Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Nerd vs. Geek Debate (and Why We Don't Need to Have It)

As a native southerner, I am well aware of my biological propensity to sermonize. Such is an urge I generally attempt to resist, but it is a ceaseless, underlying yearning. It is, like alcohol or hepatitis, in the blood. But just as I don't appreciate being preached at, I try not to lecture others. Such is a small courtesy, but it's one I endeavor to extend to you as my wholly voluntary audience.

That being said, I am about to mount the podium. You're all welcome to gather up front on the amen pew, to slink slyly to the rear of the sanctuary or to simply walk back out the double doors before I unleash my fire and brimstone. And I certainly won't think less of you for choosing the latter.

I have spent my three decades plus upon this Earth as an outsider, a nonconformist, a nerd. At times, I attempted to curb this inclination and find acceptance by those who would reject me. Likewise, at times I ramped up this inherent differentness as nothing more than a symbolic middle finger to the same. Now in my thirties, I have settled into a natural equilibrium, or, to steal from nerdcore rapper Doctor Awkward, geekquilibrium. I have at long last rectified my most studious tendencies with my more acceptable passions. In short, I am – this time misquoting the 2 Live Crew – as nerdy as I wanna be. No more. No less.

Part of this process, this becoming, is due to a maturing on my part, albeit an admittedly small one. At this stage in my life I am self-aware enough to realize who I am, and I have made my peace with that.

Another aspect, which I also attribute to age, is the fact that I am now too goddamn tired to care what other people think of me. Now this certainly doesn't mean I don't want others to like me, to respect and accept me. (This is ingrained well within human nature itself, and even we proud nerdlingers fall under its sway.) It just means that I am no longer an adolescent bundle of neuroses, your textbook diminutive, underweight, self conscious geekboy. I proudly announce that I have, in fact, grown into a diminutive, underweight, fulfilled adult who simply doesn't have the time or the inclination to wonder if that lady standing behind me in line at the DMV is actually laughing at me.

(And what if she is? Why the hell should I care? That bitch couldn't even complete the written test!)

But be it due to the mellowness of adulthood or my own emotional sloth, the important point here is that I am okay with the person that I am. More than anything, projects like Hipster, please! and Radio Free Hipster are about both a celebration of that and a conduit through which the rest of us war-worn survivors can toast our victories. It's my hope that the positivity we spread and the brotherhood we foster can then somehow radiate to the next generation. Our modern analog, the latter day misfit who is still, as my pal Matt puts it, "get[ting] shoved into a locker."

Thankfully, this is a shared mission; it's something that everyone from fellow bloggers to entertainers like YTCracker has spoken about at one time or another. Simply put, we're trying to lessen the type of bullshit with which we had to cope for poindexters yet-to-come by hammering our shared experiences and passions into a cultural shield. We're telling others and reminded ourselves that being different does not immediately equate with being alone.

With this established, I have recently picked up on a trend that threatens our task at hand. And like the most diabolical of nemeses –Carpenter's Thing, Procter & Gamble's Cavity Creeps, et al – this threat comes from within.

Throughout this missive I have used the terms "nerd" and "geek" (and a handful of other more esoteric words) interchangeably to describe myself, but each day it seems that more and more of our kind are drawing dividing lines between such terminologies. Many are compartmentalizing, not for the simple geeky joy of categorizing, but with a distinctly divisive intent. Geeks, we are told, are cool techies with eccentric passions, while nerds are awkward basement dwellers defined by their social failings.

This argument most recently came to a head within our broader community when dork luminary Wil Wheaton posted a video by the Society for Geek Advancement, a vid, I might add, that he took part in.

In the earliest moments of this piece, G4 talking head and fauxhawk aficionado Kevin Pereira declares that he is neither a nerd nor a spaz. From that point, contributors from Leo Laporte to MC Hammer proceed to "celebrate" geek culture. By scornfully deconstructing it. The underlying theme seems to be that geeks are a tech-savvy breed of snarky supermen. A group so socially enlightened as to place them head-and-shoulders above your common basement dwellers, your spotty comic shop frequenters or even your average man on the street.

And I call bullshit.

What we see hear is a clear example of – to turn our eyes back to my buddy Matt's concise description – cultural appropriation. In this sense "geek" is no longer a relevant label of self-identification, but a brand. Geek is Twitter. Geek is Tumblr. Geek is exclusivity. Geek is pomposity.

Except it's not.

In a follow-up to his original post, Wil, who was incredibly excited about the project at its inception, describes it as something that "was supposed to be about refuting stereotypes and celebrating the things we love, but it ends up feeling like we're trying to convince the Cool Kids that we're really just like them."

There's steel in those words, my friends.

A great number of us have begun espousing the belief that what we do, that what we are, is a culture rightfully unto itself, and we've done so by embracing the names that were used as weapons against us. We took back geek and nerd and dweeb, and we bent them to our own needs. We wore them like badges of honor. But at some point we experienced a schism. We began to add our own precise context to these nonsensical words with no legitimate definition or etymology, and use them to cloister what some saw as our own less desirable elements.

We split up the nerds – a Seussian word used adjacent to "Nerkle" and "Seersucker" – and the geeks – a carnie term for a performer who eats live animals – based on unqualifiable differences instead of uniting them under their obvious similarities. We, in short, became our own tormentors. We decided who would sit at our table and who would be relegated to the far side of the lunch room. We became that guy who shook you down and called you fucking faggot or that girl who defaced your gym locker and made you a laughingstock. We became our own worst enemy. And we did it gladly.'s Bridget McGovern, in a recent piece on the I AM A GEEK! debacle, pinpointed what I found so distasteful about that particular example saying:
To be so dismissive of traditionally maligned geek interests and so incredibly smug about our apparent technological superiority at the same time doesn’t celebrate geek culture—it’s just a cheap way of buying up some nice property in the mainstream, at the expense of the quirks, the playfulness, and the ability to be comfortable being different that is the essence of geekdom.
This enduring "geek chic" that the mainstream media has become so fixated upon is key to spreading our message of hope, but it can also prove a destructive element if we lose site of the fact that we are all but defined by some of our most unsavory experiences and inclinations. Whether geek or nerd, we each spent a lengthy season being abused, neglected, isolated. We know what it's like to be bullied and to be made to feel insignificant. We know what it's like to be outsiders. But while this pain is certainly not ours alone, it is also a defining force that we must not lose sight of.

The fact that we came through the fire and yet retained those things that made us targets -- that is our strength. That awkwardness, that social pariah status, may be something that we, as adults, have more or less tamed, but that doesn't mean it was never there. Saying that within out own community person A is B because of strength/weakness C and that person X is Y because of strength/weakness Z not only devalues our shared heritage, it sends an actively destructive message to our younger counterparts. It tells them that not only are they refused entrance into hallowed halls of high school popularity, but that we won't even let them in our own Honeycomb Hideout.

Many of my friends and colleagues prefer to identify as geeks rather than nerds, and that is fine. Our culture is all about personal choice, and if prefer to be called a frog as opposed to a cheese eating surrender monkey due to my Franco-American heritage, there's surely no harm in me picking my own poison. But these same geeks looking down their noses at those insalubrious nerds is another matter entirely.

If we are to accept and celebrate our culture, we must accept it wholly. We can not cherry-pick our accomplishments from a relevant pile of failures and then attempt to pass this abridged history off as the sum of our kind. This is, in fact, the one brand of artificiality that we should rail against.

If you are reading this missive, chances are you were once a discomfited, tongue-tied social misfit who clung to passions and beliefs that set you apart from the rest of the crowd. Because, on some level, everyone is a nerd. Such is the power of our kind; such is the delightful flavor of our culture. And if we are, in this new millennium so rooted in the technologies we helped to foster, to redefine this culture, then let us do it with a fine eye toward making it even more inclusive.

There is no entrance exam for being a nerd. You simply need to be yourself. And if Kevin Pollack or Tay Zonday or Shaq want to be in the club, then they are welcome to join us. Anyone is welcome to join us, whether or not they play D&D or can recite Coulton lyrics from memory or understand Python semantics. All you have to do is be yourself and afford us the opportunity to do the same. Whether you call yourself a nerd or a geek or a freak or a hacker or a gamer or a Trekker or a fanboy or a furry or a LARPer or an otaku is irrelevant. But don’t you goddamn dare try and paint yourself as better than someone who identifies by a different arbitrary (yet intrinsically linked) label!

We are nerds and we are geeks and we are wonderful and quirky and awkward, but we are no better or worse than anyone else. We are, while fully aware of our unique differences, the same.

And we all say Amen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Walk the Dinosaur

When I first heard that Oliver Hindle (AKA Superpowerless) and Steve Gilkes (of Retro Stereo) had launched a new project, I didn't quite know what to expect. But what I surely didn't expect was whimsical acoustic covers of lyrical internet memes via YouTube.

Still, as odd a concept as it might be to wrap one's head around, the simple truth is that it works!

Scared of Dinosaurs, as the duo is collectively known, only formed in late April of this year, but they've already managed to insinuate themselves into the global geek rock pantheon. Just this month, they were the number 3 most subscribed YouTube channel for UK musicians, and they're currently poised to crack the top 50 for all United Kingdom users.

The loose, impromptu arrangements from their first 9 videos were recently compiled into the free-to-download EP Messing With Antiques. I found it an incredibly appealing little affair from a pair of artists who obviously enjoy both the music making process and each other's company.

Read on for a full breakdown.
  1. "We Are Scared of Dinosaurs (Intro)"
    Messing With Antiques kicks off with a breezy, silly track that introduces the band and implores fans to subscribe to their YouTube Channel. It's not exactly nerdy songwriting at its finest, but it's an enjoyable appetizer.
  2. "Swine Flu"
    Ripped from today's headlines, "Swine Flu" is an original song about Stevey contracting the global disease du jour. It's of particular note because therein he manages to channel the pained, angsty vocal style of early Smiths-era Morrissey tempered with an ample dose of humor. The back-and-forth between Steve and Oliver adds another amusing dimension to the piece, with its only detriment being some poor leveling.
  3. "Chocolate Rain (Cover)"
    Okay, I'll admit it; Tay Zonday's claim-to-fame was a structural nightmare and an over-performed disaster, but damned if it didn't have some fine lyrical imagery! Scared of Dinosaurs parleys this into a folksy piece of blue-eyed soul that makes the song not only listenable, but interesting as well. The vocals are crisp but not over-emphasized, and the guitar accompaniment is delicate and engaging. It's an early favorite.
  4. "I'm Too Sexy (Cover)"
    Another cover of less-than-stellar source material, but I reckon that's kinda the point. SOD's take on Right Said Fred isn't their best, but Stevey's vocals bring enough ironic passion to the table to make it notable. Even if it doesn't grab you from the start, hang around for the extended syllables of the outro. That shit's gold.
  5. "Crank That Soulja Boy (Cover)"
    Another of the Internet's dubious greatest hits, the original "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" was a slap in the face to music lovers everywhere, but Scared of Dinosaurs' clever deconstruction of the piece may yet redeem it. The motormouth vocal delivery and call-and-reply hook are charming, but the brief instrumental breakdown that leads to Steve's impassioned plea to "Superman that ho" is pure musical bliss. The album's true high point and a welcome addition to any playlist.
  6. "Never Gonna Give You Up (Cover)"
    This expert RickRoll is only diminished by its proximity to "Crank That Soulja Boy." Musically, it's probably the most solid piece in this collection of lo-fi covers and off the wall originals, though some mic noise mid-song does ruin its inertia. Despite this, Stevey and Oliver both manage to make this one a memorable take on another "classic."
  7. "The Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum) (Cover)"
    Many of us outside the UK have thus far managed to avoid this disco-crap anthem by the Cheeky Girls, but Scared of Dinosaurs have seen fit to remedy the rest of us of our delightful deficiency. Much in the same way that the duo alchemically transmuted "Chocolate Rain" into a reflective ballad, they reduce "The Cheeky Song" to a plodding dirge. It's certainly enjoyable for those in the know, but folks not familiar with the original may miss the joke.
  8. "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) (Cover)"
    After a string of 5 humorous, self-aware reinterpretations of sub-par pop songs, Scared of Dinosaurs wind down the album with a rather earnest, straight-ahead cover of Green Day's "Good Riddance." It's a nice addition and the lads sound good doing it, but I sort of miss the smartassery inherent in the album's earlier tracks.
  9. "Subscribe Song (Improvisation)"
    Oliver and Stevey close out Messing With Antiques with another original. It boasts an identical melody to the intro track, but it's fun and upbeat enough to warrant revisiting. The lyrics are often nonsensical, but they sound good. And if this EP has any manner of underlying theme, it is easily that charm and musicality can often trump lyricism.
Messing With Antiques is not what you might call a serious musical endeavor. Rather, it is a light-hearted jaunt through some well-worn earworms that's bookended by high quality original tomfoolery from two incredibly talented musicians. It's a delightful introduction to Scared of Dinosaurs as a concept, but also the promise of things to come.

The EP's 9 tracks are loose, demo-y affairs that, despite a glaring lack of production value, still manage to please. This proves that, even when stripped down to their baser elements, Hindle and Gilkes still have ample talent and musical charm to engage the listener. Messing With Antiques is a ridiculously fun outing that's a must-have for fans of guitar-based geek rock, but it also serves to whet our appetites for the duo's coming studio work.

The video for the pair's first proper single, "Repeat Repeat," made its appearance yesterday, and while it forgoes the folksy feel of the songs in this collection for a decidedly more electronic sound it retains all of its musical appeal. They may be Scared of Dinosaurs, but they are certainly unafraid of good-natured musical experimentation.

"Super fresh, now watch me jack. Jacking on them haters, man."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Round 2

Anthony surprised me last Saturday with a pre-release copy of the new Game Music 4 All compilation Here Comes a New Challenger II Turbo. As usual, Ant went out of his way to keep me in the loop as the project came together, and, especially after hearing the tracks featured in March's preview video, I've been especially excited to experience this one in its finished form.

Just like its predecessor, HCNC2 features a staggering number – some 26 tracks in all – of collaborations between videogame-influenced MCs, DJs, producers, composers and musicians of all stripes. But, even more so than the inaugural edition, this year's comp is blissfully eclectic!

Boasting both the usual suspects – Girlz Melon, Superpowerless, Epic-1, et al – and a number of surprising new participants – most specifically Euro bootlegger Norwegian RecyclingHCNC2 excels at twisting the conventions of traditional game music and contemporary pop to its own sinister devices. What's more, the album seems to be at its best when contributors throw caution to the wind and shed their musical inhibitions. (Proceed to "Bizarro Paradise City" for more info.)

Though there's surely a little something for everybody on this release, I found myself most impressed by a number of songs that walk the fine line between the relatable and the surreal. Jay Tholen/Shael Riley masterpiece "Dial-Up Town" kicks off the disc one experience with a meditation on living in the middle of nowhere that's a warbling, maddening, beautiful jumble of pitch-corrected vocals and clippy chip music.

This gives way to later high points like Nanaki's View vs. Girlz Melon's ballsy "Battletoads and Double Dragon Medley," the ridiculously appealing narrative of Nerd Army vs. My Parents' Favorite Music's "Secrets Don't Make Girlfriends" and Zombies! Organize!! vs. Doctor Octoroc's gorgeously-balanced grocery list of technological desires "8 Bit Flashback." The second installment comes off just as hard with The Plasmas vs. 8-Bit Duane's ultra aggressive ode to Contra, the funked up DJ Snyder vs. Dual Core collab "The Flow" and "Mega Man X Medley," an expertly blended chip rock anthem, by Videogame Orchestra and (yet again) Girlz Melon.

From the anticipated (but by no means banal) rap-meets- chiptune fare by Superpowerless and Conyeezy ("Puppeteers") to skillful mash-ups from Norwegian Recycling ("Give Zelda to Me") and killsaly ("Final Solta O Frango Fantasy") to the straight ahead new school hip-hop of Epic-1 and Spork ("Blip)," HCNC2 is a chock full of aural delights specifically engineered to appeal to your inner gamer. It's a mixed bag of styles and colors, but it seldom disappoints and never bores. It will surely prove an excellent addition to your musical library, and should ultimately expose even the most discriminating listener to a staggering array of quality players on the nerdier side of independent music.

Here Comes a New Challenger II Turbo, in all its glory, will be available as a free 320kbps mp3 download and a reasonably-priced, professionally pressed 2-disc CD collection within the coming weeks. In the meantime, be sure to check out the original Here Comes a New Challenger compilation, the Hey! Listen! monthly mixtape project and all the other amazing musical contributions from your friends at Game Music 4 All.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Knowing is Half the Hasselhoff

Over the weekend, Hex announced Nerdapalooza 2009's first headliner. Much to the surprise of the scores of fans following such developments, the big reveal was attached to an even bigger name: mc chris. Fully realizing that this proclamation will be greeted with shock, disbelief and possibly even a modicum of outrage, I felt it pertinent to weigh in with my 2 cents.

The subject of mc's performance at Nerdapalooza was first broached by chris himself. He mentioned it in passing last month in the time between my review of Part One Part Six and our follow-up interview. He told me that he had contacted Hex Warrior with the proposal, but that he had yet to get receive a response. A quick message to Hex uncovered the problem; he had assumed the message was a joke, a prank by someone other than mc motivated not out of disrespect or malice, but rather mischief for mischief's sake. Once this misunderstanding was cleared up, things quickly proceeded.

But how mc chris came to be on the bill for this year's Nerdapalooza is far less important than what happens now that the announcement has been made. Everyone involved, including mc, knows that this event will surely prove to be a gathering of both fans and haters. There are still some people in the larger geek community that are unhappy with his tumultuous relationship with nerdcore proper and any other number of issues that I won't seek to catalog here because doing so would be counter-productive.

Instead I'd simply like to point out that I genuinely believe that mc chris will be good for Nerdapalooza and that Nerdapalooza will ultimately be good for mc chris.

The purpose of this festival is two-fold. It exists to celebrate all the glorious flavors of nerd music and culture, and it also serves as an opportunity to leverage the power of our passions for a greater good. Nerdapalooza supports the community itself, but it also supports the Child's Play charity. mc chris is a fantastic performer and a huge draw, and Orlando is a solid center of his fanbase. His inclusion leads to more interest, higher attendance and more money raised for a good cause.

Just as importantly, having mc chris around will be fun.

His is the music that brought so many fans and fellow artists into the realm of geeky hip-hop, and, nerdcore or not, he is one of us. He's a wonderful addition to an already astounding lineup, and I truly believe that if we all put petty differences aside he will do more than his part to make sure that Nerdapalooza 2009 will be appropriately epic.

And speaking of appropriately epic, I think this is an ideal time to unveil and brand new, ongoing project centered on none other than mc chris himself.

A few weeks back, I was kicking around crazy ideas on Twitter, as I am wont to do, when I issued a tongue-in-cheek challenge dubbed Knowing is Half the Hasselhoff. The crux of which was to motivate producers and bootleggers to mash-up mc chris a cappellas with songs from hairy-chested crooner David Hasselhoff.

After a little prodding, my good friend funky49 stepped up to the plate with a little jewel I like to call "mc Christmas with the Hoff." He's given me the green light to share it with you in the hopes that it will inspire your own mc/Hasselhoff boots.

There's no deadline and the project is open to anyone, so my plan is to simply collect and share submissions until such a time as there are enough to warrant collecting them into a legitimate compilation album/EP.

So, as you're wiling away those summer days, why not partake in a little MC-Pee-Pants-meets-Michael-Knight action? You'll be glad you did.

Download: funky49 – "mc Christmas with the Hoff"