The Study of Far-Right Music
Benjamin R. Teitelbaum
As a sort of media stunt in 2005, a Swedish journalist named Anders Lokko attempted a review of the music produced by White nationalists. Screamed vocals and pounding punk or metal backings were standard in that scene, coming from bands like Max Resist in the United States, Freikorps in Germany, and Fyrdung and Vit Agression (White Aggression) in Sweden. Lokko’s ambitious goal was to scrutinize the music on aesthetic rather than moral or political grounds. He condemned it nonetheless. White nationalists seemed to him unwilling to incorporate sounds, instruments, and styles that they did not consider inherently White and, in the process, they shackled their own creative capacity. “They have essentially closed all paths to inspiration available to other types of political music. The only way forward is metal,” he wrote, and metal was only allowed because practitioners were ignorant of its Afrodiasporic roots (Lokko 2005, translation mine). The sonic and ideological aspects of White nationalists’ music could not be separated, in other words. Theirs was an arrested musical development born of confining political commitments.
I found myself returning to that review as I embarked on writing this article, which is a critical analysis of the study of music in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century far-right movements. Like far-right music itself, the study of this music bows to limitations that come from political interests. Academics who research this music are—exclusively, to the best of my knowledge—opponents of the causes with which it is associated. Their opposition tends not to be casual but is instead rooted in the conviction that the producers and consumers of the music constitute the most imposing threat to liberal democracy in a generation. This threat, rather than the music itself, dominates scholars’ research and writing,1 and it manifests in the field’s disciplinary profile. Fewer than 10 percent of the authors whose works are reviewed in this article are music studies PhDs. Most are sociologists, political scientists, or historians, and most are based in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Rather than follow the ethnomusicological impulse to study all human music-making from a “relativistic perspective” (Nettl 2005, 13), scholars are often guided in their study of far-right music by a moral charge to resist and undermine it—an imperative fueled, no doubt, by knowledge of music’s ability to add a “positive valence” to causes and identities (Rice 2007, 35–36). Anything else would make the scholar seem naive, aloof, or worse.
Although that paradigm is morally justified, it is also academically perilous. Consider the study of any other music scene or genre: inquiries may include analyses of sound and compositions; biographies of performers; evaluation and canonization; histories of stylistic change; ethnographic accounts of the production, transmission, and consumption of the music; textual analyses of songs, and so on. In the study of far-right music, that kaleidoscope of investigation—the breadth of which is itself an ideal for gaining multifaceted understandings of music—is collapsed. Aspects of musical life that do not obviously contribute to the formulation of anti-right-wing critiques or activism receive less attention, and the result of this is a literature that is uncommonly uniform in the topics it analyzes and the questions it asks. It is a paradigm more endemic to Whiteness studies (Garner 2017) than to music scholarship. Further, while researchers dwell on the most blatant and sensationally racist musical expressions, many ignore other far-right musics—including forms that are more socially and politically impactful today—and fail to employ analytical lenses that would help them better understand the music’s nuances and consequences. In contemporary scholarship, now defunct 1980s and 1990s neo-Nazi skinhead acts like Skrewdriver or Landser appear to define far-right music-making, while artists like electro-dance “fashwave” composer and alt-right favorite Xurious or solo folksinger and darling of the National Democratic Party of Germany Frank Rennicke are treated as little more than sideshows. Like the study of the postwar far right in general, the study of far-right music has its own Ursatz: examine a far-right idea, group, initiative, or expression; entertain the notion that it represents something new; but conclude that it is only a restatement of the familiar. I argue that these habits cloud insight into the variety and evolution of the far right and are therefore detrimental to scholars and anti-far-right activists alike.
The academic study of postwar far-right music began in earnest during the 1990s and often examined music with roots in the 1980s. This literature could appear to be a subset of other bodies of work, namely musicological research into World War II–era antiliberalism or contemporary nationalism, though postwar far-right music and its study diverges from this scholarship in key respects. Musicologists have produced a wealth of research on the uses of music in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Vichy France in investigations that, due in part to the hegemonic status of reactionary politics in those societies, consider a range of practices and actors who found their work implicated variously by the reigning order (e.g., Fulcher 2018; Potter 2007). Further, scholars of music and postwar nationalism such as ethnomusicologists Kelly Askew (2002), Philip V. Bohlman (2010), or Nicholas Tochka (2016) may encounter authoritarian, xenophobic, or exploitative agendas in their case studies, but the actors involved often include those at the helm of state governments or people who disseminate values through mainstream, mass-mediated channels. In contrast, postwar far-right causes tend to be culturally oppositional and sectarian, rather than hegemonic, and their musical impact is more often confined to ideological sympathizers. The hegemonic/oppositional divide parallels another foundational question in the literature, namely whether or not the category “far-right music” should only apply to music that is officially produced or consumed through formal political organizations. Much of the scholarship on postwar music does not address this question, because it often examines music associated, if not with political parties or other activist groups, then with record companies and performance circuits that openly identify with a political cause. Considerably less is known about the ways casual sympathizers with the far right relate to music, despite increased scholarly interest in these individuals in far-right studies (e.g., Nadeau 2019). There have been few investigations of independent artists who voice reactionary values or studies of far-right sympathizers who find political inspiration through mainstream music. Why do scholars focus so intently on music with explicit organizational links? In part, I would suggest, because it is easier to identify or assign political associations to the sounds and actors involved. But these scholars of music also align with a broader academic focus on organizational life within the far right, which has been a major preoccupation of sociologists and political scientists in the field.2
The field of far-right studies is one in which I, too, participate. For over a decade I have studied the music of the far right using ethnographic methods and focusing on music in Northern Europe and North America produced during the early twenty-first century. Biases that I bring to my research also inflect my assessment of other scholarship, and for that reason I seldom discuss my own work in this article. I write for readers new to the field and begin my discussion by outlining central conceptual issues. I then map the musical activity of far-right artists and discuss genres beyond the heavily studied topic of skinhead rock. Throughout I provide commentary on the ways that scholars address the field’s key issues. While research on far-right music could be categorized along a number of dimensions, such as disciplinary orientation or theoretical aim, I have chosen to group and analyze writings based on the way that they conceptualize and address musical genre. I chose this frame because it highlights strengths and weaknesses in the field, namely that this body of research richly examines sensational genres like skinhead White power music and National Socialist black metal but is rudimentary in its understanding of others. Of course, any organizing frame that would be applied to a scholarly literature as diverse as far-right music studies would necessarily leave many topics unexamined, and throughout the text, I have tried to broaden the discussion to include works that do not fit into my classificatory scheme.
Definitions, Approaches, and Problems
Characterizing political causes is a primary hurdle for all scholars of the far right, including those studying music. Following the lead of political scientist Cas Mudde (2019), I use the term “far right” because of its generality, rather than its specificity. Much of the research I discuss, however, adopts other terms—fascism, neofascism, White nationalism, organized racism, identitarianism, neo-Nazism, right-wing extremism, radical nationalism, right-wing populism, and so on. Labeling becomes contentious when scholars try to distinguish among these categories and the communities they seek to describe. Are there meaningful differences among far-right actors? Can we say that there are both moderate and extreme forms of far-right politics and culture? Or are these distinctions, whether applied internally or externally, mere facades, a sheen of variation overlying a more fundamental commonality?
The various actors that I describe as “far-right” share an ideological framework. All proclaim an opposition between a true, native or majority “people” and domestic Others—whether historical minorities, new immigrant communities, or, in settler colonial countries, Indigenous groups (Deland, Hertzberg, and Hvitfeldt 2010, 6–12). However, conceptions of the “people” and of Others professed by far-right actors vary significantly, as do their political methodologies and visions for promoting the former over the latter. To more mainstream populists, Others might be the subaltern, Indigenous, or minority allies of an elite political-media-educational establishment, who combine to crush the true people from above and below. What qualifies someone for being included or excluded from “the people”? Mainstream populists tend to offer vague explanations, such as relative socioeconomic status, religious identity, or geographic location. In explicitly race-based strains of right-wing populism, however, the people, Others, and even elites are often called out as separate racial groups; typically, White people are seen as threatened by domestic non-Whites, who unwittingly carry out the agenda of some global force, often imagined as synonymous with international Jewry.3 Actors using more moderate tactics seek power through electoral politics. For them, democratic processes may be a more subversive and effective long-term means of accessing state power, though some populists embrace democratic principles at the inception of their movement, only to undermine them when in office (Urbinati 2019). But those more moderate actors and their attitude toward political violence are distinct from revolutionary far rightists, who reject democratic processes outright and embrace physical confrontation as the primary tool of political contestation.
Characterizing these differences is a perilous task, however. Dismiss them as window dressing, and you will have blinded yourself to the far right’s ideological and operational dynamism—its ability to form alliances and find diverse means of challenging liberal democracy. Fetishize these differences, and you will miss the commonalities among democratic populists and race revolutionaries, commonalities often occurring in deep conceptions of history and progress. Far rightists of various kinds tend to see threats to the true people as having strengthened throughout time, and many are skeptical about modern, liberal notions of progress. Some long to return their society to a previous epoch, a stance that makes their political affiliation with conservatism plain. Others, however, reject nostalgia and instead offer visions for an alternative modernity in which a historical, national, or cultural essence is revived through some futuristic incarnation—a myth of palingenesis (national rebirth) that historian Roger Griffin considers fascism’s core conceptual basis (1996, 2000a; see also Lanning 2012).4 Whether they are nostalgics or futurists, far rightists often condemn the present as postlapsarian and link society’s fall to the loss of social order, especially at the hands of feminism, multiculturalism, globalization, or anticolonial uprisings.
In sum, we can anticipate that an older, White Donald Trump supporter living in rural Florida and a swastika-clad street hooligan in East Berlin will share a conceptual framework dividing the real people from domestic Others, reject the idea that the social developments of past decades and centuries are genuine progress, and possess a corresponding skepticism about movements discursively framed as beacons of social change. These features point to two key social positionalities. First, although right-wing populist movements thrive in India and Brazil, and while some scholars have made a convincing case for including Islamists in the category (e.g., Ruud and Hasan 2021), far-right causes championing European, White, and White-male identities are foremost implicated by, and foremost opponents of, emancipatory progressive movements targeting a global order topped by Whites. That conceptual framing, along with the political, economic, and cultural prowess of the countries they live in, helps White Western causes appear definitive of the far right globally.
Second, actors on the radical right often regard themselves as dissidents (Bures 2020).5 Across the West, this is a baseline positionality of the culturally conservative (as opposed to neoliberal) political right, who tend to consider watershed political transformations like the French Revolution as fusing progressivism and liberal democracy in mainstream political consensus (Robin 2017). Intellectual sectors of the antiliberal radical right like the French Nouvelle Droiteextend these narratives by claiming that the post–World War II progressive left achieved hegemony for its values in Western culture and that without a reversal toward conservative cultural hegemony, right-wing political causes are doomed (see Griffin 2000b). As opponents of progressive cornerstones like multiculturalism and certain forms of feminism, they see themselves as permanent sociopolitical outsiders. They identify as agents of protest and counterculture, voices of defiance rejecting a liberal status quo. It is in this sense that I also consider far rightists out of power as archetypal, as opposed to those who have been in power, like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, or Jair Bolsonaro. (And even while at the helm of national governments, these leaders labored to portray themselves as oppositional, anti-establishment, and anti-system.)
Music is one of many lenses that allow us to see differences, commonalities, and change within the far right. It sometimes parallels—and sometimes ignores—social, organizational, and ideological boundaries. And given that far-right social and organizational life has gradually migrated during the past decades from music to political parties and social media, activists’ use of music in politics can reflect their attitudes toward history. For example, enthusiasm for 1980s and 1990s White power music can signal affiliation with underground revolutionary movements and the far-right skinhead subculture. Alternatively, rejection of those subcultures and their music is a hallmark of self-styled ascendant pragmatists and reformers, who harnessed political opportunities in the wave of global populism in the 2010s.
The challenge of assigning labels to these communities is compounded by the fact that, while monikers like “fascism” and “populism” describe political ideologies, insiders also use these terms as banners for extra-ideological affiliations—as ways of indicating the people with whom one socializes, what media and culture one consumes, or whether one identifies as a radical idealist or a pragmatic reformer. Scholars may argue that neo-Nazis and right-wing populists share a fundamental conceptual framework, but individuals who willingly identify with those terms look and sound different from one another, and those differences—whether or not they carry political consequences—should interest scholars. It is in this sense that musicologists can intervene in interdisciplinary efforts to theorize the far right. Music can channel a preexisting agenda, but it can also craft a parallel domain unto itself for identity formation and group affiliation. That social and ideological identities manifest in music-making should surprise no one, though understanding how ideas, identities, and sound interact is hardly a straightforward task.
Far-right activists have produced a range of musical styles across multiple eras and cultural spheres. In response, scholars often emphasize that overarching terms such as “extreme-right music” designate a range of styles and genres (Langebach and Raabe 2013). The point needs emphasizing, however, because one could easily conceptualize the scene’s music in other ways. Many far-right movements devoted their musical life to a single genre, one whose production and consumption fulfilled a primary social activity for activists throughout much of the far right’s postwar history, namely “White power” music.
Complicating matters is the fact that insiders and scholars use the term “White power” in both broad and narrow senses.6 Broadly conceived, “White power music” refers to music produced by organized White nationalists that strives to promote a White nationalist political cause. This conception highlights producers and ideological, rather than musical, content, and accordingly it captures a variety of musical genres. But “White power” is also used in a narrower sense to refer to a specific musical genre—a branch of metal-punk originating in the burgeoning skinhead subculture of Great Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was cultivated further in Germany, the United States, and Sweden during the 1990s and central and eastern Europe thereafter.7
Researchers who explicitly theorize White power music in the more expansive sense include American studies scholar Kristen Dyck (2016) and sociologists Valerio Marchi (1997), Jan Raabe (2019), and Giorgia Bulli (2020).8 These authors may use the term “White power” to describe acoustic folk song ballads, pop music, country, or rap rooted in a number of geographic and ideological contexts. Seldom do their definitions ignore genre wholesale, however. Dyck (2015) points out that despite variations in genre, most of these could be seen as forms of popular music—an observation that is broadly valid, even though this music circulates in the socially marginalized wings of the radical right (see Simi and Futrell 2010). Further, ideological boundaries confine even the wider use of the term “White power.” I have not seen this expression applied to music in relatively moderate populist parties or in music targeting audiences who embrace conservative nationalism, such as mainstream rock and country stars in the United States like Ted Nugent or Toby Keith. Use of the term “White” in White power is a signal, for scholars at least, that the music and its corresponding ideology belong to the explicitly race-ideological wings of the far right. Given the recent trend among social commentators to extend terms such as “White supremacy” to include not only organized White nationalism but also implicit structural racism, we might expect the use of the expression “White power” to undergo a similar expansion.
In contrast to all of this, studies adopting a narrower understanding of “White power” often focus on the origins, character, and trajectory of the specific punk-metal genre originating in 1970s and 1980s Britain and its attendant oppositional youth subculture, skinhead. This subculture has unlikely origins. Skinhead style, with its close-cropped haircuts, combat boots, jeans, suspenders, and bomber jackets, emerged when offshoots of London’s predominantly White hard mod scene embraced the fashions of West Indian immigrants as well as imported Jamaican musics, fueling the development of rocksteady, ska, and reggae in the UK (Hebdige 1988; Mercer 1987, 1994).9 The scene was multiracial, and throughout the 1970s it encompassed a range of more or less explicitly articulated political streams, including antifascism. Gradually, however, White nationalism grew to dominate much of the skinhead scene: in it, stylistic features of West Indian origin shared space with icons of Nazism and Norse mythology, displaying, in the words of sociologist Les Back, the “coexistence of a kind of opaque hybridity alongside open racism” (2002, 100). Radical nationalist groups like the National Front and the British Movement propelled this transition when they began to recruit White skinheads to their cause. Music was also key here. As older skinhead genres like reggae veered toward explicit Black nationalism (see King 2002), far-right White skinheads crafted a genre specific to their stylistic and political cause: it was called “White power,” as rang the chorus of an anthem by the flagship British band Skrewdriver.
White power skinhead music and style seized far-right activism in 1980s Britain. Treatments of this history include works by scholars (notably Widgery 1986; Brown 2004; Shaffer 2013; Pollard 2016; and Worley and Copsey 2016) as well as insider publications (e.g., Marshall 1991; Hörstadius 2001; Mastoras 2003). Even this narrow conception of “White power music” is unstable, however. Musicologist Erika Funk-Hennigs (1995) highlighted challenges in distinguishing the genre from others that are musically, if not politically, proximal. The theoretical challenge for such scholars extends to establishing White power’s relationship with other monikers and repertories, like Rock Against Communism (RAC), hate rock, Nazi punk, freedom rock, or hatecore. Sometimes, these labels distinguish a particular subscene of White power or skinhead subculture (see Sarabia and Shriver 2004). At other times, though, they are used as synonyms and indicate an orientation to the musical styles of punk and metal, a set of common themes in the song lyrics, and, often, social and organizational links to the original British White power music culture.
Recognizing White power music as an originally British product has not precluded scholarly examination of the genre’s global expansion. The musical movement born in 1970s and 1980s British skinhead scenes spread to locales throughout Europe and White-identifying populations beyond, often spurring new associations, agendas, and sounds in each new place. A veritable subfield of scholarship has attempted to trace the spread of this music, whether in Germany (Baacke et al. 1994; Becker et al. 2007), Poland (Żuk and Żuk 2019), Italy (Tanner and Campana 2014), Sweden (Lööw 1998a), Portugal (Marchi and Zúquete 2016), or Latin America (Oliveira 2019). Treatments of White power’s global diffusion have also often considered the hybrids formed as the British genre mixed with domestic styles, such as Japanese studies scholar Stefan Fuchs’s (2015) work on right-wing rock in Japan. And at a greater level of remove, research on far-right music that is both geographically and ideologically distanced from British White power but still preserves elements of skinhead style and punk, as well as a general affiliation with right-wing politics, could also be included here, such as the less explicitly race-ideological genres of Viking rock in Sweden (Stroud 2014; Szele 2016) and Nemzeti rock in Hungary (Vansteenburg 2020). Attending to the relationship between these genres and White power allows us to see common visions and social positionalities among participants in various far-right strains.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the paradigm with a narrower conception of the White power genre tends to analyze music in greater detail: the decision to emphasize the boundedness of White power would logically come from an interpretive practice that prioritizes music. Although detailed interpretations of musical sound and structure in White power (the genre) is rare—owing, it seems, to the unremarkable nature of its musical style relative to standard punk and metal—this scholarship nonetheless includes rich analyses of poetic themes. The difference between paradigms focusing on music’s role in macro-level social and political mobilization and those centering more on the music itself is not one that pits apologetics against critique, for deep analyses of lyrics such as those by historians Heléne Lööw (1998b), Paul Jackson (2012), and Irina Manea (2016), sociologist Roberto Fernandez (2017), and Dyck (2020) also emphasize the incendiary nature of the music. The more limited use of “White power” also tends to occur in studies whose missions go beyond classification and simple moral admonishment. I refer in particular to publications concerned with broader theoretical issues, such as music’s role in the everyday life of the activist (Dornbusch and Raabe 2004), community (Futrell, Simi, and Gottschalk 2006; Cammelli 2017), violence (Stroud 2013), performance practice (Raposo and Sabin 2018), citational practices in music (Richardson 2017; Scheiblhofer 2017), racial identity (Back 2000), and gender identity (Ware 1996; Funk-Hennigs 2006; Love 2009; Turner-Graham 2012; Teitelbaum 2014).
A sensitivity to musical details, I would argue, tends to make research more robust. But throughout the literature, the notion of White power music, even conceived in a more limited sense, remains an undertheorized concept. More attention should be paid to the legacy of the British White power music movement and the ways musicians with various stylistic profiles present themselves as its heirs. For example, a generation of acts following the initial 1980s White power wave, like RaHoWa in the 1990s or Saga in the 2000s, departed from punk and the skinhead look but still aligned themselves with classic White power skinhead acts by playing covers of their music and composing tributes. Their music signals not the irrelevance of genre but rather that White power is distinct from other traditions of far-right music-making and also that this genre itself has evolved. Care should be taken to distinguish between far-right music that is aligned with the earlier White power genre and music that is not, like much far-right rap or fashwave (discussed below). Exemplary studies in this regard include those by Bulli (2020) and communication scholar Michael Davis (2009), the latter focusing on the rise of the girl duo Prussian Blue. A model for addressing the transformation and legacy of expressive genres on the far right also comes from research into nonmusical symbolism and iconography, such as studies by political scientist George Michael (2009), journalists Toralf Staud and Johannes Radke (2012), and education scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss (2016).
Beyond Skinhead Rock
What are we to make of these two paradigms, these two uses of “White power”? Are there reasons to prefer a conception highlighting generality over particularity, or vice versa? My instinct is to address this question by looking at prevailing trends in academic discourse. In that context, I see greater heuristic potential in conceptions that break with reigning paradigms and offer scholars new perspectives. The expansive use of the term “White power” in music scholarship correlates with a similarly broad use of the words “fascism” and “Nazism” by some far-right studies scholars to describe ideologies. Both uses are part of a paradigm that stresses sameness, one that “clumps” together rather than “splits” apart, in the words of author Anne Fadiman (2020). It encourages scholars to treat differences as surface-level distractions to be deconstructed—instrumental music genres being one such distraction. And this paradigm carries similar conceptual flattening into the temporal domain by implying that the common denominator linking far-right phenomena was articulated in its essential form in the past—World War II in the case of ideology and political program, 1980s Britain in the case of music. History repeats itself. Things do not change. Ideological, operational, and expressive differences are ploys masking a common agenda, one that is made plain only by those far-right figures who, through confidence or clumsiness, reveal their true vision.
This paradigm breeds a fear of inconsistency, an unease when research suggests that there might be meaningful differences among far-right actors, and it can be challenged through the study of far-right music. Treating White power music narrowly, as a discrete and specific genre, I argue, would free scholars to grant more attention to other forms of far-right music, treat them as being more than incidental tagalongs to the sensational skinhead sound, and see them instead as styles with their own sociological and ideological profiles. This kind of attention to difference would counterbalance the tendency in academic and journalistic case studies to proclaim that all far-right musics are the same. Conceiving of a more bounded category could also encourage researchers to historicize White power music. If scholars recognize that White power is a specific genre tied to the rise of skinhead subculture in the late twentieth century, they are more likely to acknowledge that its various offshoots have declined throughout much of western Europe and North America. The number of new recordings and concerts in this genre has decreased. The music supplies little economic rewards to its producers, let alone to outside organizations. Its celebrity performers are no longer afforded a distinguished social status among political activists. And when original White power punk is performed or recorded today, it is often done in a spirit of revival, recollection, conservation, and nostalgia.
Some scholarship traces this history richly, such as David Lagerlöf’s (2012) essay “The Rise and Fall of White Power Music in Sweden,” though more work on the topic is needed. If the decline of White power music is known to scholars, this knowledge is not always reflected in academic commentary. Seldom is the term used to describe a music of the past, and researchers fail to acknowledge that it has a limited bearing on far-right political movements of the twenty-first century.10 Instead, scholars such as the political scientists Nancy Love (2016) and Timothy W. Luke (2017), and Zacharias P. Pieri and the criminologist Jessica M. Grosholz (2020) use the term “White power music” to shed light on the rise of nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant forces in contemporary politics and society. But I regard this interpretation as an artifact of outside observation rather than a fact of far-right political activism today. White power’s past strength and the sensationally fearsome nature of its associated music and culture may motivate scholars’ continued focus on the genre and their tendency to mischaracterize its contemporary sociopolitical significance.
Scholars have also given too much attention to National Socialist black metal (NSBM). Since its inception in the 1990s, the genre has often been embedded in the northern European black metal music scene. Its proclamations of anti-Semitism and White nationalism, as well as its nostalgia for World War II fascism and National Socialism, should be interpreted as stemming from the pagan and anti-Christian tropes that are found throughout black metal lyrics and culture, rather than as accessories of the organized far right. This is not only my assessment; it is also the view of many of the genre’s practitioners (Gardell 2003, 307; see also Goodrick-Clarke 2002). Nonetheless, the actions of certain NSBM fans and performers seemed to captivate journalists and scholars at the turn of the twenty-first century. Thanks in part to the popular nonfiction book Lords of Chaos,by writers Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind ( 2003), international media briefly covered the string of late twentieth-century church burnings and murders linked to the Scandinavian black metal scene. The racism expressed by some of the scene’s practitioners added to the vivid image.
Connections between NSBM and organized White nationalism and neo-Nazism, however, have been weak. The music was distributed and supported by—though seldom expressly produced for—American White nationalist William Pierce and his label Resistance Records, which linked NSBM to the distribution and consumption channels of White power music in North America (Patterson 2013). Further, journalists have been attentive to the fact that individuals active in the NSBM scene have sometimes engaged with political organizations—notably the Ukrainian nationalist AZOV brigade (Hagen 2019). Despite this, the connection between NSBM and formal politics on the far right is rare and informal. Where White power music and its offshoots were at various times and in various ways linked to fundraising, organizational formation, and even party politics, little of the same can be said for NSBM, even though some scholars (e.g., Johansen 1999; Peise 2013) have implied as much. The most compelling studies of black metal and reactionary politics, such as the work of sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris (2011), have focused on dynamics of privilege, power, and racial or national discrimination among black metal enthusiasts.
The persistent scholarly focus on White power and NSBM might be less troubling if scholars framed these musics as historic and politically marginal, respectively, and if research into other, more contemporary musical trends on the far right was more than embryonic.11 Ironically, even studies that formally adopt more expansive understandings of far-right music and terms like “White power” nonetheless tend to focus on punk and metal. Scholars have paid little attention to emerging far-right uses of rap, hip-hop, or folk music as well as music-making connected with the Euro-American alt-right movement of 2016 and 2017.
Part of the reason for these oversights may be historiographical. Scholars from various fields—including musicologists like myself—have painted the broad trajectory of twenty-first-century far-right activism as having shifted away from youth-centered music subcultures and toward party politics and online socialization and propagandizing. One factor that has contributed to this transition is the efforts of law enforcement to suppress far-right music, especially in Germany (Barber-Kersovan 2003; Shekhovtsov 2013; Miller-Idriss 2016). In many places, the right-wing skinhead subculture that nourished White power music waned by the late 1990s, as participants aged and politically ambitious activists yearned for tangible advances. And while the Internet was in some senses a boon for the production and distribution of far-right music (Southwell 1998; Back 2002; Koronaiou, Lagos, and Sakellariou 2015; Oliveira 2016), it ultimately decimated its profitability and changed its social function; file sharing cut record sales, and new online forums for community building among the far right made face-to-face music scenes less relevant (Schafer 2002; Copsey 2003; Klein 2010). During the 1990s, the organizational landscape in many Western far-right scenes featured record labels, music magazines, and concert circuits. Those institutions have since declined as activists grew more likely to use political parties or media to socialize and mobilize. In terms of its organizational life, the far right is, in many ways, a post-musical cause.
But just because organizational sponsorship receded, far-right activists have not stopped making music. Though we may be tempted to claim that music is only relevant to far-right politics insofar as it is entwined with the organizational life of the far right, this instinct might be misplaced. Following the work of urban studies scholar Julie-Anne Boudreau (2017), anthropologist Frédérick Nadeau contends that prevailing political modes of the post–World War II right “do not emanate from organizations; they do not have leaders; they do not formulate clear and specific demands; and, most importantly, they do not take the state as their main interlocutor” (2019, 271). The political life of the average far-right activist is instead, Nadeau argues, informal, disconnected from organizations, and consumed by aesthetic experience. If we turn our attention to these political modes, we may not only find a lens for reexamining NSBM’s role in politics but might also discover the influence of other genres on far-right politics.
For the far right, the gap between the 1990s White power heyday and the 2010s age of besuited populist politicians and Internet trolls was a time of experimentation with different cultural profiles and personae, a time that saw a rise in explicitly far-right nationalist hip-hop and even far-right reggae. Scholarly coverage of this music was largely confined to the countries where it was produced. Far-right hip-hop has been primarily studied by scholars of German music (e.g., Elflein 1998; Güngör and Loh 2002; Brown 2006; Putnam and Littlejohn 2007; Staud and Radke 2012), though local scenes and artists have also been explored in France (Bale 2002; Batson 2009), Sweden (Teitelbaum 2017), Poland (Żuk and Żuk 2021), and the Czech Republic (Charvát 2018, 2019). Although Sweden’s Nordic Youth activist network debuted in 2010 by producing a reggae song, seldom has the production and consumption of rap or reggae been intertwined with formal political activism. Nonetheless, for many of the scholars cited above, this subject provided opportunities to explore conceptions of race and music in the far right. The emergence of far-right rap acts such as N’Socialist Soundsystem, Basic Celtos, or Zyklon Boom spurred internal debates among musicians and activists—most often taking place online in social media—about the appropriateness of rap for White nationalism. These discussions are microcosms of larger debates among insiders about the essence of musical genres and whether the cause of purity and identity should extend to the music that they make. The scholarly benefits of examining this topic are not limited to research on the far right: they also allow for a broader reckoning with the question of racial identity and popular musics. For while intense controversy has attended (and continues to attend) the production of White nationalist rap, the same is not true of White nationalist rock music, even though rock, like rap, has Afrodiasporic roots. Put differently, conversations taking place within the race-ideological far right—thanks to its self-imposed imperative to make its racial politics plain—reveal the far right’s political and ideological investment in race and its manifestation in music.
The pairing of music genres that are often conceptualized as Black with White nationalism is not always as unintuitive as it may seem. Rap’s Afrodiasporic roots do not define the meaning of the genre for all actors at all times. That is true in the United States, where rap audiences may see the music as representing a general “oppositional ethos” (Watkins 2006) rather than a racial identity. It is also true in other countries, where, as scholars like anthropologist Ward Keeler (2009) have observed, rap is primarily associated with hypermasculinity, rather than Blackness. All of this bolsters the view of Tony Mitchell (2001), who has argued, against Tricia Rose (1994), that we ought not to assume that rap will retain its reputation as an African American music throughout its global spread.
The occasional appearance of rap and hip-hop in more ideologically moderate far-right circles—specifically among those who avoid reference to race—has generated less internal controversy and outside attention. Phenomena such as the pro-Trump rap music of Bryson Gray and Kanye West, Donald Trump’s promotion of a celebratory rap contest (during which rappers competed with each other for a trip to the White House by submitting recordings [Bort 2019]), or the love of rap music by French nationalist icon Marion Le Pen have not, to my knowledge, been explored by scholars or spurred expansive insider discussions. For scholars and journalists alike, it seems, the use of rap by those who do not cast their cause in explicitly racial terms is less of a novelty than its use among those who do. For their part, right-wing populists may feel that there are resonances between their cause and rap’s generic “oppositional ethos” or its hypermasculinity—something that has made rap attractive to nationalist and authoritarian governments globally.12
In general, the more that the Afrodiasporic roots of a music are sonically or socially obscured, the more uncontroversial their use in White nationalism becomes.13 A music culture centered on electronic dance music—a genre that belongs to the wider sphere of hip-hop and rhythm and blues but, like rock, has often been discursively associated with Whiteness—fueled a short-lived but vibrant far-right, post–White power music subculture in Europe during the early 2010s. Hardbass was the name of this movement. It served far-right audiences, though it was hardly limited to them, and the term “hardbass” designated the music as much as the dance form that went with it. It was primarily a genre of flash mobbing, perhaps the only mass practice of public dance in the history of the latter-day far right. Seldom connected with an official political party, groups of activists would perform hardbass by gathering spontaneously in a public space, playing recordings of hardbass tracks, and dancing by stomping their feet, pumping their arms, and gesturing with the shaka hand sign. The music occasionally cited White nationalist tropes, like the coded expression “14/88,”14 but more often far rightists signaled their difference from other hardbass dancers by producing and distributing video recordings of their events. Indeed, an essential feature of hardbass has been its staging for and spread through social media. Scholarly treatment of this phenomenon has centered on its performance dynamics (Mareš and Smolík 2012) and online distribution (Daniel 2019; Teitelbaum, forthcoming).
If rap has been maligned by some far-right activists as an inherently Black music, in some circles the White antidote for it has been European folk music. The term “folk music” refers to a range of genres in the mainstream modern West (Bohlman 1988), and it is used in an equally broad way among the far right, referring mainly to three subgenres: traditional folk musics, acoustic guitar-and-voice acts, and neofolk. The first of these consists primarily of instrumental vernacular styles like Scottish bagpipes and fiddling. With relatively few exceptions (such as in festivals supported by the Hungarian ultra-right party Jobbik [Vansteenburg 2020]), far-right activists tend not to produce this music themselves. This may be because the music is challenging to play or because many folk music practitioners today are urban, highly educated, and politically liberal (Lausevic 2015, 25–26; Miller 2008, 34). Nonetheless, scholars have highlighted the ways that the far right used folk music to exoticize White majorities and move past its former association with skinheadism (Kaminsky 2012; Spracklen 2015).
Insiders also use the term “folk music” to describe far-right guitar-and-voice acts who adopt a revivalist, folk-pop crossover style—right-wing versions of acoustic singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Joan Baez. Other terms that insiders use to describe this genre include “ballad” or “troubadour” singing. While activists often have an ideological motivation for thinking that they ought to like traditional folk music, record sales and festival bookings reveal that there is more interest in the folk-pop crossover style. Most national far-right scenes can claim at least a handful of prominent singer-songwriter acts, such as Odalmannen in Sweden, Frank Rennicke in Germany, and Viking in Italy, but scholars have yet to respond with a systematic study of this music. Instead, acoustic folk song is only mentioned briefly in the literature, mostly in expansive surveys of far-right music (e.g. Dyck 2017; Lööw 1998b), where scholars primarily focus on its race-ideological incarnations and use the music to challenge the notion that the music of the far right is limited to a specific genre or style. It is, in other words, an unmarked phantom genre in literature and deserves more focused attention. Closer examination of this music might reveal, for instance, that acoustic folk song holds particular appeal for certain demographics in the scene, that it performs a similar function to that of traditional folk music (i.e., branding far-right communities as reformed, post-skinhead formations), or perhaps that it has heralded an economic transformation in far-right scenes, as the production of rock music—with its larger ensembles—became more financially prohibitive in the late 1990s amid declining revenues from record sales.
If the scholarship on traditional folk and guitar-and-voice acts is nascent, the same is not true for the third category of far-right folk music, neofolk, which in recent decades has been the subject of some of the field’s most dynamic research (Turner-Graham 2010; Heilbronner 2015; Hall 2017). Like White power music, the genre was cultivated in 1980s Britain, and it featured acoustic samples of industrial noise and military marches and, on rare occasions, samples of traditional instruments. Its status as “folk music” comes from its frequent references to the native European in its lyrics and associated art. Themes common in the songs of leading right-wing neofolk acts such as Von Thronstahl, Ostara, and Death in June include sites of European high culture, pre-Christian paganism, and, occasionally, World War II fascism and Nazism—the latter evoked with a tone that is notably, though not benignly, dispassionate. Unlike virtually all other forms of far-right music, with the occasional exception of NSBM, neofolk seldom proclaims a political platform, is almost never associated with formal political organizations or figures, and does not seek to galvanize a mass movement. For these reasons, one might believe that it is not political music at all. But as political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov (2009) argued, it nonetheless communicates a political orientation, signaling through its content and style an affinity for the occultist brand of far-right intellectualism known as “Traditionalism”—an antimodern school of thought whose luminaries, such as Julius Evola and René Guénon, celebrated fatalism, called adherents to wage inner, ideological struggles, and deprioritized outward activism (including practices like attempting to shift political consensus in society through musical proselytizing). In this way, neofolk follows NSBM in fostering a private political life consumed with aesthetic experience. Despite the similarities between these genres, scholars seem more attuned to this kind of musical politics in neofolk than in NSBM.
The far right’s use of hip-hop, hardbass, and folk music during the early 2000s all portrays a cause either transitioning away from past models (e.g., that of skinheadism) or departing entirely from the imperative toward standard political activism. But if these musics were the soundtrack for a far right in transition, new musics came to reign in the bracing flashpoint that followed. The US-based alt-right movement gained mainstream notoriety for its alleged association with Donald Trump’s successful 2016 campaign for the US presidency. The term “alt” or “alternative” right, though often associated with American White nationalist Richard Spencer, is actually derived from American paleoconservative Paul Gottfried (see Hawley 2018), who had been publishing through the European identitarian and Traditionalist press Arktos Media. The ideas and figures who initially coalesced around the term “alt-right” were seldom unknown: they were antiliberal intellectuals like Gottfried, outspoken White nationalists like Spencer and Jared Taylor, and eventually mainstream ultraconservative populists like Steve Bannon (Teitelbaum 2020). Thus, in most cases “alt-right” was a new term for an established ideology, which made it a prime target for critics who alleged that commentators who used this expression were furthering a far-right rebranding campaign. But if the alt-right movement lacked ideological innovation, it still stressed new strategic and methodological tendencies. First, as the name implies, it focused much of its critique against the mainstream political right throughout the West, often in the form of attacks on free-market capitalism and globalization. Second, almost all of its signature activism occurred online, either through Internet journalism or, especially, social media (Daniels 2018). The alt-right is a movement of memes and code language, which creates a community of discourse rather than in-person assembly (Salazar 2018). If scholarly use of the term “alt-right” is to be more than an unreflective adoption of far-right framing and terminology, it must foreground methodology and discourse, rather than ideology, when analyzing this movement.
The alt-right produced distinct forms of music that reveal the movement’s exceptional investment in social media and digital technology. The genre that has been studied the most is “fashwave,” which has been mentioned in academic writings (e.g., Blöndal 2018; McLeod 2018; Reid and Valasik 2020), a conference paper (Udarchik 2018), and a few journalistic articles (Ugwu 2016; Bullock and Kerry 2017). Fashwave is an alt-right play on the relatively apolitical meme trend of vaporwave. Popular during the mid-2010s, vaporwave is a form of smooth instrumental electronic dance music that draws on sonic and—in online videos—visual tropes from 1980s and 1990s popular culture, such as Japanese video games, the television show Miami Vice, and retro computer technology. Fashwave reproduces these elements but marks its political orientation through track titles and imagery: though it is instrumental music, it is nonetheless politicized. The lack of lyrics could have rendered the genre resistant to online censorship (see Love 2017, 268), but many of fashwave’s signature acts, including especially Xurious, were removed from major social media platforms nonetheless in 2019.
Representing a far-right strategy to infiltrate more mainstream youth cultural trends and subcultures, fashwave is ripe for scholarly analysis. Other examples of this kind of far-right infiltration strategy include not only hardbass, skinheadism, and rock music (Schröder 2000; Feischmidt and Pulay 2017) but also the furry fandom subculture and the My Little Pony “Brony” subculture. Far-right figures refer to this kind of infiltration as “metapolitics,” and throughout the twenty-first century they have formally theorized such tactics (see Teitelbaum 2019). And it is not only the form of fashwave that can provide fertile ground for scholarly investigation but the content as well. Vaporwave has been analyzed as a kind of complicated nostalgia, particularly on the part of millennials, for whom the 1980s and 1990s represent childhood. But although the genre intones a return to that past, it simultaneously combines nostalgia with a kind of futurism. Ross Cole describes this paradox of the vaporwave aesthetic: “On the one hand, … [vaporwave involves a] fetishization of superseded technology (cassette tapes, 64-bit CPUs, and laserdisc players), and on the other, futuristic remediations facilitated by the internet (online media hosting, file sharing, and high-speed data transfer)” (2020, 302). This fusion of past and future bears generic resemblances to palingenesis, discussed earlier, the vision of rebirth or the forging of an alternative modernity that scholar Roger Griffin (1996) regards as a conceptual hallmark of fascist ideology and aesthetics. That the alt-right would take interest in vaporwave hardly seems accidental. And these associations are not unknown to the makers of fashwave: for example, the repertoire of fashwave artist Leiptr includes a track titled “Nostalgic about the Future.”
Though the scholarship and commentary on fashwave is small, even less attention has been paid to another alt-right music phenomenon of at least equal consequence, that of Moon Man. In 2016, rap music attributed to this figure began to proliferate on a number of online platforms, especially YouTube. Moon Man is a fictional character, and in imagery associated with the music he is portrayed as the Mac Tonight figure from a McDonald’s restaurant advertising campaign of the 1980s—an anthropomorphic icon with a white, crescent moon–shaped head that vaguely resembles a Ku Klux Klan hood. The voices of Moon Man and a handful of other characters in rap tracks come from a text-to-voice software program, not a recorded human, allowing scores of Internet users to write lyrics, set them to stock instrumental backings, and upload the tracks online, all while preserving their anonymity.
Moon Man attracted scholarly attention alongside other alt-right memes, such as Pepe the Frog (see Baeck and Speit 2020; Manno 2020). Although a few journalistic pieces have addressed its musical content (e.g., Sheffield 2016), I am aware of no scholarly musicological analysis of Moon Man. The phenomenon is compelling, in part, because it represents a musical incarnation of the online chatroom and the methodological signatures of the alt-right. Consider the typical anonymous Internet troll—a person who crafts new additions to a meme project and, by communicating online, is free to issue the most insulting and vile invective against opponents. In the case of the Moon Man phenomenon, Internet trolling is transferred to music. The result was the creation not only of lyrics that, in my view, surpass the crudeness of the crudest classic White power song but also of a genre of expression that constitutes participatory music-making on what could be one of the largest scales in the history of the far right (though it is, of course, hard to verify the number of people who made Moon Man recordings). Likewise, the vulgarity and the transparent ethos of parody and subversion behind Moon Man seem to have inoculated participants from the kind of intra-movement criticisms aimed at previous forms of far-right rap music, which disparaged the genre’s Blackness. Like other kinds of alt-right online harrying, Moon Man eventually attracted the attention of censors. YouTube pulled down the empire of Moon Man videos with surprising efficiency and seems to have successfully rendered the phenomenon a thing of the past.
Despite having been confined by online censorship, both fashwave and Moon Man ought to remind scholars that the rise of social media and digital activism has not erased the far right’s capacity or desire to produce music. Instead, these latest transformations suggest that music can retain its appeal and function for the far right when it is fitted to thrive in the production and distribution media of the current age. These are examples of musical adaptation, and there is no reason to think that, in the future, right-wing musical expression will not find other ways to survive.
My survey of the literature on far-right music has highlighted topics of both heavy and light scholarly coverage. The assumption I have made throughout is that subjects receiving less attention by researchers ought to receive more. In this context, I have identified understudied genres as well as theoretical topics that merit additional attention, such as identity construction, appropriation, and the formal properties of musical sound and poetics. I suggest that scholarly paradigms attentive to details, those that prefer the micro and particularistic over the macro and general, will nourish both research agendas.
If I am correct that there is a tendency for localizing and particularizing frames to more often co-occur with theoretical richness, I would emphasize that this is only a tendency. There have been and will continue to be revealing and sophisticated mass surveys and global classifications of far-right music-making. A more contentious topic is the value of the type of research that I have advocated in this article. Why should we strive for more detailed and localized analyses of this music? If we study this music as though it were any other, one might ask, are we not participating in a bankrupt relativism? Will not such work ignore the distinct threat this music poses to humanity on a large scale?
I approach far-right music with an ethnomusicologist’s conviction that all music ought to be studied, and thus the call to give more attention to musical expressions that receive little is, on its own, compelling to me. But if that justification sounds too precious—too glibly sequestered in academia—the review I have presented here also shows why scholars who do not share my ethnomusicological orientation would benefit from more studies of this kind. If past work on classical White power music provided insight into the formal organizational life of the far right, studies of contemporary far-right music have the potential to illuminate the informal politics and musical experiences of far-right individuals in their new social and technological contexts. Attention to the production and consumption of Moon Man and fashwave, for example, can provide an elaborated understanding of the social behavior and rhetoric afforded to participants by online platforms. Given that the online format is both an arena for mobilization among otherwise unaffiliated far rightists and an outlet for harassment and intimidation, attention to these understudied music scenes could support efforts to counteract far-right activism in its current, impactful forms.
A paradigm shift would not only support the yearning of scholar-activists to address social problems but would also serve researchers striving to write more incisive histories and sociologies of the far right in general. The far-right use of folk music, for example, may reveal how participants in this movement responded to the 1980s and 1990s skinhead wave and its legacy, and also—as I suggested above—reveal demographic and economic transformations that occurred in the past forty years, both within these movements and beyond. Far-right rap can likewise illuminate its participants’ shifting attitudes toward White nationalism’s past and its prevailing stylistic and expressive models, as well as the ways that race, identity, and culture interact in far-right imaginaries. Insights about these musical phenomena can also complement work in other parts of popular music studies. The far right’s use of, and reactions to, rap, reggae, and rock illustrates vivid alternatives to (or conspicuous mimicking of) other discursive constructions of race in music. And its use of social media and file sharing in the creation of music provides an example of the ways actors harness technology to form communities and project messages—even, and especially, as their agenda runs counter to mainstream political sensibilities in liberal democracies.
In sum, sharper attention to variations within far-right music need not confine scholarly conversation or mire it in pedantism and political impotence. When we better capture the multifaceted and evolving nature of this political scene and its expressions, when we account for the music as the dynamic phenomenon that it is, we also enable a broader range of analytic perspectives and inquiries. I envision all of this as a continuation and expansion of the positive scholarly trends I highlighted above, those studies whose detailed lenses unleashed more sophisticated investigations of community formation and maintenance, violence, rhetoric, and identity. I anticipate that multiplying and diversifying scholarly perspectives on far-right music—and allowing a range of disciplines to apply their most incisive investigative techniques and interpretive theories—will enhance our insights into the far right and thereafter, perhaps, better inform our responses to it.
1 This is especially evident in some of the initial full-length studies of far-right music, such as those by independent researchers Nick Lowles and Steve Silver (1998) and Devin Burghart (1999). See also the concluding sections of the book RechtsRock: Bestandsaufnahme und Gegenstrategien, edited by sociologists Christian Dornbusch and Jan Raabe (2002).
2 However, attention to far-right activism outside of organizations could resonate with the still expanding literature on lone-wolf terrorism. See Hartleb (2020).
3 I avoid using words like “racism” or “fascism” in my own voice because I think they lack the precision necessary for academic analysis. See Teitelbaum (2017, 2019).
4 It should be noted that the far-right conception of an “alternative modernity,” linked as it is with palingenesis, is distinct from other uses of this term, such as the notion of “multiple modernities” found in the research on postcolonial societies (see Gaonkar 2001).
5 Music theorist Jonathan Pieslak’s Radicalism and Music (2015) stands out as one of the few studies to have analyzed far-right music by placing it in the context of music-making in other radical movements. This work highlights the potential for the trans-ideological study of radical music.
6 White power is one of many genres of popular and vernacular music whose labels simultaneously carry narrow and general connotations. Anthropologist Hermano Vianna’s (1999) work on samba music offers a fine example of how this phenomenon manifests and how it can be studied.
7 Sweden may have had the highest rate of per capita consumption of White power music worldwide during the 1990s (Lange et al. 1997).
8 Sociologists Ugo Corte and Bob Edwards (2008) and political scientist John Cotter (1999) are exceptions to this trend.
9 This includes the short-lived subgenre “skinhead reggae” (Griffiths 1995).
10 Sociologists Jarrod Gilbert and Ben Elley (2020) offer a gripping exception, focusing on the opposition in New Zealand between skinheadism and the alt-right (discussed below).
11 There is also relatively little scholarship on the far-right musics that emerged after World War II but before the skinhead explosion of the 1980s: compelling studies of mid-century far-right country music by Beth Messner and her colleagues (2007) and historian Michael Wade (2007) have not been followed by subsequent research, as one might have hoped.
12 In the Caucasus region, for example, rap has been used to support antiliberal nationalist governments in both Armenia and Azerbaijan (Krikorian 2009).
13 One exception to this rule comes from Sweden, where reggae’s racial affiliations were celebrated as a beacon of generic ethnic particularity and opposed to cosmopolitanism (Teitelbaum 2017).
14 This numeric code combines reference to the “14 words,” a creed written by American White nationalist and terrorist David Lane, with a double citation of the eighth letter of the alphabet, H, to reference the exclamation “Heil Hitler.”
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