The Evolution of Nerd Rock

Like a number of Gen–X and Gen–Y geeks, my formal introduction to geek rock was They Might Be Giants’s 1990 album Flood. With a college-age sister in the late 1980’s, I was already familiar with the band, but there was something about Flood in particular that became a seminal album in my indoctrination into geek culture, a common musical language and cultural lynchpin. MTV was still a musical tastemaker at the time, and the singles from Flood were witty, alternatives to the growing presence of the bombastic, hyper–aggressive glam rock dominating the airwaves at the time. To admit liking Flood meant admitting you were a little different, so it was like a “secret password” of sorts. I remember bonding with a guy named Mike in middle school over “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” which led to an intensely passionate year learning to code video games in BASIC after school while listening to Flood.

In hindsight, it’s worth noting that Flood is actually not that geeky of an album, at least not in comparison to artists like “Weird” Al Yankovic, who draws heavily from geek pop culture to shape his sound and lyrical content. The Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) of They Might Be Giants have actually been very open about distancing themselves from the label, or at the very least, not connecting personally with it. “For me, when people say, ‘You guys are such nerds,’ I am a million miles away from that,” said John Flansbugh in 2011 for The Awl. “If it was not for the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and Patti Smith and Elvis Costello and the Tuff Darts and Mink DeVille and Pere Ubu and The Residents, I would not be in a rock band, because those things are my cultural lighthouses […] Those people punched people in the face.” Ironically, that interview was with Jonathan Coulton, arguably the godfather of Internet-age geek rock, who went on tour with They Might Be Giants that year.

This begs the question, what exactly is geek rock and what elements are necessary for an artist to be in the genre? Is geek rock a musical style or an aesthetic? Should it be judged by the intellectual heft of its lyrics or by the number of sci–fi/fantasy references it can cram in? All of the above? As with any musical genre or sub-genre, geek rock (or nerd rock) is a term that’s used to describe a wide swath of bands and artists, but what defines the genre varies wildly depending on whom you’re talking to.

The exact etymology of the term “geek rock” is unclear, though Nerf Herder (best known for performing the theme of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) has been credited widely the first band to use the label to define themselves. They wear their geek cred on their sleeve, right down to their Star Wars–inspired name. Artists like Frank Zappa, Devo, and Weezer have all been assigned the label “geek rock” at one point or another, because of their minimalist or deliberately uncool aesthetic/sound. But there have traditionally been rock bands that are as geeky as one can get without actually using the label. Rush, for example, has long existed in the gray area of geek culture with their sci–fi/fantasy–inspired lyrical content. And one could argue that a whole generation of UK rock bands, including Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden, wouldn’t exist without Tolkien.

The early 2000’s nerdcore hip–hop trend did a lot to formalize the synergy between geek culture and mainstream music, with artists like MC Frontalot and MC Chris incorporating Star Wars lore and video game references into their lyricism, while also amassing a hip–hop loving audience that had no interest in such topics. We’ve seen the convergence continue with the early to mid–2000’s trend of rock bands being formed by fans of both Harry Potter and Twilight. Potter fandom started “wizard rock,” spearheaded by pop–punkers Harry and the Potters in 2002. At its height, the wizard rock trend spawned nearly 200 bands, an EP of the month club, and two different documentaries. Later, Twirock came on the scene with bands like the Bella Cullen Project, creating music inspired by the Twilight series. While Harry and the Potters (and their spinoff band Draco and The Malfoys) are still going strong, Twirock has pretty much come and gone, presumably a victim of changing adolescent tastes and a now–dormant fandom.

On the other hand, geek rock as a concept hasn’t gone anywhere. In my hometown of Chicago, there’s a large, healthy community of geek rock bands that play out with each other, performing at bars and at cons, locally and beyond. One of these bands, Time Crash, is a self–described “Time Lord rock band,” and an example of how geek rock exists in the space between fandom and mainstream music. Vocalist, guitarist, and Whovian Ronen Kohn was inspired to start the band after the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who. “I was always a musician, I grew up around musicians, and was working on my own solo stuff for a while. At the same time, I was an enormous fan of the show and wanted to write songs about it. I thought for a bit that I would have to sneak oblique references into my own songs, but I had knowledge of bands like Harry and the Potters, so I just figured, why not do what they’re doing?”

Kohn put out a notice on Facebook for interested musicians and connected with the rest of the members through mutual friends. At the time Kohn was the only dedicated Whovian in the band but quickly got the rest of the band up to speed with both New and Classic Who. “I don’t mind being classified as a geek rock band at all,” Kohn says. “It’s one of the first things I say when I describe the band to other people. Rather than finding the label limiting, I think it’s just the opposite. When I think of ‘geek rock,’ I think it denotes a subject matter, rather than a particular style.”

Geek rock doesn’t have a specific sound or genre affiliation; these days the formal definition of geek rock seems to be mostly semantic, and often based around self-identification. While most early 90s proto-geek rockers were adopted by geek culture but didn’t necessarily identify as such—geek-adjacent, if you will—contemporary geek rock is directly born of geek culture, much in the way that filk was born of pre-Internet SF convention and ‘zine culture.

In early filk communities, songs were written and performed by fans at cons late at night at hotel lobbies and bars, mostly with acoustic guitars and portable percussion. With more affordable recording and production tools available for amateur musicians and the rise of online culture, fan musicians like Ronen Kohn can collaborate with each other and with pro musicians without ever stepping foot into a fan convention. This both broadens the definition of what counts as geek rock, and blurs the line between fan labor and punk rock/DIY ethic. Geek rock is born of geek culture but not necessarily bound by it. A group like the Internet–adored pop duo the Doubleclicks can seamlessly move back and forth from playing comedy clubs to recording a specifically geek–centric song like “Nothing To Prove” (an anthem of sorts for women in geek culture), which is much easier to do when geeks and non–geeks alike essentially speak the same pop–culture language.

Time Crash drummer Andy Rice is an example of the grey area that exists between geek rock and the mainstream. When he joined the band, Rice had never seen an episode of Doctor Who. As a joke, Rice was initially “forbidden” to watch episodes of Doctor Who to keep an outsider’s perspective on the music. “While this is a geek rock band, we’re all committed to making really great songs, which I think sets us off from just being seen as a novelty band.” (He eventually did start watching the show.)

Jen Usellis, on the other hand, sees herself as a fandom ambassador. She became a YouTube sensation back in 2013 with a Klingon rendition of “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer. “I was always a nerdy kid, into Magic: The Gathering, but I was never big in to Star Trek,” admits Usellis. That changed when she was cast in the musical A Klingon Christmas Carol in Chicago and gravitated to Star Trek and Klingon fandom. “I fell in love with Star Trek,” says Usellis. I pick up languages quickly and started watching Klingon episodes and getting involved in Klingon fandom.” After making the “Kiss Me” video for Improvise Star Trek, the video’s popularity inspired Usellis to go even further with the concept of translating pop songs into Klingon. She raised more than $2,500 via Kickstarter for her “Klingon Pop Warrior” EP project, with Klingon-translated remakes of Britney Spears and Celine Dion songs.

“Geek is definitely a label of pride for me,” says Usellis. “I wear the label pretty boldly, but in the past four to five years I’ve really come to embrace it publicly. Klingon fandom has kind of a bad reputation for being canon sticklers, and I wanted to bring a sense of playfulness back, and break down some of those barriers to the in–the–closet Trekkers. I’m not making money from this project, it’s just a love letter to fandom and pop music.”

In the 80s and 90s, geek rock was somewhat of a derisive term, or at the very least a seemingly limiting one. The success of Flood was arguably one of the first steps towards the mainstreaming of geek culture in the late 80s and early 90s. At that time, comic and sci–fi conventions were viewed by the mainstream as a quirky subculture rather than a pop culture economic engine, online culture was nascent, and being a geek was definitely not cool. The big difference between then and now is that geek culture is now unmistakably mainstream culture. Contemporary geek rock bands are far from shy about displaying their fannish loyalties, which is a testament to both the newfound universality of fan culture and the power of internet–driven DIY music. The contemporary rise of geek rock, at its core, is a happy marriage of the two: An Internet–driven micro–economy, with bands starting their own labels and creating alternative performance spaces like comic book shops and libraries. It’s a movement supported almost entirely by the fan–subculture that inspired it, yet accessible to those outside of the community. It’s quite inspirational, pretty punk–rock, and something that even non–geek indie bands could take a page from.

Keidra Chaney

Keidra Chaney is a writer, editor, blogger, and digital strategist, though she’s not sure what that actually means these days. She has been published in Chicago Sun–Times, Time Out Chicago, Bitch Media, Paste, and a bunch of publications that no longer exist.

She is the co–founder and publisher of pop culture website The Learned Fangirl and occasionally makes music in a band called Sole Heiress and on her own.

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