GEEKS WITH GUITARS
They Might Be Giants
Viva Geek Rock
by Trevor K. McNeil
When one thinks of geeks, music is not usually the first thing that comes to mind. Yet there is a whole world (wide web) of Geek Rock out there, going back quite a few years. While there is a bit of debate the generally agreed forefathers of Geek Rock are New York duo They Might Be Giants. At it since 1982 and originally made up of guitarist John Flansburgh and accordionist/pianist John Linnell, TMBG have songs referencing everything from mad scientists, to Planet of the Apes to long-winded speeches to Jason and the Argonauts. They also have entire songs about wrestling ("Particle Man"), the science of the sun ("Why Does the Sun Shine?") to the Belgian painter James Ensor ("Meet James Ensor"). They are not always funny – they are actually infamous for depressing lyrics laid over up beat melodies – but always intelligent, weird and just a little bit endearingly annoying.
Following directly in TMBG's footsteps is fellow New Yorker Jonathan Coulton. Getting his start in 2003, Coulton uses the Internet to appeal to fans and circumvent the traditional recording industry who are, quite frankly, unlikely to appreciate his particular brand of folk. A talented guitarist, Coulton takes more of a folk approach to things, mixing deceptively simple musicianship and excellent vocals with often hilarious, absurd, sci-fi based lyrics. Among his most popular songs are "Still Alive" from the point of view of the evil computer GLaDOS from the video-game Portal and "The Future Soon" about a lonely high-school nerd fantasizing how awesome things will be when he attains his dream of becoming a mad scientist with an robot army.
A group that does things a bit differently, in more ways than one, are The Doubleclicks. Comprised of sisters Andrea (guitar/ukulele) and Aurbrey (cello) Webber, the band takes a large, interesting, almost baroque approach to sining about geek-stuff, with songs about dinosaurs (literally, it's called "Dimetrodon"), Data's (from Star Trek) cat ("Ode to Spot"), Hipsters ("Ironically"), Wil Wheaton ("In His Honor") and Victorian Literature ("Oh, Mr. Darcy"). Though perhaps their most powerful and popular song is rallying cry "Nothing To Prove." A direct response to particular elements in the geek community who dismiss all females as posers, the song tells the story of how Andrea got into the whole geek thing and the crap she has been getting recently now that geek culture has gone mainstream and how this is stupid and counter-productive. The song is accompanied by a powerful, affecting, rage-inducing video in which real-life female geeks (and some male supporters) hold up message cards. Some are funny (i.e. "Who died and made you batman?! Wait. Was it your parents? In that case I am very sorry. Never mind"). Some are conciliatory ("We've both been ridiculed for our hobbies..be supportive, we're on the same side) and some are just saddening ("I love video games but boys tell me I'm not a 'real' gamer" and "I was told I sound smart for a girl in a pink skirt").
Also in this vein is the brainy, bawdy, insanely talented singer/ukulele player (yes ukulele's are a thing) Molly Lewis. With songs about revenge through the discovery of old MySpace profiles by the children of the people who tortured her in high-school ("MyHope"), wanting to be a surrogate mother to Stephen Fry's baby ("An Open Letter to Stephen Fry"), the educational show How It's Made and Wikipedia, and what's more getting kicked off of it for not being famous enough ("It All Makes Sense in the End"), Lewis is up there with Coulton as one of the very best examples of what the modern Geek Rock scene has to offer. Perhaps her best song is "Our American Cousin", a narrative ballad about Lincoln assassination from the point of view of an audience member in Ford's Theatre that night, as well as John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln himself, with each of the parts punctuated by a bang on her ukulele signifying a gunshot.
On the harder side is YouTube-based musician Dr. Noise. Technically the name of a band, Dr. Noise originally comprised of frontman Bill Martin who is the only performer appearing in many of the videos. While not always geeky (there are several covers and quite a few basic hard rock songs), in recent years Martin has turned his activities undeniably in that direction. A strong example of this is Captain Jack Harkness. Written from the point-of-view of the character from Dr. Who and later Torchwood, the song is a wrenching account of a man struggling to find his purpose, in the context of his immortality. There is also "The Doctor & The Master," showing the connection and inter-dependence between the two characters, with Martin playing both the roles in the accompanying video (see above).
An act deserving of at least an honorable mention is Paul & Storm. An acoustic comedy duo in the tradition of Corky and the Juice Pigs or The Arrogant Worms, targets of their well-crafted, acerbic, raunchy songs include Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin ("Write Like The Wind"), the video-game Frogger ("Frogger! The Musical") and classic horror movies ("Lame Monster Party"). Their best and geekiest song came about rather strangely. They and Coulton were challenged to write a song in the other's style. Paul & Storm's offering was called "Live." A lovely, gentle love ballad from the point-of-view of a mad scientist literally building his perfect woman, just hoping that everything goes well. The chorus pretty much sums it up: "Hard work and science are what I have to give/And all I'm asking for in return/Is that you live."
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