Singer-songwriter Vienna Teng may not seem like an obvious geek culture icon, but she’s found a new audience through an unlikely source: fanvidding.
Fanvids have been around for decades, usually taking the form of clips from TV shows and movies set to a carefully chosen song. The best ones take days or weeks to make and are highly skilled endeavours, using clever editing and song choices to make a point, whether it’s something as simple as “I love Star Trek and so should you” or “Jeff and Annie from Community are in love,” to more complex issues like pointing out the racist subtext in Firefly. There are whole conventions dedicated to vidding, but relatively few fanvids find an audience outside of online fandom. “Starships” is one that went viral, a brilliant and easily accessible celebration of sci-fi spaceships.
You can make a fanvid to any soundtrack, but Teng’s songs seem to pop up in every major fandom of the past 10 years. Even taking into account the fandom stereotype of young, nerdy women (Regina Spektor and Dessa are also popular vidding choices), Teng’s fannish status has grown far beyond what you’d predict from her level of success in the real world.
In a way her music has spread like a meme, passing from person to person. When she released an album under a Creative Commons license last year, a group of fanvidders decided to take the whole thing and make it into a kind of multifandom fanvid concept album: Aims. The resulting project includes political commentary, abstract concepts like a vid about “infrastructure,” and more traditionally emotional vids like this uplifting take on Pacific Rim.
I met up with some of the Aims project creators at the Nine Worlds convention this week, and asked them just what it was that drew so many vidders to Teng.
“She’s really lyrically and musically interesting,” said Llin, who has been making Star Trek fanvids for several years. “Most pop music is kind of just straightforward romantic stories. If you want to do something different, you have to go further afield to find a musical artist who’s doing stuff that’s slightly more interesting, telling different types of stories.”
“One of the nice things about her music is that it’s often very metaphorical,” added such_heights. “It’s ideal with sci-fi and fantasy, because there aren’t that many songs specifically talking about those kinds of things. But if you have something that’s quite abstract and poetic anyway, then it’s easier to apply it to something further afield than, ‘We went to the club on Friday and it was great.’ If you’re working in a fandom world where they don’t have clubs, where the clubs were all bombed to the ground a hundred years ago, then having something that’s a little more abstract can be useful.”
Aims explores a surprisingly diverse range of source material and vidding styles, from fandom-popular shows like Sleepy Hollow and Doctor Who to the ballet series Bunheads.
As I listen, I begin to understand what people are talking about when they discuss the nature of Teng’s lyrics. They really do seem to fit perfectly every time, partly because they’re incredibly open to interpretation.
“The more I listened to the lyrics, the more relevant they seemed to Doctor Who,” said purplefringe, whose contribution to Aims was a vid called Never Look Away. “And the more episodes of Doctor Who came out, the more relevant they seemed to be, to the extent that I felt Teng was probably a time traveller.”
Of course, there are a few that can be taken a little more literally. Teng’s “In the 99” is a song about the Occupy movement, and was an obvious choice for an exploration of class divides in The Hunger Games.
The only specific overarching theme I notice across the album is the absence of traditional heroes like Iron Man, Harry Potter and so on, which one of the creators freely admits is down to the group’s desire to “not vid white dudes all the time.” This kind of goal is typical for fanworks of any genre, since the two main sources of fannish inspiration are either an interest in further exploring the canon universe (Firefly, Harry Potter), or critiquing or improving upon flawed canons.
One song on the album, “Level Up,” has become such an anthem of female empowerment in fandom that it’s already gone on to be vidded for multiple sources, including Pacific Rim, Buffy and in the case of this project, Sleepy Hollow.
“I think she writes songs that really kind of capture the feelings that you find within fandom,” explained such_heights. “And she uses such beautiful imagery that sounds like it’s talking about something that’s happening not just on earth, but in space. There’s lots of star imagery and space imagery, which gives it this really epic sense that fits in with alien gods and time travel and that kind of thing.” Since most fandoms tend to focus on sci-fi and fantasy, these kinds of lyrics are an obvious boon to fanvidders.
These expansive lyrical themes led to what is probably the strangest vidding choice on the Aims project: “Landsailor” by Raven, which can be streamed below using the password 230V. Using clips from various sources including The West Wing, NASA archive footage and the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, it’s almost as open to interpretation as Teng’s own lyrics—a video about hard work, exploration, building, community, and civilization.
“My vid is the only multifandom one, and it’s also the one that is probably not a fanwork,” said Raven. “It’s definitely one that’s more about the song than about the sources. We went to a concert and the way [Teng] put it was that it’s a song about late capitalism. Which I get. It’s a song about great, expanding themes. And the resulting thing turned out to be a vid not particularly about the individual fandoms, but really about… infrastructure.”
Thanks to the international nature of the Aims project, the fanvid album has only aired once in its entirety, at the VidUKon convention this year. It was an emotional moment for all involved, the little community of collaborators coming together for the first time. Although, of course, they were missing one key member: Teng herself.
It would be interesting to find out just how much she knows about her impact on fan culture. While many fanvids risk being taken down by music labels, Teng’s release of Aims on a Creative Commons license is an active invitation to remix, rework and recreate her music. And that’s what fanvidding is all about.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons