Geek Week and Fandoms

As you read these words, Dragon*Con has begun in Atlanta.

As I’m writing these words, however, several days before the Con begins, in the midst of last minute scheduling changes (for the Comics and Popular Arts Conference at the Con), I am about to keel over in anticipation. Between D*Con and the Doctor Who premiere, I’m completely beside myself.

And the icing on the geek cake is that I have received my copy of Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, and it looks FANTASTIC.

This week is turning rapidly into Geek Week. And the definition for Geek Week appears to be the opportunity to participate in as many fandoms as possible. Fandoms, actually, are important enough to geek culture that we probably should have put more about fandom in our criteria for geek rock. There is a difference, after all, from the casual Doctor Who viewer and the viewer who runs out of the theatre in her Doctor Who/Hello Kitty mash-up t-shirt shrieking “I LOVE PETER CAPALDI” before breathlessly articulating the reasons why Steven Moffat is a genius (yes, that’s exactly what I did after “Deep Breath”). While geek rock needs to meet a fair amount of criteria in order to be geek rock, a casual listener can certainly remain just that–casual. But the avid listener tends to “geek out” over geek rock, a process that involves learning, collecting, sharing, expounding, and proclaiming. The geek rock fan in the geek rock band t-shirt who owns every album and has read every interview and who attends every concert and who writes fanfic and who even managed to acquire the Japanese import on blue vinyl–they are part of the fandom in a way that the casual listener is not. They ARE the fandom, in some respects. Much like Doctor Who, which is rather geeky by definition, geek rock allows fans to participate at any level they wish, but encourages fandom.

And the thing about geek rock fandom is that it’s not just any fandom. Phish has a fandom, probably one of the most infamous fandoms in music, but Phish’s fandom isn’t exactly geeky. Or are they? The Phish fandom trades bootlegs, follows the band, collects, learns, trades, shares, camps, expounds, and proclaims. The Phish fandom actually goes beyond fandom, turning the band into a way of life (a phenomenon that I think–but don’t quote me–is borrowed from the Grateful Dead). Phish fans who participate in most devote levels of fandom are actually participating in a lifestyle and philosophy centered around Phish’s music.

Which brings us full circle, really. Because fandom for geek rock expresses itself in the only way it knows how–geekily. Maybe that’s the point–that any fandom is expressive of its object. If that is, in fact the case (and I’m not yet convinced it is, I’m just throwing out some ideas here), then there is really only one thing for a fan of geek rock to do.

I’ll see you at Dragon*Con.

Ok Go and the Geek (Rock) Video

Ok Go isn’t exactly what I would call a geek rock band. Although they are most assuredly clever, their music doesn’t really fit the criteria for geek rock; in my opinion, they are straight up, unabashedly, indie rock. And they make some very good indie rock. But it’s not geek rock. Not quite.

Their videos, however, are an altogether different story. Ok Go’s videos are geeky as hell. Their latest video, for “The Writing’s on the Wall,” is a study in perspective and optical illusion. The song is great, as Ok Go songs tend to be–honest, melody driven, unpretentious indie rock that is happy to be indie rock. But the video is fantastic. The video elevates the song into something akin to geek rock.

I would even make the argument that all Ok Go videos do this–bring their music into a place where their music doesn’t necessarily go on its own. For “The Writing’s on the Wall,” it’s clear that the amount of time, dedication, and perhaps most importantly, study that went into the making of this video required geek-level knowledge. To even make a music video today is itself almost an act of geekery. After the rise (and fall) of MTV, the music video has (sadly) seen better days. Making a music video speaks to either a deep dedication to music, or a deep dedication to sales. Ok Go is clearly in the former category (see above: indie rock).

The phrase “the writing is on the wall” is cliche at best, hackneyed at worst, depending on one’s personal preference. The song itself is strong, well-constructed and unsurprising, with lyrics that are  largely unexceptional. A confessional break-up song, the lyrics follow the song title; the narrator explains that the relationship is clearly over, and all he wants is to see his partner happy again for a moment before they break up. There are no surprises or twists. This is a break up song.

The magic is in the video. The optical illusions and twists in perspective are the envy of textbooks on cognition and optics. I have no doubt that this video is being shown in psychology classes. And the reason the video elevates, or enhances, the song and pushes it towards the realm of geek rockery is that the video (much like all visual rhetoric) overlaps an additional layer of meaning, a commentary on relationships and perspectives. Not only is the video a work of mechanical and theoretical mastery of illusion (much like actual stage magic), but the pairing of the video with the song creates a visual and aural rhetorical commentary on  the optical illusion of being, of I-ness and you-ness and us-ness, of the boundaries of self and other (and world). The video achieves a level of geekery that the song, on it’s own, does not, and the video almost works to pull the song with it into a geekier realm.

The video with the Rube Goldberg Machine, “This Too Shall Pass,” is by far my favorite Ok Go video, and one of my favorite all time videos.

The phenomenal intricacies of this Rube Goldberg machine pair perfectly with the song. While nothing about the song is inherently geeky, the video, again, elevates and compliments the song towards the realm of geek rockery. In itself an amazing feat of engineering, the video also creates a visual interpretation of the song, even down to the sonic and visual complements of the song to the machine.

There are, however, two official videos for this song, the second one featuring the Notre Dame marching band:

And the very fact of there being TWO videos, with two different sonic and visual interpretations of this song, is pretty geeky. Not content with one fairly geeky visual elevation, Ok Go made a second, prominently featuring a collegiate marching band both visually and aurally–marching band being, as several popular movies tell us, “geeky.”

But still, I wouldn’t call Ok Go a geek rock band. Their music, on it’s own, doesn’t lend itself to enough of the criteria to be geek rock. But their videos are a different story, pushing them closer to the line of geek rock them most other straightforwardly indie bands achieve. And perhaps this is part of their charm, because they are willing to explore and create wherever their music takes them.

Which is pretty geeky, if you ask me.

I Am a Feminist Geek, and You Do, Indeed, Need Me

I’m having a lot of trouble taking the “We Don’t Need Feminism” tumblr seriously. For starters, the banner is a .gif from Veronica Mars, which is not only a blatantly feminist TV show, but also full of self-proclaimed feminist actresses, actors, writers, and producers. The scholarship about Veronica Mars even studies feminism within the show. So the choice to use Veronica Mars as a banner for an anti-feminist blog? That’s just funny.

The submission guidelines are hard to read, partially due to the unique editorial decision to use a bright red font on a dark blue background, and partially due to the creative use of sentence construction. Clearly, we’re not dealing with a user who is burdened with a knowledge of rhetoric.

The submissions themselves are in bright white boxes, which at least makes them easy to read, from a usability perspective. The contents of the white boxes, however, tend to range from semi-literate tweet fodder to, very occasionally, a sound bite that could prove thought-provoking, given more expansion. Of course, the medium of tumblr itself is limiting, but it appears that several of the submitters are limited by more than the medium. If the medium is indeed the message, then perhaps the real takeaway from this site is that anti-feminism is gaudy, hard to read, and largely untroubled by depth.

Feminism, as most of us know,  (and particularly those of us in the worlds of geek and/or academia), is hardly a monolithic edifice. Most theories of feminism now revolve around feminisms, acknowledging that there is more than one way to think, analyze, protest, act, believe, write, and unite. There is more than “the patriarchy” to address as well, because race, class, orientation, and education are just a few of the other ways agency (and access) can be restricted and regulated. Feminism, in other words, is complex. Anti-feminism? Evidently, not so much.

And it’s the simplicity, the reductiveness, and the sheer gaudiness of this anti-feminism tumblr that make me laugh because it’s a little like the stories my IT friends have told me about helping clients (“My printer doesn’t work!” “Have you tried loading paper?”). And while I’m know that many feminists are angry about this tumblr, I know that many, many more are laughing. Because it’s hard to be a feminist without being, even in a small way, a geek. Someone who reads philosophy, books, and critical theory. Who is concerned with social justice. Who follows politics and reads newspapers. Who stays informed. Who is culturally literate. It’s hard to be a feminist, and not laugh when Veronica Mars is used as the poster child for anti-feminism.

Feminism, I would like to argue, is kind of inherently geeky. Which is an odd claim, since geekdom itself has traditionally been male (and white and middle class and educated and straight). But the quest for knowledge, social justice, voice, and freedom from oppression is a pretty geeky quest because geeks, like women, tend to be underdogs. Being a feminist requires knowledge, action, and power. And geekdom itself has produced some of the most compelling narratives of feminism and feminist heroines currently in pop culture, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, and yes, Veronica Mars. Science-fiction allowed for some of the first strong female protagonists, and writers such as Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Octavia Butler took advantage of the medium. And comics are taking it even further, with a female Thor (yay!).

This isn’t to say that geekdom isn’t without sexism. But to say that feminism is, maybe, just a bit geeky, offers another way of looking at what, exactly, it is about feminism that is so abhorrent to so many. In that context, the anti-feminist tumblr makes a little more sense, because these women are claiming that they are not geeks, they are separate from something as geeky, as uncool, as intelligent as feminism. Because geekiness is still marginalized and smartness is vilified (literally: go watch an action film or a Disney movie), feminism isn’t “cool.” It doesn’t have cultural capital. The feminism vs. anti-feminism debate seems to be new iteration of geeks vs. jocks, but one with femininity (in its myriad of forms) evidently at stake.

This backlash against feminism is, then, in some respects a backlash against smart chicks that is very much in the vein of America’s current anti-intellectualism. And yet, the problem remains that geekiness is not necessarily feminist. The best example of how feminism is geeky, but geekery is not necessarily feminist, can probably be found in geek rock, and, far more generally, music overall. How so, you ask? Name 10 female geek rock musicians. How about 10 female rock musicians? Or 10 female musicians in any genre? NOT singers or vocalists. Musicians. Name me 10.

And that, right there, is when my laughter stops, because it’s so obvious, so glaring, so absent, that I’m astonished at anyone too blind to see it. Why do we need feminism?  The answer is clear: because there is still work to be done.

The Novelty of Geek Rock

Geek rock has frequently been conflated with novelty rock and artists like They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic have both appeared on Dr. Demento. The question of geek vs. novelty, however, is not a simple one. For me, the conflation of “geek” and “novelty” is largely due to the conflation of “geek” with “smart” with “trivial and exclusive knowledge.” Smartness is magic. Ask any geek the square root of 467,982 and they can answer, magically, off the top of their heads. Ask any geek about your computer, and they will answer in a language that the common person cannot understand. Knowledge, and especially geek knowledge, is esoteric, effortless (to the geek), and  exclusive. Geek knowledge does not appear to be easily accessible, even though anyone can learn math, or computers, or programming, or technology, or literature, or what have you. And it’s knowledge that is trivial in that it is not immediately relevant to a “normal” day. Who needs to know pi? Or phi? Or the date of the first Mercury mission? Or the author of “A Sweet Nosegay?”

Much like magic, geekness became associated with novelty. Or perhaps it always was inherently novel–after all, a “geek” was the dude biting heads of chickens at the carnival. (Which means, of course, that Ozzy? Total geek. Right?) A geek was a sideshow, a freak attraction, a ten-cent spectacle. An amusement. A novelty, like a pulp novel or a comic book or a sci-fi movie or sci-fi tv show.

In other words, like Star Trek.

Not Star Trek now, of course, because Star Trek, with the reboot movies, and TNG, and George Takei’s winning of the Internet is different from the original airing of Star Trek and the decades of marginalization and parody when cosplay was freakish and replica phasers were best kept at home. Now, in the heyday of geekdom, Star Trek is no longer a sideshow, but a mainstream blockbuster phenomenon. Much like the novelty band/song who has been geek rock all along.

You know where I’m going, don’t you?

“Star Trekkin’” is the perfect example of the dynamics between novelty and geek rock. Yes, it’s a parody. A loving parody, to my ears. A silly, joking, homage to the original series. Yes, it’s a novelty; at least, it’s classified as such. But it’s all in the ears of the audience, too. And this audience member hears it as a tongue in cheek homage to a groundbreaking show that, while breaking ground, also forayed into over-acting, Edens and Earth like planets, and stunningly literal rocky terrain. All flaws, perhaps, and worthy of parody, but all lovable flaws nonetheless. So maybe it’s time to reclassify “Star Trekkin’” from a side show, chicken-beheading novelty act to a clever early foray into geek rock (which is, of course, the final frontier).

Review of 33 1/3’s Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer

In Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, I wrote the chapter on They Might Be Giants, entitled “They Might Be Lacanian: They Might Be Giants, Jacques Lacan, and the Rhetoric of Geek Rock.” I am a long time fan of TMBG, and in many ways, I could credit them with inspiring our book. After all, I originally pitched the idea of a geek rock panel to Alex DiBlasi in large part because I wanted to write about They Might Be Giants. I found it strange, to say the least, that in all the writing on music, there was no scholarship addressing TMBG, or, as we found out, geek rock as a genre. That, of course, is now no longer the case.

For They Might be Giants in particular, it also now no longer the case because the 33 â…“ series has recently published their book on Flood, written by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer. The pros of the book are many.The writers take a cultural studies lens in order to explore 1990, geek identity, and the idea of excess: aesthetic excess, creative excess, and excess of meaning.  Reed and Sandifer are clearly fans, and not just because they say so–their writing demonstrates a level of familiarity with TMBG that belongs to the long-time listener. I was also very pleased to find that Reed and Sandifer constructed geek identity as more of a process, a way of interacting with the world, then a collection of sci-fi references and t-shirts. The history of the band was traced a little more extensively than the beginning led me to believe, where the authors claimed they would not be providing “biographical analysis” (2) and then proceeded to fill the next 25 pages with band biography. Technically, I suppose, the authors don’t really analyze the biography, but the disconnect was a little jarring.

To give a synopsis of the book: the biography of the band covers the first three chapters “Who Might Be Giants?,” “Lincoln,” and “Brooklyn’s Ambassadors of Love,” while the next chapter, “America,” places the band within a more global context. “Flooding” focuses on the idea of excess, while “Childhood” explores TMBG’s return to themes of childhood in their music. “Childhood” was, in my opinion, the least convincing and weakest chapter, and I found many arguments here a little too reductive. I suspect that the authors were limited by space, and I wish they had a larger book to flesh out these ideas more. “Mediality” focuses on tech, a la Marshal McLuhan, and is an excellent chapter, which I would frankly like to see turned into a book in its own right (however, as a rhetorician who specializes in delivery, that could just be me). The chapters“Geek Culture” and “Post-Coolness” were larger discussions of the evolution(s) of geek culture and geek identity, and the discussions were interesting enough that I could almost forgive the easy theoretical out of “post” in “post-cool” (which I realize is an academic fad at the moment, but I think categorizing what is supposed to be beyond category with “post-” is silly enough that we should just think of something new instead of just having “post-” thing). These chapters are particularly valuable in their contributions to defining the geek in the rock.

However, in addition to the pros of this book, there some cons. The flooding metaphor becomes repetitive and is punned a little too often. While no human with ears and a heart in the TMBG fandom could write about the Johns without punning, it’s a little, well, excessive.  The rigor is surprisingly lacking for two such robust scholars. The lack of a bibliography, or any provided references, is glaring, especially since sources are mentioned throughout the text. I’m assuming this a publisher mandated lack, since the authors have clearly done their research. The audience, then, appears to be dictated by the publisher, rather than authors. While the authors appear to conducting research, the publisher appears to marketing to a general audience that it believes isn’t ready for “real” research–the kind that comes with a bibliography. These flaws are, in my opinion, more due to the 33 â…“ series, which really has yet to decide if it is fan-based or scholarship based, and which tends to, in my opinion, underestimate their readers. I think Reed and Sandifer did a pretty great job, especially considering the overall constraints of the 33 â…“ series: books should be general, academic (but not scholarly), and short.

Overall, Reed and Sandifer’s Flood is a neat book. It’s worth reading,not only if you’re a fan of TMBG and/or Flood, but also if you’re interested in geek culture and geek rock. If you’re looking for a scholarly treatment of any of those topics, however, this isn’t it, which is a little disappointing if that’s what you’re expecting. But don’t let that dissuade you. There are quite a few delightful tidbits in here, and I hope this book (and mine and Alex’s!) is only the start of a much larger foray into geekdom, and a continuing spread of geekdom into the mainstream. The reclamation of geekiness and the spread of geekdom has been inspiring. But that’s just how geeks are, I suppose. We get knocked down, and we get up again.

And then we take over the world with our robot army.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!

Geek or Geek Rock? The Question of Babymetal

I’m obsessed with Babymetal.

And it’s hard not to be. The nefariously catchy J-pop/heavy metal combo is not only brilliant, it’s infectious. The trio of Japanese teen pop idols, Su-metal (Suzuka Nakamoto), Moametal (Moa Kikuchi), and Yuimetal (Yui Mizuno) manage to make heavy metal girly. And cute. And totally kawaii. According to Wikipedia (which I have to rely on more heavily than usual, since I do not read Japanese and thus cannot read their website) their label, BMD Fox Records, even promotes Babymetal as being “kawaii  metal.”

What is “kawaii?” you ask. That is an excellent question. And the answer to that question is why I’m writing about Babymetal for “Guitars and Geeks,” because I think that anything that can be described as “kawaii metal” falls into the territory of geek rock.

Kawaii is, simply put, cute. But, it’s a special kind of cute, and that special kind of cute is based in the aesthetics of  Japanese pop culture. Hello Kitty is probably the most recognizable example of kawaii (and her popularity is awesome because it allows me to have things like a Hello Kitty toaster). But another example, less known to Americans, is P-Chan (aka Ryoga Hibiki) from the animated series Ranma ½, based on the manga written by Rumiko Takahashi. P-Chan is very kawaii. His big eyes, smooth features, and clean lines are all examples of manga style art. Plus, he is a little black pig with a neckerchief. I mean, c’mon! How much cuter can a little pig get?

It’s this element of kawaii, of cuteness, that references a knowledge (or at least acknowledgement) of Japanese pop culture. While you can certainly appreciate the cuteness of kawaii without reading manga or watching anime, a knowledge of Japanese pop culture certainly adds to the experience. To make a comparison: you can read Ready, Player One by Ernest Cline without ever having played a video game, and you might enjoy it. But if you grew up playing 80s video games (or have explored 80s video games extensively), then your reading experience changes dramatically, as every reference has, well, a referent. And much like 80s video games, the knowledge of kawaii, and of Japanese culture in general, has tended to be the purview of geeks. Geeks, with their specialized knowledge and pursuit of such, tend to be the ones frequenting comic stores, import stores, and websites where manga, anime, and Japanese pop culture abound.

So is Babymetal really geek rock? Well, it’s a stretch.

But it’s also awesome. And geeky. And rock. So check out some Babymetal and decide for yourself.

Then, if you’re feeling geeky(er), explore some Japanese pop culture and  watch some Ranma ½.

ps–There is now an English version of the Babymetal website here.

What Is Geek Rock?

When Alex DiBlasi and I first set out to academically explore geek rock, we began by defining a set of criteria to describe what, exactly, IS geek rock.  I had suggested that we present a panel on geek rock at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference, and our panel set the tone and provided much of the feedback for the definition(s) and criteria that you can find throughout our book Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture (which, btw, is the first and so far only book to address geek rock in an academic context). The really fun part (well, there’s lots of really fun parts) about trail-blazing is the very nature of trail blazing itself–marking out the general path. In our book, our authors (including ourselves) have come up with a set of criteria that we think is pretty good, but which also only serves as starting point to pave the way.

1. Geek rock is “geeky” by virtue of its lyrics. They Might Be Giants allude to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in “No One Knows My Plan.” TMBG not only reference classical philosophy, but they are referencing it in a song sung by a narrator who is prisoner plotting to escape his cell–and he narrates his unknown plans to a rather calypso tune. This is geekery at its finest, in my opinion, because of the musical geekery (see #2) juxtaposition with the literary geekery.

2. Musical geekery is also frequently seen in geek rock. By this, I mean musically referencing other songs, genres, or artists, and/or displaying a knowledge of, well, music. An example: Barenaked Ladies’ references to Rush in the song “Grade 9,” on their album Gordon. Implicit in this reference is the idea that Rush is a band you could not only discover in 9th grade, but that you could fandom in 9th grade (I’m using fandom as a verb here because I think fandom is a complex phenomenon of joining, allegiance, exuberance, and influence. It seemed the best way to indicate the discovery of an artist in your youth that impacts you significantly.)

3. Geek rockers are geeks. Re: Weezer. After all, they coined the term “geek rock.”

4. Geek rock is generally, like geeks themselves, not terribly mainstream. This one is a little tricky, because what, after all, is mainstream? The popular in popular culture, the mass in mass media, mainstream is also fickle. And panoptic. And quo. But what do we make of the listing of artists from the first volume of Never Mind the Mainstream, a collection of MTV’s 120 Minutes (the alternative music show) from 1991? Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, The Stone Roses, The Mission UK, Bob Mould, The Church, The Cocteau Twins, Julian Cope, Sinead O’Connor, Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians, World Party, XTC, They Might Be Giants, Camper Van Beethoven, and Modern English. Once obscure, several, if not all, of these artists are far more “mainstream” now than they once were, reading more like a “Who’s Who” list then a “Who’s That?!” list. Even with the fluctuations in the mainstream, this list demonstrates how geek rock tends to cross the streams, and also exist in the realms of alternative music, or indie rock. Perhaps it’s best to use the lingo of the 90s, and say that geek rock is an alternative to the alternative, without necessarily being isolated from the alternative or the mainstream. It may not generally be mainstream, but it’s not exactly not mainstream, either. Which leads to my last point, #5.

5. Perhaps most importantly, audience interpretation is what makes geek rock geeky. Be it mainstream, alternative, or something else entirely, what really puts the geek in geek rock is the listener. When I listen to They Might Be Giants, I hear layers of possibility in meaning, a playground of interpretation, of sophisticated referencing of literary device and musical homage wrapped in panache. The word “geek” for me, connotates “smart.” Let’s not forget that “geek” was first equated with intelligence, enthusiasm, and an awkwardly zealous focus on pursuits. They Might be Giants are a geek rock band in my book (literally) because they are, above anything else, a SMART band. They fit nearly all of this criteria (not #3. I don’t think they themselves are geeks, and they don’t claim to be, either). My reading of They Might Be Giants as geek rock musicians is what makes them geek rock, perhaps even more than anything they are inherently doing. As a listener, it’s my interpretation and perception, the connotation that I have of “geek,” and my own invested geekiness and geeking out that puts the geek in geek rock.

One of my intentions with this column is to continue to explore geek rock from every angle we can possibly think of. In our book, we have contributions from around the world that explore geek rock from the perspectives of cultural studies, lyric analysis, gender studies, the whole shebang. I want to keep adding to this list, discussing what geek rock is, why it is geek rock, and how geek rock is important to music and, more broadly, culture and subculture(s) in general.

In other words, we intend to geek out over geek rock. And I hope you’ll join us.