Every aesthetic movement has—or should have—its own soundtrack. I would argue that an aesthetic movement that doesn’t have a soundtrack is doomed to an early death;1 having music to gather around, after all, makes it a lot easier for like-minded folks to hang out together and have fun, and isn’t that part of what any decent aesthetic movement is about? (Apart from making cool stuff, that is.)
At this point, steampunk’s visual and literary aesthetic has become specific enough that it’s useful as a generic and critical term. Its musical boundaries, however, appear to be fuzzier. Last summer, Matrix Online did a feature on the sound of steampunk acknowledging that the doors appear to be pretty wide open: Nine Inch Nails might be included, but so might Tom Waits, Björk, and Queen. At the same time, it offered up thirteen bands—Abney Park, Vernian Process, Unextraordinary Gentlemen, Vagabond Opera, Rasputina, The Peculiar Pretzelmen, Skeleton Key, The Decemberists, The Birthday Massacre, The Dresden Dolls, Johnny Hollow, Beat Circus, and Bat For Lashes—that it argued could be considered steampunk bands without much hesitation. For some of these bands, the label steampunk fits because the bands themselves say it does; they use the word in their own description of their sound. But some of the others don’t use the label—and it’s interesting to hear what their precedents are.
The obvious touchstone for a few of them is gloomy/dreamy synth-pop-post-punk-rock-whatever from the 1980s, from 4AD’s Goth heyday to Sisters of Mercy to the Pet Shop Boys (when I was listening to Vernian Process, I immediately thought of the sound of the Pet Shop Boys’ Actually, which the people behind Vernian Process may or may not like, but there it is). For others, though, the touchstone is the 1920s and 1930s: cabaret music, gypsy jazz, and various strands of folk music—American, Eastern European, Middle Eastern.2 It’s severely fascinating that these two sensibilities could be grouped under one label, as on their face, they don’t have a lot in common. Sonically, on one side, there are synthesizers, electric guitars, and drum machines; on the other side, there are violins, accordions, and trash can lids. Marrying the two can be awkward (personally, while I find the sound of Abney Park to be an intriguing experiment, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful). Yet they share an extreme emotionality: Both wear their hearts on their sleeves, and I mean that as a good thing. Is that what pulls them all together?
But what is it exactly about the music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1980s that makes sense for the steampunk aesthetic? What’s wrong with, say, the 1950s? Or the 1890s? Why would a movement that classifies itself partially as neo-Victorian not go in for some update of Victorian-era music? (Or does it?) And second, where are the borders of this sensibility? There are a lot of bands today that take their cues from the above set of influences. Could they all be considered steampunk bands, or is there a point where the label is an awkward fit? What other music apart from those listed above could be considered steampunk? Let me know: I’m always interested in hearing new music.
1This is actually a riff on a now-apocryphal statement by a jazz drummer that any style of music that doesn’t attract women to it isn’t worth playing. The story goes that this drummer was hired to play at a jazz-fusion festival sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. As he got on stage, he looked out over the audience, saw a sea of men, and thought to himself, “this is going nowhere.” Sure enough! (Sorry, jazz-fusion fans. I mean, I like Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Birds of Fire as much as the next man, but the drummer has a point.)
2Then there’s the chamber-pop thing, but enough has been written about that, I think.
Brian Slattery edits and writes things, and dreams of forming a band composed of violin, accordion, banjo, and tuba that plays on street corners around the world.