On Bieber-Punk and Elitism

I’m not going to link to the Justin Bieber “steampunk” music video, mainly because I’m too busy and lazy to look it up. But I’ve seen people gnashing their teeth about it and declaring steampunk “dead,” “critically injured,” etc. (At which point I open my mouth to make a snarky comment about zombies and how they manage to get around just fine, only to end up shutting it again.) But I’ve decided that I’d actually like to say something about it. This is rare. I usually don’t post my opinions online.

When it comes to those ready to attend steampunk’s funeral, I think it’s fair to say that they’re not merely reacting to Bieber’s use of stylistic elements from the subgenre. Let’s face it, there’s maybe a 5% chance Bieber came up with the idea on his own – more likely the entire thing was designed for him, and he showed up groggy one morning, did a few dance moves, and then left the studio, never to work with those dancers, costume designers, makeup artists, or video directors ever again. That’s how the music industry works. Instead, the outraged-and-be-bustled are reacting to the idea that the mainstream might have its claws in the subgenre, and hence it now feels appropriated, inauthentic, no longer “special.”

At the risk of alienating people, I’m just going to say this. If you latched onto steampunk just because you thought it was rare and special and something the really meta hipsters were engaging in, and your feelings are hurt to the point where you no longer want to participate in it – can I buy your clothing collections really cheap, then? I’ll pay a fair price, but I mean…they’re rags to you now, right? I’ll take them. Because they’re still treasures to me. Because I didn’t come into this subgenre/subculture thinking it was “cool.” I came into this subgenre because I knew it and loved it before it had a bloody name. (Edit: Depending on whose history you listen to!) This is who I am. And it’s going to take more than three minutes of teenybop-laced footage produced by a croony Canadian kid to kill it in me.

I’m not happy the video exists, but you know what? I look at it this way. Somewhere out there, in a bland suburban living room, there currently sits a very lonely, sad little girl. Her hair is stringy, her clothes are dowdy, and she’s generally the ostracized child in the neighborhood, the picked-upon one, the “weird” one, the one to whom Poe’s poem “Alone” will speak volumes when she first encounters it – “From childhood’s hour I have not been / As others were; I have not seen / As others saw; I could not bring / My passions from a common spring.” She loves what others hate; she hates what others love. She’s in fifth grade and she reviles The Disney Channel and she loves the Bronte sisters, but she can’t say that aloud because then she’ll rocket even further down the social ladder. (Oh, what would happen to her social stock if the other girls knew she knows what “reviles” means…)

In fact, this girl just wants desperately to have some human contact in her life, and at this point she’s willing to sacrifice her own soul to get it. She long ago resigned herself to the fact that she will never have many friends – or so she thinks – but she still likes to orbit the “normal” children, to have somewhere to go. And thus she hides the things she loves, she lies about the things she values, and she learns the names of the young people in the shallow magazines her “friends” read and she goes along with what her “friends” want and she knows perfectly well that these “friends” are merely peers who tolerate her, and so she hides, hides, hides her apparently intolerable true self. She watches the vapid movies and she learns the vapid songs and she lets Tiffany turn on that vapid music channel and oh my God it’s that Justin idiot all the girls go nuts over have they never encountered Edward Rochester now there’s a real man and…

…dresses. The women in the video have beauti…
…automatons. Wondrous machines. Oh God.
Look at it all. Look at it all. Yes. That’s it. That’s everything. That’s everything she’s ever wanted and more, and it might be covered in cheap glitter and it might be accompanied by a cloying song but that doesn’t matter, it’s just Holy Freaking Truth hopping about on Tiffany’s father’s 62″ flatscreen TV, and no, no, don’t turn it off, I really love Justin Bieber, don’t you dare turn on iCarley if you idiot girls want to live.

I know there’s a girl currently out there thinking these precise things – because I did, a long time ago. When I wanted to fit in. When I sat silently by while those cold-comfort “friends” watched MTV, a station that then meant nothing to me, as I was raised on oldies and thought the majority of “new” music was crap (I’ve since learned the error of my ways). Until one day, a strange and wondrous video came on. A video from a music group that was named after a horribly antisocial act that I saw only “idiot jocks” participating in, so why the hell would you name a band after it…

Smashing Pumpkins. ‘Tonight, Tonight.’ Three minutes of heaven. Three minutes of everything every cell in my body craved and everything my tongue could not, at that point, articulate.

Elitism is an ugly thing. I hate it. I fight it in my own thought processes daily. Because elitism doesn’t consider what good may come of even the lowest form of entertainment. Elitism would tear down the very dream that some child has now been presented with – rip away an entire world to which she’s only just been exposed. Elitism doesn’t share.

So, this is my very long, melodramatic way of saying: Calm down. Think about things rationally. And if you truly love what we do over here, the things we wear and the music we make and the books we write and the way we live, then look forward to the day when that stringy-haired girl finds us and turns into a gorgeous corseted swan or the most brilliant Victoriana-inspired singer or a fantastic, witty steampunk author.

I’ll be here waiting for her, at any rate. We’ll have tea. It will be marvelous.

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  1. TM Thomas
    Dec 8, 2011

    Well put.
    Sometimes, it isn’t just because it’s what is cool. Sometimes us weird people carve out our little niches where we aren’t so weird or have some acceptance. When the niche is suddenly on Main Street (or Fairmount Avenue, for you Southwestern types) it can hurt because we’ve lost something private and special. Worse, we’ve lost it to those people who already had “everything” (insert teen angst here) and who, in their often-superficial involvement in what we cared so much about, reduce the value of knowing and understanding to the depth we are compelled to be involved.

  2. Megan
    Dec 8, 2011

    I think I went through similar emotions. I heard about it, got mad, then after watching the video (muted) I realized that it was only done for the look. They don’t actually capture anything remotely steampunk beyond the clothes and some of the gears placed randomly about. He didn’t “become” steampunk, simply used it as a gimmick. Being one of those stringy haired girls myself when I was younger, I embraced goth (though I wasn’t depressed enough to really pull it off) and later found steampunk. Just like a lot of girls like glitter, some of us like corsets and automatons.
    (PS, what Lia can’t wear I will happily take when it comes to discarded clothes!)

  3. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Dec 8, 2011

    I can definitely understand that part of it. It’s also frustrating when a lot of unexperienced newbies join anything – “eternal September” springs to mind. But personally, I’ll happily deal with a thousand fashionable hangers-on if it means meeting one true fan who honestly had no inkling the genre existed before a Bieber video.

  4. TM Thomas
    Dec 8, 2011

    Valid reply. I guess my personal bias shows through because I’ve rarely been part of any greater community and I hold my precioussess tight because I have the psyche of a lonely 12 year old comic book nerd.

  5. Anastatsiya
    Dec 8, 2011

    Thank you for finally voicing what I’ve been thinking for the last month.

    I love Steampunk ever since I fell into it a few years ago and the recent behavior of the community has actually disgusted me. The outpouring of vitrial for the video and everyone involved is sickening. I know the artisan who made the leather arm for Justin in the video. He’s a really nice guy and has had to deal with a lot of BS since this all came out. He doesn’t deserve it.

    What makes steampunk so great to me is how inclusive it is. From my experience Steampunk was never elitist, everyone could participate in any way they wanted (i.e. multiculturalism in steampunk, comedy steampunk, dramatic steampunk, etc…) without fear of ridicule. And NOW the community is ganging up and attacking the genre, subculture, and people involved in the video. It’s really sad.

  6. Mary
    Dec 9, 2011

    Thank you for such a beautifully loving, compassionate response. I look forward to the people who discover us, no matter where they found us, because who knows what sorts of inspirations they’ll bring with them. Sure, we’ll have a bunch of flashes-in-the-pan, but those real fires that will also arrive are going to be worth it.

    I’m also elated for the artisan who made the armor for the video. He does gorgeous work, and with a commission like that will be able to purchase some really amazing supplies with which to make even more awesome things, which is another win for us. (Many people were apparently angry at the artist for accepting the commission, which I found somewhat incredible.)

  7. Leann
    Dec 9, 2011

    Okay, I think I get why everyone is so upset. It’s because they think that just because JB is popular he can’t do something even remotely steampunk. Figured it out!(sarcasm).
    I’m I really the only person who likes steampunk AND Justin Bieber?
    That was a neat video for that song.
    Isn’t the whole steampunk movement supposed to be really accepting?
    I’m pretty bummed out now.
    P.S. Dearly, Departed is a great book. Cannot wait for Dearly, Beloved.

  8. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Dec 9, 2011

    It should be accepting – and at its best, it is. I’m not a fan of Bieber, but I still think it’s far from a travesty. The more people who enjoy the things we do, the merrier – right? (And really, I’ve received so many positive notes since posting this – there are other steampunks out there that are far from offended, and who think the entire hubbub is silly. So please don’t let the naysayers bum you out!)

    And thank you for your kind words!

  9. CferretRun
    Dec 11, 2011

    It is a very sad, and depressing when people jump ship because mainstream media touches their favorite genre. I’ve watched many people abandon Nightmare Before Christmas, Harry Potter, and many other genres because it’s popularized by merchandise and media.

    The love I feel for these genres will never evaporate. Justin Beiber can river dance all over them, and I’d still proudly boast my colors and pride. It’s sad that people conditionally devote themselves to something, whether SteamPunk or anything else.

    Their loss, our win.

  10. Laura
    Jan 6, 2012

    I remember the first time I saw “Tonight, tonight” as a kid, I just sat in front of the TV in awe, and my Smashing Pumpkins love affair began. I still sit in awe whenever I see it.

  11. Lynne
    Jan 22, 2012

    I loath Justin Bieber, I hate the song but I must confess… I love the outfits. :)

    I must say though that with me the problem isn’t others disliking steampunk or using it shallowly, its one who loves it just as much as I do. In fact it was this person that showed me steampunk. But when I said I liked it she accussed me of copying her and all. Which means I now have to hide it from her dispite her being a fellow steampunk fan.

  12. Miss Habel
    Miss Habel
    Jan 22, 2012

    Ugh, that’s really annoying to hear about. I’ve had experiences with that during my life. Honestly, I don’t know your situation, and I’m not an advice columnist, but if you love something you shouldn’t have to hide it. Life is too freaking short, and being inspired by something is never wrong. Inspiration is different from copying, and without inspiration entire subgenres, social movements, artistic schools, and galleries of kitten pictures online wouldn’t exist.

    It sounds like maybe she’s insecure. She’s decided that part of her identity is based on the idea that, “I am the only one in my school/town/state who likes steampunk,” and so if someone else close to her likes it, that threatens her. It makes her less special, in her mind. That’s her issue, not yours. You didn’t do anything wrong, and you shouldn’t have to act like it. I can admire the fact that you want your friend to be comfortable, though!

  13. Lynne
    Jan 23, 2012

    Thanks for replying back. And ur right, in high school she was the only one who dressed tht way. I usually stuck to normal gothic victorian. I never even knew steampunk exsisted before she showed me and I loved it. Now I’m in tech and steampunks everywhere, plus shes away to england for a few days which takes the pressure of me as little bit when it comes to showing another different side to me that ive wanted to share for ages. Thanks for the advise by the way. :)

  14. Galadriel
    Jan 28, 2012

    Eloquent as always.

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