Friday, October 16

Steampunk's Reappropriation of Entertainment Media

First, I apologize if this is a TL;DR scenario. I tend to talk when I get going. If you give this a read though, I would love to hear other people's ideas and opinions.


Someone said recently of the steampunk hype that they don't think something counts as being the latest hype unless you can see it in everyday life.

People like myself and others who are involved with and interested in steampunk (who may even wrap themselves up in it like a protective blanket), see a lot of steampunk because we are on the social networking sites and the forums. We search it out, tracking down books, artists, movies; the latest "they might be steampunk, let's listen to them!" musicians, and articles from emerging thinkers.

We are not the average person, though. It might do us well to remember this.

The question was brought forth of, if we walked away from the internet and didn't actively go hunting it down, would we see a lot of steampunk? Would it seem like the latest bandwagon that everyone is jumping on? Brass Goggles has 8500 members- can 8500+ people on the whole of the internet really be the markings of a bandwagon? Can we estimate how many people are involved with steampunk in some way in their daily or casual living? Out of the 6.7 billion in the world?

I also got to thinking about how people have this problem figuring out what is and what isn't steampunk. In the search to find steampunk creations, there's starting to be backlash. See, when people enthusiastic about finding steampunk in what they love start labeling art, stories, or music as steampunk.... not all the creators appreciate it.

I'm not sure if the reaction is because these artists have given serious thought to their work and see it as something else that does not mesh with steampunk's messages. Or if it is that they don't want to be thrown on this perhaps imaginary bandwagon, nervous that they might not be taken seriously.

Frankly, to those artists, I say STAY! Keep your message there, and revel in being dragged, kicking and screaming, into what you perceive as something fringe mainstream. Here is where you can do the most good, if you just keep true to yourself and your message.

At the same time, I also look to all this labeling we steampunks do.

Steampunk has a very strange relationship with its media. Mostly because steampunk came before it had legit media to spread it, I would think. I know personally I was not influenced by any media to explore steampunk, despite that I had enjoyed several books considered steampunk, movies, and so forth. Others might have come to steampunk through this same media-less portal. And once they get here, they go, "I love this aesthetic, this idea for a sound I have in my head, this memory of emotional response from this sort of story. How can I immerse myself in this, so that I can form my own opinions on what this steampunk is all about?"

And what you get is a lot of retro-fitting of the title steampunk onto all sorts of media.

Even a year ago, steampunks didn't have a lot of bands to look at that were calling themselves steampunk. (And some that did still had a lot of Cruxshadows-envy floating in their musical veins.) If I looked to Tiger Lillies and Dresden Dolls and Gogol Bordello and put them in the "sepiachord" file on my ipod, is this wrong? They don't call themselves steampunk, but their styles are something that puts me in the right headspace.

These are bands and artists that I listen to that put me right back to that original steampunk mind. I'm listing all of them, so you can see the gamut they run:

Professor Elemental; Dr. Steel; Gogol Bordello; Jason Webley; The Tiger Lillies; HUMANWINE; The Dresden Dolls; Amanda Palmer; Tom Waits; Rasputina; Juke Baritone; Joe Black; Pretty Balanced; Jeffery Straker; Two-Man Gentleman Band; Voltaire; Creature Feature; Circus Contraption; The Decemberists; World Inferno/Friendship Society; Luminescent Orchestrii; The Scarring Party; Vermillion Lies; That 1 Guy; Hellblinki Sextet; Harlequin Jones; Reverend Glass Eye; Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band;

and yes, even Abney Park, because fact is: they were in my starter steampunk kit.

Now, not all of those bands are steampunk or should necessarily be called steampunk- and some of them, like Voltaire and The Decemberists, not all of their songs. But they are each of them something I would stand behind as what steampunk music feels like for me.

Then, too, a lot of people like to label literature as being steampunk; including things which have until recently simply been classic science-fiction lit. Stories which were alternate-realities in the time they were written, or looks to the future, are now being called steampunk: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and the like are being considered the grand-daddies of steampunk.

ARE they steampunk? Is there enough of the punk (in the sense of "something that annoys or causes discomfort", especially "one who does not conform, pointing out the monotony of conformity for those who do") in these books to warrant them being progenitors of the genre? Is it worth mentioning as even proto-steampunk, a place that is "a good start"? Or should we move to the 80's and 90's lit, which STILL didn't necessarily call itself steampunk, for the first place to go for steampunk reading?

That brings up something else: the punk in steampunk. In the beginning, not much thought was put into what the punk meant. It was a joke at how cyberpunk was around and now this stuff was steampunk, har har, very funny. But can't we get comfortable saying, yes, though it didn't originally mean something but with newer people and ideas coming to the field, the punk DOES mean something now? There are the gaslamp fantasists and neo-vics who neither need nor want the punk, but there are people for who steampunk can be something harsher, louder, and doesn't take "because" as an answer.

If the punk is not important to someone, maybe the person should look harder at themselves and ask why it doesn't matter to them yet they continue to use it. Because, for me, ignoring the punk part says that as a subculture and small community, we introduce ourselves with a name that was and still is simply about... what? About making fun of another subculture? That... really doesn't throw the right message out there, guys. And cannot possibly be all that punk has to offer.

But moving back to the topic at hand...

There are movies, film, television, and anime too that have been adopted by steampunk. Wild Wild West, Back to the Future Part III, The Rocketeer and City of Lost Children to name only a few that I loved before I had steampunk to put them together on a mental shelf; I even put Waterworld in there, being like a post-apocalyptic steampunk world where everyone is making their own inventions and goods out of whatever they have left. But these were not greenlit going, "Hey, you know what's a cool style? Steampunk. Let's make one of those movies." They knew the style they wanted, and put it forward, and it just happens to look awesome.

It's like steampunk aesthetics, imagery, and media... was sitting around, knowing its style was something interesting and quirky that not everyone would like, and waiting for someone to go, "You. You are steampunk. Come, join us even if you already have other friends. You are welcome here."

What the problem becomes is this: some people are in the camp that the only things which are steampunk are those endeavors set forth by the creator as steampunk projects. They feel that it is the creator who has final say on what something is or isn't; and they may decide it is not steampunk, even if you say it is.

I can understand that this covers a lot of people's asses, so that they don't look too "hip and with it" on something that is only really big online and creeping into fancy fashion and movies; or on things that they feel have a different, not-steampunk-friendly message that is getting twisted or misinterpreted.

One issue with this is that, once your art leaves you, you sort of don't have any right to it anymore minus copyright and so forth. If I write a story, and publish it, those are no longer MY characters. They are your characters, because it is your time to spend with them now. Likewise, if you enjoy a piece of art, it is yours now to enjoy. And therefor, if steampunks like something for being steampunk that the creator did not make with that intention... it sort of becomes something that is steampunk-acceptable. Ba-goosh, after all, means "steampunk approved!" in Dreadspeak.

Note, too, if an artist doesn't mean for their work to be on the same wavelength as steampunk, but their message is getting misinterpreted, perhaps it is time to consider alternate ways of telling this message. Something is lost in the translation, and it can't ALL be the audience.

But, really, steampunk is adrift in an ocean of media mostly NOT "made for steampunk". So would it be fair to discount things that have passed long before steampunk hit this stride, and not consider them steampunk? A lot of bands and movies see a resurgence of interest in them, if they are discovered by someone to have a feel they equate with their own style of steampunk- is that such a bad thing?

Must something be made with the clear intent of being steampunk or can we retroactively give a personal category to these things?

What, really, is the problem with steampunk re-appropriating their entertainment?


Perhaps some other time I will talk about trying to find steampunk art that speaks to the Industrial heart of my steampunk in a sea of Victorian steampunk art. But that is a conversation for another night!

Much love,


ps: Holy cow! I hadn't realized Lucretia had been the one to come up with the title "The Indifference Engine", but she did! And that is going to be the name of Professor Elemental's brand new album! Huzzah! Congrats, Lucretia!

1 comment:

  1. Some responses:

    "steampunk came before it had legit media to spread it"

    I need a clarification of what qualifies as "legit" media here. I have the sense that you're talking "retrofuturism existed before it was called steampunk".

    "once your art leaves you, you sort of don't have any right to it anymore minus copyright and so forth."

    Yes and no. I agree with this insofar that art goes out and is created for an audience. It is therefore open to critique and appropriation. It is open to re-imagining.

    However, I think it is sign of respect to the creators if we refrain from doing something to their products that they strongly oppose. For example, I will not call Girl Genius "steampunk" because the Foglios aren't comfortable with the term. As a fan, and out of appreciation for the amount of work they put into the comic, I simply will refrain from calling the work, in itself, steampunk. I may say that it conforms to the steampunk aesthetic as well as many tropes found in steampunk literature, and that it can fall under the steampunk umbrella, but I won't re-label it. I'm sure the Foglios understand that the steampunk feel of the comic is what draws a great deal of people to it. It doesn't strip their original purpose: to entertain.

    There is nothing wrong with retroactively labelling something steampunk. Not all creators react against this label negatively. But if creators want distance from the label they don't want to own as part of their repertoire, why force the label on them? It's not like their refusal to take the name steampunk is depriving us of the steampunk-y headspace we get from their works. Nor are we unable to find other creators who will enthusiastically embrace the label.

    I said somewhere else - names are important. Being able to name ourselves even moreso.


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