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What is filk: in-group and out-group defintions [Apr. 24th, 2009|11:30 am]
Kate Nineteen
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[Current Location |Waltham, MA]
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[Current Music |GRIGNR!]

The title of my roommate's recent post "Does this count as filk? I hope not." and one of the comments about it, have brought to my mind some very interesting questions about the definition of filk.

I think what filkers call filk and what non-filker sci-fi fans call filk are not always the same. If londo had posted his parody on a filk list, it's extremely unlikely that anyone would have said "that isn't good enough to be filk". In fact, if anyone did say that, they would be scolded by the rest of the community. It's almost inconceivable that anyone would claim that the parody in question, being written about The Eye of Argon, would be not considered filk based on it's content.

Moreover, this isn't the first time I've heard someone describe their stuff as "not good enough for filk". On the other hand, I've also heard a number of sci-fi fans who enjoy geeky music say that they don't like filk because "it isn't good quality". Fandom values both technical competence and inclusion. Filkers generally seem to think that a fannish music community should support anyone who wants to perform, even the incompetent. (Which isn't to say that filker don't encourage people to improve their musical skills.) Other fans prefer to get their geek music fix from professional musicians. However, even those fans who listen to individual filk artists typically won't show up a filk con for the concerts. Why? I wonder.

Aside from the quality vs inclusion issues, self-identified filkers tend to define filk by the community, where as non-filker fans seem to think of it more a genre and define it by content. Some of the definitions of filk I hear a lot from filkers are: "the music of science fiction fandom" and "what filkers play and/or write" (which seems to reflect a focus on community). Non-filkers seem much more likely to say that filk is "parodies" or "music about science fiction and fantasy" (about a topic rather than of a community).

Relatedly, in the discussions surrounding filk programming at general conventions, I've noticed an increasing amount of geeky music (nerdcore, video game bands, etc) made by people who don't consider themselves filkers. There have always been some musicians who write stuff that fits the content of filk without being involved with the community (Tom Lehrer, Weird Al), but the number seems to be expanding rapidly. I think this is just one reflection of the increasing diversity of culture that the internet has been enabling.

However, it is unclear to me why few of the new geek musicians are involved with the filk community. Do they not know about it? Are they judging it to be for amateurs? Do they not feel included, perhaps based on musical style, or not directly sci-fi content or some other factor? Do they not want to share performance space? Is there some other cultural factor that creates a divide?

Also, given that there is a division between filkers and musically oriented sci-fi fans, should we try to change that? I think it'd would be better to have a cohesive, inclusive community, but maybe others disagree.

I've been putting so much thought into this, because lately, I've been volunteering to organize filk programming at general sci-fi conventions. I'd like to do that in a why that provides value for both sides of border around "filk community" and brings fans together. I'd really like hear all of your input, especially those of you who are musicians in sci-fi fandom, but don't identify as filkers. What do you think of as the defining and non-defining characteristics of filk? Why are you involved or not in the community? Also, should I cross post this to filk?
LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: pezzonovante
2009-04-24 07:37 pm (UTC)
However, it is unclear to me why few of the new geek musicians are involved with the filk community. Do they not know about it? Are they judging it to be for amateurs? Do they not feel included, perhaps based on musical style, or not directly sci-fi content or some other factor? Do they not want to share performance space? Is there some other cultural factor that creates a divide?

I think that a great case study in this question would be the reaction to Luke Ski being the filk guest of honor at Arisia.
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[User Picture]From: ultimatepsi
2009-04-24 07:40 pm (UTC)
That is one of the incidents that help form the thought expressed in this post. I don't however have all the information.
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[User Picture]From: londo
2009-04-24 08:39 pm (UTC)
...should I cross post this to filk?

I won't complain about the additional exposure - it's an unlocked post for a reason.
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[User Picture]From: ultimatepsi
2009-04-26 02:32 pm (UTC)
It's been cross-posted here.
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[User Picture]From: marmota
2009-04-24 09:20 pm (UTC)
This might be more of a dodge than a fix, but if you're trying to organize filk for a more general purpose convention, calling it a 'musical media' track (or something along those lines) could work as a more catch-all descriptor... and anyone thereby involved can call what they do 'filk' or not at their own discretion?
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[User Picture]From: ultimatepsi
2009-04-26 02:32 pm (UTC)
That is a reasonable notion, but I worry about alienating the filkers by doing it. I've started suggesting it as a notion to see what the reactions are.
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[User Picture]From: sirroxton
2009-04-25 01:59 am (UTC)
My personal exposure to filk has created an association to awkward teens with a highly underdeveloped sense of social embarrassment. I hope that doesn't sound unhelpful, but if you're wondering about people's reaction to the label, I think that's a common view.
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[User Picture]From: ultimatepsi
2009-04-25 02:09 pm (UTC)
That's curious. I tend to think of filkers as being older than me for the most part.
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[User Picture]From: ratatosk
2009-04-26 05:21 am (UTC)
Filk to me has a lot to do with style and not so much with content. I think you could teach a computer to distinguish filk from other folk music without teaching it English. No, I don't know enough to describe the differences.

Filk also has some PR problems: it's really easy for it to come off as music about things I know nothing about, performed in a style that annoys me, and in a context where it seems like people are just randomly breaking into song (e.g. filk rooms). I'm not saying perceive it that way all the time, just that those are real issue generally.

For my part it's hard to get me excited about music that is neither really good, or participatory. Concerts with singers pretty much never count as either from my point of view. Filk rooms often fail on both counts too.

As to being a musician and an SF fan, well, I'm a horn player, so I and the filk community have no particular reason to talk to each other. Worse still, it takes me a moment to think to include guitarists in my mental category of "musician", since I default to "musician" meaning "someone who plays an orchestral instrument" and everyone else just getting some particular word like "guitar player" or whatever.

I might come back to this when I'm more awake.
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[User Picture]From: ldwheeler
2009-04-26 06:01 pm (UTC)
I would note that I've heard violin, flute, dulcimer, trumpet, trombone and several other instruments in filk circles/contexts. (I'm curious as to why you think a horn would be unwelcome in a filk context.)

The one statement you've made that I find curious is about there being a lack of "participatory" music in filk. Whereas filk's basic ethos or ethic if you will, at its core, is all about participation -- about the seasoned performers (and, quite frankly, many of the most seasoned musicians I've heard have been in filk contexts) and the amateurs alike taking their turns in the circle, supporting/encouraging one another, harmonizing, etc. So I'm just curious as to where that perception comes from, or if I'm misunderstanding you. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: dhs
2009-04-26 11:46 am (UTC)

Discuss this in the larger community.

should I cross post this to [info]filk?

It seems an obvious place for a broader consideration of this than your friends list.

And it does seem to me (from my perspective looking in from the fringes of the filk community) that this is a valuable topic to discuss.
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[User Picture]From: ultimatepsi
2009-04-26 02:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Discuss this in the larger community.

So yeah, I did cross-post here. Interestingly, the previous post to filk was on the same general topic.
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[User Picture]From: filkertom
2009-04-26 02:15 pm (UTC)

Grignr?

Hey there! I found this thread from this thread, and I posted a comment there that may (or may not) shed some light on at least part of this.

There's also the fact that, yes, some things are not good enough for filk... but that has more to do with technique, lyrical or otherwise, than subject matter. The Eye of Argon thing? Filk. Amusing, too.

Edited at 2009-04-26 02:16 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: londo
2009-04-27 05:05 am (UTC)

Re: Grignr?

...somewhere in between being highly embarrassed and ridiculously pleased is a word that describes my reaction to learning from my roommate that Tom Smith has read my work, and liked it.
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[User Picture]From: orawnzva
2009-04-26 08:04 pm (UTC)

For good, or for awesome

Hmm, I see good comments on this topic on three different original entries, where should I add mine...?

I think that making this conversation about the definition of the word "filk" is a preoccupation peculiar to those of us who identify as filkers, and potentially a distraction from the real question, which is: Should we try to get people who think of themselves as filkers and people who don't into (some of) the same events at conventions to enjoy music together, can we, and how? Certainly, that is the question you and I will need to consider in our capacity as organizers of "filk" programming for dionysian-type gencons.

I'm thinking of a Homestar Runner sketch which asks us whether we will use our powers "for good, or for awesome?". Without ever sitting down and deciding, the filk community has clearly demonstrated a collective will to nurture both the good and the awesome, but first-tier filk recruiting at cons has tended to emphasize what I will call the good. Maybe we need to figure out how to do a "Filk 101 for Awesome" panel/performance/whatever it would be.

Anyway, good and awesome:

"Good" means being a welcoming and nurturing community — giving everyone the chance to sing, encouraging those who have been discouraged from singing in the past, singing songs that everyone knows so that everyone can sing along.

"Awesome" means producing a high-quality, high-energy musical experience for the listener. While we could use this term to refer to quality of performance, here I mean tit to explicitly acknowledge the (typical) genre/sound preferences of the current wave of younger fans. The same fen who aren't coming into filkrooms because they think filk isn't awesome enough are also not going to the symphony, so it's not just about virtuosity, it's also about beat and energy.

Good and awesome aren't opposed values, and many things are both. For example:

Good: people who have been told they can't sing who are given the encouragement they need to dare to sing again. Awesome: a confident voice that totally owns the audience. Both: Seanan McGuire.

Good: making our community accessible to the hearing-impaired in the face of the seemingly obvious fact that you have to be able to hear to enjoy music. Awesome: a performance that combines driving energy with deviously subtle wit. Both: Judi Miller.

Good: songs everyone can sing along to. Awesome: songs that rock. Both: "Rocket Ride".

This also isn't about the "good side" and the "awesome side" of musical fandom — the self-identified "filk community" explicitly acknowledges and nurtures both these values, and while there are points of tension, I think that the balance is good and that the center is holding. But, in terms of recruiting at-con, I think filk has tended to focus on — and become identified with — "the good" to the exclusion of "the awesome".

I think we should keep both doors open. Some people come to filk through the door of the good — they have a song to share, but they're not sure it's good enough, or if they're ready, and we tell them to just go ahead and sing it, and that's it's really great but here are a few tips... and some people come to fannish music (but less often to "filk" per se) through the door of the awesome — they see filkertom or s00j in concert as the musical guest at a convention and buy their CDs.

I love filk as a community, and I love fannish music as an art form, but I'm not hung up on "filk" as a brand name, or on the question of whether the term refers to fannish music generally or just to the self-defined community that calls itself that. What I'd like to see is more fen enjoying music together to the extent that that makes sense — I mean, if two groups genuinely don't like the same kind of music, getting them into a room together may not help. As filkers who are running music programming for general conventions, one good strategy might be to arrange the program so that it shows that the path through the door of the awesome leads to (what we would call) the open filk circle.
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[User Picture]From: etherial
2009-04-26 09:26 pm (UTC)

Re: For good, or for awesome

The same fen who aren't coming into filkrooms because they think filk isn't awesome enough are also not going to the symphony, so it's not just about virtuosity, it's also about beat and energy.

It's a good thing that I abhor the word fen, or else I would be very annoyed at being painted with such a broad stroke.

-Symphony Season Ticket Holder/Filk Hater
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[User Picture]From: siderea
2009-04-27 06:29 am (UTC)
Filk-fan, musician, effectively not a filker.

Some of the definitions of filk I hear a lot from filkers are: "the music of science fiction fandom" and "what filkers play and/or write" (which seems to reflect a focus on community). Non-filkers seem much more likely to say that filk is "parodies" or "music about science fiction and fantasy" (about a topic rather than of a community).

In this case, I think the self-identified filkers are Just Wrong. For one thing, I've been thinking "filk is what filkers sing" is a cop-out for the last 20 or so years. Further, there's some complaining that this has diluted the genre and what made it interesting to non-filkers. For another, filk used (like, in the 1970s) to truly be the music of the SF fandom community; it hasn't been for a really long time. It's become very insular, music of the SF fandom filk community. It is not to my knowledge general seen as "our music" by the rest of fandom, it doesn't speak to most of fandom, there's no sense that it's an expression of fandom-as-a-whole's musical culture, the way I gather it once was. It's no longer a musical vernacular; it's a specialist activity for those who are into that sort of thing.

Sometime (I'm guessing in the 1980s?) filk and popular musical tastes diverged. Through the 1960s and 1970s, folk music was wildly popular in the general public. It's no surprise that filk is musically descended from singer-songwriter folk. That's what fans were hearing on their car radios. And no less than K/S slashers appropriating Trek to write porn or today's vidders using youtube to share their mashups from TV show footage, filkers were doing with the popular music of the time what fen always did: take popular media and remake them into their own. This is that whole "Textual Poachers" thing.

But filk became its own stylistic genre -- that's part of what I like about it! -- and as popular music shifted stylistically, filk stopped representing that textual poachers approach to music. It was still doing it with fiction and science news, of course. But the music was stylistically set. And in that way, it stopped having the same relationship it once did to music-making and fannish music audiences. It wasn't allusive to or commenting upon what fans were hearing in popular culture.

So, in summary, there was a time when it may have been accurate to describe "filk" as "the music of the SF fandom community", but it's no longer true. It is true to describe it as an authentic expression of fannish culture, a genre of music which arose out of fandom. But the term as used does not encompass music or musical practices outside that genre, within fandom.

Relatedly, in the discussions surrounding filk programming at general conventions, I've noticed an increasing amount of geeky music (nerdcore, video game bands, etc) made by people who don't consider themselves filkers. [...] However, it is unclear to me why few of the new geek musicians are involved with the filk community.

Uh... they're ensembles. Filk is no place for ensemble music making. It's entirely organized around a soloist + singalong presumption. What filk ensembles there are, are something that happen away from filk activities at cons, except for concerts.
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[User Picture]From: ldwheeler
2009-04-27 07:25 am (UTC)
But the music was stylistically set. And in that way, it stopped having the same relationship it once did to music-making and fannish music audiences. It wasn't allusive to or commenting upon what fans were hearing in popular culture.

That's probably true to a large degree -- though, I think, there has been change over the past decade; filk doesn't seem quite as married to folk stylings as it used to be. (Though, as noted in our other exchange, the logistics and sonic realities of a filkroom require that to a certain extent.) Ookla the Mok, for example, brought a rock aesthetic with them into filk. (Though, admittedly, much of their songs lend themselves to folk stylings and generally are sung that way in circle -- though when Ookla takes a concert stage, it's a whole 'nother thing.) They're hardly the only ones doing that -- I had the pleasure to hear Toyboat at the last couple cons I've attended. (I particularly enjoy their bar-band attack on "Banned From Argo.")

So yah, you're right in that filk hasn't been a musical mirror to popular culture for some time -- though I don't think it's remained trapped in amber in a Folk-Revival styling, either. Obviously, this varies from performer to performer, region to region.
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