With the recent award of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Ursula LeGuin, famed fantasy author, for her lifetime achievement Fantasy and Sci Fi (not ScyFy) has finally emerged from the “genre” ghetto. In her acceptance speech, Ms. LeGuin took a swipe at the publishing world’s bias towards “realism” (her quote marks) versus “the realists of a greater reality” whom, among other virtues, “can remember freedom.” For those not privy to the categories of the publishing world, there exists what editors and publishers call “literary fiction,” (meaning that all other types of writing is not “literary”). You have no doubt encountered it, even if you did not know what to call it: stories with vivid, poetic even, descriptive passages, heavy on character but with nonexistent or minimal plot. You had to read them back in school and suffered through every page; more recently your more snobbish friends insist you buy the latest offering; but you quietly abandon the effort to read it after only a few pages yet left the book on your coffee table so your friends would know you were up on the latest intellectual literary trend. Then you pick up a book that you actually enjoy reading.
Meanwhile, for some time now, there have been growing hordes of fans of assorted subsets of Fantasy or Sci Fi who have now qualms about obsessing over their favorite author, be it Tolkien, George L.L. Martin or the godmother of dragon fantasy, Ms. LeGuin. Hollywood has certainly had no qualms about pursuing whatever “high concept” projects seems most opportune at the moment. When George Martin first began attending ComicCon, it was a small hard core group of devoted fans; now it is a massive event with Hollywood types descending on it as thick as ghouls in a graveyard on Halloween. Nor are their efforts limited to the printed medium: not just magazines, books and comic books, but movies, television and video games, as well as newer interactive media we can barely imagine right now.
The strength and longevity of Fantasy, like Sci Fi, lies with it devoted fan base. Of course, this is hardly new; they have had their devotees going back for generations. But the advent of newer formats, such as YouTube has allowed followers of these speculative fiction genres to pursue their obsession in ways they were unable to do before. While many think YouTube as merely a medium filled with piano playing cats and assorted arch home videos, it has also grown to be an outlet for varied artistic endeavors and fans wanting to create their own homages to their favorite author, tv show, film or video game.
Many such fan efforts are edifying or entertaining, but hardly original: clips from a favorite Fantasy or Sci Fi effort tied together with a song from a popular rock group linking them. But there are also some artists whose videos are original creations in their own right, inspired by these popular pieces of speculative fiction.
Musicians and visual artists have long been inspired by Tolkien, Game of Thrones and create a short video for YouTube. But in recent years, Skyrim, Mass Effect and Halo, plus a gaggle of other vivid and complex computer games, have also generated their own fanatical followers as well. At one time, video games were the exclusive domain of male gamers; but now, with the ability to personalize one’s own game hero, you may find your teen daughter’s video protagonists look suspiciously look her. The immersive nature of computer gaming, in particular, can engender an emotional attachment on the part of players that is hard for outsiders to fathom.
On YouTube there are nearly infinite variations of fan videos: most are pedestrian and a few are clever, but the original efforts, where the creators are inspired to produce an original piece and show genuine talent, are what attract most attention. More and more, teens and twenty-somethings have turned to YouTube and other online media to find music; fewer and fewer frequent corporate controlled radio or tv to discover new talent. Original music videos, while sometime lacking the polish of commercial efforts, nonetheless attract their own coterie of devoted followers and more and more the record companies are being left in the dust by these new venues for discovering new talent. This combination of music, new media and fandom leads to new and interesting combinations.
One of the best known exemplars of this growing tend is a young musician named Lindsey Stirling. She had tried going the mainstream route, performing on America’s Got Talent and billing herself as a “Hip-Hop Violinist” she did not win top prize, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Since then, starting with simple YouTube video covers of Lord of the Ring’s “May it Be” or Skyrim’s popular theme song, her violin cum dance videos have grown a far larger following than she could have on radio. Her more recent videos have become increasingly more professional looking, with her recent Dragon Age Inquisition cover using cgi to enhance her dance and fiddle work. While she may describes her technique as “hip-hop,” in truth she more closely resemblesMairead Nesbitt of The Celtic Women and her deft dancing violin work. Lindsey’s pixyish looks favor Celtic or Medieval sounding music; she also collaborates with other YouTube artists on her videos whose forte is singing. With some 39 million followers and growing, she has certainly achieved greater success than any traditional recording contract would have garnered her.
Karliene (Karliene Reynolds) is a talented singer who has used YouTube videos to parlay her vocal skills to a broader public than would otherwise be possible. She too is inspired by Celtic and historical fantasy in her work, creating songs and videos employing music or themes from The Hobbit, Game of Thrones and similar fantasy hits. Her flaming red hair betrays her Celtic roots, hailing originally from Dunfermline, Scotland, but she now calls Melbourne, Australia home. Although she may be inspired by Celtic myth and legend, her music has a more rock sensibility to it. On one of her latest releases, “Smaug’s Song” (I Am Fire) is inspired by the dragon in The Hobbit movie trilogy, Karliene sounds very much like a young Stevie Nicks in Fleetwood Mac’s heyday. Karliene can also do some great bluesy Jazz, such as her video cover of the “Why Don’t You Right” from the vintage animated Roger Rabbit movie. But even a very simple video, such as the sad and soulful but beautiful “Kindle My Heart” displays her talents to good effect.
Another rising YouTube star is Malukah (Judith de los Santos). Her videos are generally simpler, sometimes resembling that of a home-made vlog and with her baby blue eyes and broad smile she more resembles the girl next store than a singer and musician. In this case, next door is Monterey, Mexico, another intimation of the international reach of YouTube. She has collaborated with other musicians and singers on her videos, including Miracle of Sound (the Irish rocker Gavin Dunne) and other YouTube luminaries. Like the other artists, Malukah is very much inspired by Game of Thrones and Tolkien; but Judith, whose voice is more of the angels than de los Santos, is also an inveterate gamer and she has penned or covered a number of songs inspired by popular computer games, including Skyrim, Dragon Age and Mass Effect. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, her goal seems to do sound and music for video games and while she occasionally performs live (including South by Southwest in Texas), one gets the impression she would prefer to perform from her home studio than go on the road and do the traditional music business route.
Malukah reminds one a bit of Lady Gaga back in days when she was still a folk singer playing nightclubs and before she sold out her talent to heavy electronic overdubbing, flamethrower bras and exploding panties. It is doubtful that Malukah will go that route, fortunately: her career goals seem more in the realm arranging and composing and serenading her dog Thor, and though she has an operatic vocal range her emotional intensity is much closer to that of a soulful County song. In her music production she favors the acoustic ambience of a cathedral, which fits well with her Skyrim, Dragon Age and Lord of the Rings covers. She puts a great deal of emotion into her songs inspired by her favorite computer games, which if one is not a video game enthusiast may seem hard to fathom; the abundance of grace notes in her singing, however, is more typical of Country music than rock or pop, although she has not delved into that style of music to the best of this reviewer’s knowledge. One can but wonder how her talents at composing and singing would sound if applied to Country Music or, for that matter, if she did a live performance in the sacred space of the Nashville Parthenon rather than simply using the “ambient church” preset on her digital sound studio software. Although she may be reclusive compared to traditional recording artists, nonetheless, fans internationally seem to have found her: her cover of Skyrim’s “The Dragonborn Comes” video got over 13 million hits and she has over 130,000 regular followers. Not bad for a shy but talented girl next door.