Jul 12, 2012

The Great Canadian Steampunk Heist: Rush and Justin Bieber

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by USA Today for an article on Steampunk which referred to the "horror of the steampunk crowd" at Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber's appropriation of the steampunk aesthetic for the video promoting "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." A number of comments to the article noted that clearly, despite Kory Doyle's bold statement that "All are welcome and everyone's correct" under the steampunk umbrella, Justin Bieber and anyone like him, is not. The article informed ignorant me that someone had made a Bieber Minus Bieber video, which tosses the Bieb out on his head and resets his images to Dr. Steel's "Build the Robots."

 It's the Steampunk Disney thing all over again. Steampunk is whatever you want it to be, unless you want to sell it at Hot Topic, or use it in a mainstream pop music video. I guess the argument might be that the Bieb's style of music isn't steampunk, or that he doesn't represent the politics of the more activist-oriented steampunk. Mostly, from the little invective I've gleaned about the video, people seem pissed off that Bieber "appropriated" steampunk when he isn't even part of the scene.
 Kettle Black, anyone? What is steampunk, if not the appropriation of disparate elements we can hardly say "belong" to us? Oh, I know - some of you were weaned at the teats of Queen Victoria herself, raised on a steady diet of Vernotopic and Wellsian matineee fare, you "were steampunk before you knew what to call it," etc. ad nauseum. But none of you are Victorians. None of you live in an alternate history. Steampunk is always, as I stated in my post on Guinan and Bennett's Frank Reade, bricolage. Sometimes, in its more thoughtful and intentional moments, it rises to the level of detournement. But it's always appropriation: like children at the craft table, we rummage through "magazines" of mid-to late nineteenth century fashion, early twentieth century industrial design, and the technologically magical, whimsical, and improbable. We cut out our pictures and paste them together, and we hold it up to say, "look at what I did." We formed a club of people who make the same sorts of pictures, like Mitch Hedberg's hilarious imaginary conversation between the originators of the clubhouse sandwich:
I order the club sandwich all the time, but I'm not even a member, man. I don't know how I get away with it. How'd it start anyway? I like my sandwiches with three pieces of bread. So do I! Well let's form a club then. Alright, but we need more stipulations. Yes we do; instead of cutting the sandwich once, let's cut it again. Yes, four triangles, and we will position them into a circle. In the middle we will dump chips. Or potato salad. Okay. I got a question for ya, how do you feel about frilly toothpicks? I'm for 'em! Well this club is formed; spread the word on menus nationwide. I like my sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts. Well then you're not in the fuckin' club! 
Bieber is sitting at the table, and he looks over to see what we've been up to. He copies what we do. We get mad, and tell him he's "not in the fuckin' club!" My daughter watches a show called Ni-Hao Kai Lan, which teaches good emotional reactions to bad situations. In "Everybody's Hat Parade," when Hoho the monkey copies Rintoo the tiger's hat design, Rintoo is enraged (Rintoo has serious anger management issues), until the wise child Kai-Lan sings a song about how imitation is a form of compliment. Add to this what I learned from Kirk Hammett of Metallica: imitation is creation. The steampunk scene is built on this, whatever the hell we're shouting about individuality. Go to a con and count the top hats or corsets and tell me we're being really individual. Alternate visions of iconic superheroes like Captain America at Comic Con this weekend are more individualistic than we are sometimes. How about a tattooed Cap? A black or Asian Captain America? That's craaazy!

The steampunk Bieber-rejection reminds me of what it was like working as a minister in Evangelical Christianity: we were known for what we excluded, not what we included. That's got to be a bad thing in any group, whether their ideology is built on a concept of grace or not. Bottom line, steampunks? Stop giving the Bieb such a hard time. He had as much right to appropriate the steampunk aesthetic as any of us have. Stop being jerks or I'll put you in time out.
 Why did steampunks give Bieber such a hard time, but no one's gone up in arms about the Bieb's fellow Canadians, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee of Rush? Rush's Time Machine tour, their Clockwork Angels disc, and the forthcoming tie-in novel from Kevin J. Anderson are clearly appropriating steampunk, but I haven't heard the same Bieb-tastic hue and cry this time. Is it because the novel is written by the man behind the novelization of the cinematic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the brilliant pastiche of Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius, or the Wellsian Martian Wars (the last two are available in newly released editions from Titan Books)? Or is it because Neil Peart has written the lyrics in tandem with Anderson's novel, so that Clockwork Angels is one of the most awesome SF concept albums since Coheed and Cambria's Armory Wars?
 Or is it because the stage design for the Time Machine tour looks like the stage Abney Park and Vernian Process should be playing on? Neil Peart's drum kit alone is a gorgeous work of steampunk art. It's easy to applaud Rush's appropriation of the steampunk aesthetic and still retain your sense of decorum. Having a moment of squee over Justin Bieber using steampunk might feel less dignified. But both artists are outside the "scene" of steampunk music, whatever the hell that is.

I'd say it this way: Justin Bieber and Rush have appropriated the aesthetic of steampunk and applied it to the visual concepts associated with their music, which is arguably not steampunk in any way. This is no less a use of the steampunk aesthetic than that episode of Castle. We need to stop talking about whether something is or isn't steampunk, and start admitting when steampunk is being used. Let's not ask "is Firefly steampunk?" but rather, "what elements of the steampunk aesthetic is Firefly using?" We might not always like it, but we can't deny it.

The Bieb made a steampunk video. Rush made a concept album in a steampunk world that Kevin J. Anderson is writing a novel in. Just because it's mainstream doesn't mean it ceases to be steampunk. And how about that appropriation of Bieber's imagery to reset to Dr. Steel's music? Isn't that the same sort of piratical appropriation steampunks accused the boy wonder of? I could use the word hypocrisy, but who knows, maybe the editor of the video had no such intentions. Ultimately, it proves that Bieber's use of the steampunk aesthetic was done well (and yes, I know, it was likely his marketing team, not him, but metonyms are so much easier). I for one, really enjoyed the video. Besides, to bastardize Billy Joel once again, "Cyberpunk, Ribofunk, even if it's steampunk, it's still SFF to me."

14 comments:

  1. Great commentary on the outcry, but the thing about a Black Captain America is canon, and actually serves as a commentary on the anti-black history of the USA, in which Isaiah Bradley is a super-soldier result of the real-life Tuskagee experiments. Fan objection to Isaiah Bradley's existence stems from anti-blackness, which isn't comparable to fan objection to Justin Bieber, which seems to stem from a sense of elitism, and the idea that the Biebs is too popular/vanilla/mainstream and thus "dilutes" the spirit of steampunk? (And contradictorily enough, this is from the same fandom that seeks cultural legitimacy and celebrates any mainstream news outlet that puts the spotlight on it...) (I don't know, folks seem to be pretty inconsistent about this. Either we're for the steampunk aesthetic being picked up by mainstream, or we're not, and if we're not, then we need to stop actually giving a shit about the mainstream jumping on our wagon.) (And I mean, one could make the argument that steampunk is comprised of many mainstream elements anyway, into a bricolage that looks counter-culture.) (At least, *I* will be investigating this possibility in my PhD...)

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  2. What part of "It's friggin' RUSH!" don't you get? Justin Bieber's a corporate media product whose handlers can and will co-opt any aesthetic or system of iconography in order to increase the reach of his fanbase. Rush, on the other hand, are a legendary prog-rock band who have been dealing with sci-fi and fantasy themes in their work since they first started in the early, early 1970s. Their song/album _2112_, in fact, is a monumental sci-fi epic. When Rush decides to do something steampunk-oriented, you can rest assured the production will be infinitely better than a prefabricated boy-band-minus-the-band's silly effort.

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  3. Wow, thanks for totally missing the point of the post, Derek. This wasn't about whether I like Rush more, or whether they're rock gods, or if their production is more sophisticated than Bieber's. This post didn't have anything to do with the quality of their work. It had to with their use of steampunk. I've been listening to Rush since the early '80s, so I'm well aware of their pedigree. The last thing the web needs is another subjective viewpoint on how kickass their fave band is, and how Bieber sucks.

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    1. That is exactly what I got from the article Mike. Thanks for a really interesting view!

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  4. Excellent article, Mike. Well written, and clearly zeroing in on what I will clearly call the hypocrisy that many self-professed "Steampunks" have. I've said similar things over at my blog site in the past; it's good to see someone with some fame saying the same things.

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  5. Well said /written, Mike.

    Someone once sent me a link to the Bieber video on facebook with the comment "Your subculture is officially ruined." I ignored it entirely; what do I care if a child star is making a music video or not? This is to say nothing of the fact that he likely has limited creative control over anything he does, and the video was almost certainly a product of his production team.

    It's kind of like the reaction many people had on finding out Stephen Harper really, really likes Murdoch Mysteries: a cool thing, now liked by quite possibly the most uncool person on the planet, is now less cool by association.

    Ah well. It's to be expected, I suppose, of any culture. We find joy in our individuality, but unfortunately that individuality is too often found at the expense of deriding an outsider, or an "other." C'est la vie.

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  6. Derek - Guess what....there are people that thinks Rush sucks. *raises hand* The quality of the work appropriating the aesthetic wasn't the point of the article.

    Great article *slow clap*

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  7. Thanks everyone! Glad to hear you enjoyed the article. I had fun writing it!

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  8. This is why I find your definition of Steampunk as an aesthetic so bloody useful. It explains exactly how it is that both Rush and Justin Bieber (not to mention Nicki Minaj, Abney Park, and BB Blackdog) can do something that qualifies as Steampunk despite working in very different musical genres. Or how both "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Warehouse 13" manage the same in the visual arts category. I found myself explaining this to some bookstore employees a couple of weeks ago, and as soon as I explained how Steampunk works as an aesthetic that can be applied to literature, music, art, etc., I could see lightbulbs going on.

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  9. I like lightbulbs! Thanks for the encouraging feedback, MacAuslander!

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  10. On behalf of my friend Kory Doyle I'm reposting this from facebook.
    "I wish I could have posted this on your blog, but alas I do not subscribe to any of the pre-requesit services to allow that to happen.

    There were two great surprises at finding I had been mentioned in your above named blog entry. Firstly, let me begin by saying how surprised I was to find myself mentioned in such an auspicious place as The Steampunk Scholar. Secondly, I was taken aback at being called a hypocrite in regards to a specific quote and the reaction of some in the community towards Justin Bieber appropriating the aesthetic. Allow me to clarify the quote attributed to me in the aforementioned USA Today article. The quote "All are welcome and everyone's correct" was made at Clockwork Alchemy, the recent Steampunk convention I co-chaired when I was asked the dreaded question "what is Steampunk?" My response to that was; "There are so many definitions of what Steampunk is. For this convention, we are saying that Steampunk is the Victorian age not how it was, but how it should have been. It's an era of adventurers, inventions, daring heroes, fearless heroines, mad scientists and airship pirates. All are welcome and all are correct." The quote was made in regards about how we were defining the genre at CA specifically. While I am not saying that it was taken out of context, it can appear that as a result of being broken into pieces it made it sound more like I was making a generalized statement towards the whole movement. I would not be so pretentious and arrogant as to make such an over-reaching statement, and if I did, I assure you it would not be intentional. Why would I say the specific line that has been quoted and called hypocritical based on how Mr. Bieber has been criticized by some members of the community? Simply put, it was based in my own direct experience in the movement. I had never felt more welcomed than I did when I walked into my first Steampunk event, and have ever since. I can only speak authentically about my experience of acceptance with-in Steampunk. I did not mean it as a bold statement, but I would admit to it being a bit naive. It is an ideal that is based on my own experience, and yes, one that I would extend to Mr. Bieber if he ever came to an event.

    As to Rush vs. Bieber in accommodating the aesthetic, I could not make an unbiased comment on that, as I have been a rabid Rush fan since 1982 when I was sixteen so I choose not to comment, even though it is one hell of a steampunk album and possibly the best Rush album ever.
    Oh, wait, I just commented didn't I? Drat...

    Thanks for sacrificing a moment of your time,

    Kory Doyle."

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  11. Thanks for sharing Kory's clarification, faberglas. And to be clear, I wasn't accusing Kory of hypocrisy - just those steampunks who have leveled invective at Bieber. I'm in full agreement with Kory - that was very much my experience of steampunk as a community as well, which is why I found the reaction to Bieber so strange.

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  12. Mr. Perschon - I really appreciate your post - especially that it points out how much more useful it is to acknowledge a steampunk aesthetic within objects/people/ideas rather than declaring "steampunk/not steampunk".
    That being said (here it comes ;) ) I think the offense I take with the whole Bieber/Hot Topic deal is one that nerds tend to always take. "You're appropriating my passion and turning it into a marketing stunt." Something I feel all squishy lovie about suddenly feels so clinical in the hands of the marketers.
    As for Rush - yes, they're marketing it as well, but the impression I get (from what I understand about the band - and yes I could be wrong) is that they really appreciate the aesthetic. Sure, it may not be a passion, but it's something they truly enjoy and... well, geek out on. Much like one of my artist friends. She's employed steampunk themes because of her enjoyment of the aesthetic - not because she wants to sell paintings.
    Anyway - that's my .02 - and thank you again so much for such a thought provoking article!

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  13. Pica, at a totally subjective level, I sometimes feel the same way. On the other hand, I never felt that with LOTR as cinematic blockbuster because it meant I didn't have to explain what a hobbit was before having the "Squee!" discussion over what others loved about it. I feel somewhat the same here: "It's like the new Rush album, or 'that Christmas thing by Bieber'." But I agree with where you're coming from.

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