Nerd culture has finally gotten so big that it’s beginning to spawn nerd detractors who seem to feel some concern for what they see as the “mainstreaming” of nerd culture. I don’t consider myself a nerd (which doesn’t mean that I’m not a nerd; I try really hard not to put myself in any categories, a social stance which very often earns me immediate grouping as a “pretentious asshole”), so I don’t really have a stake in the mild nerd hysteria that was caused by Patton Oswalt’s Wired article (linked to above). I thought the article was a good read and made some interesting points. Some nerds were offended and the internet is full of passionate (though often far less literate) rebuttals, but my take on the whole thing is this: I like what I like, I don’t care what you think I am because of what I like, and I certainly don’t give a fuck if anybody else likes what I like. I have enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons, I love to watch football, I’m currently reading, enjoying and I dare say understanding (I think) Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and I read web comics. Am I a nerd? I don’t care. If you call me a nerd, that says more about you and what you think a nerd is than it says about me.
I do know this: a lot of nerd music, which I call nerdcore (whether it’s correct or not), makes me pretty uncomfortable. First off, a lot of it falls into the category of what I call novelty songs – gimmicky songs designed to illicit giggles and show that the artist is some kind of cleverish beast, often without much consideration for a little thing I think of as “musical quality.” This is a trait some nerdcore music shares with Christian rock, sadly; it’s a problem of being so caught up in your message that you forget that a song isn’t just the bold declaration of some shit you think is true. That can and should be part of a song, but it shouldn’t be the whole thing.
It’s worth noting that there are some good “nerd” musicians out there, like Jonathan Coulton, but he also doesn’t seem to use his nerditude as armor against the outside world. In fact, I think of Coulton like a nerdish Woody Guthrie, a man whose music can appeal to people from all walks of life and still have a special place in the hearts of people who’ve played Portal one thousand times and who will tell you, every single time you order dessert, that the cake is a lie. A friend of mine recently recommended I check out Marian Call’s music on bandcamp, especially her album Got to Fly, which was apparently inspired by Firefly (which I love) and Battlestar Galactica (which I have never watched by have a pretty strong disposition toward loving). So, lacking other music to check out at the moment, I spent some time on bandcamp and am willing to share some thoughts with you regarding Marian Call (by the way, you should also take this post as in implicit endorsement of bandcamp – you can listen to the entire album before you buy it and you’re buying directly from the artist. It’s fucking great).
There might be some people reading this who just became slightly sexually aroused by the concept of an album inspired by Firefly and Battlestar Galactica (or BSG, for your acronym-loving nerds), but my first concern about Got to Fly is what an insular piece of art it is. Musically, it’s mostly a fine album, but it opens with a song called “I’ll Still Be a Geek After Nobody Thinks It’s Chic (The Nerd Anthem)” which, honestly, depresses me. Nerds have the right to celebrate their unique culture (which is, according to Patton Oswalt, growing less unique by the minute – I kind of agree with him on that point) in music, but I’m less and less interested in music that seems to shrink a community instead of growing it. The more nerds (or rock fans or hip-hop fans, for that matter) isolate themselves within the one kind of music with which they’re most comfortable, the easier it will be to become smug and defensive about the things they love.
At its best, music should unite all listeners within the human community – I know that sounds pretty lofty, but it’s one of the reasons I really despise gimmicky music – and music that raises your artificially created tribe above all the others is not helpful. When you’re a nerd in high school, it can be really important to find other nerds and, from the safety of your numbers, declare to the world that you’re a nerd and there’s nothing they can do about it. At that time in your life (high school sucks for most people, but it can be excruciating for people who like nerdy things. At my high school, “nerdy things” were “books” and “plays”), having a culture to call your own can get you through some really horrible shit. But once you get out into the real world, you have to be blind not to notice that the nerds won a long time ago. So there’s no need to be as dogmatically nerdy as Marian Call is on “The Nerd Anthem.”
Which is why Got to Fly is bested in pretty much every way by Call’s 2007 debut, Vanilla. Vanilla has some nerdy references (including a slyly dropped “goram” [or however you spell that]), but the songs feel a lot more like they could be for anyone. To be fair, Got to Fly was commissioned with its nerdy subject matter in mind but that doesn’t change the fact that, for me, nodding knowingly at a reference in a song is a lot less satisfying than really enjoying the song. I love the songs on Vanilla (“Rx: Stop What You’re Doing” is truly fucking gorgeous) and I suspect it’s due in large part to the fact that there’s no gimmick in play here. Though “The Nerd Anthem” blandly declares who Call is and how long she’ll continue to be who she is, I feel like I’ve learned more about her from three trips through Vanilla and I plan to purchase that album as soon as the disposable cash is free to do so.
The arguments that have come up against Patton Oswalt’s Wired article depress me almost as much as “The Nerd Anthem” because they give me the sense that dogma is creeping into nerd culture. There’s a sense, in a few of the responses that I’ve read, that Oswalt – a treasured contributor to nerd culture, if not a nerd himself – has betrayed his class by suggesting 1) that geek culture is pop culture right now (he’s right about that) and 2) that we need to make pop culture suck so that we can save it and breed a better class of geeks. Nerds and geeks, who spent years bristling against any kind of conformity to a dominant culture, are now (at least a few of them are) attempting to throw someone out of the club for saying something that challenges nerd dogma. It’s useless and it suggests to me the pointlessness of labeling ourselves (this relates pretty closely to why I hate genre-labeling in music) as one thing or another. You can still like nerdy things and not have to call yourself a nerd, just like you can like football and not be a “jock”. I suggest we learn to be respectful and comfortable in our own skins and not worry about the label. For me, the soundtrack to such enlightenment sounds a lot more like Vanilla than Got to Fly.