One factor that has helped to check the growth of the far right in Britain and America has to be the dreadfulness of its music. I was watching a documentary on “Nazi rock” and unpleasant though it was to hear these people talk it was unbearable to listen to their songs: tuneless, graceless, brainless punk that is so reliant on its self-conscious posturing that it is also devoid of spontaneity and vim. It is, fittingly, like someone forcing a screwdriver in and out of your ear. Most reasonable people, upon hearing such a din, would head for the exit long before the artists get around to discussing race.
Extremists and criminals are often reliant on music to intoxicate the youths that become their foot soldiers. Many of those who are forced to bear disapproval and marginalisation depend on fabulated internal narratives to romanticise their lifestyles. These, of course, are more effective with a fitting soundtrack. Whenever you march the streets or flee the police it must be good to have music stir in your head.
The Oi! knockoffs of the skinheads have aggression, which can be attractive, but also evoke philistinism, sexlessness and violence. It is not, in other words, all that inspiring stuff. Fascists elsewhere have more aesthetic potential. National Socialist black metal is too much of a fringe taste to inspire a mass movement but it has been influential. The bassist of Naer Mataron recently wiped off his face paint and joined the Greek Parliament as a member of Golden Dawn. I am no fan of the genre yet I can appreciate how the plodding riffs and mystical ambience of songs of groups like Burzum might capture imaginations. The haunting atmospherics evoke the Viking Age legends that are so appealing to radical nationalists, and the rhythms give rise to thoughts of bold militancy. You can tell why scrawny, black t-shirted boys would like this stuff.
Crime gangs both old and new also have musical accessories that one can tell people might find appealing. Gangsta rap, at its most aggressive outer reaches, features musicians who spend more time in jail than onstage. Their swaggering beats and boastful rhymes are tailored to appeal to kids whose physical and financial vulnerability makes the life that it portrays seem irresistible.
Less notorious but nonetheless intriguing are the narcocorridos who soundtrack the Mexican drug trade. A more traditional genre, narcocorrido music serves up chirpy tunes over which singers laud the behaviour of gangsters. The music carries a mischievous charm and the lyrics do not merely impute heroism to criminals but, exhuming memories old bandits like Jesús Malverde and Mexican heroes like Pancho Villa, place them within a cultural tradition. These bloodthirsty balladeers can be very popular. “El Komander”, for example, is not famous enough in mainstream America to earn a Wikipedia page but has notched up millions of views on YouTube.
Music allows us to develop and affirm our identities and this is as true of Nazis and narcos as you and me. The culture such people embrace offers fascinating glimpses into the self-concepts of ideologues and criminals. We are fortunate, I think, that our own thugs embraced a genre that was of such marginal appeal – and to people, come to that, of such limited potential for innovation.