Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

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Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.

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At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

The Musical Monsters of Steampunk

A few weeks ago I introduced you to ‘Lady Got Bustle’, a steampunk rendering of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’. This video was just a bit of fan-made fun, but steampunk is a musical genre in its own right. Happily for my research, it’s chock full of monsters and strange creatures.

a0848551422_10There’s actually not as much ‘punk’ in steampunk music as you might expect, though a few bands fit the bill. I’m currently writing about a band called The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing. Their name comes from the graffiti chalked near the scene of one of the Jack the Ripper murders, and they describe their own music as ‘Crusty punk meets cockney sing-songs meets grindcore in the 1880s’. The subjects they sing about are your typical anti-establishment fare (take ‘Doing it for the Whigs’ or ‘Not Your Typical Victorian’), but they’ve also got a number of songs about the supernatural and the fantastical.

One of my favourites is ‘Victoria’s Secret’, which describes how the widowed Queen Victoria tried to resurrect Prince Albert. Naturally, it all goes very badly:

Victoria’s secret, she couldn’t let go
When death came a-calling

For Albert, her beau
All manner of Voodoo
Or Witchcraft she tried
To bring back her Albert
To be by her side
Now Albert is back
But Albert has changed!
Albert is hungry for commoner’s brains!

Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!
Zombie Albert!

You can listen to the full track on Bandcamp.

There are also plenty of steampunk bands making other kinds of music, even within the genre of historical monster mashup. Steam Powered Giraffe, an American band, performs a variety of different musical styles on the basis that they are 100-year-old automata. Initially pressed into service as war robots, they quickly gave up violence for a life on the stage. They do folk, pop, rock, and vaudeville, all in their own version of close harmony.

One of their best-known songs is ‘Honeybee’:

You can see that, as with much of the subculture, story and costuming play very important roles in steampunk music.

Last but not least, there’s also a specific subgenre of steampunk called ‘chap hop’, which is essentially hip hop done in an RP accent. Chap hop focuses on stereotypically British subjects like tea and cricket, and includes artists like Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, Poplock Holmes & DJ WattsOn, and Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esquire. My personal favourite is Professor Elemental. He, too, makes an appearance in my PhD thesis.

professor-elemental-profile
In all his glory.
There are many monsters and fantastical creatures in Professor Elemental’s universe, from zombies to dinosaurs to Jeffrey the orang-utan butler. He has also invented an eclectic collection of augmented trousers with various functions, including (most notably) fighting and time travel. His songs (see ‘Fighting Trousers’) verge on parody – as, to be honest, does most of chap hop – but can also be unexpectedly sensible at times (‘Don’t Feed The Trolls’).

I’ll leave you with the video for ‘Sir, You Are Being Hunted’, in which Professor Elemental’s Inter-dimensional Trousers have malfunctioned, trapping him and the viewer in a monster-infested forest that looks suspiciously like the some back wood in Brighton:

 

Bustle Envy (Steampunk Meets Sir Mix-a-Lot)

1875-La-Beau-Monde-Covent-GardenIt’s been a rough couple of weeks in the world. You deserve something light and playful to take your mind off it all.

Further to my recent post on poetry and cultural appropriation, I though I would gift you with one of the most bizarre and wonderful things I have seen this month – Katherine Stewart’s ‘Lady Got Bustle’, the steampunk parody of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 hit ‘Baby Got Back’.

In this video, a group of (mostly) white people sing about how ‘when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky / Then you don’t need to ask why / You just swoon’. Is this a case of cultural appropriation? Why or why not? This certainly isn’t the first music video to appropriate Sir Mix-A-Lot’s well-known ‘Baby Got Back’, but it is the only one I know from steampunk, which may be one of the whitest subcultural trends ever (with some very noteworthy exceptions).

Here’s a definition of cultural appropriation from actress Amandla Stenberg (appropriately, on a website called Bustle):

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture they are partaking in.

With that definition in mind, have a look at the video below (lyrics pasted beneath for your reading pleasure).

 

LYRICS:

Oh good heavens, Rebecca! Gaze upon her posterior. It is vulgar in the extreme. She resembles one of those airship-captain’s doxies! But honestly, who can comprehend those roguish adventurers? Certainly, they only associate with her because she bears the common stamp of a draggle-tailed guttersnipe. It strains credibility how very – noticeable, how prominent – I say! – it’s deplorable! She’s quite simply… Steampunk!

Men favor large bustles and I cannot fib
You gentlemen may find me glib
But when a lady slips by with her cage in the sky
Then you don’t need to ask why
You just swoon, take out your salts
Now claim her for the next waltz
She’s bold and her fashion’s daring
You know that you can’t stop staring
These ladies are worth the hype
So take their daguerreotype
Those old boys try to counsel you
But that bustle creates such voodoo

Ooh, handsome bounder
Don’t be tempted to try to hound her
Just woo her, woo her
Don’t you even think of trying to fool her
You see her dancing
She’d appreciate some romancing
For she’s sweet, neat
And that bustle is packing heat
She’s tired of being told
That her fashion sense is old
Take a roguish man and see him smirk
She has to wear a skirt

So gents! (Yes?) Gents! (Yes?)
Has your lady a bustle dress? (Oh yes!)
Tell her to twirl it! (Twirl it!) Twirl it! (Twirl it!)
Twirl that party dress!
Lady has bustle!

(Tea-party face with an airship ruffle)
Lady has bustle!

They like them flounced, and long
And made of fabric strong
And when she goes up stairs, you must be careful sir
That you don’t step on her
For she’ll box your ears
Oh my! and again, Oh! My!
I shan’t tell you again sir
For that behavior is for the birds

You like a challenge?
Then chivalry’s a must sir
Find a girl with bustle
And then you’re in for a tussle

You may watch a kinetiscope
And see scrawny women thin as a rope
A real man wants ruffles
They know they need a bustle
A word to the genteel fellow, you know we like you
We won’t ever spite you
But we must be quite frank when we say that we want
A debonair man
Steampunk is most sublime
A lot of punks won’t like this rhyme
For they’re too busy trying to define it
While the rest of us want to play
For we’re here from far and near
And we wish to have a lovely time, dear

So, Darlings! (Yes?) Darlings! (Yes?)
Have we made our point at last? (Oh yes!)
Then turn around! Show it off!
And no one will dare to scoff!
Lady has bustle!

Lady has bustle!

[Director: Katherine Stewart
DP and Editor: Christopher Sheffield
from an idea by Katherine Stewart and Sue Kaff]

You’re welcome, internet.

This parody is certainly funny, but I don’t think it’s a case of appropriation. It’s not taking something negatively associated with Black culture and using it to try and be cool (unless the definition of that word has changed since I was a kid). It also definitely understands the significance of the symbol it’s appropriating (booty) and how to humorously translate this to steampunk culture (bustle) without being mocking or condescending. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me in the comments.

While I was researching this question, though, I did turn up some very interesting facts about bustles and booty.

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Yomi Adegoke argues that the recent mainstream popularity of the booty is a condescending, ‘belated thumbs up from white society’ to a part of Black culture ‘now deemed good enough’ for mass respectability. In her book Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (2013), Janell Hobson hints that the late Victorian fondness for bustles might have been motivated by a similar politics. She writes about how the Hottentot Venus’s prominent posterior was rendered more ‘deviant’ because it provoked lust in white men:

[White women] themselves were regarded as “prostitutes” in the late nineteenth century if they exhibited this feature (Gilman, 1985, 94–101). Thus, white men and women both, when labeled “deviant,” were paralleled with “black” sexuality. Such associations, however, did not prevent middle-class white women of the period from donning bustles. This appropriation of a “big behind”—a sign of grotesquerie, later connoting a sign of luxurious beauty in the bustle—illustrates the complexities of white responses to racial and sexual difference, which elicit both repulsion and desire. (p. 101, emphasis mine)

So, it seems as though Katherine Stewart isn’t the first to make the connexion between the booty and the bustle. The Victorians (as always) were way ahead of everyone in cultural appropriations of Black bodies and fashions. If any of you Victorianists out there happen to know more about the parallels between these two beauty icons, please – let me know in the comments.

The world will thank you.