It isn’t news that the so-called “alt-right” loves the classics. This is not confined to the US — in the Netherlands, newly elected politician and alt-right favorite Thierry Baudet held his maiden speech in “Latin.” Although the alt-right is scattered and fragmentary, the staggering amount of classical references in its memes, writing and music — we’ll get to the music later on — seems like a consistent strategy: (ab)using the classics gives the movement an air of intellectual accomplishment and a sense of traditionalism.
As Mary Beard pointed out, Mr. Baudet’s maiden speech is a good example of how shallow, messy, factually, and in his case grammatically wrong the alt-right’s approach to the classics often is — but there is still a very real danger here. Mr. Baudet’s speech wasn’t just any speech, but a speech in parliament, where his party now holds two seats (of a total of one hundred and fifty). And let’s not get into the degree of political and organizational power these (mostly young) men have shown to have in the US.
In spite of its apparent intellectual impotence, the alt-right has burst into the public eye — and they’ve done it through their relentless use of images. As Angela Nagle argues in her recent book Kill All Normies, the focus on media and culture instead of on formal politics is what has given the alt-right so much power over the minds and bodies of young men. So it is important to analyze how classical symbolism is being appropriated by this movement; to show how slippery ancient imagery can be, and to explore what it is about Classics that keeps the extreme right coming back to it.
In that spirit, I want to show the ideological slipperiness of classical symbols by discussing the musical microgenre called fashwave (yes, the fash stands for fascism). An important aspect of this genre is the use of classical statues in its artwork.
The term “fashwave” first turns up at the end of August 2016, not long after a post on alt-right bastion The Daily Stormer (since then taken down) by editor Andrew Anglin. The post was titled “The Official Soundtrack of the Alt-Right.” Anglin writes:
For years now, annoying faggots have been pestering me like, “Anglin you stupid dumb bastard — how in the hell can you have a political movement without an official soundtrack?” […] Every successful political movement in history has been associated with specific forms of art and music, creating a semi-official aesthetic for the ideology.
Anglin is looking for an “aesthetic for the ideology,” a Wagner for the far right of the 21st century. He carefully avoids punk and rock music — because they’re too outdated — but wants nothing to do either with “African rhythms” that, according to him, characterize much contemporary popular music. Eventually he reaches the following conclusion:
In the end, the solution to this problem had been staring me in the face all along. The Whitest music ever: Synthwave.
This post marks the official beginning of an unholy marriage between the alt-right and synth-based internet music. The genre called “synthwave” by Anglin would soon be dubbed “fashwave.”
Fashwave artists have names like CYBERNΔZI, and their songs have titles such as “Right Wing Death Squads,” “Germania.exe,” and “Gas the Xenos, Galactic War Now!” Unsurprisingly, the music is absolutely terrible. Some fashwavers, despite their effort to make accessible music, revert to the aggressive tones and worked-up rhythms that have characterized other fascist music in the past. Others desperately strive for accessibility, but instead produce completely unimaginative and corny tunes (such as a repetitive vocal sample of Trump over a stale house beat).
Still, the fact that I can listen to a song with a title like “The Caucasian Mind” without feeling an immediate physical revulsion from the music alone —unavoidable when reading the titles or the comments — is significant. Contemporary fascism is trying to become mainstream, even cool, and it’s using all possible cultural forms to get there.
As with other internet music genres, fashwave’s artwork plays an important role in the overall message it wants to transmit; the images are called “aesthetics,” and they may remind you of another musical genre called “vaporwave” which took the internet by storm a couple of years ago. Fashwave emerged from this vaporwave hype, and the message behind its aesthetics is best understood when set against its predecessor. I’ll explain vaporwave’s musical and visual aesthetics in order to better understand the way fashwave appropriates the classics.
“Vaporwave” is a portmanteau of “synthwave” and “vaporware,” the latter being a business term for consumer products that have been announced, but never released. Online you’ll find descriptions like “chillwave for Marxists,” “post-elevator music,” “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop” and “post-apocalyptic mall music.” The music itself leans heavily on samples taken from muzak, elevator music and smooth jazz from the ‘80s and ‘90s. These samples are then stretched out, slowed down and looped, and supplemented with bright synthesizers and glitchy drum-computer beats. It’s largely instrumental, although some songs have vocals.
The global effect is cheerful, but alienating: it’s like taking a millenial’s loving fragmentary memories of the early digital, globalist capitalism of the nineties, and broadcasting it in hi-definition to a widescreen TV in Tokyo. It’s pure kitsch, inauthentic and kind of creepy, yet at the same time (and for these very reasons) brazenly satisfying. Adam Harper, musicologist at the University of London and expert on the progressive music of the 20th and 21st centuries, in an article on the aesthetics of internet music called “How Internet Music is Frying Your Brain,” likens the experience of listening to vaporwave to the “uncanny valley” effect: the point where humanoid robots look almost exactly like humans — the incomplete resemblance creeps you out. A good introduction to the genre is the album Floral Shoppe (2011) by Macintosh Plus (alias New Dreams Ltd. and Vektroid), commonly acknowledged to be a genre-defining album.
If you google “vaporwave aesthetics” you’ll find myriad variations on the same theme, accurately described by one commentator as “an obsession with 80’s and 90’s subculture; using glitch art, early digital graphic design, Roman busts, [and] a fascination with tropical landscapes [and] Japanese culture.” Other frequent themes are neon lights, old PCs, skyscrapers, low resolution palmtrees and the ocean. Artists call themselves “VECTOR GRAPHICS” or “PrismCorp Virtual Enterprises”; their songs “Palm Trees, Wi-Fi and Dream Sushi,” or “ECCO と悪寒ダイビング.” Harper describes the overall effect: “As a result of this paratext, each vaporwave release, normally little more than a zip file or a free download from Bandcamp or SoundCloud, is presented as if it were an upbeat and almost propagandistic aid to technocapitalist living.”
But this is an ode that reeks of satire — the vaporwavers seems a little too overjoyed with modern society. And indeed, some vaporwave artists are explicitly critical of capitalism: Robin Burnett (a.k.a. INTERNET CLUB) and James Ferraro (a.k.a. Bebetune$; Bodyguard; Cruisin’ The Nightbiker Strip 1977; D.M.T.; Demon Channels; Dreams; Edward Flex; Excel; K2; Lamborghini Crystal; Liquid Metal; Nirvana; Peyote Way; Splash; Suki Girlz; and Wave Rave), for example, have stated that their music can be seen as a critical reflection on consumerism.
Still, the way their critique works is not just through irony: the best vaporwave albums (in addition to the above-mentioned Floral Shoppe, I count James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual (2011) among them) aren’t just parodies, because purely ironic music is hardly any fun to listen to. In those neon-illuminated, synthesized landscapes, in between the tropical plants and the Windows 95 start-up tune, is a positive statement. As Harper writes in a different article: “[Vaporwave artists] let flow the music that lubricates Capital, open the door to a monstrously alienating sublime, twist dystopia into utopia and vice versa, and dare you not to like it.” This “twist” — the fact that it’s an ode to as well as a criticism of capitalism — is an essential part of vaporwave. It has this double-sided nature because, as Harper notices, vaporwave is “accelerationist”:
We could apply to their music a term used to describe a certain sentiment and praxis that has recently gained currency among philosophers of capitalism: accelerationism. Accelerationism is the notion that the dissolution of civilisation wrought by capitalism should not and cannot be resisted, but rather must be pushed faster and farther towards the insanity and anarchically fluid violence that is its ultimate conclusion, either because this is liberating, because it causes a revolution, or because destruction is the only logical answer.
Instead of resisting technology, globalism and monitarization, vaporwave tries to “accelerate” the cultural symbols of late capitalism. In the same way that accelerationist thinkers posit that capitalism, which had always been the motor of progress and acceleration, has now become too slow and an obstacle to progress, these artists state that the full cultural potential of Coca-Cola, Skype and Apple still lies ahead of us. Irony is not (necessarily) a part of this strategy, because it isn’t so much an attempt at mockery as it is an attempt to take what’s libidinal or sensual in capitalism — those things that feel good — and deploy them in a critique.
In vaporwave artwork, classical statues add to the aura of kitsch and maximalism that is key to the message. Juxtaposed with Japanese signs, they ridicule the fact that they were ever exploited for ideas of cultural traditionalism — there is no nostalgic past in the vaporwave world, only a fluid future.
At first sight fashwave artwork retains the overall atmosphere of vaporwave’s images: we can see palm trees, neon colors, ancient statues, et cetera. Yet the fashwave images are often instantly recognizable and send a completely different message, a difference that relies mostly on the distinctive way it uses classical imagery.
First of all, vaporwave statues are often ambiguously gendered (for example the head of Alexander the Great as Helios, 2nd century CE, on the cover of Floral Shoppe), and have ambiguous facial expressions. Fashwave, on the contrary, uses stereotypically gendered statues; heroic statues of strong men (Nero and Augustus are very popular) or voluptuous women (the Graces), with the emphasis on male muscles and female nudity. A good example of this is the music video for AutoTron’s song “fashwave,” consisting completely of a montage of such statues (lifted from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Nazi propaganda film “Olympia,” by the way), bathing in red neon light. (I’m not going to link to it here, but you can find it on Youtube.)
Besides their gender, the color of the statues also plays an ideological role. As Sarah Bond argued in a piece from last June, the whiteness of classical statues has influenced beauty ideals since Winckelmann, and the way in which (almost all) museums exhibit classical statues — namely without any indication of their original multi-colored appearance — still influences contemporary ideas of white supremacy. It’s hard to find a better example for Bond’s thesis than fashwave artwork.
Lastly, the Japanese signs are replaced either with bellicose English slogans (“Reclaim the future,” “War is coming,” “Long live Europa,” or “Identity Evropa”) or, quite often, Greek and Latin terms (“ἀρετή,” “invictus”). For fashwavers, visually remixing antiquity is evidently not about the blending of cultures. The terms they use add to a supposed sense of affinity between the political virtues of the ancients and those of a future fascist society, in the same way the fascists and Nazis looked at Rome and Athens for a classical heritage for their Blud-und-Boden ideology.
Fashwave artwork’s indebtedness to and departure from vaporwave is a prime example of what Angela Nagle called the alt-right’s “ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression and nonconformity.” (p. 28) Vaporwave’s expression of an activist counterculture — its critical potential — lies, in the words of Adam Harper, in “the profound ambivalence of this potentially ‘accelerationist’ art-pop [which] asks us whether we accept or reject the image of the future, and indeed the present, that it conjures.”
Fashwave is trying to turn this counterculture on its head, and it has done so almost solely by shifting the classical imagery. If it’s up to the alt-right, classics will play a central cultural role in the move towards a highly conservative, extreme-right dystopia where the terrible electronic music will be the least of our worries.