Defense Against the Dark Arts: The Real-World Relevance of Wizard Rock

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From left to right: Brittany Vahlberg and Kris...From left to right: Brittany Vahlberg and Kris...
The Parselmouths perform at WrockStock 2007 (Image via Wikipedia)

We humans are slaves to the cyclical nature of our environment. The movement of the tides, the changing of seasons, hell, even sweeps week help to define the carefully choreographed dance that is our meager existence. In short, we often do things as if by command. Why, it’s positively Pavlovian!

Of late, I have come to recognize another natural pattern, one involving the mainstream’s interest in Wizard Rock, the highest echelon of Harry Potter fandom. Whenever a new movie (or, at least until recently, a new book) comes out, suddenly everyone is once again fascinated by the real-life implications of Rowling’s Wizarding World. Sadly, Muggle interest typically falls into one of two rather demeaning categories. The first is what you might refer to as the oh-how-cute camp, while the second generally falls more along the lines of look-at-those-nerds.

Now, to be fair, each of these viewpoints is based on a kernel of truth. It is rather adorable when good-natured fanaticism rears its head, and such rabid fans are, almost by definition, nerds, but the truth is there is more to Potter fandom than pointy hats and idle amusement. There is legitimate art. There is a strong sense of community. There is, oddly enough, even a unique brand of related philanthropy. In short, the community upon which Wrock is based may be superficially laughable, but, when examined on a more functional level, it’s actually quite inspiring.

The principle criticism leveled at Wizard Rock is that the music is juvenile, uninspired and absurd. Yet, rock ‘n’ roll-proper has long drawn similar inspiration from literature. Blues rock luminaries Led Zeppelin and Canadian prog rockers Rush are just two examples of notable acts that have mined the particularly studious works of J.R.R. Tolkien. More esoterically, UK space rock outfit Hawkwind – which featured a young Lemmy Kilmister, of Motörhead fame – not only regularly included sci-fi and fantasy themes and imagery in its music, but went so far as to take on author Michael Moorcock as a collaborator. Yet while the above examples are accepted, even applauded, an entire community based around a similar concept of retelling and expanding upon fantasy literature is somehow judged absurd.

Fair enough. It’s simply a matter of different strokes for different folks. Perhaps by sequestering themselves in their own scene, Wrockers don’t warrant the same level of insulation against criticism as similarly slanted mainstreamers. And after all, they’re really the only ones doing it, right?

Not necessarily.

There is the smaller, related (and sometimes rival) community that likewise focuses its music on the Twilight series. There are the Time Lord Rockers who, inspired by the Wrock community, craft musical meditations on the Doctor and his companions, and the recent explosion of Firefly-themed artists and albums. Not to mention broader acts like Blöödhag that focus purely on the greater scheme of literature and, by extension, literacy.

Examples of music based on geeky entertainment are nigh inexhaustible, but drawing such parallels is fairly precarious. The Remus Lupins lack the storied past, universal appeal and flowing seventies locks of Led Zeppelin, but note that this doesn’t immediately discount their artistic contributions. Rock has long been the refuge of the nerd seeking to reinvent himself, as music itself is a scholarly pursuit, but Wrock acts actively incorporate an element of keen self-awareness by refusing to gloss over their geeky tendencies. Such artists continue in the tradition of nerd culture’s original troubadours, the filkers, by fully embracing fandom, their own unique interests and bookish tendencies.

However, while the music is important, most scenesters would agree that it simply serves as a backdrop for the central element of Wrock fandom: the community itself. It’s that sense of togetherness, of family, that truly affords the scene its continued relevance. Even now, with the last book long since published, fans still gather in droves – at conventions such as Azkatraz in San Francisco or Wrockstock in Missouri, in regular social meet-up groups like Pennsylvania’s Potterdelphia and anywhere else friends can congregate to discuss the sinister implications of Regulus Black’s betrayal of the Dark Lord.

With only a pair of feature films left to see production in proper Potter canon, logic seems to dictate that these groups would weaken, flounder and ultimately dissolve, and yet Wrock endures. This owes no small debt to the fact that the fans, both artists and listeners, found more than merely a shared literary passion in their fellow Wrockers; they found acceptance. “It gave me a place where I could be myself and grow into who I wanted to be,” muses Lizz Clements (founder of Wizrocklopedia), “Nobody ever judged me. It reaffirmed my faith in humanity.”

This spirit of acceptance, of hopefulness, is further demonstrated by the strong undercurrent of social awareness and a yearning for positive change that runs strongly through the community. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit “dedicated to using the examples of Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore to spread love and fight the Dark Arts in the real world.” Since its inception in 2005, the HPA has raised over $15,000 to help those in need of humanitarian aid in areas like Darfur and Burma, collected 13,000 books for the children of Rwanda and other war-torn regions and taken a universal stand against prejudice and intolerance.

Headed by Andrew Slack and the brothers DeGeorge, better known as the duo behind Wrock’s own Harry and the Potters, the Alliance represents the altruistic glue that holds the scene together. Sure, Wizard Rock is about music and costumes and Fizzing Whizzbees, but it’s ultimately about leveraging youthful exuberance into an engine of societal transformation.

The HPA’s most recent initiative is another example of its effort to use Rowling’s fiction to address real world problems. The “What Would Dumbledore Do?” campaign translated the stated beliefs and attitudes of fiction’s Albus Dumbledore into a series of statements concerning freedom, justice and diversity. To that end, it became far less about the mind-set of a wizened wizard and more about simply striving to inspire fans to think positively, act progressively and make their voices heard.

Such is the true magic of J.K. Rowling’s work. Not the staggering number of books or film tickets sold. Not the property’s significant financial worth. Not even the fact that Harry Potter exposed a generation to the genuine joys of reading. If the weight of art is measured in the extent to which it inspires an audience, then surely its true value can be quantified only by what the audience does with that motivation.

Wizard Rock, like any niche movement, has proven itself an easy target for derision. Yet in spite of this, it continues to offer not only a welcoming, supportive environment for fans, but also attempts to inject a similar sense of positivity and acceptance into the world at large. Or, as one Wrocker put it, “it takes those who [don’t] have a place to belong and gives them love.” Just like Hogwarts.

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