Nerdcore and the Birth of a New Culture

Scott Dezrah Blinn

World Music – Culture Essay

 

Nerdcore and Birth of a Virtual Community.

 

MC Frontalot can get 3,000 people to make hand signals in unison while shouting “First World Problems”. Jonathan Coulton’s cover of “Baby Got Back” outsold anything “Glee” had on the iTunes charts when his fans discovered that the show had used his arrangement without permission. Paul and Storm tour nationwide to sold out shows with audiences singing along to every single syllable.

 

Chances are, you’ve never heard of any of them.

 

A hip-hop lyrical master from Brooklyn, a Yale-educated singer-songwriter, and an acoustic guitar-slinging folk comedy duo with a background in acapella should have no common thread. In fact, an essay on the expression of culture through music has no business bringing them together.

 

MC Frontalot’s lyrics are rapidfire, clever, delivered in an unrelenting, yet unique cadence that belies the intelligence and thought put into his words. The rhythms are produced by sampling and synthesizers on his albums, but by a full drum kit in live performances. In fact, in opposition to most hip-hop performers, there is no turntable at all. This rapper is backed by a bass, keyboard, and drumkit. Yet his music is still rooted in the traditions of rap culture. Constant name checks to himself and his associates, songs explaining “Nerdcore” and the obligatory braggadocio (“Critical Hit”) are all found in abundance. His music is slickly produced, technologically complex and is a fusion of traditional hip-hop and something new.

 

Paul and Storm are on the opposite of the spectrum. Originally members of an acapella group named “DaVinci’s Notebook”, they are informed by a completely different traditions. In both concert and studio, the entire sound is created by two male voices and two acoustic guitars. They use harmonies and simple chord progressions in a way that brings the lyrics to the forefront. The music is beautiful and catchy, but it’s the words that are the centerpiece.

 

Jonathan Coulton is a prolific singer/songwriter who made his presence known with a challenge, a “Thing-A-Week” podcast, in which he wrote, produced, recorded and released a new song each week for a year. Rather than a rehash of themes and styles, he experimented with style, form, and technology. Creating everything from heartfelt ballads about his first child (“You Ruined Everything”) and childish satires sampling President George W. Bush obsessing about his “duty” (“W’s Doodie”) to lavish ballads about mad scientists (“SkullCrusher Mountain” and “The Future Soon”) start to give hints as to the common thread between these performers.

Culture is changing. Music performance and consumption are innovating hourly. The traditional model of the entertainment industry is a blindly lumbering behemoth, in denial of the fact that it is extinct.

 

In the ashes of a culture dominated by beautiful people and multimillionaire agents, a new way of distributing music has arisen, and with it, the birth of a new culture. Geek music, or as MC Frontalot calls it: “Nerdcore”.

 

What unites these musically diverse performers? How can they possibly be an example of a cultural tradition when they are so rhythmically, musically, and materially different? They have broken new ground in the music world and in doing so, given their audiences the freedom to turn their backs on the pomposity of pop music and charge headlong into music that speaks to who they are.

 

These artists are not signed to any labels. They do not have producers or agents. They have no contracts or record executives giving notes. They create music that speaks to topics they are passionate about: Dungeons and Dragons, video games, zombie movies and true love, mad scientist style. They sing the songs that laud the computer programmer and express the loneliness of the fan at the Star Wars convention. They revel in the joy of fandom and the triumph of a cleverly turned phrase.

 

Because the internet has allowed them to give the music directly to the fans, they are no longer held captive by the whims of what record executives think is “hot” this year. They can speak to the niche, and the niche has spoken back. A handful of independent musicians, working separately have become the voice of a new subculture, the triumphant geek. Twenty years ago, this group was mocked and belittled for its obsessive knowledge of Star Trek and X-Men now, they are a full-fledged culture, with their own rules and behaviors and values.

 

Honesty and diversity are cherished. In modern culture, irony has become the overarching theme. For this group, sincerity is the lingua franca. It doesn’t matter if you’re a computer geek, Trekkie, gamer, or music nerd. If you love something, love it, there is no shame to fandom in this world.

 

While all of these musicians (and many more) have their own followings, the most impressive displays of this new culture happen at three annual gatherings: PAX, WootStock and PAX East. PAX and PAX East are ostensibly gaming conventions started by the creators of the “Penny Arcade” webcomic. While it has many of the typcial features of any industry convention, (booths, brightlights, product demos, desperate sales staff), at night, something amazing happens. The commerce stops, and the concerts start. Every night of a PAX convention ends with a nerd core concert. The audience is rapt and focused in a way that is rarely seen at pop shows. These people are a congregation listening to the words of their preachers. The relief and joy are palpable as the audience feels nothing but acceptance and love from the performers. This is a people used to being mocked by the person on stage and now, the performers are expressing the same passions and insecurities.

 

In a similar vein w00tstock, started by Wil Wheaton (of Star Trek fame), Adam Savage (of MythBusters) and Paul and Storm is a celebration of this new geek culture and art. Billing itself as “Geek Vaudeville” and “Nerd Church”, w00tstock is more focused. Where as PAX is a gaming convention that features music, w00tstock is a music festival that celebrates the best of this new culture.

 

While there is nothing traditional or inherently unique in the musical expressions of this phenomena, I think it is a perfect expression of a new ethnicity, a new nation. These artists, the diversity, the obsession, the joy, the intelligence, the dark humor and silliness, they represent a new culture. One not limited by national boundaries, or religious beliefs, or commercial interests. This is the first true internet culture. Music made possible by the internet, uniting people who were previously isolated by the specificity of their interests.

 

Culture may have been limited by geography before. Your beliefs and tastes were determined by where you were born, and who you grew up with. The internet has changed that. Now you can listen to anything, from anywhere, any time. This group has appropriated the tools and vernacular of the dying American monoculture and created something new. A new culture and new forms of musical expression, but most of all, a home for themselves and others like them.

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Dezrah The Strange needs your help!

This is Tardis Jr. He has been an invaluable companion and had become an integral part of the creative and communications reboot that I’ve been working on. Sadly, TJ passed away this weekend due to poor care from his previous owner and some unknown power fault. In the short time he’s been on the Dezrah Magic team, he has become an invaluable asset. He will be sorely missed.

Since I’m a stay-at-home dad, waiter and college student, I don’t have the liquid capital to purchase a replacement and TJ is beyond repair. So far, this is the typical 1st world non-problem that you’ve probably heard 1,000 times.

Here’s the difference. I’m a magican, escape artist, sideshow performer and not a half bad one at that. I’m also a believer in creative solutions. So here’s the deal: If you have a decent (Win7 capable or Leopard+) laptop that you don’t use or are thinking of replacing, I will come to your home, office, Halloween Party, Bar Mitzvah, block party, wedding, lecture, PowerPoint presentation and/or parole hearing and perform for you.

I’ll do close-up for you, my stage show, or if you have something else in mind, I’m open. I’ll travel pretty much anywhere in New England, but long-distances (50+ miles from Worcester) will need some extra planning.

So if you’re interested in having your own personal geek magician on call and have some spare tech lying around, contact me at dezrah@gmail.com or leave a comment on this post. Thank you for your support and please spread the word!

-Dezrah

 

Tardis Jr, RIP…(or get donated to TESLA, whatevs…)

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Help me get better!

Here’s the deal. I think I have the content of my show nailed down finally. I like the routines I’m doing and they have some decent audience impact. I’m afraid that I’m not quite getting across what I want to though.

So, here’s the challenge:

I’m going to post the entire show I did for the Boston Skeptics in April, and I’d like your help. Watch the show (as much as you can bear) and let me know what you think. Tell me what you like, what you didn’t like, what works for you and what doesn’t.

I really want to make a go of this, and I know I’m not there yet. Help me make a better show and help rid the world of yet another hack magician. ;)

Here’s the show, enjoy!

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Dezrah The Strange vs. Brian Brushwood

Hey everyone, just a quick update. Friend and magic mentor Brian Brushwood just posted a new episode of his show “Scam School” on Revision3. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a fantastic series that shows you bar bets, short cons and tricks that you can use to scam and/or impress your friends. It’s also a ninja-sneaky way to rope people into magic.

Anyways, in the latest episode, he teaches the classic Rope Handcuffs trick and gives yours truly a plug at the end. So do me (and yourselves) a favor. Go watch the episode here or on YouTube and leave a comment saying how much you love the show. Even better, leave an iTunes review for “Scam School” if you’re a subscriber!

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Last year in 39 Questions

(Thanks to Stephanie Roy for the idea)

1. what did you do in 2009 that you’d never done before?
I welcomed my son into the world. I was put under for surgery. I had 4 wisdom teeth removed. I was onstage with a burlesque troop, and other performers I’d never met. I travelled overnight for a gig. I camped with the non-credulous, hung out with humanists and ate with atheists.
2. did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I kept some, missed others, and decided that goals with deadlins are better than resolutions.
3. did anyone close to you give birth?
My wife, (see #1)
4. did anyone close to you die?
A sparrow that I was never had the privilage of meeting, but whose passing rocked me to my core.
5. what countries did you visit?
The only one I ever have. Sigh.
6. what would you like to have in 2010 that you lacked in 2009?
Ambition, and enough money to not be stressed.
7. what date from 2009 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
Jan 29th. (See #1)
8. what was your biggest achievement of the year?
Playing the Jerkus Circus with The Steamy Bohemians, and raising Orion. (again, see #1)
9. what was your biggest failure?
Had to drop a class, didn’t follow through on a huge opportunity w/CFI and had to bail on Keith for TAM.
10. did you suffer illness or injury?
Disphagia caused by an irritated esophagus caused by a growth in my stomach lining (Most likely benign. Maybe.)
11. what was the best thing you bought?
A new website http://www.dezrah.com and magic goodies.
12. whose behavior merited celebration?
Amanda’s as always. She gave me my son, put up with my wafflilng and ineptitude, and her patience and openess with me has helped bring us to a wonderful place together.
13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
The state of California. (Prop 8, really?), those who think that freedom of speech/religion only applies to the things they agree with, the nameless ones who should freaking know better, and as always, my biggest dissapointment is myself.
14. Where did most of your money go?
Mortgage and food.
15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The aforementioned missed opportunity with D.J. and CFI. Working with The Steamy Bohemians (TWICE), Karin Webb saying “I like what you did!”
16. what song will always remind you of 2009?
“Single Ladies” by Beyonce, “Just for now” by Imogen Heap and “White Wine in the Sun” by Tim Minchin
17. compared to this time last year, are you:
happier?
Yes, and 2010 promises to be even better.
thinner or fatter?
Fatter, by quite a bit. Sigh.
richer or poorer?
Poorer.
18. what do you wish you’d done more of?
Rehearsal, writing and reflecting. (and sleeping)
19. what do you wish you’d done less of?
Procrastinating, regretting, wasting time with empty pursuits.
20. how will you be spending christmas?
At home.
21. did you fall in love in 2009?
all over again, for the 10th year in a row.
22. what new foods did you eat?
BRISKET!!!
23. what was your favorite tv program?
Community and No Reservations
24. do you dislike anyone now that you didn’t dislike this time last year?
Yes.
25. what was the best book you read?
Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
26. what was your greatest musical discovery?
Tim Minchin, Kate Bush, Daft Punk. (Yes, I’m out of the loop)
27. what did you want and get?
A straitjacket and 100′ of rope.
28. what did you want and not get?
A trip to TAM, firewalking lessons.
29. what was your favorite film of this year?
Star Trek.
30. what did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I don’t even remember, I probably worked. 33 (I think)
31. what one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
More focus and attention to what matters.
32. how would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2009?
Whatever wasn’t actually falling apart and was comfortable under my gown/jumpsuit in the fab.
33. what kept you sane?
Amanda
34. which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Depending on your definition of “fancy” that could get me in trouble. ;)
35. what political issue stirred you the most?
Gay marriage, vaccination panic and blasphemy laws.
36. who did you miss?
Old friends, long distant.
37. who was the best new person you met?
Way too many to name, Lainey and Niki, Karin, WWZ guy Mystopher, Stephanie, Angie, hell, everyone at Camp Inquiry.
38. tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2009
GET OFF YOUR ASS AND MAKE THINGS HAPPEN! No one’s checking in on you, if you want opportunties, make them. When ever inspiration strikes, create! Don’t wait until later!
39. quote a song lyric that sums up your year:
“There’s no such thing as spare time, there’s no such thing as free time, there’s no such thing as down time, all you’ve got is life time! GO!” -Rollins

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Dezrah The Strange vs. Amanda Fucking Palmer

It’s true, it’s true! After weeks of frantic e-mails, wishing, hoping, planning and stressing, I was accepted as pre-show entertainment for Amanda Palmer‘s “Cabaret” produced by Harvard’s ART!

I first heard about it on Amanda Palmer’s Twitter feed where she put out a call for street performers and other ne’er do-wells to help build ambiance before the show. On a “why the hell not?” sort of urge, I responded to her and miraculously she gave me the e-mail of the Asst. director.

After a little back-and-forth determining what would be appropriate for the space (glass walking out, street-magic in!) I was invited to join other potential performers at an audition last night. I was up against some serious (and seriously talented) character actors and artists including a drunken ex-pat opera singer, a conscripted Polish WWI veteran/Cubist caricaturist, a two-person, one puppet dirty old man, a beautiful bronze living statue and Meff and JoJo’s Tiny Instrument Revue!

I performed a little forkbending, my bastardized 2-cup version of the cups and balls, Sankey’s Paperclipped and closed with my “match trick” that now incorporated the animated matchbook. I got gasps and applause in all the right places and my “mistakes” were bought hook, line and sinker. I’ve never actually auditioned for anything, certainly not for something as amazing and edgy as AFP and ART’s “Cabaret”. I was terrified the entire time and my nerves showed, but I have to say that the past few months at the Piccadilly have really tightened my routines and burned the moves into my brain. I was able to just be there in the moment and forget about the mechanics.

Nerves aside, I think my set went well, but considering the character and type of performances we all saw that night, I was concerned that I wouldn’t really fit in with what they wanted. I knew for sure that I wouldn’t be hearing from them and was just grateful for the opportunity to audition. It turns out that I was wrong, HOORAY!!! Apparently my strategy of meta-weirdness, (being the most normal person in a room full of weirdos in turn makes one the weirdest person in the room), is paying off.

So now I’m just waiting for the details of my schedule and rehearsals, but the hard part is done. I’ve been paying my dues at the restaurant, getting my chops up, took a chance and somehow fell ass-backwards into awesomeness!

So, if you, or anyone you know is in Cambridge in the next 6 weeks, stop on by (and bring money)! I’ll be outside the theater, so you don’t even have to have tickets to some see me! Of course, you should really, really, REALLY see “Cabaret” but act fast, shows are selling out left and right.

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My Thoughts on the Tea Party.

Okay, I know I have friends that support the Tea Party platform, and I’ve been mouthing off online lately, so I think I need to clarify some things.

Yes, I disagree with some items on the Tea Party platform, but that’s the best part of democracy. The disagreement and the conversation are how we find consensus and move forward. I think it’s great that people are being mobilized and taking advantage of their rights as American citizens to protest the government and speak freely. The fact that I disagree with it doesn’t mean that I think I’m smarter, better or more righteous. I JUST DISAGREE. Try to convince me with facts and good logical argument, don’t yell at me and call me the enemy because I’m questioning your beliefs.

My biggest issue with the Tea Party leadership and the Glenn Beck-style demagogues is the use of fear-mongering and stereotypes to gain popular support. Anyone (Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, etc) who uses simplistic caricatures and bumper-sticker jargon to mask the complexity of the actual issues is either being deliberately dishonest or willfully ignorant.  These talking heads are more interested in scoring political points by demonizing the opposition rather than working with the greater community in order to come to functional solutions.

Politics is complicated. Money is complicated. LIFE is complicated. We’re dealing with social, economic and cultural issues that are so intensely and complexly interwoven that making the slightest change in one area can have vast, far-reaching and totally unintended consequences in another. Those who say that all of your problems can be blamed on some “other” group or pinned on one issue are trying to distract you from the real causes of the real problems. It’s hard enough to get together and solve our problems without self-centered glory hounds throwing F.U.D. (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) around to get their names in the paper.

Anyone who’s telling you that there’s a simple answer is selling something.

So, do I disagree with the Tea Party folks? Sure. But I also disagree with the Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, Free-Marketeers and Anarcho-Communists. What gets me worried is the substitution of blame, rhetoric and posturing for discussion, debate, consesus, compromise and action.

So look around, chances are that even your supposed enemies have a lot more in common with you than the media would like you to think. We all want to be free to live our lives, find love and happiness, to raise a family (or not), be free to say what we want, worship how we choose (or don’t), and be treated fairly as possible. We’ve all been disappointed by the world around us and we all want to find a better way to do things.

Instead of blame and anger, let’s try forgiveness and dialog.

Of course, this is coming from a godless, queer-loving, communist, libertarian, liar so what do I know?

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