We’re delighted to present the full text of the speech of Conclave III Fan GoH Daphne Lawless, who talks about filking as a form of community building and the role of youth in maintaining our science fiction and fantasy community.
My name is Daphne Lawless and I AM NOT INSANE. Thought I’d better get that out there.
Warning: I use big words, abstract concepts, adult language, and have a habit of jumping from one subject to another like Catherine the Great. My apologies if it leaves you behind. Feel free to ask for clarification later.
I’m here to talk about 4 things in no particular order:
- Generational Change in Fandom.
- How I shouldn’t even be here.
- Filking and fan creativity.
- The politics of rrrrevolution.
- Cycle lanes
- Why science fiction at all?
To start, I don’t think I deserve to be FgoH.
Not that I’m ungrateful – I love having an audience to talk at. I’d talk at the opening of an envelope.
But I get the drift that this honour is due to my services to filking. For that, and for my introduction to fandom in general, the credit has to go not to me, but to my very dear friend of almost two decades now, Ms Kelly Buchanan.
She’s been going to conventions since the early 90s; she was on the concom for at least one; and it was her who talked me into going to my first con – Con with the Wind, Wellington, 2002.
It was also her who introduced me to filking. She’d been doing it since the early 1980s, and I was already a songwriter when I met her – so it seemed a natural area of cooperation. In the 15 years since then, our filking partnership – the Cousin of Mercy – has finished an entire book of filks and we’ve started a second. Every single filk I write has been co-written with, or at least edited by, Kelly. So she should be up here herself.
Kelly has done much more for New Zealand fandom I ever have. The only difference is that I like to perform and speak publicly, and she doesn’t. Applaud her anyway.
Anyway, filking. Commonly known as taking the tunes of popular songs and changing the words to be about Macgyver or whatever.
I was familiar with the concept before that – the works of Mr “Weird” Al Yankovic. He’s extremely good at what he does. But originally, I kind of thought his stuff that made the pop charts was weak sauce. Changing Madonna and Michael Jackson lyrics so they’re about foodstuffs? Kinda meh. (I now think he’s a comedy genius, you should certainly check out his movie UHF and his album with synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos if you can find them.)
But once I engaged with the filking circles at actual conventions, I began to understand the link between “filk” and “folk” – apart from the fact that one originated as a misspelling of the other.
I’ve been a musician since the age of 7 and I’ve played “folk music”, i.e. the traditional music of Britain, Ireland, and thus of the Pākehā New Zealand. The big difference between “folk music” and most of the music that gets attention – whether classical art music, or commercial pop music – is that it’s not all about “the author”. It’s about creativity that comes out of a community, rather than an individual.
That’s contrary to the individualist culture of capitalism. All creativity must be ascribed to an individual – or to the corporate entity administering that individual’s intellectual property – if it is to be COMMODIFIED, MARKETED and PROFITED FROM.
Folk music, on the other hand, goes through what is called “the folk process”. A song, a story, a joke passes through the minds and mouths of ordinary people (usually not trained or academic musicians) – they retell it in innumerable variations. Sometimes variations happen when someone forgets an important part of the original, and they make up something to fill the gap – or they borrow bits from another story or song that seem to fit. Or sometimes you get parallel evolution – the same idea arises in different places at the same time. Which is why there are at least two, maybe three completely separate versions of Hey There Deliliah rewritten so it’s about Macgyver.
Joseph Campbell and Carl Jüng are a little bit discredited now. But the idea of archetype – of stories or characters which keep reasserting themselves, which keep reappearing throughout history, because they speak to humanity, or to a particular kind of people living in X way in Y place at Z time – makes a lot of sense when it comes to the folk process.
So – with the exception of a few big names like Yankovic, Leslie Fish or Seanan Macguire – filks are not bought and sold. They are traded, passed on, embellished. They don’t belong to a person. They belong to a community. Some of the best filks I know of, I don’t even know who their original author was – again, like Hey There Macguyver.
Anyway, I know not all of you are filkers. Some people just don’t want to hear untrained people trying to sing, no matter how funny the words. Fair enough.
But I think filking can be seen as a lens through which we can see all fan creativity. Because all fan creativity comes out of a community, like filking. You can’t make money off it because it’s someone else’s intellectual property (excluding the “pro” fanfic known as tie-ins).
It is vital to why I am here – why I am still coming to NatCons in my 40s – that I honestly believe, like the British radical cultural critic Ben Watson, that quite often fan creativity is much more interesting than the commodity pop culture that provoked it.
As a queer woman, the following might sound like heresy, but I never dug Xena: Warrior Princess. I totally approve of how it gave gainful employment to New Zealand’s working actors, actresses and stunt people (and fan journalists, hi Wolfie). But it was too deliberately cheesy and played too fast and loose with myth, legend and ancient history for me to get into it.
But as for the fanfic surrounding it… let’s put it this way. Being gay in the 1990s was like being trans today. It was increasingly something which was obvious, known and present in pop culture. But it was also very risky and very hard to represent without causing squawking from easily offended busybodies.
I know at least one woman who was a teenager of the time for whom Xena/Gabrielle slash fiction was her sex education – at least, her queer sex education. There’s a whole story to be told about how slash fiction – going all the way back to the primordial example, Kirk/Spock – allowed woman writers and woman readers to explore options for gender and sexuality which were simply not open in any but the most avant-garde fiction, let alone real life.
Seanan Macguire, to mention her again, wrote a very interesting thread on Twitter about how writing fanfic is, in her opinion, a far superior apprenticeship for writing professionally than any university creative writing course. And that’s because of the community aspect of it. Professional art has the producer on one side and the consumers on the other – joined only by the cash nexus, separated by the apparatus of publishing, agents, etc, coming together only at special events like these cons.
Fanfic (like filking) is a circle where producers, editors, critics and consumers are all the same people, taking turns producing art of a community, rather than art as a commodity.
So that’s what I find the most interesting part of sci-fi fandom – in fact, of all fandom, as I am a quite obsessive fan of various musical artists whom I will discuss at great length later over a drink. Community creativity, rather than the fetishisation of mass-cultural commodities. Another example would be the audience participation rituals around The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and more recently other films such as The Room.
My fandom partner Kelly and I ran three National Sci Fi cons, from 2008 to 2016, under the banner of Au Contraire. Our vision was precisely to prioritise fan creativity. Rather than fetishising the products of the mass culture industry themselves – kick-ass though they certainly can be – we wanted to celebrate the creativity of fan communities. But to do this, we had to do things quite differently from previous generations of NZ fandom.
This, ladies gentlemen and others present, is where we get into the “generational change” aspect of things. You’ve all heard those nonsense stories in the paper about how “the boomers ruined this” or “the millennials are ruining that” and how “Generation X never did anything interesting.”. As a member of Gen X myself, I take exception to that.
The proposition I want to bring you about fandom, in this country and globally, at this point is: if a community ceases to evolve, it ceases to exist.
We founded Au Contraire because the older kinds of convention – run by the people who had come of age in the 1970s and 1980s, for the most part – were not doing it for us. Okay, the filking was okay. But in general, we believed that national conventions in this country were too expensive, that they spent too much in flying in big-name authors for people to pay homage too, and in general were doing things which didn’t appeal to our generation.
One issue was of course that our generation was and is quite poor. Asset-poor, at least, compared to the generation which came before us. You don’t have to be a raving communist – although it certainly helps – to notice that the people who call the shots are the people who are rich in assets, and/or have high incomes.
This isn’t a political speech – I’ll give one of those later over a drink, once again. But it is simply a fact that the people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s in the Western countries have managed to accumulate assets and built up investments that we of younger generations – the children of neoliberalism, of Rogernomics – will never feasibly be able to. (Unless our parents were already rich and they don’t leave it all to the SPCA in their wills.)
Homer Simpson was quite right to suggest that rock music reached perfection in 1975. Why was that? Because that’s when the generation which created rock music as we know it were at the height of their wealth and power. In the 1950s and 1960s, broadly speaking, teenagers had truckloads of money to spent, they could get a job or leave a job easily, and they had every reason to expect that they would be wealthier and happier than their parents.
That wasn’t true for my generation; it certainly isn’t true for the Millennials. We don’t have the financial resources of the people who bought a villa in Grey Lynn for 50 grand in the 80s, and now it’s worth $2 million. More money than I can realistically expect to earn for the rest of my life.
Look at the state of sci-fi movies these days. What was the big one of the last 20 years? The Matrix. But take a look at everything else. Reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars. Variations on the Aliens and Blade Runner franchises. Endless output from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whose characters were all invented between the 1940s and 1960s.
Friends, it is my firm belief that Western culture has become static – reached what Faction Paradox creator Lawrence Miles calls the Ghost Point – because the young people ain’t got nothing. That’s why we’re still listening to 70s and 80s bands on the radio. The music is good, don’t get me wrong! But can you imagine a teenager in the 70s listening to 30s music on the radio?!
The generation which are now reaching retirement age have the lions’ share of the cultural power and are not really interested in seeing anything fundamental change. I don’t say this as an accusation. I see it as a personal fact.
But what does a generation do when it becomes impoverished? What did the generations of the 1930s and 1940s do faced with global economic crisis and global war? (We’ve got the first, and with Dorito Mussolini in the White House, the latter isn’t probably far away.)
They MAKE DO AND MEND, that’s what. Everyone of my generation has a story about their old grandma who would never throw out a plastic bag because they grew up when you couldn’t throw out ANYTHING, when everything had to be repaired and used a thousand times.
The situation is of course different in the era of Moore’s Law, of ever-expanding computer power, when corporations like Apple try to deliberately sabotage perfectly useful tech to try to get you to buy the newer model. It’s now generally cheaper and easier to buy new stuff than to fix old stuff.
But what do you get when you have the desire to make something new and you don’t have the fancy tools? You experiment. That’s what we used to mean by the Kiwi “No 8 Wire” culture. During most of the 20th century we were a tiny farming outpost of the British Empire at the far end from anywhere.
You couldn’t order parts without paying prohibitively expensive freight costs and/or import duties and it would take 6 months on a leaky boat to get there. So you fixed things with what you had to hand. That’s what those people in those stupidly overstaffed New Zealand Railways workshops of the 1960s did with their times – experiment and fiddle with things.
The irony is that that tradition of what the French call bricolage – putting fancy things together from random things lying around – started dying out when you could get not only the newest tech but the newest TV and films ten seconds after they hit the streets in New York or London. I’ve heard it argued that the early films of Peter Jackson – who is a few years older than me and went to the same high school – were possibly the last gasp of that tradition.
So anyway – Au Contraire is now over. I would argue that it was a project of my generation, of Kelly’s generation – the people who were in their 20s and 30s ten years ago and wanted to take over and shake things up, doing it our way, the cheap way, the collective way.
Whatever happens next in fandom will be the work of those derided Millennials. And whatever comes after them.
Millennials get a lot of crap, but frankly I’m 100% on their side. I might not understand WhatsApp or Instagram. I may think the Internet was better, more fun, and less useful as a tool for corporate spying and Russian propaganda bots when it was, to quote the Simpsons again, just a way to find out what some nerd thought about Start Trek.
But I like what they’re doing. I honestly think that the reason my generation were thought of as “slackers” was that we had all the confidence knocked out of us. Our parents’ generation had changed the world irrevocably in the 1960s and 1970s, won freedoms that couldn’t be imagined before. Then they made it big in the property market and decided to keep the world exactly like it was, forever.
Generation X swallowed the lie that our lives were harder than our parents because we weren’t as good. You can argue whether Nirvana were better than the Beatles. But the Beatles were the voice of a generation on the way up. Kurt Cobain, rest his soul, spoke the truth of one on the way down.
Millennials, as far as I can see, don’t fall for that guilt-tripping. They’ve never grown up with the illusions that you can do things like the 1960s in a 21st century economy. They never thought they’ll own a house or have a job for life. They know they have nothing to lose. They’re digital natives who’ve learned to travel light, live under the radar, do shit that the 60-somethings can’t understand and my generation find weird but generally praiseworthy.
They are the ones who will have to organise the equivalent of Au Contraire – to create a rebirth of fandom conventions for the 2020s and beyond. I hope it will still involve filking and that Kelly and I will be welcome at it!
What I’m getting at is that I believe that the Millennials have the potential to shock and overthrow the world just as much as the radicals of 1968 did. They’re doing it in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers hit the streets to demand an end to the United States’ ridiculous trade in weapons of human slaughter. They don’t care when they’re personally abused, called the Hitler Youth or whatever, by the ancient fascists. In their lives, they’ve gotten much worse than that from the basement dwellers on 4chan, etc.
In New Zealand, the younger generation have shown the most political acumen around the issues of urban design, transport, and climate change – the three are not distinct subject. Young people of today don’t want to sit in cars in hour-long commutes on motorways to get to their McMansion in the wopwops. They want a buzzing urban culture in a clean, sustainable city with apartment-style living and public transport which can get them wherever they want to go.
And this scares the hell out of the older generation, who demonize them just as badly as the gun protestors in the United States. In both Wellington and Auckland, you’ve got older, wealthy people who were radical back in the 1970s calling young climate change activists “neoliberal wo lf cubs” and “puppets of the property developers” for wanting cycle lanes. Cycle lanes. These people are putting nails on the cycle lanes or trying to destroy them with hammers. And sometimes, they are doing it while wearing Beatles T-shirts. While wearing the cultural paraphernalia of their radical youth, they have become just as bad as the squares they fought back in the day.
History is repeating itself. Just recently I found on the internet a drawing of Emma Gonzalez – a teenage anti-gun protestor – depicted with David Bowie’s lightning-bolt makeup, and captioned with the words from his song “Changes”:
I later found out it was drawn by Bowie’s widow Iman, which is pretty special. But we can also quote that other icon of 60s radicalism, Mr Bob Dylan:
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command”
So that would be my request – to come back to the point – to the fandom of my generation, and of the fandom before it. The kids are all right. Let’s back off and give them the space, and resources, to create something we couldn’t even imagine.
I’ve got an 18 month old daughter and I love her to death. That’s her over there.
She loves books and music. She draws and plays music instruments. What will her future be like?
It’s absolutely impossible to tell. Technology could speed up so fast that we’ll hit the mythical Singularity, where the machines will take over, for good or ill (from a human POV)
Or global high-tech civilisation will collapse. The latter is more likely to happen if the people who have the power and wealth right now would rather trash the whole planet than lose power. There’s a fellow in Syria who has trashed his whole country rather than lose power. This is not hypothetical.
Whether the future is more like The Matrix or Mad Max, though, I want to be able to give Frankie the tools to make it a better world, and the ethics to want to make it a better world. And for me, the intersection between the tools of the future, and the ethics of the future, are all about what science fiction means.
The same is probably true for fantasy – although the “tools” don’t have to be actually possible, the ethical decisions remain the same.
I’ve been told that little Frankie is already a “fan”. I hope so. Maybe she’ll even be a filker. Maybe, 20 or 40 years from now, she’ll be writing or painting or drawing a different future – or living one. I look forward to sticking around to seeing it.
Thank you very much. Come to the gig tomorrow night.