As the term “alt right” has come into mainstream consciousness over the last 18 months, there’s been increased media interest in what exactly makes these people tick — and what they’re into. By now, most of us are familiar with bizarre, ubiquitous neo-Nazi talismans like Pepe the Frog, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still be surprised by the pop-culture the Alt-Right has made as its own — whether or not the original artists intended that to happen.
The most recent example occurred in late February, when Richard Spencer was asked if he liked rock music. His response caught a lot of people off-guard:
Spencer’s flippant comment triggered an online debate about what the alt-right would see in a band that clearly doesn’t share its agenda. But it also underlined a disturbing, amusing trend of this movement adopting pop-culture figures and then twisting them for their own noxious purposes. Below is a sample of musicians, movies and assorted other entertainment icons that have been weaponized by white nationalists.
Background: The 27-year-old 10-time Grammy winner is among the most popular and successful artists of her generation, having made an effortless segue from country ingénue to pop superstar in less than a decade, all the while writing her own material and fiercely controlling her career.
How the Alt-Right Coopted Her: In May of last year, Milo Yiannopoulos published a piece in Breitbart with the provocative headline “Taylor Swift Is an Alt-Right Pop Icon.” “At first glance, there’s nothing much that separates Tay-Tay from a bog-standard, instinctively progressive pop star,” he wrote. “She’s a feminist, her music videos are filled with twerking, and her lyrics are often about sex. Surely, any self-respecting alt-righter would reject this as the product of late-capitalism’s decadence and degeneracy?”
Turns out not, as Milo explains: The movement adores Swift for her (by pop-starlet standards) relatively conservative, old-school wardrobe and her willingness to co-opt African-American styles in her music videos — especially in her “Wildest Dreams” clip, which was criticized, in the words of USA Today, “for romanticizing white colonialism, and for using Africa as a backdrop for a story about white people.” As far as trolls like Milo are concerned, the consternation that “Wildest Dreams” causes among liberals is worth celebrating and exacerbating.
Plus: “To the vast majority in the alt-right, Swift is simply an opportunity for mischief,” he concludes. “Manipulating internet searches to turn unsuspecting public figures into neo-Nazis is a favorite pastime of internet miscreants and has little to do with politics or race. It’s all about the memes.” No wonder alt-right sites went into overdrive after the presidential election trying to spin a story that Swift had actually voted for Trump, even featuring fake quotes from the singer.
How Swift Feels About It: Swift has made no public comment about Milo’s post, nor has she ever said who she voted for — not that her silence didn’t provoke lots of people to speculate about her presidential preference based on what she wore on Election Day.
Of course, because Swift was so tight-lipped about the presidential race, Swifties’ anxiety rose that she was a closet Trump supporter. (After all, there were a lot of them.) Months later, the singer has still said nothing about the election, forcing besties like Lena Dunham to defend her silence.
It seems incredibly unlikely that Swift actually pulled the lever for Trump, but in the meantime it’s probably not much comfort to her fans that alt-right creeps are worshipping her as a white, blonde goddess.
Background: When this action-thriller opened in March 1999, it felt like a game-changer in the world of blockbusters. Utilizing an innovative bullet-time technology that slowed down and sped up the action sequences in thrilling ways, The Matrix was a massive hit and restarted the career of Keanu Reeves. But it also popularized a familiar sci-fi conceit, which is that the world we think we know is not the real one — and that we have the power within us to transcend the drudgery of our false reality.
How the Alt-Right Coopted It: George Hawley, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Alabama, writes about alt-right culture and says that the movement latched onto one specific plot point in the film. It’s the scene where Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus invites Reeves’ Neo to take the red pill and escape the Matrix.
“The alt-right loves the ‘red pill’ metaphor,” Hawley says. “The basic idea is that … the true nature of reality is hidden from most people because of deceptive elites, but once you see through the illusion, you cannot go back to living your old life.”
According to Hawley, men’s rights activists of the early 21st century were the first to glom onto The Matrix’s red-pill reality, but it’s easy to see why alt-righters would find such comfort in it, too. The Matrix is a classic hero’s journey, as typified by movies like Star Wars, in which an underdog takes on long odds to overthrow a corrupt ruling force and restore the natural order. No wonder “redpilling” has come to be defined as true-believers trying to convert friends and family into the “reality” of their movement.
How the Wachowski Siblings Feel About It: The Wachowskis, who wrote and directed the Matrix trilogy, have offered no comment about the alt-right adoption of their film. But it’s safe to say they don’t appreciate the co-opting, especially because the same racist sites that champion the red-pill philosophy, such as The Daily Stormer, have been brutally transphobic toward the filmmakers (who have both transitioned). Interestingly, when Milo’s public-speaking appearance at Berkeley prompted campus-wide protests, one of the protesters identified herself as Lana Wachowski, although it was believed to be a pseudonym and not actually one of the members of the filmmaking team.
Background: In the mid-1980s, McDonald’s introduced a new mascot to sell its evening menu. Presto: Mac Tonight was born, a piano-playing crooner with a moon for a head who belted out “Mack the Knife” with new lyrics about the fast-food chain. For aging Gen-Xers, Mac Tonight resides in the same fuzzy, nostalgic terrain as the California Raisins or Spuds MacKenzie: a goofy TV-ad thing that was popular at one point.
How the Alt-Right Coopted It: About 20 years after Mac’s debut, the character found a second life on message boards that tweaked his voice so that he wasn’t hocking cheeseburgers anymore — now he was peddling blatant bigotry.
Last year, Salon’s Matthew Sheffield published an excellent overview of Mac Tonight’s rebirth as Moon Man, a rapping, racist alt-right figure. Like with the movement’s embrace of Taylor Swift, Moon Man is part trolling nonsense, part sincere celebration of white nationalism. If you watch the YouTube videos — and you shouldn’t — you’ll get the gist: There’s a lot of flagrant use of the N-word and big-ups to the KKK. Frankly, it’s incredibly dopey — the juxtaposition of a goofy mascot spewing offensive hate speech is so weird that you almost laugh despite yourself — and, as Sheffield points out, that’s sort of the idea:
“The Moon Man phenomenon is also likely spreading because its white nationalist message is wrapped inside visual and audio packaging that is inherently absurd and idiotic — catnip to younger adults raised in a pop-culture environment where profane sarcasm has become the lingua franca.”
How McDonald’s Feels About It: Sheffield notes that companies like YouTube and AT&T have tried to block the spread of these Moon Man videos. McDonald’s, for its part, hasn’t said a thing.
Background: In the early 1980s, the English quartet emerged as one of New Wave’s brightest lights, riding a string of successful albums to become one of the decade’s most popular acts. On singles like “Everything Counts” and “People Are People,” Depeche Mode crafted moody dance music to address themes like greed and bigotry — that is, when they weren’t writing kinky S&M love songs such as “Master and Servant.” Between their flamboyant outfits — “When [bandmate] Martin [Gore] wore the full-length maxi with the cowboy hat, that was beyond gay,” frontman Dave Gahan once said — and dark, provocative lyrics, Depeche Mode has been the voice of misfits and outcasts for decades.
How the Alt-Right Coopted Them: “As far as I can tell,” says the University of Alabama’s Hawley, “this is a new one, based on nothing but the fact that Richard Spencer personally really likes Depeche Mode.” Spencer later clarified his comment on Twitter, insisting he was joking about the band being the alt-right’s official group, although he did acknowledge, “I’m a lifelong Depeche Mode fan.”
He explained his devotion further to Rolling Stone: “They aren’t a typical rock band, in terms of lyrics and much else. Depeche Mode is a band of existential angst, pain, sadism, horror, darkness and much more. It’s not bubblegum pop, with frontmen who sing about ‘luuuuv’ and sugarplum faries [sic]. There was a certain Communist aesthetic to an early album like A Broken Frame as well as titles like Music for the Masses but then there’s a bit of a fascist element, too. It’s obviously ambiguous, and as with all art, everything is multi-layer, contradictory and ambivalent.”
The alt-right in general digs its European synth-rock dance music. In December, BuzzFeed’s Reggie Ugwu did a deep dive into “fashwave,” a strand of electronic music that “sounds sort of like the soundtrack to a vintage buddy cop movie, only instead of a black cop and a white cop, both cops are white and neither believes in the Holocaust.” Acts like Cybernazi create robotic, futuristic tunes with videos that feature scenes from dystopian films or images of Hitler. It sounds chilling, without any of the warmth or longing inherent in Depeche Mode’s music.
Fashwave is championed in large part because of its rejection of mainstream, multicultural society. As Ugwu explains, “Many white nationalists repudiate music that uses what they consider to be ‘African rhythms,’ and frown upon electronic dance music as ‘degenerate’ — a catchall pejorative for haters and losers borrowed by the Alt-Right from Hitler’s art police. Fashwave, then, is ambient, not dance-y. It’s largely lyric-free, which helps in dodging censors on social media, and cherry-picks sonic ideas from decades of implicitly white male fantasies in popular culture.”
In other words, it distorts and perverts popular art for its own agenda.
How Depeche Mode Feels About It: Depeche Mode was furious at Spencer’s comment. “That’s a pretty ridiculous claim,” the band’s representative responded. “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the alt-right and doesn’t support the alt-right movement.”
Ironically, the group had previously compared Trump to Hitler, and the first single off their new album, Spirit, is called “Where’s the Revolution.” “I wouldn’t call this a political album, because I don’t listen to music in a political way,” Gahan told Rolling Stone about Spirit before the Spencer comment. “But it’s definitely about humanity, and our place in that.”
Knowing the alt-right, they’ll go ahead and misinterpret its message how they see fit.