THE FEAR OF “MAINSTREAMING” STEAMPUNK
Put On Your Fighting Trousers!
One of the most powerful forces in the Universe is Inertia. Whether we are speaking of the momentum of a falling body or that of an internal thought, things tend to continue doing what they have been doing.
We continue the momentum of thoughts we have had in the past, and thus a feeling of powerlessness governs our lives. “If I change,’ this kind of thinking says, “I may find myself in a reality that is worse than the one I am living. Best to keep doing what I have been doing” While this is true from a certain perspective, if we do not change, we will never evolve beyond what we are right now. And isn’t that what Steampunk is all about: The adventure…the altering of history…taking that ultimate risk we call Change?
Life changes no matter what we do. We continue to change and grow and much of that change occurs as a result of powerful, often painful prodding from our life experiences, driving us away from what we do not want; or, as a result of envisioning what we do want and pursuing it. The latter kind of change is what leads us to the most desirable outcomes, and to the life that we feel most joyous in living.
We fear change, not because we love what we have, but because we dread altering the patterns that seem to keep us afloat. These patterns – or rituals if you will – help us to create a sense of normalcy and make us feel safe. This can be of great comfort in times of real danger; however, comfort for the sake of comfort always comes at a great cost.
When subcultures start to creep into the mainstream – or when the mainstream starts to creep into the subculture – that comfortable inertia is broken and the members of that subculture feel threatened.
After twenty years on the fringe, Steampunk has not crept; it has exploded into the mainstream through four pathways – fashion, music, art, and literature.
The steampunk look reflects the Victorian and early Edwardian eras (roughly 1801-1910). Corsets, frock coats and top hats are common fare, complemented with goggles, ancillary wings, compasses and do-it-yourself accessories.
One of the most well known Steampunks, Kit Stolen, is credited with starting the fashion phenomenon in Steampunk on August 20, 2003, when he made images of his Steampunk clothing and hair fall designs available to the public on an internet Steampunk group. He had already been wearing this clothing on a daily basis since 2001. His images, in which he modeled his designs, went viral and demonstrated that Steampunk is as creative, cool, appealing and fun in fashion as it is in literature.
In a 2011 issue of Town and Country magazine, Mariel Hemingway is shown on the cover in an early 19th century styled coat. Also on the cover is Mariel’s daughter sporting a bodice and a bustle skirt. Inside the same issue is an article on equestrian dressage fashion – also popular in Steampunk fashion.
On leading retail site, Etsy.com, Steampunk is currently one of its top 10 most-searched terms, with nearly 7,000 items posted and trendy clothing retailer Forever 21 has incorporated clockwork earrings and military-cut coats into its repertoire for the past few seasons.
Justin Bieber’s odd attempt at a steampunk music video for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, many saw the imminent death of Steampunk and since then, there has been a lot of talk about the mainstream taking over Steampunk and eventually destroying the subgenre.
The problem with Bieber’s video is that the Steampunk images of his mechanical arm and the Clockwork Ladies did not mesh well with the song and seemed somewhat out of place.
More successful have been the rock bands Primus and Rush, who have helped to raise awareness of the genre and how cool it is.
Platinum-selling, Grammy award winning Hip-Hop and R&B artist, T-Pain’s latest tour is entitled Steampunk. In a recent interview, when asked what the theme of his new album, Revolver is, the mega-star answered: “Steampunk. It’s a movement that’s been happening for a long time, and it’s got a following that’s been crazy. A lot of people don’t know about it. It’s like the modern world meets the 1800s.” T-Pain even hired steampunk artist, Thin Gypsy Thief Studios, to make him a Steampunk microphone.
The Harlem James Gang, which tours with John Legend, fuses Steampunk with Hip-Hop, magic and theatrical performance for a Blacknificent show.
From England comes “Chap-Hop”, the fusion of rap with the lifestyle of the Victorian upper classes. Professor Elemental, a self-styled “Steampunk Mad Professor” and leading chap-hop MC, is one of its top exponents. Clad in Victorian-explorer garb, complete with pith helmet, he is eager to talk about taking the U.S. by storm. “I’m going to break America, and ride it like a pony,” Professor Elemental – whose real name is Paul Alborough – explains while sipping English Breakfast Tea. “Global domination, then a nice sit down and a cup of tea.”
Elemental’s rival is an hour’s train ride away in London: Jim Burke – Mr. B, The Gentleman Rhymer – who credits Public Enemy’s Chuck D as a major influence on his brand of Chap-Hop.
Lady Gaga and Nikki Minaj (with David Guetta) have even “gone Steampunk” with their songs Alejandro and Turn Me On, respectively. Well, Lady Gaga fell short, but Minaj and Guetta were, for the most part, successful in presenting the Steampunk tropes.
Renowned artist and lighting designer, Art Donovan, is credited with being a major force in bringing mainstream attention to Steampunk. The thirty year veteran of the arts discovered Steampunk during an online search for new design styles, and he was immediately hooked. As Donovan delved into the world of Steampunk and began showing his one-of-a-kind (and mostly functional) pieces to the world online, he became one of the genre’s most admired designers and one of its greatest ambassadors.
In 2008, Donovan curated a Steampunk exhibition at Hamptons Antique Galleries in Bridgehampton, England and that eventually led him to curate the world’s first Steampunk museum exhibition at Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science in October 2009. “It ended up being the most popular exhibit they ever had,” Donovan said of the show, which ran through February 2010. “There were lines around the block.”
Although K.W. Jeter coined the term in the late 1980s, the concept is much older: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and other 19th-century authors are primary influences. Taking these influences and adding their own creative spin, a new generation of authors founded the Steampunk movement as a literary subgenre – a brilliant blend of science fiction, historical fiction, alternate history and fantasy.
Today, people of all classes, genders, races and nationalities enjoy reading and writing these incredible stories of adventure and derring-do.
More and more authors and screenwriters are producing works in the subgenre. Particularly in film, Steampunk has taken a huge step toward the mainstream – Wild, Wild West (heaven help us all); League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; The Prestige; both Sherlock Holmes films; The Golden Compass; the recent Three Musketeers movie; and most recently, Hugo, which one five Academy Awards (“Oscars”).
Who Strikes the Loudest?
We Steampunks have been cast out of our comfort zones and feel threatened and very vulnerable right now. Many of us are claiming that, with the mainstreaming of the culture, Steampunk is dead.
A wise Steampunk said – “If Steampunk can survive Will Smith’s Wild, Wild West, it can survive Justin Bieber.”
Come on y’all…less whining; more grinding! Being more visible will be more of a help than a hindrance as long as we maintain the integrity of Steampunk, nurture it and work hard to see it stay on its proper path.
Put on your fighting trousers and let’s show the mainstream who strikes the loudest!