The idea that music leads to extreme behaviour has a long history, ranging from Plato to black metal. Blues artists were accused of worshipping the devil. In the ‘60s, the Manson Family murders were infamously linked to the Beatle’s White Album, in the 80s and 90s, heavy metal (and Madonna) were linked to sadomasochism and violence. Goth has been blamed for school shootings, nun-murder and Satanism and black metal has been linked to church burnings in Norway. The list goes on.
However, this ‘hypodermic needle’ approach to music in terms of how it sounds, ignores the way that meaning is generated within the communities that spring up with music as a central focus. With regards to far-right extremism, Neo-Nazi networks, such as the infamous Blood and Honour network, developed around punk in the ‘80s taking a music style that was largely left-wing and adopting it as their own. The far-right ‘neo-folk’ movement has also developed in ways that are contrary to the spirit of the 1960s anti-imperialist folk-revival. In Nazi Germany, music was used in order to promote a xenophobic nationalism, with the Nazis banning music they considered ‘degenerate’ (such as atonal and serial music, the works of Jewish composers and jazz) whilst promoting the works of anti-Semitic composers like Wagner as well as composers which were seen as embodying the ‘German spirit’, like Beethoven and Bach. Music, in short, can be used to strengthen ideological messages and to finance far-right activities but political attitudes tend to shape engagement with music rather than the other way round.
As everyone reading this site knows, the far-right has been incredibly savvy with how they use digital technologies. Not only do far-right networks ‘game’ sorting algorithms in order to enhance exposure to far-right content but they deliberately utilise digital media platforms in order to monetise it. This extends to music streaming services which have repeatedly failed to remove content which promotes white nationalism, whether in terms of podcasts or far-right artists posting their music on them. In addition, music is used by ‘far-right influencers’ in order to heighten the emotional appeal of their video content; videos are underscored by ‘epic’ orchestral accompaniments to heighten narratives of heroism or threat. As a previous GNET Insight notes, AC/DC was played over videos of the 6 January Capitol Riot, to emphasise the impression of rebellion and autonomy.
Discussions about music are prominent in far-right online spaces. The Alt-Right’s success in appealing to a wide range of different audiences was in weaponising culture and, given music’s ubiquity in people’s everyday lives, it is a particularly effective vehicle for increasing interaction with far-right ideas. My recent research article Digitalization and the Musical Mediation of Anti-Democratic Ideologies in Alt-Right Forums looked at discussions of music in public, Alt-Right-linked forums from 2010-2018. After removing duplicates and instances where the same person had posted multiple times, the corpus consisted of 1173 unique posts from different individuals discussing music. The article firstly quantified which were the most commonly-mentioned artists and genres in these forums, as well as whether judgments were positive or negative, before delving deeper into how posters justified their music preferences.
What it showed was that, firstly, there was some evidence that engagement with Alt-Right forums actually led to a change in the types of music to which forum users listened. These ‘conversion stories’ involved commenters talking about changing their tastes since “taking the redpill”, only listening to music which promoted ‘alpha’ themes (metal, hip-hop and rock) as well as avoiding music which promoted ‘beta male’ and ‘bluepill’ mentalities (primarily indie, emo and pop music). The way they interpreted music’s meaning followed from the political attitudes they had been exposed to in these spaces. Building up a repertoire of acceptable music through interaction with other users reinforced these political interpretations. Secondly, whilst the terms red/bluepill are associated with both anti-feminist and white-nationalist online spaces, and the forums under study were more explicitly anti-feminist than white nationalist, there is considerable overlap between users of both. Unsurprisingly, therefore, white-nationalist language around hip-hop, due to its roots in African American music traditions, as ‘degenerate’ was frequently invoked. In discussions about hip-hop and ‘beta’ music, there were both implicit and explicit references to perceived ‘Jewish control’ of the music industries and the promotion of Black artists which date back to Nazi arguments around jazz. What was important, however, is that moderators were quick to shift discussions onto music as emblematic of ‘culture’ rather than race. This “colour-blind racism” is more effective at mainstreaming racist ideas because it uses the language of liberal democracy which appeals to wider audiences; what Mondon and Winter have labelled as reactionary democracy. In this way, users are less likely to be alienated by the political messages being expressed in relation to the music.
Perhaps more surprisingly was the way in which far-right political messages were interpreted in relation to a wide variety of artists, the majority of whom were not linked to white nationalist or even anti-feminist movements. Most famously, there were several neo-Nazi Facebook pages which sprung up in 2015-2016, dedicated to praising Taylor Swift, though in these forums artists like Lana Del Rey, Fiona Apple and Carly Rae Jepsen were also regarded positively. Rap and hip-hop artists, however, were the most prominent genres discussed.
Discussions of a wide variety of artists both represent the Alt-Right’s diverse character as a loose connection of different interest groups, as well as being emblematic of increasing ‘cultural omnivorousness’ of music tastes amongst wider publics, as a consequence of digitalisation. But it is also a strategy to drive engagement with the forums by appealing to wider audiences. The focus on artists signed to major record labels is in stark contrast to the more explicitly neo-Nazi music networks which have often centred around punk and National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) which are quantitatively unpopular and obviously extremist. There are clear attempts in contemporary far-right movements to distance Alt-Right from Nazi-skinhead punk and NSBM aesthetics which extends to its supporters’ promotion of music without overtly Nazi messaging. Importantly, amongst these forums, there was an increase in unique posters discussing music over the period, peaking in 2016 before falling back down again after 2017. The increase in posts is not just a reflection of the far-right’s increasing engagement with music, which has remained constant. Instead, it reflects mainstream media coverage of these spaces in driving engagement in the run up to Trump’s election. Some of these forums have also since been restricted and some have migrated onto more obscure digital media platforms. However, music remains an important tool for the far-right in spreading its ideological content.