One day, geeks will rule the world. Though this just may sound like a mother’s comforting words to her picked-on son, it has a grain of truth. With the combined power of the Internet and uniquely creative minds, geeks have built a strong community and an even stronger culture. With conferences like Comic-Con, QuakeCon and PAX, TV channels like G4, gaming magazines like Game Informer and masses of forums and websites for every type of nerd imaginable, what was once a shameful label is now thrust in our faces wherever we look. It’s impossible to ignore the nerds’ presence.
Former computer programmer Jonathan Coulton doesn’t just wear his badge of geekdom proudly — he spreads his love of the culture to the masses as the singer/songwriter of some of today’s most famous geek-rock songs. Though he always had a love for music, it wasn’t until somewhat recently that he made the transition from a steady paycheck and systematic profession to the creative yet unpredictable world of art.
“In general, I’ve always been interested in singing,” Coulton said in a phone interview last week before his Thursday night show at The Ark. “I grew up in a musical family. We were always singing and playing instruments and I started writing somewhere in maybe junior high or high school when I picked up guitar and started learning to play that. You know, it was sort of a lifelong hobby — just being able to write and record for fun. It wasn’t until the end of 2005 that I actually left the day job and started doing the song-writing thing full-time.”
In September 2005, Coulton started a creative experiment he called “Thing a Week,” where he published one new song every week for the duration of a year. While such experiments are more common now, four years ago it was a pretty bold endeavor.
“I was always sort of really hating it,” he said. “It was easy the first couple weeks because I had a few ideas that I had stored up, and I guess when I was first starting it was pretty low pressure. You know, nobody was listening. And then as I got into it and ran out of ready-made ideas, it was starting from scratch every week and that — it’s kind of a terrifying place to be when you’re trying to create something and you’re starting from absolutely nothing.”
Though his “Thing a Week” project was taxing, it became an Internet sensation propelling him into fame and pushing him to a new creative level.
“Frequently, the weeks that were worst for me and where I spent the most time walking around desperately trying to come up with something and really hating myself and hating the whole project, those were the weeks when the good stuff seemed to happen,” Coulton explained. “And you know, I don’t know if it was digging deep as much as it was just allowing strange things to happen out of … desperation.”
One of Coulton’s most famous songs “Still Alive” is probably best known as the credits song for the popular video game “Portal.” It outlines the perspective of the game’s antagonist, an artificially intelligent computer named GLaDOS, after her defeat. Another popular tune of his, “Code Monkey,” follows a computer programmer looking for love, and in “Re: Your Brains” a zombie tries to rationalize with his former coworker by telling him “All we want to do is eat your brains / We’re not unreasonable; I mean, no one’s gonna eat your eyes.”
“I write frequently about kind of odd subject matters and geeky stuff, and really that’s because that’s the stuff I’m thinking about and the stuff that I’m interested in,” Coulton said. “I like to write about characters that have problems, characters that are confused or characters that are monsters.”
It’s somewhat surprising that such a specific type of music could appeal to the masses, but Coulton has found his niche and has carved out a new genre that happens to work out pretty well for him. He recently released a live performance album, Best. Concert. Ever., and is constantly booked for shows.
“I’m not sure I would’ve guessed — in fact, I’m quite certain I never would’ve guessed — there’d be such a big market for nerd rock,” he said. “I believe that classic, solid songwriting is going to reach people regardless of genre. (Popular music) has to reach as many people as possible to be successful, but when you’re a guy like me, you’re sort of doing everything yourself, you can afford to be a niche player. I can write stuff that’s really honest and true and you know, stuff I really believe in.”
Perhaps his honesty is what attracts people to his music. For years, nerds were looked down on in popular culture and encouraged to hide what set them apart. In this new era, geek is chic, truthfulness is revered and bared emotions are encouraged. Last Thursday, the crowd at Jonathan Coulton’s concert at The Ark felt like an old group of friends rather than a mass of strangers with a common musical taste. Coulton fans share a deeper appreciation for technology, video games, comic books and, of course, unusual music. The nerd presence is alive and thriving and Jonathan Coulton’s compositions not only embrace that culture, but also cultivate it and inspire the next generation of geeks to display their passion with pride.