Science Funktion

Every year as spring turns to summer, my musical tastes veer from goth to funk, placing Bela Lugosi’s translucent black cape back on the rack in exchange for the sweat and soul of Fishbone and Sly Stone. And when the heat really begins to cook my brain, I turn to the Mothership Connection for relief. 

Sci-fi and music have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship, from early Pink Floyd to the steampunk ambiance of Abney Park, with several decades of interstellar tunes from Sun Ra (representing Saturn) and Bowie (sorta from Mars) and DEVO (from Earth, but a devolved one) in between. It’s no coincidence that the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame is part of the Jimi Hendrix-inspired Experience Music Project. Hendrix—arguably the single greatest rock musician—was a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy fan.

I’m not really sure what the first sci-fi rock combo was, but “Rocket 88” was one of the first rock and roll songs…and it has the word rocket in it. Does that qualify? Ok, so it’s about a car, but hey, it was featured in The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai Across the 8th Dimension, after all. Surely that counts for something.

In terms of sci-fi flavored music that really makes me want to overthrust my oscillator, there is simply nothing better than Parliament Funkadelic. Five seconds into “Give Up the Funk” and I’ve got jam in my knee, and I’m ready to spread.

George Clinton started out in Parliament, a doo-wop band named after a brand of cigarettes, and with the help of bass-slapping badass Bootsy Collins of Funkadelic, transmogrified into Dr. Funkenstein, cool ghoul with the bump transplant. I don’t know if Parliament Funkadelic is one band or three, and I don’t much care. They’re too funky to be bothered with such linear distinctions.

You could say that P-Funk, despite its use or misuse of scientific terms and spaceship props, has little to do with science fiction as a literary genre and is more about dancing and innuendo. Straight-forward definitions of sci-fi and funk show nothing much in common. Miriam Webster defines science fiction as “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” The same dictionary defines funk as “music that combines traditional forms of black music (as blues, gospel, or soul) and is characterized by a strong backbeat.”

I find neither definition of much use. It’s not that they’re wrong, but that they’re narrow. There’s no real benefit from straitjacketing either literature or music. Since I like broad definitions of each, I prefer Lester del Rey’s statement that science fiction is “the myth-making principle of human nature today” and Clinton’s “Soul is the hamhock in your cornflakes.”

In the P-Funk universe, funk is much more than booty-shaking music (or it could be said that booty-shaking is presented as a universally vital enterprise). Funk means the essence, the soul, the truth, the Slack, the Symbolic, Real and Imaginary in a blender, a feeling that’s so cool it’s uncool and doesn’t care. As the UK music magazine The Wire wrote, “George Clinton puts a lot into his records: they suit the obsessional world of the fan, someone still building their own world-picture, rather than the cool ambiance of the adult consumer, someone requiring a prop for sophisticated lifestyle. ‘Cool’ implies streamlining, impersonality, professionalism: in contrast, Clinton’s albums are a barrage of puzzles, jokes, references, asides. They don’t flatter the know-it-all: they demand curiosity, involvement, thought; they protest the alienation of ‘product'” (The Wire, September 1995).

Though it’s all pretty absurd, P-Funk puts a lot of commentary on race, politics and individuality beneath the goofy bits. And silliness can be a powerful medium for shaking assumptions loose. Carroll, Swift and Voltaire proved that several times over. This is just as true in music as it is in literature. The “myth-making principle” interwoven with solid musicianship makes P-Funk a juggernaut of subversive fun.  As with the best sci-fi stories, P-Funk alters my vision. It stamps a question mark in my brain, and feels good all the while.

citation

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