When Pop Eats Punk

About three years ago there was giant uproar from Steampunk Community that the game was up, Steampunk had gone mainstream, peaked, and thus started the inevitable decline of our beloved Steampunk. What was this disaster that rocked the faith of many in the Community? It was Canadian pop singer Justin Bieber!

In time for the 2011 Holiday Season and as part of the Arthur Christmas movie soundtrack, Mr. Bieber released a cover of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The music video for the song utilizes steampunk imagery to present a steampunk’d Bieber dancing in a retro-futuristic Victorian toy factory. The association of Bieber with Steampunk mortified many, but then you multiply it by the fact that the video is for a mediocre Christmas song and it becomes utterly repulsive. Here for your masochistic viewing and auditory (dis)pleasure is the 2011 music video . . . please don’t feel obliged to watch the whole thing, and if you do seek professional help afterwards.

Clearly Steampunk managed to survive Mr. Bieber’s foray into the world of the aether, and might have even recruited a few pre-pubescent members to the Community, but the best retaliation to this mainstream pop appropriation of Steampunk was a re-edit called simply “Bieber Minus Bieber.” The fan edit removes all shots of Justin Bieber and replaces the music with Doctor Steel’s “Build the Robots.”

The same month that Bieber’s steampunk music video hit the media, so did another from an associate of his, Nicki Minaj . . . well, to be more specific, David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj in the song “Turn Me On.” Whereas the Bieber attempt to be steampunk is a definite NO! The Minaj venture is far more ambiguous, and leans toward a strong MAYBE?

The steampunk iconography of the Justin Bieber video is pretty run of the mill, but fairly well executed, but “Turn Me On” dives into a much darker and certainly more sexual realm. Shadows lurk in the workshop, and the streets outside are filled with suspicion and danger. The gradual building of the clockwork Minaj is highly sexualized with her voluminous lips singing the song from a disembodied machine full of brass gears and clockworks. The image is so effective in fetishizing the technology that by the time this automaton receives her curvaceous plastic skin coating there is actually a sense of anti-climax even though it seems that the video wishes us to be aroused by this seemingly naked body.

Outside there are more “plastic” people, somewhat reminiscent of the Doctor Who Autons, and somewhere in there is a commentary about society being fake, but the Minaj-bot has something that the rest of the automatons want, so they seek it out at the workshop and discover a twist in the video’s narrative.

While the Minaj effort is more bearable than Bieber, for a long term member of the Steampunk Community there is still something uncomfortable about this appropriation upon which one can’t quite place a finger. Visually the execution of each video is Steampunk done well on a higher budget, but perhaps it is the juxtaposition between the fine imagery and the music itself that leaves that bad taste . . . perhaps it is the lack of sincerity that leads to a soulless quality when Pop eats Punk . . . a big part of what makes the Steampunk Community so special is its independence from commercialism.

What are your thoughts? We invite you to comment below and perhaps give some examples of bad steampunk appropriation that you’ve encountered in your adventures.


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