The End of the Beginning
Chap hop artist Professor Elemental on steampunk’s “decline” and why it’s brilliant
Sunday, November 17, 2019
“Do you think steampunk is in decline?” a friend who puts on events asked me recently.
“I can see certain people ruining steampunk, if they carry on like this,” a fellow musician said to me in conversation the other day.
“Who Killed Steampunk?” demanded a recent article, before lamenting the vanishing of the steampunk aesthetic from the mainstream.
Crikey. Is that it? Do I have to hang up my pith helmet and get a real job after all these years?
Don’t worry fellow nerds, everything is fine, better than it ever was in fact. And Professor Elemental is here to tell you why. . .
Let’s get something straight here. A bit like so many other things that I enjoy (Plastic Man comics, Caramac chocolate bars and the horror film Castle Freak), steampunk was never that popular. Ask the man or woman on the street, and if you are very lucky or live in Brighton, they might mumble something about cogs and airships.
For most people, steampunk remains a mystery. A mystery that they are happy to leave unsolved for all time. For them, it sits in the same place as Live Action Role Playing and World of Warcraft. Most people glance over, think ‘nerds’ or ‘weirdos’ and then go back to the office to argue with Sharon from accounts about who’s been using the wrong coffee mug. I don’t blame them either. This isn’t for everyone and that’s what makes it good.
As I’ve often said to anyone who will listen, one of the best things about the steampunk culture is that it scoops up people who didn’t necessarily fit in to other subcultures: Anxious people in need of an empowering identity, goths who have grown up and want a new aesthetic, aging rappers who have a fondness for fancy dress and orangutan butlers, people who like getting drunk in a funny hat, that sort of thing.
This automatically excludes 90 percent of the population. People who take themselves too seriously, enjoy physical fights, excessive rules or casual racism, for example, have no place here.
Don’t get me wrong, I have always advocated that all are welcome. But the attributes of steampunk automatically exclude a lot of dickheads, and for that we should be grateful.
That’s not to say that there aren’t issues. Whenever there is a subculture of more than three nerds, there will be issues.
I’ve always been vaguely uneasy about the representation of people of colour in the steampunk world. But then I’ve been similarly uneasy about the pious tone set by some American writers about the inherently political nature of dressing up in clothes from the olden days, calling yourself ‘Sir Reginald Dirigible the Third,’ and making your own ray gun out of a used wash bottle. If you didn’t research and pay homage to actual history, they demanded, you were doing it all wrong.
Yawn. Sorry, even having to write that bit made me sleepy and irritable. No wonder it was off-putting to new recruits or people just looking for the party.2
Subcultures like ours don’t do well under extreme scrutiny. Shine a spotlight on that home-made hat and you can see that it’s just foam. Take a moment to disengage with your imagination and you might realise that we are at a Holiday Inn ballroom near the airport or a disused car park in Kent.
With too much analysis, steampunk feels like that moment on the dance floor when they’ve called time at the bar and turn all the lights on at 2 a.m. It’s not pretty. Best bribe the landlord, keep the lights off and keep the party going, I say.
It’s the same with steampunk’s brief flirtation with the mainstream. I am delighted to see that it hasn’t caught on. To date, steampunk remains utterly unfashionable, which also means it’s hard to monetise.3 This in turn means that huge corporations aren’t going to bother messing it up.
Who cares if no one wants us? We never wanted them anyway. That’s not how we measure our success. Do we really need more Justin Bieber videos? Or another series of that awful programme where different steampunk makers competed to see who could be the best for big cash prizes? Ergh.
So long as there are writers who want to tell stories, wonderful bands of every musical style putting out innovative albums, innovative makers and hard-working organisers putting on events based on nothing but love and enthusiasm, the whole machine will continue to chug along just fine.
Of course, I’m aware that I have the honour of making a good portion of my living from visiting these wonderful steampunk events. Me arguing that everything’s brilliant could be perceived in the same way as Noddy Holder screaming that “Glam Rock Will Never Die!” while wearing a Bay City Rollers scarf and a sparkly jumpsuit. I don’t want the party to end because it’s a party I love very much. And it keeps me comfortably in old Plastic Man comics and Caramac bars.
To paraphrase the rapper J-live; Steampunk doesn’t stop until I stop, and I won’t stop until it stops.
It’s easy to see the odd event getting cancelled and to feel like that means a decline. However, don’t forget about the brilliant new events and meetings that pop up all the time. Fewer blogs and message boards about steampunk means there are fewer blogs and message boards, not less steampunk. Fewer Hollywood movies with steampunk just means less stuff for us to moan about how they “got it all wrong.”
The subculture will keep evolving, with parts falling off and other bits being glued on, like a well-loved mechanical gauntlet. People will grow out of it, others will grow into it. I’ve been lucky enough to spend 10 years travelling around the world and meeting thousands of wonderful steampunks and I can promise that its hand-made clockwork heart will be beating long into the future.
1 I am unemployable.
2 It’s back at Sir Reginald Dirigible the Third’s room by the way, fourth floor, Room 184. Apparently he has absinthe.
3 I am living testament to that.
Professor Elemental is a chap hop artist in the UK who frequently performs at steampunk events. His latest album is Professor Elemental and His Amazing Friends II. He is also the author of Professor Elemental’s Tales of Wrong, a horror anthology released just in time for Halloween. Learn more on his website.