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.

bustles

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.

The Good, the Bad, and the Book Trailers (Vol. II: Fun With Mashup)

Earlier this year I posted a selection of book trailers for monster mashup titles in honour of World Book Day (…in the UK and Ireland). This week I’ve been doing some research into several YouTube productions, and thought I’d take the opportunity to do a second instalment. This time, instead of trailers for actual books, I’ve got a series of trailers and videos for nonexistent mashup projects that I wish someone would actually produce.

the_jane_austen_mashups_wed_really_love_to_see

The first (an old SNL sketch) mashes up the creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with the first Twilight film. If you thought Edward was broody, wait until you see Frankenstein’s creature in action. Also, they substituted Jacob’s werewolf with another classic monster:

This next one takes footage from the Harry Potter films and mashes it up with audio from a Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Why not fill two literary voids at once?

There’s also a ‘Real Housewives of Jane Austen’ parody trailer that I would absolutely watch if they ever made it into a proper series:

My personal favourite was the following video, a mashup of Jane Austen’s novels and the movie Fight Club:

I like this video in particular because it’s tonally incongruous with Austen’s books (I don’t remember Lizzie going around punching people, unless we’re talking about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and yet humorously true to her feminist message, and the bold personalities of her characters.

For a few more parodies that run on incongruity and anachronism, see Pineapple-Shaped Lamps‘ sketch, in which Jane and Lizzie Bennet encounter spam mail (bonus points for their exaggeration of the way Jane and Lizzie address each other – ‘my gleaming beam of familial charity’):

And this BuzzFeed production, ‘Things Jane Austen Characters Do That Would Be Weird If You Did Them’:

And of course, Mitchell and Webb’s parody of dancing in Pride and Prejudice:

If music’s your thing, check out this montage of period dramas set to the tune ‘It’s Raining Men’:

And for a break from Austen (and also for the hell of it), here’s an Epic Rap Battles of History episode in which Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge faces off against Donald Trump:

(They’ve also got one featuring Jack the Ripper).