Since the rise of social media, small new subcultures tend to exist entirely online, rather than offline. They only start to gain an offline presence once they grow very large. As an example, Witch House only has an offline presence in Russia these days, Vaporwave doesn’t seem to have an offline existence at all. Obscure political movements like anarcho-capitalism don’t have an offline presence either.
So what about Dark Americana then? What the hell is it, you must be asking? Essentially it’s a subculture not yet aware of being a subculture, that romanticizes America’s societal collapse. We’re fascinated by the process of social disintegration that’s happening in the United States. That seems cruel, a form of schadenfreude, but that’s not how it’s meant. In fact, most of the participants in the subculture are American, or at least feel a sense of sympathy towards the people who have to navigate through the imploding American society. The rest of us are just non-Americans who are jealous when we see how much faster your society is imploding than ours.
Vaporwave is a form of what Mark Fisher called hauntology, a nostalgia for a lost future. It’s a subculture centered around the image of the future people once had. Dark Americana could be seen as its evil twin. It tries to capture the atmosphere of a collectively experienced societal depression. Vaporwave mocks societal decline by reminding us of our dreams, but as with all depressions, Dark Americana simply captures reality without any kind of polishing or flattery.
Dark Americana starter Pack
-Pretend to be Christian to relate to old rednecks who are simply LARPing their faith at this point too
-Brag about never having gone to college even though you did attend
-“Netflix and chill? Sorry I’d love to hang out but Dan Bell is live-streaming his visit to a decaying low-budget motel”
-Embrace a heterosexist rural white aesthetic because you like to offend lefties even though you’re essentially a self-hating leftist yourself at this point
-Look in the mirror, repeat to yourself: “This is basically cruelty free leather, I bought it second hand.”
-LARP an alternative history where the economy began to collapse in the 1970’s
-Commit credit card fraud in a low-budget motel even though you have a good no-logs VPN at home, just so you can feel like an outlaw
-Vote for Trump because you realize only the collapse of industrial civilization could save us from runaway global warming at this point
-Read about Bonnie and Clyde and cry because you realize the only way to get away with robbing a bank nowadays is by hacking one
-When you fear your depression might be coming to an end, just remember that old coalminers coughing up blood still pretend global warming was invented to create a UN world government led by the Rothschild family and anyone who disagrees is a pinko commie fag
Smalltown America, which is where the looming darkness can be seen unfolding today, is a synthetic landscape, though this is true for most of America. California is a state that would be irrecognizable a century ago. In 1850, California was home to 100,000 people, most of them indigenous Americans. That’s less people than medieval Paris. So the American landscape, except for New England arguably, is novel and synthetic. It hasn’t known stagnation, it hasn’t known decline. Rome is filled with two thousand year old ruins, the catacombs of Paris are filled with skulls. But smalltown America is more like a contaminant that infests the bag of Psilocybe mushrooms you’ve been lovingly nurturing for eight weeks and ruins it overnight (no, don’t ask, it’s still a sensitive topic). There are towns that serve no other purpose than to provide motels for truck drivers or came into existence because people stumbled onto natural gas. The landscape is Petroleum Chique. The towns came into existence because of oil.
It’s synthetic and fake, but that’s what makes it interesting. There was a landscape once, of prairies where herds of bison roamed. But all of that is dead, what remains is a haunting guilt you can never explicitly mention, but merely hint at (see: Kubrick’s the Shining). Today the landscape is not dominated by herds of bison, but by fossil fuels, the machines that dig up those fossil fuels and the people who derive their existence fundamentally from their subservience to those machines. Again, the archetypal smalltown American doesn’t explicitly criticize the fossil fuels. To do so is a taboo, it’s seen as being in poor taste, because deep down people realize their existence is made possible by these fossil fuels. Instead, you hint at it, subtly. The fossil fuels are not criticized explicitly, but Satan or the Devil is equated with tar and he smells like sulfur. You sing songs about the hopeless existence as a coal miner, you criticize the boss, but you can’t fundamentally question the very nature of this existence itself, it is a plight that you have to accept.
And because it all came into existence overnight, because it all derives its justification from the devil’s stinking black subterranean pus, there is eternal vigilance, a fear that it will all disappear overnight. The fear is not even that they will face the repercussions of their way of life, the bigger fear is that someone else encounters the skeleton in their closet, that someone else calls a halt to it. Joe Sixpack does not fear the drought or the forest fires that have started to plague his town. He fears UN Agenda 21. He fears the Rothschilds, he fears the city, he fears George Soros, he fears the day that someone knocks on his door, confiscates his guns and rations his carbon budget. And so the only man who is trusted is the man who pays homage to the fossil fuel industry.
The origins of Dark Americana
Dark Americana descends from American folk music, primarily from the outlaw country and bluegrass traditions. These traditions in turn, descend primarily from the Celtic folk music tradition of the British isles. The term bard is originally a Scottish 16th century derogatory term for an itinerant musician. These bards were men who existed on the fringes of society. They traveled around from town to town, generally lived at odds with the law and sang songs that told of their experiences.
One of the most interesting characteristics of these musical traditions is that they have to integrate the concept of the outlaw into a Christian tradition. If you wish to suggest to authority figures that you’re a good law-abiding citizen, you have to make a show of your Christian virtues. European Roma are known for generally being strictly Christian, in an otherwise secularized society. This happens for similar reasons. In 17th century Netherlands they were described as “heathens” and fiercely hunted down (yes we’re good at keeping our skeletons out of the public eye, so come smoke a joint in our tulip and windmill filled innocent little tourist paradise!). If you don’t want to be hunted down like a wild beast, you have to make a demonstration of your Christian faith.
Christianity is a dualistic religion, in which God is seen as the source of all good, whereas the devil is seen as a beautiful and charismatic seductive man who perverts good things and thereby causes evil. You can see signs of this in the outlaw country musical tradition and modern Dark Americana music as well. The outlaw singer never explicitly says that he is loyal to the devil (though there are some modern musicians who fuse Dark Americana with metal aesthetics and do say such a thing), instead, the musician generally hints that his worldly success is granted to him by the devil and that after death he will face the punishment he eludes in this life.
The important thing to comprehend is that these musicians are not loyal to the teachings of the Christian religion, they’re loyal to its symbols. They don’t integrate the teachings into their lives, they wish to live their lives as incarnations of a necessary evil. The outlaw country tradition has died out in American society, because the Christian tradition in which these men take on the role of a necessary evil no longer exists in a manner that anyone can take seriously as a threat. The concept of living in a state of sin that outlaw country speaks of no longer makes sense to people, because those who live in what Christians would consider a state of sin simply no longer internalize the Christian worldview.
The influences of Southern Gothic
Another important influence of Dark Americana that is easily overlooked is literature, namely, Southern Gothic literature. Southern Gothic is a literary movement inspired by the broader Gothic movement of the 19th century, which explores romance, evil and the grotesque. The archetypal Gothic novel is probably Frankenstein. Southern Gothic explores these topics in the context of the Post-Civil War South. The grotesque here is found in the cruelty of slave-holding aristocrats, Louisiana voodoo, ghosts of the past and men who succumb to mental illness. The stories have an atmosphere of decay, of a culture whose glory days are behind it.
A popular topic in Southern Gothic is the condition of wealthy slave-holding families after the liberation of the slaves and the subsequent decay of their plantations. Because everything is so fresh in people’s memory, the topic of racial hierarchies and exploitation is generally not explicitly discussed, but simply hinted at. The planter families are subject to tragedy and suffering, but the question why is generally never explicitly answered, although there are suggestions of the equivalent of karmic repercussions.
The reason Dark Americana integrates these topics now is because these topics are simply once again very relevant to American society, as large parts of the nation again face a catastrophic economic implosion. Although the economy continues to grow on paper, the proceeds of this economic growth are primarily harvested by a small minority of tech workers in big coastal cities, with most of the country left behind, which directly explains the victory of Donald Trump. Dark Americana isn’t just a music genre however, it could be properly considered a subculture in its own right. We can see influences of Southern Gothic literature and aesthetics more broadly in modern day Dark Americana art. As an example, consider the subculture of Urban Exploration, where people visit abandoned malls and mansions in the flyover American countryside.
Good examples of modern day Dark Americana:
Perhaps the best example of modern day reverberations of Southern Gothic themes I can think of is this video, where Dan Bell travels to Florida to visit a motel room where a serial killer prostitute used to sleep and tries to channel her spirit with a drag queen medium:
Colter Wall is frankly the best example of the modern Dark Americana genre I can think of, though he strongly tries to adhere to the now extinct outlaw country tradition:
Pay attention to the religious undertone here.
The most bleak one from his repertoire. This one makes me want to shoot up fentanyl in an SUV in the walmart parking lot. If you’re cool, you rebel against society. If you’re really cool, you rebel against the cool people. The best way to rebel against the cool people is by embracing the people they look down on. Ever noticed how in high school the coolest kid stood up for the kids who were bullied? So, Colter Wall sings a song about a (TRIGGER WARNING) middle-aged working class rural white man addicted to opioids, in other words, a very privileged™ person. How cool can it get?
Why is a healthy young man with wealthy parents singing about a Codeine addiction? Isn’t that LARPing? It is LARPing, but we’re LARPing because we’re rebelling against the rebels.
Most of the songs in his repertoire feature an outlaw protagonist who is constantly traveling to flee from the law.
His most beautiful song.
Other Dark Americana artists worth paying attention to are as following:
Note how they incorporate a theme of hopelessness and grief in response to poverty.
Outlaw country lyrical themes here, in a modern day bluegrass jacket.
Here we find an example that’s very explicit in its lyrics, describing the collapse of an American farm.
This song explores mental illness within the thematic constraints of American folk music. A common and beautiful characteristic of the Dark Americana tradition is that animals take on the form of a manifestation of spiritual forces. Vultures and serpents prey over the protagonist of this song. In Colter Wall’s music, the Raven is an evil bird that mocks men condemned to death. Because the Christian spiritual tradition is so impoverished and anthropocentric compared to the Celtic spiritual traditions of the British isles that it replaced, in the songs of outlaw country and modern Dark Americana we see signs of a spontaneously reemerging heathen outlook on life, where nature manifests a variety of dormant psychological forces.
Johnny Cash could be considered to fit in with both traditions. Johnny Cash became famous doing outlaw country, but by the time he was an old man, that tradition had died out. Like Colter Wall, he was too cool for the cool people, he received a lot of backlash and nearly ruined his career when he made songs lamenting the Native American genocide. The song he’s covering here is Will Oldham’s I see a Darkness, which can be considered early Dark Americana.
Emma Ruth Rundle stands out from the rest in some ways by bringing a more modern aesthetic, but she mixes folk influences and morbid themes of hopelessness. Her music is inspired by chronic illness that causes pain. The above song is one of her best. Notice the Christian religious themes in this song.
Chelsea Wolfe has always explored a hybrid of Gothic rock and Dark Americana. Her most recently released music video very much fits into the latter tradition, the title obviously gives it away. Other earlier music videos of her show Dark Americana influences too, particularly this video which shows a ruined desert landscape:
There’s one band out there that’s so weird they need to be mentioned. Left-wing Anarcho-pagan black metal infused with bluegrass and folk lyrics. My friends, we are talking about Panopticon. I bring you two songs from their repertoire:
This is a hybrid of black metal and bluegrass, fantasizing about an economic collapse:
I can’t in good faith call this Dark Americana, it’s really just a form of black metal with bluegrass influences, but you needed to hear it anyway. This song is a living testimony to the fact that not all modern day radical leftists have low testosterone, some of us are still greasy, hairy, permanently angry and eager to kill the rich, just like old radical leftists.
This is a bluegrass cover of an old song that sought to confront coal miners with the exploitation by the capitalist system they’re subject to.
King Dude’s work clearly emerges from the neofolk tradition, which is derived from black metal rather than folk. Neofolk should essentially be thought of as making black metal with folk instruments. However, King Dude is taking a clear Dark Americana direction in his recent work. This video has the Dark Americana aesthetics, but you can see the religious themes best in his older works. His best song is “My Mother Was The Moon“, I like to listen to it in the dark when I drink some Salvia Divinorum tea.
Dark Americana fashion
There is such a thing as Dark Americana fashion. It looks a bit like what you would get when you take clothing that could be considered both American and Gothic. Johnny Cash with his long black coat would manage to slip into both a German Goth festival and an American outlaw country concert.
Dark Americana is masculine and reactionary in its appearance. Men look like men, androgyny is eschewed (in contrast to Gothic fashion). Men tend to wear leather jackets and sport beards. The women often look feminine in a traditional and anachronistic manner, but others look strong, modern and independent. Dark Americana however generally doesn’t approach the explicit anachronistic fashion we see in Gothic fashion.
For women, a lot of the more subtle psychobilly, gothabilly and dark cabaret fashion can be considered to fall under the Dark Americana style as well. We see a lot of clothing that would be considered vintage. In the above example you can see The Handsome Family. The difference to keep in mind is that Dark Americana is derived from American country, whereas Psychobilly, Gothabilly and Dark Cabaret are derived from punk and gothic which are cultural movements that tend to fetishize the exotic. Dark Americana in contrast takes a much stronger effort to integrate into the country music tradition.
Dark Americana on TV
You’ll find Dark Americana in the form of TV shows and movies too, though people won’t refer to it as such, they’ll argue it’s inspired by Southern Gothic literature. As an example to look into, consider True Detective or American Horror Story. Most of what you’ll find in movies and series is meant for a mass audience, so it is probably more worthwhile to explore old Southern Gothic literature.
Southern Gothic on Tumblr
I couldn’t help but share some of these.
And the most beautiful example of the aesthetic we’re looking for:
A site that explores Dark Americana
Dark Americana is known under a million names. This obscure website is devoted to the obscure phenomenon. Ironically (but not entirely surprising considering how sunlight deprived they are), it seems rural Scandinavians are most fascinated by the phenomenon.
Have fun and remember: If you live in the ruined remnants of flyover America, some of us are jealous of you.
This is the most teenaged thing I’ve read all day.
Hey, I live in the ruined remnants of flyover America (Montana specifically)! It’s kinda funny that aping the cultural aesthetics of our dying towns is a thing now, especially considering that there really is no sort of organic culture out here, not the way there is in Europe it seems. All we have is the top down directed consumption of popular media franchises and heroin. Good article!
I just stumbled upon your article and I’m floored with your writing style and insight into the genre. Can I somehow convince you to review my new collection of dark Americana songs?