Witch House: Harry Potter and the Wizard Rock Phenomenon

Jessica Suarez | July 27th, 2011

Confession: Last year I put on a Ravenclaw uniform — prim school girl blouse, skirt, and silver and blue tie, wool cardigan, navy-lined robe, wand pocket armed and ready — and waited 12 hours in line for the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1. I couldn’t contain my excitement, the occasion demanded sartorial manifestation through an outfit that cost me a couple hundred to put together. Totally worth it, too: I was among my people in that theater. Until, two rows and 20 seats down, another group of costumed adults pulled out an acoustic guitar and started singing, full-throated, songs about key moments in the Harry Potter series. Other rows not only approved of this, they sang along and shouted out requests. These weren’t my people — they were something I hadn’t seen before.

Like Trekkies, Deadheads, and LARPers, hardcore Harry Potter followers inject their fantasy into as many facets of reality as possible not to escape from that reality, but to make it more closely resemble their fantasy. There are the books and movies and dressing up as characters from both; there’s a real-life sport, Quidditch, and an Harry Potter-based 501(c)3 charity. And then there is Wizard Rock (or Wrock, for short), a flourishing musical genre that gets its definition from its subject matter instead of its sound or style.  Aside from ’70s-era Filk Music, a folk genre inspired by science fiction, there’s nothing quite like Wizard Rock. And certainly nothing quite as of the moment. But as the final Harry Potter film fades from theaters, and with no new installments to look forward to, can this genre survive outside of the phenomenon it’s attached to? And if you care about music but don’t care about Harry Potter, can you find anything enjoyable inside it?

“One of my favorite things that will happen is we’ll play a club and after the show we’ll have bartenders or something come up to us and say, ‘I don’t give a damn about Harry Potter, but your show was awesome,’’ says Paul DeGeorge, co-frontman (with his brother Joe) of Harry and the Potters. “And it’s just because they can see that we’re engaging people in a different way than most bands. I think they appreciate what we’re doing as a concept than the subject matter.” His band will end their two-month U.S. tour at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory July 31. Paul is both a participant and expert in Wizard Rock — his band, which started in 2002, was the first Wizard Rock group. They coined the genre name, as a joke. But hundreds of shows (and hundred of other Wizard Rock bands) later, they play conventions, libraries and legit rock clubs (though usually for an all ages audience).

Harry and the Potters

I listened, for example, to an entire compilation of Wizard Rock bands like Roonil Wazlib and the Whomping Willows singing about independent media. Their Voldemort is Rupert Murdoch.

First, some distinctions: There are three kinds of Wizard Rock songs, designed to attract fans of different ages and levels of fan engagement. At the most basic level, musicians sing directly to the narrative of Harry Potter. Bands like The Moaning Myrtles and the Hermoine Crookshanks Experience function almost as bards — telling and retelling the mini-stories throughout the novels, turning even minor characters into heroes. Another variety of Wizard Rock band (Draco and the Malfoys, The Remus Lupins) tell the stories in the novels but also travel outside this — concentrating on the hormonal atmosphere that permeates the books: unrequited love, loneliness, rejection. Sex often pops up, sometimes its graphic (girls naked under school robes comes up a bit), yet these songs usually stick to canon in a way that HP slash fiction does not. Wizard Rock bands at the third level pull back even further. These musicians — like French folk band Basilisk In Your Pasta — take the themes that J. K. Rowling instilled in the books and distill them in song. The anti-bureaucratic, anti-fascist, anti-racist messages contained inside a story about a boy wizard are the focus. There’s only a tacit agreement that we’re talking about Harry Potter — remove a few proper names and these bands could be Fugazi (coincidentally, the DeGeorge brothers’ personal heroes). Sometimes the songs are about the fan community itself. Harry and the Potters jump between all these levels, singing about events and emotions, but also releasing their own albums and booking their own tours while organizing human rights projects through the charity they co-founded, Harry Potter Alliance. This connection to human rights is common. I listened, for example, to an entire compilation of Wizard Rock bands like Roonil Wazlib and the Whomping Willows singing about independent media. Their Voldemort is Rupert Murdoch. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re just singing about Rupert Murdoch. Why, then, don’t they just sing about those things? Why marginalize yourself within a fan community? For one thing, marginalization isn’t a side effect, it’s the point. The Rupert Murdoch references aren’t just trading fictional evil for real evil: The books themselves contain a strong DIY message — when Harry is persecuted by a corrupt government, his friends turn to an independent zine and pirate radio to exonerate him. The community around Wizard Rock rewards the same spirit in their bands.

In terms of quality, Wizard Rock is not unlike other genres: There are a few genuinely good bands, a lot of maybe okay bands, and a few unlistenable bands. It’s probably no coincidence that a lot of them sound like Weezer — melodic, mid-tempo indie rock that fits the teenage yearning of the lyrics. But there’s also Dumbledork, a one-man laptop project whose songs twitch with Tigerbeat6-style micro slices, or are otherwise constructed of fluid, distant samples and beats. (I’m guessing the shift corresponds to when the artist started or stopped listening to DJ Shadow.) Voldemort is a Wizard Rock metal band who wrap their songs around the novels’ mystical and dark creatures — serpents, owls, wolves. In that way, they’re not much different from other metal bands. And then there are bands who play on one single element of the Potter series. Paul DeGeorge likes Mermaids Above Water. In the Harry Potter universe, mermaid language sounds like screeching when the speaker is out of water, so the music follows suit. “It’s these loungey piano songs, and then this white noise layered on top that’s really screechy,” Paul says. “That plays to a much, much more limited audience of me and like 10 other people who think that’s a funny joke.”

We’re too close to the pop culture phenomenon of Harry Potter to know if it’ll thrive the way Star Wars or Star Trek has. DeGeorge pointed out that his band’s gigs keep bringing in new audiences.  “It’s so cool to see not just the books being passed down to the kids but our music as well. Because these parents are cool and they play loud music in the car,” DeGeorge says. It’s not a huge leap to envision a time — maybe a couple decades from now, when those kids are old enough to start bands — where musical references to the Harry Potter novels will be an accepted quirk of a band, rather than their defining characteristic, like Led Zeppelin sprinkling Lord of the Rings references into “Ramble On” and “Battle of Evermore.” Or perhaps Harry Potter itself could stand in for its themes, much as Alice In Wonderland became shorthand for jarring and unverifiable experiences in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” I guess my hope is kinda big, then: for Harry Potter to die as a pop culture phenomenon and rise as part of the cultural lexicon.