Dirty Mollie's Introduction to Steampunk & The Whitechapel Circus

Written by on January 8, 2013

I’m Dirty Mollie, Airship Mechanic and Wrench Slinger Extraordinaire and host of KPSU’s new radio programme “The Whitechapel Circus,” home of Steampunk Americana Bluegrass Vaudeville Cabaret music, with a Gothic twist. Perhaps you’ve heard of me, or heard of the show, and are wondering what this is all about.

[b]What’s this “Steampunk” thing all about, you say?[/b]
According to the folks at Steampunk.com:

[i]“Steampunk has always been first and foremost a literary genre, or least a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy that includes social or technological aspects of the 19th century (the steam) usually with some deconstruction of, reimagining of, or rebellion against parts of it (the punk). Unfortunately, it is a poorly defined subgenre, with plenty of disagreement about what is and is not included. For example, steampunk stories may:

[ul][li]Take place in the Victorian era but include advanced machines based on 19th century technology (e.g. [u]The Difference Engine[/u] by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling);[/li]
[li]Include the supernatural as well (e.g. [u]The Parasol Protectorate[/u] by Gail Carriger);[/li]
[li]Include the supernatural and forego the technology (e.g. [u]The Anubis Gates[/u] by Tim Powers, one of the works that inspired the term ‘steampunk’);[/li]
[li]Include the advanced machines, but take place later than the Victorian period, thereby assuming that the predomination by electricity and petroleum never happens (e.g. [u]The Peshawar Lancers[/u] by S. M. Stirling); or[/li]
[li]Take place in an another world altogether, but featuring Victorian-like technology (e.g. [u]Mainspring[/u] by Jay Lake). “[/li][/ul][/i]

[b]Okay, so what does all THAT really mean?[/b]

Well, to me, in my own words, Steampunk is an aesthetic, an idea, and a way of living that hearkens back to Victorian times. It can also include post-apocalyptic, paranormal or supernatural themes as well, as long as the attitudes are still Victorian in nature. Fans appreciate the fashion of the era, the idea that technology and the items we use in our daily lives could be beautiful as well as functional, and that material goods were not disposable commodities. The literature that developed into Steampunk was originated in the novels of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and even to some extent other writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft and so forth.

The term “Steampunk” was coined by author K.W. Jeter in the late 80’s as a tongue-in-cheek answer to the other literary genre of the time, “Cyberpunk,” in response to his and other novels by Tim Powers and James Blaylock that focused on Victorian-esque 19th century settings and plots.

[b]So why “Steampunk Americana Bluegrass Vaudeville Cabaret music with a Gothic twist”?[/b]

Steampunk is the over-arching umbrella term for all of this stuff: The time period of history that is the focus of the subculture is Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 until 1901, but this also encompasses such other historical periods as the US Civil War (1861 – 1865), the Reconstruction (1865-1877), and Post-Reconstruction (1877-1901).

Americana, folk and bluegrass music evoke that time period and tradition of American history which was occurring during the Victorian era. Vaudeville theater was a popular form of variety entertainment during this time, lasting from the 1880’s well into the 1930’s until the advent of Motion Pictures ended Vaudeville’s popularity. According to Wikipedia, “Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary burlesque.” Cabaret is a similar form of entertainment to Vaudeville, although primarily European, and began in 1881 in Montmarte, Paris. The Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir are both famous examples of French Cabarets (and [i]Moulin Rouge[/i] is, at least tangentially, considered a steampunk film.) As for the gothic, well, this period of history had a lot of dark elements and harsh conditions, as evidenced by the Whitechapel “Ripper” murders that inspired the programme’s name, and much of the lyrical and fictional narratives of the genre contain much that is macabre and morbid.

[b]So what does it sound like then?[/b]

There’s the rub – it can sound like nearly anything! Steampunk music is hard to define aurally as a genre. Many steampunk musicians work in other “thematic” sound worlds – world, folk, techno, industrial, and any other type of musical genre you can think of; there’s even steampunk rap, known as “Chap Hop.” Oftentimes, what makes music steampunk might be that the band identifies themselves as such, or wears the fashion on stage, or writes lyrics that fit with steampunk aesthetic, or just consider themselves members of the subculture. Of course, much existing music (such as the works of Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and other artists) may also fit the steampunk ideal without necessarily identifying as such. All of that can and will be heard on the show, and more! Of course, if you’d like to see and/or hear a few examples of what bands who identify as steampunk look and sound like, you can find a few videos below:

Abney Park – Steampunk Revolution

The Tiger Lillies – Gin

16 Horsepower – Haw

So then, if this sounds at all interesting to you, or looks interesting, why don’t you tune in Saturdays at 3 pm until 5 pm to hear more about what all this “Steampunk Americana Bluegrass Vaudeville Cabaret music with a Gothic twist” is all about and join me as I share the Whitechapel Circus with Portland!





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