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 Process, The 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).
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.