As you may have heard by now, alt-right leader Richard Spencer on Thursday told a group of reporters at CPAC that “Depeche Mode is the official band of the alt-right.” The news spread so quickly that Depeche Mode responded before the original breaker of the news, Olivia Nuzzi of New York magazine, could even file her story. “That’s pretty ridiculous,” a band representative said. “Depeche Mode has no ties to Richard Spencer or the alt-right and does not support the alt-right movement.”
Spencer became the umpteenth conservative to feel the scorn of his beloved pop culture idols, joining the company of Chris Christie (diehard Bruce Springsteen fan) and Rand Paul (Rush). He and his kind were subjected to heaps of Depeche Mode–related mockery online, including being told to “enjoy the fucking silence nazis.” Video resurfaced of Spencer being sucker-punched by an anti-fascist protester on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, to the tune of “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
But it also prompted the question: What could be the connection between the racist right and an avowedly liberal synth-pop band that had its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s? According to Spencer, Depeche Mode is an example of “white music,” not merely in the sense that its band members are white, but that its music (allegedly) has no roots in R&B and blues, making it different from the Rolling Stones and other rock bands. The idea seems to be that electronic-inflected music has both a futuristic sheen—very important to those on the transgressive right who view themselves at the cutting edge—and is cleansed of associations with a musically miscegenational past. This penchant for electronica has led to such horrors as “fashwave” music; Spencer has previously described Depeche Mode as one of the “fashiest 80s electropop bands.”
Still, there is something more at work here. Anyone familiar with Depeche Mode at their peak knows they were almost as famous for their look as they were for their music. At the time, David Gahan, Martin Gore, and Co. were considered bold sex symbols. In retrospect, particularly when you watch the videos for “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth,” they look a little Village People. As Nitsuh Abebe wrote of Gahan and Depeche Mode before they reached peak fame: “He looks so young! And shy! And they haven’t even started dressing like leather men yet!”
Part of Depeche Mode’s appeal, in other words, has always stemmed from the very strong suggestion of S&M and kinkiness—transgression of a sexual nature. We might suggest something similar about the supposedly “dapper” Spencer, who matches his tweed vests with a “fashy” high-and-tight haircut and clearly aspires to be a kind of rebellious style icon. When I asked my colleague what the connection between Depeche Mode and Richard Spencer could be, she said they both “let their fans enjoy gay culture without admitting to being interested in gay culture.” Spencer is aware of this aspect of his appeal, but in typical fashion turns it into something bigoted: “The gays love me,” he has declared.