Thursday, February 19, 2009

'tis bitter cold at Elsinore, three Danes await and watch the night

(To the perhaps potential viewing traveler: I apologize, I do. I have no idea what I've done to offend you so, but I'm more than willing to let it end. I was wrong to contact you, I am so sorry I ever did, I did not look far enough on your pages to recognize the changes. It is, of course, a staggering error and I shall forthwith repair to a small room to seal myself away from all civilized society for my grievous crimes against you.

To put it more plainly: enough already, I get it.
Mea culpa, ashes on the forehead, let's have an end to it, all you have to do is lose my address. I made a mistake, it happens, now let it go already.)

On the other hand, the day-plus of wrangling does convince me of one thing: people are very, very passionate about music. More to the point, people are very, very passionate about steampunk music. So where do we go from here?

To start, I want to break down a bit, two videos which can be considered in pro and con ways, each to each--for some, my arguments will be wrong. For others, they'll make sense.

And for a yet more amusing group, they won't understand why either video is on any steampunk music list. The irony.

So let's begin by laying out both songs, and let me point up the essential difference in both music and video appreciation of "Welcome to the Black Parade" by My Chemical Romance and "The Perfect Drug" by Nine Inch Nails. They're both found on the (new and revised, then abandoned in 2007) steampunk video page of Steampunkopedia; I agree with the inclusion of the former.



It's not that I dislike "The Perfect Drug". I think it's moody, intense, and moving, and features unsettling and dreamlike imagery to go with the desperate and driven lyrics. It was directed, as was "Closer" before it (a note; that's the uncensored version), by Mark Romanek, who has definitely earned his laurels: both "Closer" and Madonna's "Bedtime Story" have been made part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But--barring the general gothic Victorian overtones, the hints of absinthe intoxication, and the mix of destroyed aristocracy and exotic pets (none of which, by themselves, are particularly "steampunk")--the only thing in the video, as it stands, is a machine on one wall which shoots out static bolts for no apparent reason.

Just as I turned away from Sanu's steampunk monacles in world--because they were, essentially, rounds of brass-rimmed glass with gears attached for no good reason--I cannot accept that all it takes is one dubious piece of machinery to make an entire video steampunk. Is it a good video? Yes. Does it present the song in a better light than would simply the song itself, playing (always my benchmark for a good video)? Yes.

Is it steampunk? No. Think about it: does one machine (of unknown function) suffice to label the entire "steampunk"? Just because that machine exists in the world presented in that video? The Victorians were not averse to technology; it's not like handing an Amish youth an electric guitar and seeing what he does with it (if anything). They had technology, some old, some new and emergent; that's not the point.

The point is, is there more of gadgetry and the home-built than established structure? Is there more of invention than convention? Is there at least some reference to steam, if nothing else (beyond the stone baths)? And, viewing the video, we have to conclude that there is not. Thus, it is not a steampunk music video.

Now, I also like "Welcome to the Black Parade". And it has its own visionary director, Samuel Bayer, most known for Nirvana's career-launching video, "Smells Like Teen Spirit", David Bowie's "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" (which stands as an intriguing take on 'steampunk music video' on its own), and Sheryl Crow's "Home". He definitely has a gift for images which ensnare--pain and triumph, ennui on faces far too young to understand it, the glittering fall of flour through thick air, vintage technologies rewired for modern uses.

I've even touched briefly on why I think this is a steampunk video, before now, but just for the sake of comparison, I want to touch on those points and expand on them. More than anything else, "Welcome to the Black Parade" is heavily influenced by the spectre of war. World War I, more than any other, provides the main context, but it's that very feel of post-bombing Dresden, London the day after, in the faces and the forms of those who follow that tilts the mind towards steampunk ideas, I think. Also, many characters seem to be as comfortable in the post-war society as in Victorian, or societies established prior.


I've mentioned Mother War, before, the lady in the gas mask: she is still my perfect example. Her effect over the entire video is subtle, and it may take several viewings to realize, but all the damage to the air, all the thick pollution, comes from her lungs exhaling toxins through the tube. And that very slow, but constant, tainted flow permeates the air, like the fouled air in coal mines that spelled the doom of so many canaries. She may be attired in a mask far beyond the "steampunk years"; but her attire arms her perfectly for such excursions, and when, in all honesty, was nearly any steampunk invention in novels and films not, at some point, turned to warlike ends?

This is the dark side of steampunk, with a rousing chorus and a refusal to back down from chaos: We will not go silently, the lyrics say, even if we die. We will still stand. For part of steampunk, beyond gadgetry, beyond quirk, beyond the allure of steam-powered, human-powered, invention--is conflict. Conflict with governments, with other people, with ourselves, the push to keep creating, the necessity to fight to defend who we are, what we've made, what we value, and as always, the tyranny of our oppressors. The horror of landscapes transformed by battle clockwork between the metal Goliath and whomever is playing David-with-a-spanner this week is perfectly reflected in MCR's subtracted world of the dead: poisoned air, shattered needle-bones of buildings, lowering grey clouds to match the grey road. And the parade of all the other dead, honored and unhonored, marching, eternally, through the middle.

Is this happy steampunk video? Hells, no. But is it steampunk video, despite the modern instruments, the modern sound? I truly think so.

Ultimately, there are many different opinions out there. Obviously. What we need to remember is that no one's an authority on all aspects of steampunk music, or even more narrowly, steampunk music video. Listen to everything. Listen to what you like and why. Then look for the touches of the inventor, the creator, the mad scientist, the construct--the return to politesse with a pipe wrench, so to speak.

Don't take anyone's word without consideration. Test everything. You're creators, after all, if you're inspired by steampunk technology, steampunk 'history'--above all other things, you are inspired and creative. Live that. Be that. Listen and come to your own conclusions.


Edward Pearse, Duke of Argylle said...

At this stage my jurist is still of the opinion that there is no "steampunk music" genre. Not for lack of trying certainly. At the moment it's really "music wot steampunks listen to".

Personally I see steampunk as part of that ever evolving "alternative" scene. Within that scene have always been people with a passion for music over style and vice versa. If I want to get really bitchy I'd say steampunk is just goth in sepia with cogs instead of ankhs.

But goth evolved out of the punk scene. There was a ethos behind the music. Sure what is called goth today bears little resemblance to goth of the 80s. but there was a lot of overlap into the New Romantic movement which stole heavily from "bohemianism" for it's look, but the music was still similar.

Steampunk on the other hand suffers from two problems: Firstly it started as a literary genre which covered everything from Timetravel to atomic power (Black Ice, not 20,000 Leagues) to Egyptian magic. The modern subculture still has the focus on style over sound. Not how it works, but what it looks like.

Whether this will mean that there will never be a definable steampunk music genre I don't know (just ask goths to define goth music) but I think it will make it exceptionally difficult to classify steampunk music by sound rather than look.

Emilly Orr said...

You're not wrong, that's the problem. And that may be my problem in trying to pin down steampunk music--because for the most part, I'm not going by visual style, I'm going by sound, by appropriate instrumentation, by lyrics.

That's why Abney Park gets in, "cheesy" or not. That's why White Ghost Shivers and Thomas Dolby get in--in the latter case, because of some of his home-built synthesizers and what they sound like; in the former because their instruments are very much use-what's-at-hand.

And yes, I think as long as there is such argumentativeness in the steampunk community on what is steampunk, let alone what is steampunk music...really, as a fandom, we won't get anywhere.