My Thirty Pieces of Silver: Steam Bieber Edition

Justin Bieber supposedly going Steampunk has caused quite the stir among a lot of my friends on Facebook and elsewhere, so after forcing myself to watch the video a half dozen times to write this, I decided to offer up my take (read nitpick) on what it really is.

I will be honest, halfway through the first time I watched this video, I had to mute the sound.  The song, which I’m sure appeals to the Bieber fan base, is not to my taste.  To be completely honest, saying its not to my taste is like saying I find repeated stabbings to my groin sans protective cup with a rapier to be merely uncomfortable.  This is fine.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of songs written, some by bands I otherwise enjoy immensely, and others by artists that, like JB, I haven’t found a single performance I enjoy, that I also detest like the contents of a thousand rat traps.  And it is by far not the worst song I have ever heard.  It is simply a young person performing a classic Christmas carol in a modern pop style.  Is the song Steampunk in any fashion?  Lyrically, it is “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”  Nothing inherently Steampunk about seasonal music, especially a song that has been around as long as this one .  So the lyrics are not Steampunk.  Is the arrangement of background sounds Steampunk then?   Not really.  It’s in the style of such pop personalities as Mariah Carey, Micheal Jackson, and others from the 80s and 90s.  I don’t even hear anything that makes me inherently think Bieber, really.  Overall, bland generic pop, with the exception of the short section where JB gets on a trap kit himself for a drum “solo.”   On that note, can it be a solo if its the only actual instrument, and all other sounds came programmed out of beat boxes, synthesizers, drum machines, and other electronic devices?  Information Society turned synths into real instruments, as did other bands, but this just feels like a sound loop and mixing to me.  Although, let me qualify that opinion with the fact that I am not a musician, and I only have a listener’s perspective.

Since this is such an uproar, surely something about this makes it a Steampunk song, right?  I mean, it has to be there somewhere for it to cause so many problems and arguements and disagreements.  Is it the dancing?  Both Bieber and his backup dancers go through a bunch of complicated dance moves, and not being a dancer myself (the only way this pirate is coordinated in front of an audience is with a sword in hand or delivering a rehearsed performance out of script that involves much more drama and much less N’Sync),  I am going to call it the robot combined with break dancing.  I think they call it crunk or crump or something else these days, but frankly, since you can’t do it safely in a three weapon helm waving a sabre, I just don’t care that much. For the dancing to be Steampunk, one would have to have some dancing you can inherently identify as Steampunk.  I have witnessed gypsy belly dance, Victorian Ball Room, Tango, trance, raver something or other, headbanging, and general jumping around plus more all called Steampunk dancing.  This one is at best a wash.  It’s the same dancing present in every other up-tempo music video by a pop and/or urban artist for any other purpose.  Someone proves this point by using Bieber’s video, editing out Bieber except for a tiny shot of him winding something, and replacing the audio with Dr Steel’s Build the Robots.  Change the sound, and it changed so much, with the dancing.

We now have a digitally created pop music sound with old fashioned Christmas lyrics, and dancing that works for any uptempo music with the right beat, whether or not it’s JB or Dr Steel.  Where is the Steampunk they keep telling me is done so badly?

Maybe we can find it in the set design?  The set is supposed to give the impression of Santa’s Workshop (No, not the program that was on at noon for years and years cohosted by the puppet ToyBoy, although THAT would have been awesome!).

It’s a brick room with fans, clocks, packages, an assembly line, and devices scattered about the room.  As far as that goes, it’s Steampunk enough. This is a dance video, after all, so if we cluttered it with the moving mechanicals and giant crates and boilers we usually think of for a Steampunk set, some little kid dancing his way around would have gotten a limb or costume caught in the gears, and this quickly would have gone from vanilla Christmas song to kiddie snuff film.  Not really looking forward to Steampunk venturing into murder porn, myself.   So, while the set pieces are neither as densly packed in, nor as complicated as usual, they do the job, and at least they move.  Buttons can be pushed, levers can be pulled, cranks can be cranked, and gears and pulleys turn.

From a performer’s perspective, let me compare this to dueling on stage at Emerald City Steampunk Expo.  I practice the art of the duel and the art of the sword from a historical reinactment perspective, rather than modern sport and Olympic styles of sabre and et cetera.  This means, among other things, we fight in the round (we aren’t restricted to a “right of way” carpet for movement in the match).  The stages we demonstrated on had a few set pieces to set the mood, and were sparse and motionless by necessity.  We even removed a few of them to avoid both breakage and encourage safety.

Given that the dancing involved a lot of spins and kicks and running around, I am going to say the set was Steampunk enough, and was frankly more than I expected.  The set itself was more Steampunk than Panic! at the Disco’s token Steampunk video (from all accounts I have been able to uncover, it was a one time experiment, for artistic reasons, not a launch into the Steampunk aesthetic or community on Panic!’s part).

That leaves just one major element.  The costuming.  This is what has gotten the most attention in the Steampunk community.  This seems to be the one factor common when pop bands experiment with Steampunk, is to change the wardrobe much more than they change the sound, the set, or the lyrics, and this holds true with Bieber’s video.

Let’s start with the dancers. Most of them look like they came off the set of Newsies, the Broadway musical set at the turn of the 20th Century about paper boys selling newspapers at stands and street corners.  A few of them had added touches that were less period and more Steampunk. A harness here, a pair of goggles there. But, FUNCTION over FORM, guys.  Seriously.  We all know how hot our Steampunk gear can be at a convention, and we are just walking and socializing, in air conditioned hotels.  The Blackhearts, when demonstrating dueling, remove almost all Steampunk elements of their costumes before performing.  Why?  Safety, and the fact that most duelists stripped down to just a shirt and pants historically, as well as the simple fact that you can kill yourself with heat and exhaustion trying to fence for an hour two or three times a day all weekend.  Literally kill yourself.  Its an intensely athletic activity, and dancing can be no different, particularly so-called street styles of dance.

Now we get to the main event.  JB and the amazing technicolor glove.  Wait, that’s something else, and I think a Steampunk production of that is probably in the works by now, if not already staged.  Ian Finch of Skinz-n-Hydez made a glove for JB to wear in this video.  Is it Steampunk?  Yes.  Is it the best Steampunk piece of gear ever?  I am going to take the opinion of no.  Mr Finch does great work, but my personal preference is for stuff I can wear while fighting with a sword, firstly, and secondly, I am partial to the work of Cedric Whittaker, Lazuli Delacru, and the crew of the Airships Isabella and Neo Dulcimer.  In fact, it’s not Mr Finch’s best piece of his own collection either.  But this is a matter of personal opinion and taste.  Its use in the video is purely fashionable, much like Micheal Jackson’s iconic single glove.  And I suspect (personal speculation only) that this was a bigger motivating factor in his choice to add it to his costume then anything Steampunk. Watch JB sing and dance, especially with the sound off.  Then watch an MJ video.  JB has said more then once one of his heroes in the music industry was the so-called King of Pop.  The Steampunk element just let him wear a single glove like his idol, and yet put a different twist on a look older than Steampunk costumes, Steampunk music, or even the word Steampunk itself.  Judging by the various gloves Micheal Jackson himself wore over the years, can one deny the possibilty a Steampunk or Cyberpunk (or both) glove would have been added had he lived and continued to create music?

If you are going to hound JB about anything, hound him about ruining Santa Claus is Coming to Town, not whether or not his glove, his set, his costume, or his music is Steampunk.  But, remember, if you yell at him about that, you have to do the same to Bruce Springsteen for doing the same thing to the same song.  Ruin it, that is.  For Bieber to ruin Steampunk, he would have to be doing Steampunk in the first place.  It’s not a Steampunk song.

What is a Steampunk song then?  We often hear people describe it as fusing together styles, themes, instruments, that don’t necessarily belong together in traditional styles.  You know who else does that?  Flogging Molly.  They are not, and thus far never claimed to be, Steampunk.  Folk, gypsy, punk, pirate, all of those things, but not Steampunk.  The Cog is Dead released an album called Steam Powered Stories, in which they change the style of song for EVERY track.  They have a reggae-esque one, a country one, a rock one, etc.  What makes it Steampunk isn’t their costumes and instruments.  These are essentially “gluing gears on it,” anyway.  It’s the themes and the lyrics of the songs.

So why all the uproar?  Why the dangerously hipster stance of “he is ruining Steampunk, and the mainstream attention will be the downfall of all we love”?  If Steampunk is a continuation of a Victorian look at the future as written by authors such as HG Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, ad nauseam, and an imagining of a world that gave more precedence to the scientific discoveries of Nikola Tesla, Micheal Faraday, et cetera, then IT WAS ALWAYS MAINSTREAM.  From day one.  People are putting way too much stock into punk, and into the connections of Jeter and Blaylock and Gibson to Cyberpunk.  Cyberpunk IS punk.  It’s about a revolution of thought, a rebellion against authority in a dystopian setting.  Steampunk IS NOT always punk.  I refer those who disagree with me to Mike Perschon, the Steampunk Scholar, who has studied this in more depth than I am, has written on the topic in detail, and backs it up with fact, not opinion.

You know, the more I watch people engage in this topic, I am ashamed to say, I think it’s jealousy.  Ian Finch scored a presence on world wide platform to exhibit, display, promote, and market his product.  Unless you are Abney Park, Vernian Process, Airship Isabella, or Penny Dreadful Productions, can you say the same?  If it’s simply a matter of you don’t like it, because it doesn’t resonate with you, fine.  Good, even!  But before you rant about the end of all things Steampunk, take a good look at your position, please.  One of the tenets this community promotes internally and externally about why Steampunk is a positive thing is gentility, honor, acceptance.  Please remember that, and temper your words accordingly.  Otherwise, our xenophobic, elitist, closed ranks will do more to harm our community then any puff pop kid with a Steampunk Micheal Jackson cosplay ever could.

3 comments for “My Thirty Pieces of Silver: Steam Bieber Edition

  1. December 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    The commercialisation and mainstreamisation of Steampunk was frankly inevitable, just because it’s so awesome and, after considering Biebergate and other outcries, I think that on the whole it’s a good thing, purely on the basis that it brings the actual reality of the resurgence in airships one step closer. Commercialisation and pass production is in the C19th spirit, someone using some of the style doesn’t take away any of the reasons to love the genre, and anyway those of us who were here first will know it. (plus I SAID these whiskers would come back in fashion! ahead of the curve as always). I just hope Hammer do a good job on Boneshaker and we get a good director for the difference engine…

  2. Amanda
    December 17, 2011 at 10:24 am

    “Otherwise, our xenophobic, elitist, closed ranks will do more to harm our community then any puff pop kid with a Steampunk Micheal Jackson cosplay ever could.”

    This line is genius. That is all.

  3. AJ Sikes
    December 17, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Beautifully written. The whole piece is genius, and a supremely even-handed treatment of the subject.

    Huzzah!

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