Filk: A new definition

This is a revision of, and expansion on, a post which I made to on a subject which has long been debated: the definition of "filk."

This essay assumes that the reader is already familiar with filk music; its purpose isn't to explain, but to apply the techniques of good definition to a concept which we are already familiar with.

I believe that the attempt to define filk as a musical genre is mistaken. There isn't any particular musical style which is peculiar to filk. Any style from classical and traditional folk to the latest popular tunes can be used for a filk tune, original or reused.

The attempt to define filk by content doesn't work either. Joe Ellis has championed this approach, and he bites the bullet in accepting all music with SF and fantasy content, including Schubert's Erlking and Wagner's Ring, as filk. But this just doesn't match the way the word is used. We can add filk (2) and filk (3) to our fannish lexicons, but that doesn't help us with defining filk (1).

The most widely accepted definition of filk is (give or take a few words) "the folk music of science fiction and fantasy fandom." This is the right approach, but can lead to some mistaken conclusions. Defining "folk music" has its own problems. Is folk music traditional music by unknown people (or, as some would have it, by the community at large)? If so, can any song whose author is known be a folk song? (See "Song of the Folk Nazi.") Then few filk songs are folk. Must they be songs which are sung widely within a community? Then the more difficult songs, which only a few people can perform, aren't folk. This may be a valid criterion for folk music, but if we applied it to filk, we'd have to disqualify songs such as Scott Snyder's "Fay Grass" and Carol Kabakjian's "The Guitarist" (aka "You Must Have Come a Long Way to the Con").

It's often said that "filk is what filkers perform." This sets off alarm bells in the mind of anyone who understands definition, since it's blatantly circular. But that approach contains an element of truth: in practice, filk is generally recognized as songs produced and performed in a particular context, namely SF/fantasy fandom and closely related activities such as the SCA. Songs which are written for performance in that context are usually regarded as filk, regardless of their content.

And here comes my conclusion at last: filk is not a genre, but a movement. It's the product of a community of people with shared standards and goals. These have changed over the years, as any movement does. Constants have been interest in SF/fantasy content, openness to anyone to perform, outrageous humor, and emphasis on parody. (By "constants" I don't mean that every filk song embodies these, but that they have always been strong considerations.) Changes from the early days have included a growing stress on serious songs, a greater number of original tunes, and increased respect for copyright.

Calling filk a movement may seem like an easy-way-out definition, amounting to just "us." Definition by cultural context isn't as satisfying as definition by less mutable characteristics, such as style and content. But it's the only definition which really fits. Filk has many characteristics, and originally I had included an emphasis on parody as one of them. But a definition should have the smallest possible number of differentiating characteristics, and should select those on which the others depend. The content and the style of participation are the two most important characteristics, and other characteristics are largely their result. For instance, there is a lot of reuse of tunes, whether for parodistic purposes or not, simply because people who aren't talented songwriters are encouraged to contribute their efforts.

Formalizing this: Filk music is a musical movement among fans of science fiction and fantasy fandom and closely related activities, emphasizing content which is related to the genre or its fans, and promoting broad participation. Filkers are people who participate in this movement.

I would like to thank all the people on who offered constructive criticism of my initial draft of this essay.
Copyright 2002 by Gary McGath
Last updated May 13, 2002

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