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.