There’s A Big Wide World Out There, Lets Live In It

For a while now I’ve thought that my public blog has been low on content, and whilst I feel its important to tell you when I publish something new, I should give you other, more interesting, reasons to read it. As such I’m going to try to write things more often. Please note, these are just my own thoughts and you’re always free to disagree with me. Inspired by this post by DJ Mouse of Clockwork Cabaret I’ve found myself thinking about the future of Steampunk lately.

There tends to be a habit in a lot of subcultures for people to want to draw a line in the sand and say “everything on this side is ours, everything over there isn’t and we don’t want any of it coming over here”. People become attached to their own tastes and they want their subculture to reflect that. This is especially the case when people are new to a subculture, or they’ve been in it for a long time. Either they want to fit in or they want to protect what they’ve built from upstarts and poseurs. Thirty minutes looking into the goth subculture will give you a lot of examples of this. As a subculture that has been around since the 1970s but is still heavily associated with teenagers, goth suffers from a lot of conflict between the generations. On the one hand it has those who saw Siouxsie and the Banshees live on their first tour, whilst on the other are those who have never heard of Siouxsie and think Marilyn Manson or Emilie Autumn are the height of gothness. Even for those who are open to change there are still so many subdivisions of music and dress to navigate – do you listen to mittelalter or industrial, do you dress cyber or neoVictorian – that it becomes hard not to take sides. Do you accept the younger wannabe goths as “babybats” and encourage them, or do you label them as “emo” and shun them? And at what point does something become completely ungoth and get rejected?

Steampunk has technically been growing since the 1980s when it started off as a subgenre of science fiction literature. Since then it has appeared in a variety of graphic novels (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and movies (Van Helsing, Wild Wild West) as a visual style, but the culture itself has only developed to the point of supporting conventions and similar events on its own merits. I’ve attended Whitby Gothic Weekend for years, and it was always common to see goths dressed in neoVictorian garbs with a variety of steampunk elements, but in recent years there has developed something of a “them and us” split, with a number of goths complaining about the inclusion of the Abney Park (a formerly goth band who moved into steampunk with the release of Lost Horizons in 2008) and the large number of steampunks in attendance. The majority of steampunks I know personally started out in the goth scene and there are still those who self identify as steamgoth rather than steampunk, but a large number of current steampunks have come in from other subcultures, or have no previous cultural affiliations. It’s origins in science fiction literature and appearances of the style in movies and video games (Bioshock, Fallout) have lead to the subculture holding an interest for a wide range of individuals.

Unlike previous subcultures that have developed from small groups of artists and musicians, with gradual national/international expansion, steampunk has been one of the first to really take advantage of the internet and the global community it makes available. Where previously a culture would rely on people living in relatively close proximity getting together and would be influenced by the tastes of that group, steampunks can be influenced by people all over the world. In some cases developing steampunks might not meet a fellow steampunk face to face for months or years whilst still having contact with the global community.

Whilst the internet has plenty of opportunities for the sharing of music a lot of the development of steampunk has been through writing, in fiction and in internet forums, and through art and images. This is not necessarily a subculture that has grown from people visiting nightclubs and finding unity in the same kind of music, like the goth, punk or new romantic scenes before. Instead music has come at a later stage and here lies a source of division. It’s much easier for someone to post an image or costume that can be agreed upon as steampunk that it is with a piece of music. Posts about one band or another not being steampunk are common in all the online communities and debates on the subject can get pretty heated. Why? Possibly because people have found a label for themselves and don’t necessarily feel comfortable knowing that something that isn’t to their taste has the same label. Possibly its a case of previous affiliations (by the person or by the musician) colouring their judgement of the music. Sometimes its a case people defending they see as the purity of the genre “it’s not steampunk if it includes synths, it’s not steampunk if the artist was previously goth/mainstream/folk” and sometimes its a case of snobbery and a desire to keep the genre exclusive. The problem is that the more these kind of debates divide the culture the more its going to lead to other divisions. There are already some elements trying to dictate what steampunk “must be” or “should be”, insisting that something isn’t steampunk if it isn’t historically or scientifically accurate, if it doesn’t fit into a specific aesthetic or if can be associated with another culture.

Steampunk doesn’t need that kind of attitude and there is so much space in the genre that it shouldn’t ever be necessary. Consider the potential time periods available to “steampunk”, not just the Victorian/Edwardian that the current conventions of the genre have dictated. Whilst steam locomotives first came into their own in the 1830s, they had existed since 1804 and steam power itself (whilst basically understood by the Ancient Greeks) had been in practical use since the 1600s in mining etc. In the UK steam locomotives continues to be built into the 1960s. There is also the question of whether one considers the steampunk universe to be an alternative history or a vision of a post apocalyptic future. Certainly if one takes it to be the latter then the insistence on historical accuracy is illogical. Of course just basing the available time period on the word “steam” is narrow when the scene has already appropriated clockwork, and its admiration for computing and electrical trailblazers like Babbage and Tesla allows for the use of other methods of power, but I use it just to make the point that something doesn’t have to be Victorian to be “steam”punk.

There are steampunks all over the world, for example elements of the genre are as likely to turn up in manga and anime as they are in productions made in the English speaking world. In the same way that the time period can be widened there is no reason to assume that steampunk should be automatically British or American, a planets worth of cultures existed in the Victorian era, why shouldn’t they be used now in steampunk. Bands like Sunday Driver (which includes many Indian elements) and authors like Lavie Tidhar are already taking advantage of this. Whilst the Western American frontier is a great place for zombie hordes and gaslit London slums are wonderful for mysteries, why can’t we have more stories and characters from the forests of Norway, the mountains of Tibet or exotic cities like Singapore, Johannesburg or Buenos Aires. There is a common steampunk character of the explorer, often dressed in pith helmet and khakis, but how about encouraging the exploration of history and culture as part of the steampunk experience. And again if we look to the science fiction roots of the genre it is also valid to explore beyond this planet, why should a character be a British lord when a Venusian merchant is so much more fun. Working in the vein of shows like Firefly and books like Philip Reeve’s Starlight series there are so many ways that space and history can be combined.

Many steampunks reading this will say that this is already the case, that horizons are widening, and I put it to you that it should also be the case with steampunk music. If we are creating a steampunk world surely there is enough space in it for industrial influenced bands like Abney Park or chap-hop like Mr B. The Gentleman Rhymer, and the punk roots of The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing or folk-rock like The Decemberists, as well as Doctor Steel‘s electro operas and alternative rock staples like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. If you’re at a steampunk club event and they play as song you don’t like, don’t dance to it, no one will judge you, and if you do like it then dance like no one is watching. If a steampunk festival isn’t playing the kind of music you like, instead of pouting about it, why not suggest a band you do like for next year or organise a side event. Personally I’m a fan of Gary Numan, and whilst I can see ways to incorporate his imagery and sound into steampunk I don’t expect others the make such an obscure connection. Rather than arguing, accept that whilst you might want to be an aristocratic gentleman who only listens to violin lead chamber music, the person next to you might want to be space urchin who likes to dance to jazz, and that whilst you might like different musical styles you could still enjoy the same books and have exactly the same opinion on the latest computer game to case in on the steampunk name.

Rather than closing ourselves off from the rest of the world and insisting on refining labels more and more tightly, why don’t we make steampunk a diverse and welcoming world where everyone is free to dream their own dreams and learn from one another. Instead of dismissing a band or an artist or an author, why not give them a chance, see if there is anything you can take from them (musically or stylistically) and if they still aren’t to your taste then just move on. Other subcultures have suffered over the years by closing themselves off or focusing so much on internal conflict that they’ve lost their drive and cohesion until there are just a few people left, refusing to talk to one another. Next time you see an internet forum argument ask yourself this question –

“What is a better use of my time – arguing with someone a thousand miles away on the merits of subjective musical tastes, or using that time to work on my steampowered army of warrior robots and finalising my plans for world domination?”

I think we all know the answer to that question.

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Filed under Essay, Media, Steampunk

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