Filk: Broadly speaking, the music of fandom. Filk encompasses parody songs, with original lyrics set to familiar tunes; and original music with science fiction or fantasy themes. A program of filk music is called a filksing1.
Xeni Jardin wrote about the genre in a 2005 article for Wired magazine, “Filk Music for Nerd People”:
Accompanied by acoustic guitars, clarinets and the quacking of kazoos, the group sounds much like a traditional folk ensemble. But the lyrics and rituals set the music far apart. With its heavy sci-fi themes, this isn’t folk – it's “filk,” a distinctive genre that took root on folk’s fringes about two decades ago and is now gaining broader attention thanks to internet radio and web downloads.
“You want minors [sic!] on the moon who need a labor union? We got songs about that. You want asteroid truckers with broken-down ships? We got songs about that. If you want cats in space we got that too,” explains Mary Creasey, an organizer, producer, vendor and performer of filk music with her son Richard and her husband, John.
Filk is actually older than Jardin purports. The earliest recorded appearance of the word was in the title of an article written in the mid-1950s by one Lee Jacobs, “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music,” in which filk was a typo for folk. The article, which Jacobs submitted to Spectator Amateur Press Society, was never published, but, according to Filk.com, Jacobs showed it to his friends and the misprint caught on among science fiction fans in the 1960s.
Attempts to define filk often resort to explaining what the genre isn’t. Here is Filk.com’s explanation of “What Is Not Filk”:
Instrumental pieces do not fall into the category of filk; filk music contains both music and lyrics. Holst’s THE PLANETS, Mozart's JUPITER SYMPHONY, and John Williams’ numerous scores for blockbuster science fiction movies do not, therefore, count as filk music. Drug songs are NOT filk songs. The Moody Blues’ Floating, the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit are full of space or fantasy references, but these are references for people who need to take drugs to experience space flight or flights of fancy. The rest of us read science fiction.
There is a filk track at this year’s Dragon*Con, which concludes today in Atlanta. The convention, now in its 24th year, bills itself as “the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe.” Here’s how DragonConFilk’s home page describes filk:
Filk is the music of science fiction, fantasy, and horror fandom. That being said, the only thing that is certain about Filk is its inherent uncertainty. There are original filks, parodies, and “found filks” from both independent and mainstream music. There are acapella filkers, acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, gear and gadgets. Filk’s musical styles cross all ages and cultural boundaries. Egalitarian by nature, Filk also includes all musical abilities. Some of us prefer to sit and listen. Some of us are seasoned musicians. Some of us are divas. Some of us are divos (not kidding). Some of us are just learning.
Watch a six-minute video about filk from Georgia Public Broadcasting, via FanStuff.
1 According to Interfilk.org, “Most filksings take one of two forms: Bardic Circle or Chaos.”
I think Xeni Jardin (Her real name? Great Bond-villainess moniker!) should have depended a little less on her spell-checker, unless she was talking about young kids on the moon, not unionized ore-diggers (Happy Labor Day!).
That said, I'm a fan of a few filk hits - most notably "Mal's Song", an extension of Sonny Rhodes' great-but-too-brief opening theme from Joss Whedon's tremendous "Firefly". Instead of spoofing a popular song, it takes the cool, dusty, acoustic guitar song - just 50 seconds long - and uses it as a chorus, adding whole new verses with references to the show's mythology.
Posted by: Mark Gunnion | September 06, 2010 at 01:13 PM
Thank you! NPR annoyed me a few weeks ago when they featured the word on Says You. The "correct" definition of filk was given as music from sci-fi films. WAY too simplistic. They ended up talking about how theremin music was filk. It most definitely is not. Theremin (Day the Earth Stood Still) and electronic tonalities (Forbidden Planet) are in a whole other genre, as the quote you include explains.
Posted by: Shawna | September 07, 2010 at 04:07 PM
Shawna: I heard that "Says You" broadcast, too! And I had the same reaction you did: "Wait--what?" Unfortunately, the "Says You" website doesn't provide links to individual shows.
Posted by: Nancy Friedman | September 07, 2010 at 04:12 PM