Duncan Allan assesses the value of the music behind some of the worst movements in the world.
In an era where fascist movements at once try and lay claim to high classical, street punk, and even 80s-reverent electronica, do they really hold the cultural capital? Duncan Allan reviews a century's brutality and questions whether fascists can ever truly love music, rather than use it as a means to an end.
Content Warning: This article contains descriptions of fascist ideology and actions, including sexual and racial violence.
Fascism is a political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism.
Roger Griffin, “The Nature of Fascism”, 1991.
They saved Hitler’s cock. They stuffed it in Mengele’s sock.
They saved Hitler’s cock, and now it wants to talk.
Mike Saunders, “They Saved Hitler’s Cock”, 1992.
On January 20th 2017, the world bore witness to the inevitable: a narcissistic, ultra-capitalist, reality TV tycoon became President of the most politically (and often coercively) influential country in the world. Thankfully, resistance has been swift. Since inauguration day, virtually every frightening Executive Order Trump has signed has been followed by successful court actions and large protests (the Women’s March of 21 January was the largest single-day protest in US history). We will win. We have to, for we have a secret weapon: music.
Well, not so secret really - but it’s a weapon that has accompanied progressive social movements in every fight against oppression. As Janelle Monae stated, in anticipation of the DC Women’s March at which she performed: “Music has always been a powerful tool for galvanizing unity and I believe that singing and standing together, our voices will be stronger than any force that tries to repress us.”
Monae isn’t wrong. Music has the power to energise, to motivate and to inspire revolutions. Whether it’s the fighting songs of organised labour, the choral harmonies of revolutionary South Africa, the mourning ballads of Irish rebels or the dancing guitar of Latin American socialism, the desire has always been the same: a desire to create something new, in song and in life; to “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old”.
But this is not an essay about the link between music and progressive social movements. That link is well known and often celebrated. The openness of truly progressive movements favours the celebration of art that might push boundaries, provoke aesthetic change or make new representational and abstract demands – which the best popular music always has.
Instead, this essay contemplates the other end of the political spectrum. If we accept a link between the progressive and the creative, what does this mean for ideologies of the right? Must they necessarily be artistically repressed, or perhaps even regressive? Before diving in, we need to further define the question. “Conservative” is far too broad a term to explore in detail here, and one that has taken multiple positions relative to the overall political climate over the years. So instead, let’s test the furthest end of the spectrum. To put it bluntly: Do Fascists like music?
The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.
Benito Mussolini, La dottrina del fascismo, 1932
The Father of fascism is Benito Mussolini. By name, the ideology originated in Italy and developed in earnest during World War One – the term itself was first used by his Facsi of Revolutionary Action in 1915. Fascism is particularly hard to define, but there seems to be a general agreement that it is a nationalist authoritarian movement, anti-democratic and elitist, promoting the right of “superior people” through force. It is also described as totalitarian, militarist, traditionalist, anti-modern and anti-liberal.
For our purposes, we will discuss movements that explicitly identify as fascist; those that fit the criteria but put a different label on it; and those that skirt the edges, but may yet grow up to be fully-fledged fascist movements. After all, Mussolini didn’t care for labels, once saying “We don't give a damn about these empty terminologies”, so let’s allow ourselves a little leeway.
Italian fascism developed during a time of great unrest in Europe. While industrial capitalist countries were slaughtering each other in the name of nationalism, workers were fighting to control the means of production in the name of socialism. During the Bienno Rosso (Red Years) of 1919 and 1920, armed workers in Italy, inspired by the Russian Revolution, seized control of factories and set up workers’ councils. Both nationalists who had supported the war and capitalists protecting their assets were drawn to the strong response that fascism offered against this workers revolution.
Mussolini’s March on Rome was funded by business owners, and he paid them back by exchanging the populist overtones of his earlier positions for the violent repression of workers. By 1925, all independent trade unions had been closed and strikers were criminalised and imprisoned. Unsurprisingly, wages dropped by 50% between 1927 and 1932. Mussolini was a serious man. He didn’t need empty terminologies, because he showed his intentions through actions.
As a serious man, Mussolini was also into serious music. He outwardly appeared to despise the popular music of the time, and Italian songwriting suffered greatly during the fascist years; opera stagnated and contemporary musical output was characterised by the propaganda songs of the Squadristi (more famous for their brutal assassinations than their four-part symphonies). For Mussolini’s movement, music was a tool to inspire fear and achieve his ends – a calculated, rather than creative endeavour. This may not have come as a surprise, but what does is that international music received very little censorship in Italy. While Italian music was creatively stifled, Soviet, Jewish and Black American performers were all allowed into Italy to play.
Mussolini himself was a keen violinist (his violin was recently on sale for £150,000) and his first public speech, at age seventeen, was at a civic commemoration of the death of Verdi, who had in part soundtracked Italy’s unification. Clearly, he had some appreciation of music. Prior to his fascist years, Mussolini had also been a theatre and music critic, with an appreciation of jazz. Though that appreciation never disappeared entirely (he even invited visiting jazz musicians home to meet his son, another keen musician, during the 1930s), but it was buried deep behind a wall of brutality and suppression. Ultimately, the young Mussolini’s passion for non-traditional music could not fit within the conservative, authoritarian image he sought to project upon Italy. It seems that the preoccupation with totalitarianism didn’t leave much room for artistic pleasure. Conversely, it’s likely there have been a hundred songs written about the day his body was hung upside down outside a petrol station, so all of Italy could see that Il Duce was no more. In fact, a short folk song written by persons unknown (as the true folk songs often are) immediately springs to mind:
Now the war is over, Mussolini's dead
He wants to go to heaven with a crown upon his head
The Lord says no, he's got to stay below
All dressed up and nowhere to go
A form of political behaviour marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, 2004
Whistle while you work!
Hitler is a jerk!
Mussolini bit his weenie
now it doesn't work
Schoolyard song, 1950s
Mussolini’s more famous friend seems to have been a little more passionate about music. Hitler was obsessed with classical opera, particularly Wagner (most likely because he openly shared Hitler’s anti-Semitic and ethno-nationalist feelings, and directly incorporated those themes into his music). The other two composers that were considered by Hitler (and therefore the Nazis) to represent good, ‘pure’ German music were Beethoven and Bruckner. Their music would fill the concert halls throughout Germany during the 1930s and 40s, and Hitler himself would attend a concert almost daily. Was it Wagner that so inspired Hitler as he adopted a policy of insidious but systemic genocide? Or did he instead play the secret records in his collection from Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and other ‘degenerates’; songs that had been banned from performance or broadcast by the man’s edict, but that he himself kept to enjoy?
Music was an important propaganda tool in Nazi Germany. As with Mussolini’s squadristi, in its most vile form it was a means of intimidation, as when the Brownshirts wandered the streets, beating and murdering minorities while singing “laßt die Messer flutschen in den Judenleiblet,” let the knives slip into the Jew’s body.
Mostly though, it was a method of indoctrination. This was especially so for the Hitler Youth. Membership in the Hitlerjugend (for the boys) and Bund Deutscher Mädel (for the girls) was compulsory, and the actions of the groups were heavily orchestrated from above.
In this sense, the Nazis’ grasp on culture was more insidious than that of the Italian fascists. Regardless of whether they liked music or not, they were well aware of its power to influence. They also understood that young minds are the most susceptible. Describing the importance of music as a political tool, a Hitlerjugend memo stated:
Songs possess the strongest community-building power. Thus we use them deliberately at those moments when we need to waken the consciousness of being part of a community, in order to deepen the power of such an experience.
Without context, this statement could just have easily come from Greenwich Village in the 1960s. The difference is that in Nazi Germany it was a message forced from above, rather than a movement sprouting from the cracks in the pavement, as it did in New York. In Nazi Germany you couldn’t attend a club and hear local songwriters pouring out their souls. You couldn’t turn up at a protest and hear a folk song inspired by the civil rights struggle. Outside of the state’s coercion, ordinary people aren’t particularly inspired to write songs about conformity and brutality.
For the Nazis, music was inspirational and triumphalist, but deliberately static. It didn’t grow. They were content to closely control what they had, while ensuring new movements didn’t take root.
Jazz music, for example, had been the epitome of the freedom and modernity of the roaring twenties in Germany. But as a vibrant new art form, whose greatest practitioners were black, it was seen as a dangerous ideal by the Nazis and heavily suppressed. Under fascism, musical progression was stifled, just as it was in Italy.
Members of the Swingjugend, a movement of young people who refused to join the Hitlerjugend and were attracted to swing and jazz culture, were directly targeted. After a crackdown in August 1941, many were tortured by the Gestapo or interned in camps. Musicologist Guido Fackler has written of how, while incarcerated, members would turn their tools into instruments and improvise shows during breaks, or cover their windows at night with sheets and quietly sing amongst themselves. Music was their sustenance.
Unofficially, the Nazi SS knew about, tolerated and even watched some of those prohibited performances. Officially, the Nazis allowed a transition from propaganda to pure aural torture (a method other countries would expand on in later years). Loudspeakers would repeat the Badonviller-Marsch and a small selection of other songs on repeat, without interruption, until late into the night. The constant and overwhelming flow of music was not just a source of distress from which there was little reprieve, but it also covered the screams of those who were routinely physically tortured in the small room behind the guard house.
This contrast between the official actions of the regime and the unofficial actions of individuals (including Hitler himself), represents one of the great contradictions of fascism. A Nazi could like music, but not openly. Their ideology wouldn’t allow it. To be truly fascist, they would have to renounce or suppress their musical intuitions because of the wayward paths on which it may lead them. For Nazi Germany, music was a tool; a means to an end, rather than a craft in of itself.
Anti-Modern: Fascism loathes all kinds of modernism, especially creativity in the arts, whether acting as a mirror for life (where it does not conform to the Fascist ideal), or expressing deviant or innovative points of view. Fascism invariably burns books and victimises artists; artists who do not promote the fascists ideals are seen as “decadent”.
Encyclopedia of Marxism
This machine kills fascists.
Woody Guthrie’s guitar
General Augusto Pinochet was the Supreme Chief of the Nation, then ‘President’, but always Chile’s dictator, from 1973 to 1990. Political theorist Roger Griffin would argue that Pinochet lacks the palingenesis for “true” fascism, but it’s hard to argue that he was about as close as you could get without being given the name badge. Pinochet made September 11th 1973 a day of mourning many years before the fall of the Twin Towers, when he rose to power through a brutal military coup.
De-classified US Defence Intelligence Agency documents from 1975 document a number of hobbies and interests of Pinochet: the “honest, hardworking, dedicated … devoted, tolerant husband and father” apparently enjoyed fencing, boxing, horseback riding and geography. The document makes no mention of music. So, did any music bring Pinochet inspiration and motivation? Information is difficult to find, but from the accounts of his 91st and final birthday, it appears that Pinochet’s favourite song was, unsurprisingly, “El Rey” (The king), a mariachi standard. As he relaxed at night, smoking a cigarette, sipping a scotch and ordering another ‘disappearance’, did he hum “hago siempre lo que quiero y mi palabra es la ley.” I always do what I want and my words are the law?
While Pinochet, or the fascist movement in Chile generally, does not appear to have been particularly inspired by music, we at least know that music and its suppression played an important part in the fascist takeover. Nueva Canción, the progressive political folk movement that had developed throughout the 1960s, was banned after the coup, and its musicians were rounded up by the fascists. Victor Jara, one of the movement’s most prominent musicians, was tortured and killed, along with thousands of others, in the Estadio Nacional (National Stadium). Before he was murdered his hands were smashed with rifle butts, the guards wanting Jara to know that he would never play music again. Killing the man wasn’t enough either. His music was blacklisted, and the regime hunted down and destroyed almost half of Jara’s master tapes. Both Jara and the fascists knew that music and the struggle were intertwined.
Other pop music, meanwhile, was allowed under the Pinochet regime – subject to obvious lyrical incitement, upbeat tunes crackled from radios and seeped out the windows of the houses on a hot summer’s day. They were also played at ear-piercing volume for days on end as part of the routine torture sessions of political prisoners (interestingly, the same tactics were used by torturers in US prisons after the more famous September 11 - and are possibly still being used today). Jailers would sing the lyrics to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” or the French pop hit “Gigi L’amoroso”; merrily murmuring “Mais jamais sans tendresse”, but never without tenderness, as they raped, suffocated and electrocuted prisoners. Yet while the fascists used music as a tool for oppression, the prisoners would sing pop songs to themselves to give them the strength to endure those same torture sessions, seeing the music as an inspiration, a saviour; consent and coercion in the same grooves of a record.
As in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, Chilean fascism appears to have seen music as a means to achieve other ends, rather than a piece of art created for its own sake. For both fascists and artists, the song serves a purpose. What separates the two is the intention. For the fascist, the purpose of music is to serve fascism by causing a predetermined effect in other people, rather than letting the music affect people (and themselves) in whatever course the music takes. When the music does not serve this purpose (and exists simply for enjoyment) it is either banned or hidden away. But what of fascism and music in the modern era - absent a fascist state, left to their own movements, does this still hold true?
... the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else ... Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathisers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.
George Orwell, “What is Fascism?”, 1944
They shouldn't be driving day or night
They can't think left, they can only think right
The sun reflects off their bald head
Like Ian Stuart they're going to wind up dead
Nazis ... shouldn't drive
MDC, “Nazis Shouldn’t Drive”, 1986
Challenging the narrative of fascists as musically passionless are the Neo-Nazi skinheads that had their origins in the punk movement (which itself germinated from the disenfranchised, unemployed and unwanted youth of the late 1970s in the UK and Europe.
Skinheads themselves predate the punk explosion. Originally, it was a fashion that followed on from the mods and was heavily influenced by ska, rocksteady and reggae. By the late seventies however, lost in a sea of unemployment and hopelessness, skins became attracted to the nihilism and self-destruction of the punk movement. Punk culture had intended to shock, and it was common for punks and skins alike, to pin swastikas and other fascist images to their clothes. While offensive and ignorant, it was often an apolitical provocation, but that nihilism and eagerness to offend had unintended consequences.
The “Oi” subgenre of punk developed in the late 1970s as a response to what some saw as a takeover of punk by the middle class. While not an intentionally racist subgenre (indeed, some Oi bands were staunchly anti-racist), the music stripped back the reggae and glam influences of early punk. Among themes focussed largely on unemployment, football and booze, a white working class identity attached itself. From there the movement split, as many fell into the propaganda of the National Front and the ‘skins’ look became synonymous with Oi and its racist off-shoots.
Unable to be separated by appearance from the far-right skins, the punk movement became less tolerant of the skinhead look. With the racist skins now free to claim the look as their own, the modern Neo-Nazi skinhead developed: a mix of nihilism, right-wing ideology, hate and violence. The musical influence was still the fast, loud and abrasive sounds of punk rock, but at gigs, fights were common amongst punks and skins. The Dead Kennedys captured some of this turmoil in their 1981 single “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”:
You still think swastikas look cool
The real Nazis run your schools
They're coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real fourth reich you'll be the first to go
You’ll be the first to go
Unless you think.
Lyrically, there is a very clear line between Oi and what is now broadly characterised as ‘skinhead music’. Neo-Nazi songs titled with racist and homophobic slurs, celebrating gay-bashing and attacking miscegenation, don’t leave a lot to the imagination, but do seem to inspire a number of young white men (and occasionally women). In a 2012 report, the anti-racist Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Centre puts it this way:
The importance of music in growing the worldwide skinhead movement cannot be overstated. William Pierce, leader of the Neo-Nazi National Alliance until his death in 2002, understood well the potential impact of haterock. “Music speaks to us at a deeper level than books or political rhetoric: music speaks directly to the soul.”
This comment, that music speaks directly to the soul, runs contrary to the idea that fascists don’t like music (though it also echoes the Hitlerjugend explanation for its use to affect/effect). Yet as with other fascist movements, skinhead music hasn’t really changed in the last thirty years. While punk quickly evolved into a thousand other subgenres, skinhead music has stagnated and become in its own way ‘traditionalist’. A skinhead would have the same difficulty admitting to a fondness for any other genre of music as the real Nazis had acknowledging an appreciation for jazz.
The other issue, of course, is that they are not real Nazis. Skinheads aren’t fascists. Racist and intolerant, yes, but they are also often fiercely anti-government and more likely to be professing a libertarian ideal of individual freedom than a totalitarian ideal of the authoritarian state. What would they think of Mussolini or Hitler’s parties if they were to come to power today? Would they embrace or reject them? More importantly, what would Mussolini think of skinheads, he who believed that “the State is absolute, individuals and groups relative”? Perhaps Jello Biafra’s words would be prophetic, and in a real fourth Reich, they’d be the first to go.
The ideas put forward by racism and fascism seem, to at least some of the working class, to offer solutions to the consequences of economic crisis, to bad housing, unemployment and falling living standards. The pressures that lead people towards racism and fascism are real material pressures. To destroy the ideas, we must remove their material base.
Colin Sparks, Never Again!, 1980
There’s a more recent event, in a more powerful country, that has been ringing the fascism alarm bells and returns us to the beginning of this essay. I’m speaking, of course, about the rise of the ‘alt-right’ in the USA. Forget easy targets like Trump and his deposed advisor, Steve Bannon - they aren’t fascists. Trump is a racist, sexist, narcissist with authoritarian tendencies and Bannon believes that prior to the first world war “the world was at total peace” due to a form of capitalism underpinned by the spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity. Clearly, they are both dangerous, but neither is a fascist. Each believes in a civilian-run, capitalist democracy and Bannon is explicitly against state capitalism and powerful centralised governments, so let’s move on.
A far-right figure who sits higher on the fascism spectrum, is Richard Spencer. The Southern Poverty Law Centre describes Spencer as an advocate for an Aryan homeland for a supposedly dispossessed white race. He runs a white nationalist think tank whose mission is to “elevate the consciousness of whites”. He’s also known as the Nazi that got punched at Trump’s inauguration.
While it’s not clear how Spencer’s white ethno-state would be governed, Spencer’s hark back to the ‘good old days’ and desire for an ‘old, new’ country and calls for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, certainly suggest he might accommodate a fascist state. What then, does this fascist listen to?
In a February 2017 Rolling Stone article, Spencer describes himself as a lifelong Depeche Mode fan and advocate for Synthwave – a simplistic form of electronica heavy on 1980s popular culture samples. While Spencer’s appreciation of Depeche Mode appears genuine, the embracement of Synthwave is more sinister, as he notes in the article:
There's always been a certain nostalgic synth wave vibe to the Alt-Right in terms of aesthetics," he says. Asked to clarify "nostalgic synth wave vibe," he adds, "It might have something to do with generations. People my age are griping for our childhoods; younger kids are grasping for an imaginary childhood. There's some '1980s' about Trump, too. That's clearly the decade that defined him. It might have been the last moment that there was a recognizable White America (or in the case of Depeche Mode, White Britain).
Just as in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, music is being used to echo a feeling of nostalgia; a desire to return to a time when everything was better. And just as Bannon’s claim that pre-WWI, the world was at peace, that ‘time when everything was better’, is, as Jello Biafra once noted of kitsch 1950s revivalism, a “nostalgia for an age that never existed”.
But it is a common thread running through a century of fascist thought: change is bad, progression is bad, traditionalism and nostalgia is good. Like Hitler, who promoted classical music as the sound of an era when the German people were pure and proud and powerful, Alt-Righters promote the synth sounds of the 1980s as the music of an era when “there was a recognizable White America”. Andrew Anglin, of the white supremacist Daily Stormer website (who considers himself a voice of the Alt-Right) calls Synthwave “the spirit of the childhoods of millennials”.
The group that first championed Synthwave were the trolls of the 4Chan internet message boards. There are two types of people on 4Chan: young men (mostly), who post racist, sexist and homophobic memes with the intention to provoke a reaction (much like the first wave of punks with their fascist imagery paired with peformative nihilism) and young men (mostly), who post racist, sexist and homophobic memes because they are racist, sexist, homophobes. Many users claim their posts and memes are intended to be satirical and ironic, their own private in-jokes. In the end though, it doesn’t matter if something is intended as some kind of ironic joke if enough people take that joke and run with it as a serious theme. It may provide some sense of community, but 4Chan’s self-important exclusivity serves as breeding grounds for outright fascism.
On first appearance, Synthwave doesn’t say anything. Whether it started as an ironic joke or planned in-group signifier, the popularity of Synthwave spread through Alt-Right groups and websites with a speed not seen since Michael Knight’s customised Pontiac Trans Am graced TV screens. Until this point, there had been no defining music for the Alt-Right movement. Unlike skinhead music, which is loud, crass and only appeals to a limited sub-group, many within the movement recognised an opportunity to seize on an innocuous musical style that no other group was claiming.
Without any sort of organic musical movement amongst the Alt-Right, the next best thing was to inhabit an empty vessel – inoffensive but fit for purpose. From there, it wasn’t long before the out and proud fascists turned Synthwave into something more sinister by making their own Synth music, slapping racist titles on the songs and calling it ‘Fashwave’. ‘CyberNazi’, the most popular Fashwave artist with around 300,000 views on YouTube, has song titles such as “Galactic Lebensraum”, “Cyber Kampf” and “Right Wing Death Squads”. The videos still contain bright neon colours and Tron style gridlines, but those images are overlaid with Nazi imagery and futuristic soldiers.
Synthwave artists who pre-dated the appropriation have been quick to distance themselves from Fashwave and even from the Alt-Right more generally. The New Retro Wave record label, whose artists feature regularly on Fashwave playlists, intends to post more videos that show a greater diversity of cultures, in order to stop their misappropriation. Swedish producer Robert Parker is clear that his music contains no language or imagery that could be connected with Fashwave, but he also notes that synth music was hijacked by the far right in Sweden in the 1980s and he was suspicious this could happen again:
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.
If Synthwave truly was the official soundtrack of the Alt-Right, it wouldn’t be at the opposition of the artists who made the music. It wouldn’t require Alt-Right proponents to write blogs proclaiming the music as the official soundtrack, because it just already would be. It would have happened organically.
For fascism in particular, the idea that mellow instrumental electronica could be the soundtrack to the movement is laughable. Fascists believe in authoritarianism and superiority; they need a music that fits their values. Fashwave is innocuous and therefore, it is also a lie. It won’t last, because it doesn’t truly speak to fascists. They need more than childhood memories - they need authority and control.
In fact, fascism may never have a true official soundtrack because a movement that longs for a return to the past and sees progression as degenerate, will inevitably struggle to create its own artistic expression. Fascism may never have a true official soundtrack because, quite frankly, fascists can’t like music. As individuals, its adherents may have their guilty pleasures (that is, as with Mussolini some fascists may secretly like music in a genuine, non-performative way) but to be true adherents of the cause, their tastes are hidden away. They are forced into a self-loathing personal regression that is the antithesis of the beauty and enjoyment others seek in music, sound as blunt instrument with no use outside its ends. Where music does seep into fascist culture, it must remain static and containable. It can be a tool for fear and intimidation, but not a vessel for tears or intimacy or joy or creation. For all its fury, aggression and terror, fascism lays claim to the vapid.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.