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Towards a definition of "filk"

"Filk" as a term has been around since at least 1953. Filk as a musical endeavor has been around since long before. But even the Wikipedia page about filk admits that there is no categorical definition of it (although the Wiktionary page has some interesting information about its origins).

And yet, everyone seems to pretty much know what it is. Everyone, that is, who performs or listens to it. So why is it so hard to pin down a definition?

A very good attempt at a definition was given by Melissa Tatum, Robert Spoo, and Banjamin Pope in their academic paper "Does Gender Influence Attitudes Toward Copyright in the Filk Community?" (summarized in this io9 article), but I find that definition incomplete.

Though I am a musician and a filk artist, and music has always been a large part of my life, I am primarily a writer. A songwriter, a novelist, a poet, a lyricist, a technical writer, and a blogger, among other things. So words are important to me, and their usage is important to me. It has bugged me for years that "filk" is so inconsistently defined. So I've been thinking about this for a while now, and I think I've hit upon a possible definition that is both specific and non-exclusive.

So . . . here goes.

filk /fIlk/ n [typo of "folk" in unpublished essay; first deliberate usage in Die Zeitschrift für Vollständigen Unsinn (The Journal of Utter Nonsense) #774 by Karen Kruse Anderson to describe a song written by Poul Anderson] c. 1953 — a kind of music, often (but not always) humorous and often (but not always) set to popular tunes, with lyrics about "geeky" topics such as science, science fiction, superheroes, computers, cats, genre television shows, genre movies, role-playing games, cosplay, fantasy literature and other media, historical recreation, and many, many others.

Okay, there's a lot going on in there, so let me break it down a little.

often (but not always) humorous: A lot of people think that almost all, if not all, filk music is funny, or intended to be funny. This is not true. Obviously, a great deal of filk is funny, and filk is one of the few musical forms that fully embraces humor (another is country and western—e.g. "Put Another Log On the Fire" and "Take This Job and Shove It"). But there is plenty of filk music out there that is intentionally not humorous in nature. Take, for example, Leslie Fish's "Valhalla", Seanan McGuire's "Causes and Effects", and Vixy and Tony's "Erased" (not to mention my own "The Man Dressed In Brown").

often (but not always) set to popular tunes: While parody makes up a large part of the body of filk music, it's not the whole thing. A great deal of filk is entirely original. Examples include "What If I Were a Superhero?" by Tom Smith, "Super Powers" by Ookla the Mok, and "Siren Song" by Vixy and Tony (and, of course, my own "Spoilers").

with lyrics about "geeky" topics: This, I believe, is where both the specificity and the non-exclusivity comes in. Yes, it "excludes" things that aren't "geeky", but "geeky" is an ever-changing, ever-broadening category. The examples I set forth in the definition itself are just that: examples. To try to pin it down any further would be to exclude whole swaths of filk music. It's not just about science fiction and fantasy; what about all the SCA filk, for instance? Or filk about non-genre TV shows? Or cats?

What it does exclude are topics that are, for lack of a better description, general human experiences. A straight-up love song is not filk, even if it invokes some geeky imagery. For example, no one would call "Stardust" a filk song, nor do I consider my own "The Hard Way" or "Princes, Friends, and Lovers" to be filk. The line is kinda fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure most would agree that a song has to have a certain amount of geeky content to be considered filk. The exact amount may, however, be up to the individual listener.

Now, there are a few things that this definition deliberately does not invoke. For instance:

Popularity: A filk song does not have to be a song that no one but filkers and fans have heard of. "Jimmy Olson's Blues" by the Spin Doctors, "The Battle of Evermore" by Led Zeppelin, "Into the Void" by Black Sabbath, "Knights of Cydonia" by Muse, "Rocket Man" by Elton John, "The Call of Ktulu" by Metallica, and whole bunches of others—by this definition, they are all filk. Can anyone give me a good reason why they should not be considered filk?

Genre: Although "filk" was originally a typo of the word "folk", not all filk is in folk music style. Rock and roll, the blues, country and western, rap/hip-hop, heavy metal, and even jazz are represented within the body of filk music. And I'd be willing to bet there's even some opera filk out there . . .

Quality: To many people who are not a part of the filk community, "filk" equals "bad"—even some of my friends have this knee-jerk response to filk, even if they enjoy my own filk songs. And sometimes I'll even hear "But what you do isn't filk; your stuff is good!" Sorry, but I beg to differ. Yes, there is a fair amount of filk that is of poor quality. But, frankly, most of everything is of poor quality. Filk culture, however, encourages broad participation and the development of nascent talent, which means that some of the people who perform at filk circles or other filk events won't be considered by the general public to be very good musicians. But this is an aspect of filk culture, not filk music. Just as there are good and bad folk songs, rock and roll songs, country and western songs, jazz songs, etc., so are there good and bad filk songs.

(Slight digression: I once mentioned to a friend of mine that Gregory Page is a jazz musician. She replied, "No he isn't! I hate jazz!")

Whew! Okay, now that that's done, I invite commentary and debate on this subject, as long as it is polite and non-judgmental. I've done a lot of research, thought through the issue a great deal, and spent most of a day writing this entry. But I'm just one guy, so there's probably something I've missed, something I've glossed over, or something that I just got plain wrong. So please, let's discuss. Thanks. :)



( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2014 04:40 pm (UTC)

I'd always considered a core part of the definition of filk to be that it was new words set to a known tune… but my exposure to it was through the SCA rather than fannish communities - that might have something to do with it. (And. of course, there is absolutely no reason why a filk artist cannot also write original music! That just doesn't fit my understanding of filk...)

Oct. 16th, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
And I'm sure that's because there are almost as many "definitions" of filk as there are filkers. ;-) This has been my humble attempt at trying to glean something common out of the myriad, and often contradictory, definitions and create something consistent, concise, and inclusive. But, as madfilkentist points out, the definition I created may in fact exclude some music that is widely considered to be filk, and so the definition may require some reworking or may need to be tossed entirely. I suppose we'll see where this goes.
Oct. 16th, 2014 05:05 pm (UTC)
I think filk has to be defined culturally, not by subject matter. Are Julia Ecklar's "Crane Dance," Cat Faber's "The Word of God," or Kathy Mar's "Drink Up the River" about geeky topics? Maybe, but to let them in you need a really broad definition of "geeky," one that admits an awful lot of mainstream music. Coming at it from the other side, is Il Mondo de la Luna filk? It's an 18th century opera, but its plot concerns a moon landing hoax.

We also have to deal with the fact that many people who do geeky music, such as Weird Al and Jonathan Coulton, prefer not to be considered filkers. We can say they're wrong, but it makes sense to ask why they don't. I think it's because they recognize they aren't part of the same cultural group.

For these reasons, I consider filk to be a musical movement or culture, one which grew out of organized SF fandom but now has a distinct identity of its own while maintaining close ties to its parent culture.
Oct. 16th, 2014 07:34 pm (UTC)
These are all good points. Allow me to address them:

1) "culturally, not by subject matter": My point was actually to specifically define filk music as separate from filk culture. If filk music is only the music produced within, or for, filk culture, then filk music doesn't really exist as an independent thing. My contention, however, is that it does have an existence beyond filk culture.

2) "Are Julia Ecklar's 'Crane Dance,' Cat Faber's 'The Word of God,' or Kathy Mar's 'Drink Up the River' about geeky topics?" They may or may not be; I can't speak to them, not being familiar with them. However, as I said in my essay, it is possible, and even somewhat common, for filk artists to write and perform non-filk songs. I don't consider my song "The Hard Way" to be filk, even though my filk-loving audience enjoys it when I perform it. Or it could be that...

3) "to let them in you need a really broad definition of 'geeky,' one that admits an awful lot of mainstream music." And that's partly my point--there is in fact a lot of filk in mainstream music.

4) Il Mondo de la Luna: Again, I can't speak to it, being unfamiliar with it. But I don't see any reason why it oughtn't to at least be considered for inclusion. There may be other factors that make it unsuitable to being called "filk", but its subject matter lends itself to the term.

5) "many people who do geeky music, such as Weird Al and Jonathan Coulton, prefer not to be considered filkers." They aren't part of filk culture, and so to call themselves filkers would be to presume inclusion in a social group that they do not in fact belong to. But I still think it's legitimate to call what they produce "filk". Knowing nothing about the authors of the respective songs, would you be able to definitively say that "Yoda" or "Re: Your Brains" are a different category of music than "Banned from Argo", "Superman's Sex Life Boogie", or "Never Set the Cat on Fire"?

I think your definition in the last paragraph is a wonderful definition of filk culture. But I still think that there is a distinct definition of filk music, one that doesn't depend on said culture.

But please, if you disagree with me, tell me why and give me examples and supporting evidence. I'm willing to admit that I may be full of it. ;-)
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:17 pm (UTC)
I still think that there is a distinct definition of filk music, one that doesn't depend on said culture.

And we've hit it on the nose. madfilkentist and a lot of other filkers would argue that oneof the best, if not only, workable definitions of filk is "music filkers sing," thus refusing to draw the distinction here.
Oct. 17th, 2014 10:28 am (UTC)
That's pretty much it. There's no special reason to have a special name for music that has geeky subject matter, unless it's just "geeky music" or "geek music." (The latter term, at least, has become common.) Geekiness has become almost mainstream, and a term derived from a typo in an unpublished zine article is meaningless to most of the people who occasionally enjoy such songs. Why not just use descriptive terms that everyone understands for them?
Oct. 17th, 2014 01:11 pm (UTC)
Except, of course, that the term "filk" is already being used in this fashion. It is very slowly percolating out of the filk community and SF/F fandom into the general musical community. It's been around long enough that some people are treating it as a "genre", which is why I think that a definition of the term is a good idea to have.
Oct. 17th, 2014 01:21 pm (UTC)
Also, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, at least 350 English words have entered the language as a result of a typographical error. So "filk" is in good company.
Oct. 16th, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
(a) This seems like a case where Wittgenstein's parable may be applicable: Here is a rope that stretches from A to B and that holds A and B together. But there is no single fiber in the rope that stretches all the way from A to B. What holds it together is that different fibers overlap all along its length. Wittgenstein suggests that a lot of words are like that. If you look at the long series of definitions in a dictionary for many common English words there's some evidence to support him.

(b) I would not call "Rocket Man" filk, for two different reasons:

(i) Sociologically, filk is akin to the folk from which it sprang: its composers are mainly performers who are creating works that they themselves intend to perform; a lot of it is performed in participatory venues; it's not created either for primarily commercial motives or in pursuit of grants or patronage—it's music of a particular "folk."

(ii) At least in "Rocket Man," the SF content is not what the song is about. The song is about being a working class stiff whose job doesn't mean much to him except routine and a measure of hardship. The rocketry is a trope or a metaphor; there's nothing specific about rocketry that's essential to the theme—it could just as well be about the formerly glamorous professions of aviator or railroad engineer. The same could be said about "Space Oddity," which uses astronautics as a metaphor for drug addiction (as the followup song said, "We know Major Tom's a junkie"). I wouldn't say that about every popular song that has sfnal content—Queen's "'39" is a magnificent bit of future history on the theme of interstellar colonization ("In the days when lands were few") and relativistic time distortion, and all the more so in that it conveys those themes without a single phrase that couldn't have been sung about the Age of Sail—the sf isn't in the imagery but in what the imagery is about.

I don't put forth any of those as a conclusive position. They're just things that have struck me about this topic.
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:06 pm (UTC)
Excellent points. I'm a bit too brain-dead right now to properly respond to them, but I promise that I will at some point in the next 24-48 hours.
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:28 pm (UTC)
Sure. I'm not in a hurry for a response; I just found the topic interesting.
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:47 pm (UTC)
Good. That's what I was hoping for. :)
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:15 pm (UTC)
I've heard "Rocket Man" sung in circle, FWIW. I (and many like me) consider it, and "'39" and a lot of others, to be "found filk," inasmuch as it wasn't written with knowledge or awareness of filk, but has been adopted and played by filkers.
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:28 pm (UTC)
That sounds like the adoption of a work between different traditions and communities. Kind of like Willie Nelson's collection of dub, ska, and reggae versions of classic country songs.

Then there's the case of Tom Lehrer, whose music really was geeky from the start. . . .
Oct. 16th, 2014 08:31 pm (UTC)
...and who is also regularly sung in circle, but given his generally low opinion of folk music, probably wouldn't like it if he heard it.

The fact that the filk tradition has the term "found filk" suggests how important, and common, the concept is.
Oct. 17th, 2014 10:30 am (UTC)
Lehrer has turned his back even on his own songs, considering them a youthful aberration.
Oct. 17th, 2014 10:38 am (UTC)
Has he? I thought he just isn't interested in satire anymore ("I don't want to satirize George W. Bush, I want to vaporize him") and wasn't really worried about lasting copyright. He still does his math songs, I know, once in a while. (And the political ones are way out of date.)
Oct. 17th, 2014 11:42 am (UTC)
I've heard plenty of examples of the "X cannot be Y, because I like X and don't like Y." Too many times.

Defing "Filk" is going to be hard since (a) it means different things to different people, and (b) it is a moving target.
Oct. 17th, 2014 03:49 pm (UTC)
Is that a comment on my point about "Rocket Man" and "Space Oddity"? If so, it seems off target; I said nothing about whether I like either of them. Nor, for that matter, about whether I like filk.

Edited at 2014-10-17 07:50 pm (UTC)
Oct. 17th, 2014 03:56 pm (UTC)
I was replying in general. Over time the unspoken/unwritten concept of what Filk has changed.

Artists that were dismissed as "not filk" in the past are now considered "filk" even though they are doing the same kind of music.

For that matter: define "Science Fiction," "speculative fiction," "fandom," etc. Even over my relatively brief 20 year tenure in fandom, I've seen the concept incorporated by those terms change inside and outside the community.

OK for a new debate along these lines: is Janice Ian's "Welcome Home (the SFWA song)" filk?

Edited at 2014-10-17 07:58 pm (UTC)
Oct. 17th, 2014 04:17 pm (UTC)
I can't form an opinion as I haven't heard it.

Of course there are inherent difficulties in defining a historical entity, and all those things are historical entities. That's one of the things that contributes to Wittgenstein's point.
Oct. 17th, 2014 04:30 pm (UTC)
No, it's a response to the point I raise in the antepenultimate and penultimate paragraphs of the original post.

Edited at 2014-10-18 12:45 am (UTC)
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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