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By nerds, for nerds

December 4th, 2008

“This song is the story of my life” Mike told me as he slipped a CD into his boom-box. (CDs? Boomboxes? Remember those?)

Mike and I were in eighth grade at the time, becoming fast friends over a mutual love of video games, comic books and movies, as well as a mutual antipathy toward gym class.

I wasn’t the music nerd I am today. My collection probably consisted of “The Lion King Soundtrack.” But Mike was learning how to play guitar. He had posters of Nirvana and Metallica on his wall, two bands I knew nothing about (other than they probably did drugs and liked gym).

The song he played was a bit heavier than I was used to. The guitars were distorted, the singer sounded like he was half-speaking. But Mike was right about the lyrics. A couple lines in there were a reference to the X-Men. These guys sounded like they hated gym class as much as we did.

The song was called “In the Garage,” off of Weezer’s self-titled first album (now known as “The Blue Album”). It was also one of my first introductions to what would become one of my favorite kinds of music: nerd rock.

Last week I caught Brooklyn-based rockers They Might Be Giants perform their 1990 nerd rock masterpiece “Flood” in its entirety. It was the second time I’ve seen them play a sold-out “Flood”-themed concert at the 9:30 Club. While the recent concert lacked some of the energy and charm of what made the first time so memorable (They Might Be Giants played the opening “Flood” set pretending to be a They Might Be Giants cover band), the songs sound as good today as they did in the early 1990s, even better with a horn section. (Plus, I like that they get their biggest hit, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” out of the way early in the set, making way for more surprises during the non-“Flood” portion of the concert.)

But what exactly is “nerd rock”?

There’s no fixed definition, no real standard bearer in the way that Elton John basically defines piano rock, my other favorite sub-genre. Nerd rock is not so much a sound as an attitude and an audience. And, after poking around the Internet for a bit, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus of what, exactly, nerd rock is, other than a bunch of bands I like. And, like most things on the Internet, no one has any idea what they’re talking about.

Don’t believe me? Even Rolling Stone gets it wrong, labeling Death Cab for Cutie the “Nerd Rock Nirvana.” Yeah, Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard may be a nerd, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone like the Kiss-loving dweeb of “In The Ga-rage” on any of his albums.

In fact, the best (inadvertent) definition of the genre I’ve ever heard came from comic book writer Brian K. Vaughan. When asked about his favorite kinds of music he said (and I’m paraphrasing) if someone in the band wears glasses, I’ll probably like them. (Vaughan is on record as loving the Eels, a band that sort of walks that fine nerd rock line).

The label nerd rock is sometimes used as a neologism, a term used to describe music that came before such a label existed—acts like Buddy Holly, Devo, The Talking Heads and even Elvis Costello could all, to some degrees, be considered nerd rock. But on the other hand, the term nerd rock usually describes late 80s/early 90s bands like They Might Be Giants and Weezer, bands that sound nothing alike.

I’ll make it simple with my definition: Nerd rock is music by nerds, for nerds.

That eliminates bands like Death Cab. But it’s a pretty broad definition, including all of the guys (and they’re always guys) from Weezer to They Might Be Giants, and whomever is editing Wikipedia this week thinks is nerd rock (Guster? Seriously?). If it’s got an X-Men reference, it’s probably nerd rock. If it’s a song about U.S. President James K. Polk, it’s probably nerd rock. If it’s a song where the singer wishes he’d studied for a math test rather than watching “Star Trek II,” it’s probably nerd rock. If it’s a song where the chorus rhymes a bunch of famous authors, it’s probably nerd rock. Nerd rock is typically literate and clever (not always) and its protagonists (usually) never get the girl.

This definition also takes into account the fact that some bands change their style. Weezer’s “Blue” album is arguably the most commercially successful nerd rock album. But Weezer’s later albums, “Green,” “Maladroit” and “Make Believe” are just collections of paint-by-the-numbers rock albums, rock without the nerd, and by extension, the charm of what made “Blue” and “Pinkerton” so great. (Their latest, “Red,” finds Weezer returning to some of its geek roots). In fact, the nerdier albums are almost always the earliest efforts of a band’s career.

There’s also a pretty big overlap, a Venn diagram, if you will (to get super, super nerdy), between nerd rock and joke rock, music that’s as much about the comedy than it is about the songs. The Presidents of the United States of America might not be nerd rock, but they cer-tainly exist in the same sub-sub genre as They Might Be Giants and Weezer. Weird Al might be more of a comedic performer, but c’mon, he’s Weird Al. That’s about as nerdy as you can get. Exhibit A, his latest single, “White and Nerdy.”

But what’s really interesting is how much these nerd rock bands have influenced non-nerd bands today. Bands like Arcade Fire can throw in an accordion and there’s zero sense of irony. The nerd rock (non)fashion sense of tight pants and thick glasses was pretty much a forbearer for hipster-chic.

The good news, then, is that these nerd rockers never took themselves as seriously as the bands that came after.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

10 ESSENTIAL NERD ROCK ALBUMS

You might be a nerd if you’ve got three or more of these in your record collection:

10.  William Shatner, “Has Been” (2004). Dude, it’s William Shatner. William. Shatner. His second album, no less, featuring guest spots from Henry Rollins, Joe Jackson, Aimee Mann, Brad Paisley, Nick Hornby and producer Ben Folds. Yeah, it’s not a very nerdy album, as Shatner contemplates mortality, his life and losses, but c’mon… it’s WILLIAM SHATNER. Nerdiest moment: “I Can’t Get Behind That.”

9. The Decemberists, “Picaresque” (2005). While these guys do owe much to They Might be Giants, they’re pretty much post-nerd, or as Stephen Colbert says, “hyper-literate.” The Decemberists are more like the theater or lit mag nerds, not the nerds who’d program computers or play D&D. Still, as far as I’m concerned, a nerd is a nerd. Nerdiest moment: “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.”

8. Nerf Herder, “How to Meet Girls” (2000). Their name is a Star Wars reference and they appeared on and provided the theme song to “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” It’s pretty standard sub-Blink 182 pop-punk cheese, but damn if it isn’t catchy as hell. Nerdiest moment: “Lamer Than Lame.”

7. Weird Al, “Greatest Hits Vol. 2” (1994). This one kind of speaks for itself. I’d have gone with “Vol. 3” if it existed (I’m a sucker for his Star Wars “American Pie” parody), but for now, I’ll stick with “Smells Like Nir-vana.” Nerdiest moment: “Yoda.”

6. Moxy Fruvous, “Bargainville” (1993). Their later albums were pretty much nerd-free, but even here there are some political undertones. Still, an a capella cover of “Spider-Man” and a hit single that retold “The Prince and the Pauper” pretty much seals it: these guys got a lot of wedgies. Nerdiest moment: “My Baby Loves A Bunch Of Authors”

5. Ben Folds Five, “Ben Folds Five” (1996). It’s pretty easy to make a case for this as Folds’ only true nerd moment but also his best album. There’s a waltz about Howard Cosell, a musical quote from Gershwin and a girl who “looks like Axle Rose.” Need more? The band described this album as “punk rock for wussies.” Nerdiest moment: “Underground.”

4. Barenaked Ladies, “Gordon” (1992). There were some very serious moments on Barenaked Ladies’ debut, but the majority of the album were tracks like “Be My Yoko Ono” or “If I Had $1,000,000.” Still, even the serious moments—including the hit “Brian Wilson,” which referenced Pavlov’s dog, had generous amounts of nerdy wit and charm. Nerdiest moment: “Grade 9.”

3. The Flaming Lips, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” (2002). This album robably has the most critical credibility on this list, but when you boil down to it, this album is still about a girl fighting robots in space. Yeah, there’s nothing as goofy as “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but this is their masterpiece, nerdy as hell. Nerdiest moment: “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1.”

2. Weezer, “Blue” (1994). Chances are you’ve at least heard mega-hit “Buddy Holly.” But, from the opening moments of “My Name is Jonas” to the closing “Only In Dreams,” it’s 10 tracks of nerds, cars and lost loves. Still, the X-Men references get me every time. Nerdiest moment: “In the Garage.”

1. They Might Be Giants, “Flood” (1990). Smart, catchy and ahead of its time, “Flood” is best known for its two songs that inspired Tiny Toons clips: “Istanbul” and “Particle Man.” There’s plenty more, from the nightlight-ode opener “Birdhouse in Your Soul” to the 30-second goofiness of “Minimum Wage.” TMBG might not have the mass appeal of Weezer, but they’ve certainly got plenty of fans at NPR—as well as the fans who have nothing better to do in the Internet but vote members of the band onto “People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive” poll in 1997. NERDS!! Nerdiest moment: “Particle Men.” No, wait, “Whistling in the Dark.” No, wait, “Dead.” No, w—

 

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