young teenager. Cyber Nazi’s “Take Back Our Future” rolls light muzak over stock footage of early 90s New York on a sunny day and Trump awkwardly dancing on Saturday Night Live.
Trumpwave exploits a vulnerability in vaporwave: its ambivalence about the cultural detritus that inspired it. This careful tension between irony and earnestness was part of what made vaporwave funit flirted with the implicit transgressiveness of appreciating its aggressively commercial source material. But that ambiguity left the aesthetic distressingly easy for the alt-right to appropriate by stripping it of irony and playfulnessby taking it literally, as a glorification of capitalism. Similarly, when synthwave artists exhumed 80s movies like Blade Runner, Robocop, and Terminator, they also dressed the music in the decade’s fatalist retrofuturism. A glance at the album art of Cyber Naziwith its jackbooted cyborg cops going door to doorshows how for fascists, this dystopia is utopia. Extrapolating from the 80s, fashwave embraces that decade’s grim sci-fi forecasts as paradise.
There’s nothing inherently fascist about any soundeverything is context. But the deployment of vaporwave and synthwave by the alt-right proves that fascism has survived the defeat of the Axis, incubating its own culture even as it lost all political power. New Order, Kraftwerk, and many others traced an enduring fascination with fascist aesthetics. Meanwhile, neo-Nazi subcultures thrived in the shadows of genres like industrial, punk, metal, and trance. Fashwave is just the most recent in a long line of fascist appropriations, stretching beyond music: the Nazi swastika is, of course, a literal inversion of a Buddhist symbol. But unlike other genres, fashwave arrives at a time when fascism itself is surging to global power for the first time since the 30s, and both its music and visuals can seem like a premonition of the future. Refracting a nostalgia for the 80s and a love of capitalism through the prism of Trump, fashave projects an image of a looming dystopia, one that grows a little more plausible by the day.