Oct 4 2011 10:02am

Defining and Defying Genre: The Dilemma of Steampunk Music

When you think of punk, a few things are bound to come to mind: mohawks and combat boots, social unrest and anarchy in the U.K., the aggression of disillusioned youth. But you probably thought of the music first, with its overdriven guitars, politically charged lyrics, mosh pits, clear deviations from the mainstream. Punk may be a mere shadow of its former self now, but its spirit remains a musical one. The same is true for its children — or at least most of them.1

Cyberpunk and steampunk are unusual exceptions. They are the product of punk’s intrusion into literature, carrying on the legacy of counter-culture and alternative thought. Unlike punk, however, neither included a musical renaissance in the original package. For steampunk in particular, the music only began to emerge in 2003, and in the ensuing eight years there has been an explosion of endeavors by experienced musicians and right-minded amateurs alike. The bands span almost every idea under the sun, from orchestrated tales of terrible machines and laments of deceased technologies to gentleman’s rap battles and clockwork love stories.2

It would seem that a steampunk genre is in the making, but don’t rush to conclusions yet.

Bands like Abney Park and Dr. Steel are perceived by popular media as the sound of steampunk, yet there is no genuine consensus on what actually constitutes steampunk music.  Is the music supposed to be devoid of electronics? Is anachronism permissible or required? Can industrial and electronic elements be considered steampunk, or is it just some “goth intrusion?“ Is it acceptable to reach beyond Victorian Europe — to ragtime, swing, world music, rock, bluegrass, etc.? Do you need brass sections or steam powered instruments? Are you a steampunk musician by default if you merely dress the part, or must your music sound the part, too? Is there supposed to be “punk” in steampunk? The list goes on.

The common universal answer to questions like these is a misguided pacifier: “if it sounds like steampunk music, it is steampunk music.” This purely subjective approach performs a disservice to the community – especially to the musicians who pour their souls into developing their articulated rendition of the steampunk sound. It blurs the line between bands steampunks listen to and bands that create steampunk music; they are not one and the same.

It also raises two critical questions: can there actually be a musical genre called steampunk, and more importantly, does there need to be?

This debate isn’t exactly new; cyberpunk has seen this sort of thing before. Despite its established relationship with art and cinema, most people would struggle with naming any cyberpunk bands. The genre doesn’t officially exist. However, there are bands that fit the bill. Front Line Assembly is a flagship example. Yellow Magic Orchestra is regarded by some as the original cyberpunk band. Arguably, Gary Numan counts, too. But musically speaking, these bands don’t have much in common. This is the norm in the landscape of suggested cyberpunk offerings; from Front 242 to Information Society, Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime to Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk, there really is no sonic cohesion.

However, it’s no lost effort. Cyberpunk has inspired musicians to write music that is decidedly against the grain while incorporating the cutting edge into their craft. The literature provides the substance, and new technologies provide the instruments. Ultimately, the selections hardly comprise a traditional genre, but they make for a satisfying playlist of musicians who understand cyberpunk’s legacy.

As with cyberpunk, the nature of steampunk does not cater to a unified sound. The dilemma runs deeper, however, because cyberpunk has an embedded advantage: innovation is encouraged through new technologies. Steampunk, meanwhile, innovates through old technologies used in new ways. If the innovators fail to look forward, they fail to innovate. Mass commercialization stifles innovation, especially when musicians co-opt the aesthetic and leave behind the heart of the culture. It’s the downfall of punk all over again, disguised by surface-level sophistication.

A grim reminder of such co-optation exists in cyberpunk history. Billy Idol’s Cyberpunk remains a sore spot to those who felt the album was pretentious and lacked a fundamental grasp of the culture. Its attempt to bring cyberpunk to the mainstream failed, but the damage was done. It highly polarized the community; they feared the dilution of their culture was now cemented. As mainstream and independent artists alike abuse the steampunk aesthetic and abandon its substance, we’re beginning to see history repeat itself.

Steampunk music is not doomed, however; many artists are proving otherwise. They come from all walks of life, but share a common vision of anachronistic audio.  In addition to Abney Park and Vernian ProcessThe Cog is Dead isn’t afraid to fuse styles and jump around the musical spectrum. Unextraordinary Gentlemen wields a minimalist approach with catchy results. The Clockwork Dolls and Escape the Clouds inject cinematic flair and adventurous storylines into everything they create. Professor Elemental provides a quirky gentleman’s take on hip-hop. The members of Steam Powered Giraffe have seamlessly integrated their music with their automaton personas. Unwoman combines her artful cello with electronic beats, pop like-flair, and unapologetically personal lyrics.  These and many other artists embrace steampunk’s origins, yet embody a diversity of sound that defies genre classification.3 Perhaps this is how it should be. Genre boundaries are intended for a label-conscious mainstream – something that steampunk never cared for in the first place.

How then should we define the music of steampunk, if not by genre? We need only turn to its heritage – not just to the artists of our time, but to their musical and non-musical predecessors. We must be willing to take risks; playing it safe and pandering to the masses may provide short-term gains, but it dooms this culture to being little more than a fad. We must bring the spirit of anachronism to the music, forging innovation from the melding of past and present. We must be as willing to provoke discussion – even controversy – as we are to entertain. We must not concern ourselves so heavily with what’s fashionable or what sells, lest we lose our integrity. We must not forget that our dissatisfaction with the mainstream is what brought us to this culture in the first place. We must embrace the legacy of punk – the birthright of steampunk.

1The emergence of punk led to the rise of entirely new genres from goth to new wave, thrash to psychobilly, and many more. Some were responses to punk, others were fusions of sound (thrash, for instance, is a merger of metal and punk).

2 Sepiachord, Gilded Age Records, or Clockwork Cabaret are great resources for finding these up-and-coming musical acts.

3I even wonder if the term “steampunk music” is too restrictive of a term for what is emerging. More bands are experimenting with electro-swing, noir jazz, industrial opera, chamber pop, and other stylistic fusions. It’s not merely retro-revival, but a whole new breed of musical creations. Whether steampunk music is its own entity or part of a larger shift in music is something I won’t speculate upon here, but it’s something to think about.

Peter “Janus” Zarate is the manager and bassist for the steampunk/avant garde/progressive rock group Vernian Process. He is also a law graduate, avid video gamer, web designer, doomsday clocksmith, and the questionably-dressed man in the photo at the beginning of the article.

This article is part of Steampunk Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Lord Cogsworth
1. Lord Cogsworth
Sadly, like every other aspect of Steampunk, if you slap goggles, gears or an airship on it, it will be considered Steampunk by many...
Lord Cogsworth
2. Doctor Q
Janus, I can summarize my thoughts on your article in a word: Brilliant.

Well done, sir. While I think as our subculture slowly drifts mainstream, this need to define every aspect of it will likely come about. One of the things I love most about steampunk music is it's tendency to experiment and play with genres and musical styles that bands slowly incorporate as they see fit.

However, I have a personal disagreement with your opinion expressed by "the subjective approach." Namely, I find that the aesthetic can be applied to many bands performing in so many different existing genres that when I apply the aesthetic to the band or song, it resonates with me. Does this invalidate the art and expression of the band? I think not. But rather it is a soundtrack for my own views of what steampunk is, as music is not only something created by musicians, but the act of performance requires an audience. And that audience reacts differently.

Much like Cyberpunk got its name from the audience of Gibson & Co.'s books after they had been written, so too does Steampunk in its blossoming genre get added to bands already performing what they call Folk, Chamber Pop, Cabaret, etc.

Personally, some of my favorite steampunk bands don't call themselves Steampunk, but rather love it for it's individuality and expressive attributes. Bands oftentimes don't like being saddled to any single label, and I think that's a great thing. Art and expression is key, and the labels should come only to help explain it to those who need some frame of reference to approach it.

This should not take away from bands that are experimenting wholly within steampunk itself, but rather add flavor and an aural palette to draw from further, as we have thus far been a culture that has taken what we want from the past across all kinds of cultures and societies and re-appropriated it to suit our needs.

That all said, I really enjoyed this essay and it will be among the foremost written works I direct people to when I talk about Steampunk Music at panels, presentations, and other assorted things. Good job Janus!
Lord Cogsworth
3. Art Donovan
There appears to be a delightful freedom in what we call "Steampunk" music. The music does not seem to be framed by any particular parameters. From what I've listened to and enjoyed, it's a wonderful and creative mash up of cultural and historic influences.
Lord Cogsworth
4. VPMartin
...and this is why we are lucky to have him... Very well put, Janus!
Lord Cogsworth
5. Allison Curval
This is a well written article that tackles a lot of the same things that have been nagging me when it comes with working in a steampunk band. Thank you for writing this and I'll be sharing this on The Clockwork Dolls wall!
Lord Cogsworth
7. Victorienne
Very well put! I also heartily recommend Portland band Vagabond Opera, if folks are looking for other music to expand out to.
Lord Cogsworth
8. Tiger B
Thanks so much for writing this article, which tackles the subject without a single hint of defensiveness. Too often when I try to have this discussion in person it degenerates into arm-waving and ranting!

I greatly appreciate the material here as I am discussing with other dancers the characteristics of steampunk dance, particularly steampunk bellydance. It's my contention that before you can "slap gears and goggles" on a bellydancer and call her steampunk that the music she is interpreting must be identifiably steampunk -- and this can be a problem. Identifiable by whom? Then there is the innovation that comes from melding the past and the present, as you so aptly put it, and in dance this aspect must not be ignored. I don't just want to see modern Tribal Fusion dance done to steampunk music; I want to see some melding of the dances of the Victorian age with the present moves. And more than anything I want to see that some thought was put into the performance, because I think if steampunk is ANYTHING, it is thoughtful.
Lord Cogsworth
9. Andrew Dennis
Let's get some DJs in here, eh? I've manned the decks at one (1) steampunk party so far, and the floor-fillers were Club des Belugas, Caravan Palace, Professor Elemental, Caro Emerald, The Correspondents, Paolo Nutini and a few others. I took notes for next time and I've got a list of what steampunk aficionados will actually get up for. Apart from the Profesor, not a cog, piston or zeppelin in sight; most of what gets the genre label 'steampunk' kills the floor about like a firehose. That's one data point, anyone got any others?
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
10. tnh
Not for the first time in our beloved genre, a new development has initially manifested as visual art, with narrative fiction and other artforms (like music) lagging behind.

You know what kind of music has as good a claim as any to be steampunk? Polka.
Janus Zarate of Vernian Process
11. Janus_Zarate
Andrew Dennis: Not all steampunk music is dance-floor friendly. There is a notable tendency toward rock in the spectrum of steampunk bands. However, it'd be worth striking up a conversation with DJs in the scene to get a feel for how they deliver the goods to this particular crowd. Part of the formula includes mixing in bands that are not self-described steampunk acts, yet fit the atmosphere. It sounds like you've already started with this.

DJ Doctor Q and Joshua Pfeiffer (DJ Fact.50) are a few steampunk-inclined DJs I can suggest for further discussion.

Speaking of the Doctor... I thought I'd address your thoughts as well, sir. I agree that there are plenty of bands who do not self-identify as steampunk that would work wonderfully for a tailored steampunk soundtrack. It would be an error for a steampunk to listen only to steampunk bands - they'd be missing out on so much that would suit their tastes, too.

My issue was merely that the prevailing umbrella answer ("if it sounds like it, then it is") doesn't distinguish steampunk's musical artists from those who fit the label by coincidence. For the sake of directing a discourse on steampunk music, we need a smaller and more precisely crafted umbrella.

Tiger B: There is definite tension in the tribal fusion community over whether (and how) steampunk can be considered a subset of tribal fusion dance, its own independent style, or merely an aesthetic overlay. I've had similar discussions before with belly dancers on this very subject, and I agree with you.

The melding of past and present is certainly important. Tribal fusion was born out of such melding, although it has seldom tapped into the maneuver repertoire of the Victorian era.
Lord Cogsworth
12. Unkindness
Maybe part of the overall issue is the attempt to actually define a steampunk genre of music. It has been my personal experience that the instant you fully fuse a label to a certain sound you squash the creativity of the groups that might otherwise be considered such. Look at Goth post Sisters of Mercy, Punk pre and post Sex Pistols and Exploited for a couple of quick examples.

Previously these genres of music had a wide range of bands that were considered that genre. They would sound distinctly different from another but the atmosphere and the emotional qualities of the music were similar. However each group were then given strict labels and almost manuals on how to create music within each genre leading to the massive schisms within the Punk genre and Goth kind of falling in on itself.

Maybe the real solution to this isn't to look for a strict labeling of steampunk music but simply what simple threads tend to run through all of it. Does it matter if they use cellos or synths vs that they take fantastical view points? Ignore the dressing in other words and pay more attention to the message.
Lord Cogsworth
13. Gordo Vader
In answer To your Question....
... May I introduce The Dark Design...
Lord Cogsworth
14. Andy Heintz
I totally agree...... I love the fact that the genre can encompass both my band, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing


playing our tongue in cheek anachronistic anarchy, the sublime world music vibes of Sunday Driver


and the chap-hop magnificence of Professor Elemental...

name me another 'scene' with such an eclectic taste in music!
Lord Cogsworth
15. Mikeal St. Ayre
Dear sir:
Whilst I am a fan of your musical adventuring, I must say that I disagree greatly with some of what you say. "The Dilemma of Steampunk Music", indeed. The dilemma is in trying to cage a song. The concept of genre in re musical acts serves no purpose but to exclude.
If, if it were up to me to give a defination of what steampunk music is, I would say it is inclusive, and welcoming. It welcomes different sorts, a variety of sounds, a plethora, if you will, of stylistic impluses and influences.

Also, not really related, but in 23 years of being a fan of the band and the literay genre, I have never heard Operation:Mindcrime described as cyberpunk. Never.
Lord Cogsworth
16. Fogwoman Gray
These sorts of "definitive" posts are a great way to generate controversy, but truly do very little to advance the cause of music in general or steampunk in particular.
Being dismissive of Abney Park is a particularly hipster example. I suppose they are too big and too popular now, not "fringe" or "hip" enough to enjoy any longer?
I find it especially disengenious that your band (Vernian Process) has benefitted immensely from the fans generated when you have opened for Abney Park at numerous events. But now apparently it is advantageous to attempt to define steampunk music in such a way that puts you in the genre and others out of it?
I enjoy a very eclectic variety of music, and do not spend a lot of time agonizing over whether something I like is "steampunk enough" or "adult contemporary enough" or "metal enough". That sort of angst is reserved for those who must define themselves by how others will perceive their musical tastes.
Janus Zarate of Vernian Process
17. Janus_Zarate
Fogwoman, there appears to be a controversial misunderstanding going on here. I never bashed Abney Park nor did I claim that their popularity was an issue. I'm not sure where anyone read that. Nor did I say that steampunk music going mainstream was necessarily a bad thing. What I did say was that it should not be forced, co-opted, or abused for profit. Does Abney Park do this? No. They're a veteran of the scene and have earned their credibility. They give much back to the community, just as the bands I mentioned do. Not once have I challenged their place.

Nor did I exclude Abney Park or other bands explicitly. In fact, Abney Park fits squarely within my conception of steampunk music. They embrace the same anachronistic spirit that we do; they merely have a different take on it, which I think is wonderful. To exclude them on the basis of popularity, electronic elements, or any other such things would also exclude each and every band I did mention by name - including my own.

My agony is not so much over the definition of steampunk music, but over those musicians who make a mockery of the scene by using it in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the heart of the culture. Perhaps I'm more concerned with this than the average member of the steampunk community, but it's not out of some "hipster" approach to steampunk. Really, I'm just trying to encourage more music that isn't cookie-cutter, watered down, or simply pretending to be steampunk just to earn a few bucks.

We've opened for Abney Park at two events since I joined Vernian Process. I enjoyed watching them perform live, and it's invigorating to see a band entertain their audience well. I do acknowledge and appreciate the presence of Abney Park in the scene, although I disagree with Captain Robert on the matter of whether and how steampunk needs to go mainstream. That is, of course, another matter.
Janus Zarate of Vernian Process
18. Janus_Zarate
Mikael: We don't disagree as much as you think. Genre is indeed a terrible way to define steampunk music, which is why my entire article was devoted to criticizing the conventional genre approach. It's also why I emphasize the blending and bending of genres that steampunk bands are generally known for.

Interesting comment about caging a song, though. Labels, as problematic as they can be, are useful tools in describing music. The problem is indeed when such labels exclude, but not for the very fact that they exclude. Rather, I think the problem is in how they exclude, or how much is excluded.

In trying to define steampunk music, I go back to what the culture is all about and work from there. Anachronism really is the most basic element in steampunk music, and I think that while inclusiveness is a good thing for our community, we have to draw the line somewhere in order to filter out those who think of this as little more than a fad or who believe that calling oneself "steampunk" is an instant ticket to fame. It's simply the wrong attitude to have about our culture. While the abusers are pretty obvious, but there appears to be a policy of perpetual politeness that prevents most people from calling them out on it.

Lastly, on Operation: Mindcrime. I agree wholeheartedly with you, but I've heard people say it is. It's an example that shouldn't belong. Likewise, I feel that way about Cyberpunk, but Billy Idol sort of forced his way in with that one. It's a shame, really... I like his earlier work.
Lord Cogsworth
19. Vila
I'm not sure that steampunk music can be strictly defined, as of yet. Perhaps in another decade or two there will be enough examples as to simplify matters enough to introduce a definition that meets the acceptance of the widest variety of steampunk fandom.
Speaking only for myself, my own compositions cross a wide variety of genres. The few pieces of my own music that I choose to call "steampunk" only fit that label by virtue of the subject matter - Airships. In all honesty, those pieces might better be defined as "Neo-Classical with Rock elements." But because I am attempting to paint a series of portraits with sound on the subject of an iconic steampunk invention, I term the results "steampunk music" and hope that I'm not offending anyone who prefers a different definition for the term. I quite enjoy the sheer variety of sub-genres that steampunk music has embraced.
Lord Cogsworth
20. Not Kitschy Enough
So it seem slike this article is trying to unify the following.

One is an obsession with the authentic. Authenticity is romanticised in almost every artistic pursuit so this is nothing new. In discussing "steampunk" there exists this (as with many genres) urge to expell the "posers", to remain true to the core beliefs of what comprises steampunk music as a genre of music.

And therein lies the next problem. From a purely musical perspective there isn't a stylitic unification of steampunk. It is a hodge-podge of broader genres that are catergorized through self-indentification and visual astheticism.

Here is why steampunk as a genre will continuously suffer: steampunk music wasn't derived from the pure desire to make music. Instead, the music followed the larger sub-culture; the music serves to fufill a desire that cropped up after the definition of steampunk culture. Other genres of music don't have this issue because authenticity can be traced back to a differentiated stylistic origin. Not so with steampunk. Abney Park for example, considered an old guard of steampunk music, was a goth industrial band before 2006.

So you are attempting to authenticate these bands when you can't do so on their artisitc product. No, authentication for a steampunk band lies in their words, in their "philosophy", and certainly in their presentation. It's a music genre defined not through the end product.
Janus Zarate of Vernian Process
21. Janus_Zarate
Not Kitschy Enough, you present an interesting argument. It's true there is no stylistic unification; it's one of the first points I address. That is precisely why I argue against the idea that steampunk music could be a traditional genre.

However, I disagree with the idea that steampunk music will suffer because it wasn't derived from a "pure" desire to make music. Whether it actually was derived from pure desire is not the issue, however. By this same definition, stable genres that were largely responsible for their associated cultures suffer from this same supposed problem. Goth music was created by people who already had a fascination with the films, literature, aesthetics, and other aspects that would later comprise the foundation of goth culture. Likewise for industrial, punk, and other genres which spawned cultures. The order may be reversed to some degree for steampunk, but how does that reversal alter the fundamental desire? And what does this mean for bands in other genres who exist because of the culture, because of the musicians who preceded them, because of a "non-pure" desire to create music? Do they cease to be counted among their peers because of mere timing?

I'm also not sure I agree that steampunk lacks a differentiated stylistic origin. If you mean musically, then yes, it's a long established issue (again, why I argue against the framework of genre for this). If you mean otherwise, then I disagree. It seems apparent to me that the combination of aesthetics, inspirations, and the pursuit of musicial anachronism (among other things) is unique to many steampunk bands. How do you reconcile this with your vision of authenticity?

It is true that bands like Abney Park started in other genres, long before steampunk had a noteworthy footing in music, but does it make sense to exclude them on the basis of previous work? Do we exclude a band like Pantera from the new wave of heavy metal in the 90's - a wave they helped usher in - for playing definitively "80's" glam metal on their first few albums?

There are also, of course, other bands which were clearly conceived within a steampunk framework. Some of them were previously mentioned, such as The Clockwork Dolls, The Cog is Dead, Vernian Process, etc.

The problem with authenticating a band based on their "philosophy" and presentation is that they're not reliable indicators. Presentation is surface-level and doesn't necessarily correlate with sound. "Philosophy" is better, but not perfect; it is in many ways part of the presentation. Where it's part of something more, it actually supports my suggestion that we musicians in the steampunk scene have more in common in our methods and approaches to music than many are aware.

If we're not defining music by end product - at least to some degree - then what are we actually defining? The clothes do not "make the man," contrary to the old saying; ultimately you're just seeing what he wants you to see - not what he is. The same is true for music.
Lord Cogsworth
24. Morlock
I don't know if anyone has gone to the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, but it is a large collection of orchestrions, and player pianos of all sorts. When I became aware of steampunk, I felt the music coming out of these machines might work, as they were mechanical and often played the older tunes. However, I'm now wondering if the sound coming from these machines could be more of a starting point for a steampunk style of music. Where it would go from there I can't quite pull from my imagination. It's a hard question.

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