Mastodon, Geek Metal, and Geek Rock

I’m currently working on a paper for the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference on Mastodon’s video for “The Motherload.” The working title of this paper, by the way, is “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s “The Motherload” Video.” (I’m very pleased with my title.) But the upshot of all this writing and planning for my paper  is that I’ve been thinking a lot about Mastodon recently. Their most recent album, Once More ‘Round the Sun (which features “The Motherload”), is excellent. One of the things I particularly enjoy is the exuberance running throughout this album. While Mastodon is always good, there’s an energy here, almost a frenetic, desperate joy, providing an undercurrent that lifts their artistry to another level. Always different, and always fresh, I appreciate the ways that Mastodon continually subverts their genre.

Which brings me to the question, are Mastodon geeky? Could they be considered geek metal? Geek metal falls into the same genre bending as geek rock and nerdcore, with the same result. Much like geek rock has fallen by the wayside of rock, geek metal remains mostly subsumed within metal. Even Urban Dictionary’s definition is poor, although if there was any doubt about the marginalization of homosexuals, the existence of hate speech, or the instability of hyper-masculinity, these definitions clear that up. Geek metal is metal by virtue of it’s subject matter, typically fantasy, and is somehow, as Urban Dictionary seems to imply, “lesser” than “normal” metal. This implication, I think, is because metal tends to be associated with a performance of hyper-masculinity, and any deviation from that is discouraged.

Which brings me back to Mastodon. These guys are not your (stereo)typical metal band. They innovate in unexpected ways. They keep it fresh. They have videos with clowns (or, in the case of “The Motherload,” a great deal of twerking). They subvert the genre of metal which is a subversive genre to begin with. But are they geeky? I say yes. Their acclaimed album Leviathan is about Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick. Crack the Skye is another example, addressing astral travel and Stephen Hawking’s theories of wormholes. They wrote the score for the movie Jonah Hex, based on the DC comic, and released on an EP titled Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly. From great literature, to great physics, to great comics, Mastodon knows their way around geekdom.

But is that all it takes to make geek metal geeky? User Zipzop 5565 lists lists the Top 5 Geek Metal bands on Sputnik Music, and Mastodon is not on the list. However, neither is DragonForce, who are perhaps the quintessential geek metal band. The list includes Dethklok, Anthrax, Swashbuckle, HORSE the band, and Wormed. I’m only familiar with Anthrax and Dethklok, and neither would have come to mind immediately as geek metal. However, this user provides justification for his choices, which not only make sense, but which would also include Mastodon in the category of geek metal. However, much like geek rock, the geekiness is the ear of the beholder as much as it’s in the music itself. Whether Mastodon consider themselves geeky is another question entirely. But this geek is happy to call them geek metal, as an accolade and tribute to their brainy metal sensibilities.

Geek Rockin’ Around the Xmas Tree

Before Guitars and Geeks goes on a brief hiatus this holiday season, I wanted to leave you with one last post.

And it’s going to be reflective.

This year saw the publication of Geek Rock: An  Exploration of Music and Subculture, and, subsequently, the start of this column (yay!). Alex and I worked on Geek Rock for nearly two years before finally seeing it in print (which, by the way, is still one of the the coolest things ever). Geek Rock, as I’m sure you’ve already read in the introduction, began as a panel at the PCA/ACA conference. Despite our panel being scheduled across from George Takei’s keynote speech (really?! A geek rock panel across from George Takei?!), we received a great deal of fantastic feedback and participation. We pitched the idea of a book to Scarecrow (now Rowman and Littlefield), who had already heard about our panel by the time we got to the book exhibit. So we crafted a CFP, created an email address, and waited. And then the submissions came in. We were floored by the reception our CFP garnered, the quality of the submissions, the enthusiasm we received. We chose the widest scope, most representative selections, and highest quality essays to comprise Geek Rock. We edited with diligence. We went through several revisions. We dealt with lyric copyright issues. We met some truly awesome people (and I want to give another shout out to Brad Roberts here, for paying copyright fees for his own lyrics so that Paul Cantrell could include them in his chapter), read some truly awesome writing, and created a truly awesome book.

Geek Rock made my year.

It made my year before, too, really, but this year was the year we went to print. It was the year of turning in the final manuscript, submitting all the paperwork (and there’s a good deal of paper involved in publishing an edited collection), and reviewing the final proofs. It was the year that I came home to a box on my doorstep (which I nearly fell over in my enthusiasm), and I held our finished book in my hands. I probably would have kept the box, too, if my dog hadn’t ate it. Seriously. I geek-hoard things sometimes. And this year, it’s been hard not to.

It’s been a good year for geeks in general. Arrow and The Flash have been spectacular, there’s the new Star Wars trailer (eeeee!), the latest Borderlands game, and a whole bunch of stuff that I haven’t been able to keep up with because I’m busy working and writing and trying to read whenever I can. And there is so. much. music. I wish I had the money to buy everything, but I’ve been reduced to Spotify for now. And going to shows. (Support local, y’all.)

Next year, I predict,  will be stupendous. I’ll be presenting at PCA on the new Mastodon video for “The Motherload” (so let me know if you’re attending!), I’ll be reading and listening to music as much as humanly possible, not to mention starting some new podcasts (Dear Sugar!), and there’s the usual zazen, and geeking, and maybe even writing a new book proposal at some point. There will definitely be writing, and if I don’t see you elsewhere in the ‘verse, I hope to see you here, at Guitars and Geeks. Maybe I’ll even see you writing–I think it’s time to have some guest columnists and find out what some of YOU think about geek rock. Comment if you’re interested! And until then, I hope you have the happiest and geekiest of holidays!  See you next year!


The Troubling Allegations Against Jian Ghomeshi

I am a long time fan of Moxy Früvous.

I first heard Bargainville when it came out in 1993. At the time, I hung out at my favorite local record store, called Soundhole, on a near-daily basis. The store specialized in punk rock, but my predilection for geek rock, and my TMBG fandom, were well known by the store’s proprietor, Greg, who received a great deal of my hard earned fast food money. One evening, I walked in and Greg played Bargainville over the store’s loudspeakers. “I got this earlier this week,” he told me, “I thought of you right off.”

I bought the album before the second track finished playing.

And I bought every album after that. I saw them live several times, my favorite being at a dive bar in Virginia Beach called the Abyss (and it really was), where the audience was so small, the venue so tiny, it was like a private performance. The audience stood nearly eye to eye with the band. It was the farthest south I think they ever played.

I even travelled to FrüCon (yes, there was a Moxy Früvous convention) one year, making the trek to Toronto (from Virginia) with a dear friend from college, and attending a show at Lee’s Palace where the band got their start.

If you’ve never heard of Moxy Früvous, I’m sorry that you’re learning about them now. They were a brilliant, fantastic, quirky, delightful band. They put out four excellent albums (Bargainville, 1993; Wood, 1995; The ‘b’ Album, 1996; You Will Go To The Moon, 1997) one excellent live album (Live Noise, 1998), one pretty good album (Thornhill, 1999), and one less good album (The ‘c’ Album, 2000) before going on “hiatus” in 2000. The hiatus, as it turns out, was really more of a break-up, but was termed “hiatus” instead because it allowed the members of the band to remain current members, not former members, thus capitalizing on their star power indefinitely. The hiatus-not-break-up idea was proposed by Jian Ghomeshi.

If you are just now hearing about Moxy Früvous, it’s probably because of Jian Ghomeshi. Recently fired from the radio talk show Q, on Canada’s CBC, Jian Ghomeshi is the center of allegations accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. At least nine women have accused him of non-consensual violent sex, and a police investigation formally began on Halloween. The other former members of Moxy Früvous have stated they were “sickened and saddened” by the allegations, and they were not aware of these behaviors.

Neither was I. Why would I be? I’ve never met him, I’ve never interacted with him. I’m just a fan of his former band. I was made aware when an old friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall about the allegations last week, when the story first broke. We had the same reaction: shock and sadness. The stories of the women coming forward are chilling. And my heart breaks for them all.

What I find particularly troubling is how long this appears to have been going on, in some form or another, as women are now coming forward who claim to have been mistreated while Jian was still a member of Moxy Früvous–nearly 20 years ago.

While I’m glad that CBC took immediate action, I’m also dismayed that women are coming forward from 20 years ago. How is it possible for someone to continue abusing and assaulting women for so long? I think part of the answer comes from the story of Miles Davis, where a man’s contributions to society “outweigh” his flaws, his “mistakes.” But the problem is that mistreating women, beating women, sexually assaulting women–this is not a character flaw. It’s not a quirk. It’s not a mistake that should be overlooked, most especially in contemporary society. There is no possible way to rationalize that violence towards women is anything but wrong.

The allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are heartbreaking because I don’t know how to reconcile this new information with the love I have for one of my favorite bands. I struggle with Miles Davis, too, and how to reconcile his music and his personal life. It’s hard to listen to the music of a man who abuses women. But the thing is, too, that we CAN listen to the music of a man who abuses women. We can still drool over Miles Davis. But Hitler’s paintings are inaccessible, held by the U.S. government and prevented from being displayed. Maybe that’s why women from 20 years ago are still coming forward–assaulting women is a “lesser” crime against humanity.

It may seem strange to compare Hitler and Miles Davis, particularly during a discussion of Jian Ghomeshi. Hitler’s agenda, after all,  was to exterminate all non-white, non-straight, non-Aryan persons. The end result of genocide and wife beating are decidedly different. But both stem from the idea that another being is somehow inherently inferior and that it is acceptable to use violence against beings that are perceived as inherently inferior. Hitler’s genocide is certainly more heinous, but at the same time, it’s important to see that Nazi perpetrated murders were sanctioned by institutionalized constructions of inferiority. And violence against women is also sanctioned by institutionalized constructions of inferiority. I’m not saying that genocide and violence against women are comparable, I’m saying the ideologies behind them, that ideologies that say violence against perceived inferiors is okay, is comparable. After all, America didn’t exactly jump into WWII to prevent and end the Holocaust. And Jian Ghomeshi was allegedly able to assault women for an indeterminate amount of time, and Miles Davis’s wife beating gets swept under the rug. We appear to live in a society where we’ve made a gradient of evil, and some evil is condemned, while other evil is admissible. Particularly if it’s against women.

The more I think about Jian Ghomeshi, the more I think about the status of women, the arguments for and against feminisms, the violence perpetrated against women, and also against men, the more I see disturbing questions and comparisons. But I guess the thing I’m left with is that geek rock, overall, as a genre, still isn’t a safe space for women. Much like GamerGate has shown that geekdom still has enormous strides to make in terms of equality, so has geek rock. So has mainstream society. The most upsetting part about the lack of equality, for me,  is where can woman be equal if not in geekdom, if not in the land of geeks and nerds and fandom and enthusiasm and braininess and sci-fi and fantasy?

And I’m not just angry that geekdom isn’t a safe space for women. I’m angry that women aren’t equal in society overall, and I’m even angrier that I’m still put in positions where I have to struggle with reconciling how a member of one of my favorite bands is also allegedly an abuser of women. This is a no brainer. Don’t hit women. Don’t hit anyone, actually. Don’t abuse living creatures. For geekdom, the bastion of braininess, to fail at what is essentially a no-brainer, is a problem.

My hope is that GamerGate and the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are flushing out the system, rinsing it clean and showing all the places where misogyny still(!) exists in order to eradicate it and continue the work of creating equality. My hope is that we learn that the abuse of women is not a quirk or flaw, but a crime against humanity and human decency. My hope is that we learn that women are not less important, but equally important, and that abusing women, that abusing anyone is clearly wrong, not only in geek culture, but in any culture. There is no excuse for not knowing that it’s wrong to hurt another, and geeks, of all people, with their claim to excessive knowledge, should know that.

Not That Scruffy Looking: Nerf Herder

At Dragon*Con, I saw Nerf Herder play. Twice, in fact: a half hour acoustic set in the afternoon, and then an hour long set later than night. And I learned that I have been terribly remiss in exploring their oeuvre.

You see, I’d heard Nerf Herder before I knew they played the Buffy theme song (if you were not aware, yes, that’s Nerf Herder. And now that you know, go back and watch Season 7 again, because in the episode “Empty Places,” that’s Nerf Herder playing “Rock City News” at the Bronze. It’s funny, because Dawn says, “I think this band might actually be one of the signs [of the apocalypse].” Nerf Herder is, of course, literally one of the signs of the apocalypse in the Buffyverse, as their music heralds each episode. Fittingly, they are the last band we see play at the Bronze.). I had an ex who got into Nerf Herder with the release of How to Meet Girls in 2000, and he played that album, along with their eponymous 1996 release, quite a bit. I liked them. But shortly thereafter, the ex became ex, and that was that.

But sometimes bands follow you around until you pay attention (that would be a great music video.). I say “follow” because when I first saw Buffy (I need to point out here that I was late to Buffy, and started with Season 1 sometime while Season 4 was airing), I thought “Oh cool! Nerf Herder!” and my impression of the show immediately rose (which was good, because Season 1). I listened to Nerf Herder quite a bit, just the one song, over and over and over as I fell into Whedon fandom watching Buffy. And then, in Season 7, I added a snippet from another song to my Nerf Herder a la Buffy repertoire. Time passed. I still liked them. I re-watched Buffy. I wrote in Buffy Studies. I became a member of the WSA (that’s Whedon Studies Association. It’s awesome. They publish an online journal called Slayage and have a conference every two years.). I published a chapter in a book called Reading Joss Whedon. And I still didn’t explore Nerf Herder.

So when I discovered that Nerf Herder was playing at Dragon*Con, I went. And now, I keep asking myself, for the love of God, why didn’t I explore Nerf Herder? These guys are BRILLIANT. Not even remotely half-witted, nor scruffy looking, Nerf Herder is the most under-rated geek rock band that has ever geeked or rocked. American Cheese, their 2002 release, is playing rather obsessively on my Spotify (sorry guys, I’ll buy everything, too, I promise! I needed immediate gratification). Genius happens on this album. Several times. Nerf Herder (1996) and How to Meet Girls (2000) are the solid pop punk albums that I remember, and as soon as I can stop playing these I’ll move on to Nerf Herder IV (2008), My E.P. (2001) and High Voltage Christmas Rock (2002) (which I’ll clearly be saving until December). Plus, I’m looking forward to the new album they’re working on, that you can pre-order right here (yeah, I did that already).

So, I’m left with two questions from this long-deferred exploration: Why now? And what is it about Nerf Herder that makes them so great? I’ll start with the second one. Nerf Herder is a pop punk geek rock band. And they do pop punk well. Very, very well. Solid, tight, short songs. Guitar that drives and bass that bounces and drums that carry and vocals that pull it all together. The best of pop punk is a bag of Skittles: bright, infectious morsels. You can’t ignore a bag of Skittles. You can’t resist a bag of Skittles. And you can’t resist Nerf Herder. Even more alluring is their overt geekery, playing in Star Trek t-shirts and singing about Spock. Nerf Herder’s geek pop punk is like Skittles for breakfast: a little subversive, and exactly what you want in the depths of your heart.

Which brings me to the first question, secondly: Why now? I have a theory. (And no, I don’t think it’s bunnies). Music finds us when we need it to. Right now, Nerf Herder is my perfect sonic expression. All I want is Nerf Herder, Boris, and Melt Banana on repeat. I want sweetness and depth and melodic chaos. I can regret not exploring Nerf Herder sooner while at the same time being grateful to explore them now. I always liked them. I always liked Skittles. But I guess that now, the difference is that I want to eat Skittles for breakfast.

And possibly lunch and dinner as well.

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.

“Yours truly strummed away with a slightly limp wrist” – The Kinks and Sexuality

One of the main subjects in several chapters of the Geek Rock book is the connection between popular music and gender. I briefly discuss the “women want them, men want to be them” allure of Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, and Robert Plant, specifically with regards to the audience, in my chapter. Martina Topic’s essay on Captain Beefheart contrasts his stage persona and appearance with that of Robert Plant, which Martina described as the epitome of hypermasculinity: bare chest, a mane of locks, pants that are snug in all the right places, you get the picture. (That’s right, we picked on Robert Plant, not once, but twice, for being too good-looking!) Caroline Gates-Shannon did a wonderful examination of the Twee Pop genre, exploring notions of gender in covers of songs written by men, but performed by women – The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” and The Beach Boys “Surfer Girl” – as well as the nontraditional masculinity present in the music and performances of Beat Happening. Caroline’s chapter floats out the phrase “alternative masculinity,” that is to say a form of masculinity that deviates from the standard (whether it’s the Ron Swanson “manly man” or Robert Plant’s bulge is your pick. And I promise to leave Mr. Plant alone from here on out. It’s not his fault he’s criminally handsome.)

The Kinks are one of the most influential bands of their period; The Beatles’ impact was immediate – Fellas! Let’s start a band and have girls scream at us, just like THOSE GUYS! – while The Kinks’ influence on popular music took a little longer. Part of it is that they truly were ahead of their time. Part of it was that they were banned from performing in the United States from 1965 to 1969; it’s a long story, and one that varies depending on which author, journalist, or even Kink you are asking. Here come some lofty claims that I can comfortably defend with evidence: they invented heavy metal with “You Really Got Me” (courtesy of Dave Davies puncturing and slashing the speaker cone on his “little green amp”), their landmark album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is the Rosetta Stone of indie rock, they scored the first hit single that celebrates queer sexuality with “Lola,” and you know how bands these days change genres with each album like they’re changing their socks? Well, The Kinks did that first – bluesy garage rock, baroque British pop, hard rock, concept albums, a fabulous country/trad-jazz album (1971’s Muswell Hillbillies), and one of the greatest musical theater pieces of all time, Preservation Act One and Preservation Act Two.

Another pronounced influence The Kinks had was with how Ray Davies (the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, though his younger brother Dave wrote some wonderful songs as well) presented, performed, and subverted the rock ideal of traditional masculinity. This can be traced as far back as the band’s first single, a cover of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” (where the narrator’s uncle John is “having some fun tonight” with a woman who may or may not actually be a woman – shades of “Lola,” perhaps?) backed with an original, “I Took My Baby Home.” The single’s B-side has Davies’ narrator taking a date back to his place, where he finds himself sexually overpowered:

“She had some pile-drivin’ kisses, they really knocked me out
They knocked me oh-oh-over,
She had a hug like a vice,
She squeezes once or twice and I moan…”

Okay, so Ray still had a little ways to go before becoming a man who Pete Townshend said should be England’s poet laureate, but consider this: the song was recorded in January 1964. At that point in time, The Beatles were ready to send all their loving to you, while their bad-boy counterparts The Rolling Stones were introduced to the British record-buying public with a press release (penned by their manager Andrew Oldham) urging the population to lock up their daughters. Across the pond, The Beach Boys were doing songs that treated women like objects. (Go read the lyrics to “California Girls,” a sublime melody and a textbook example in how to arrange a pop song that is also irretrievably sexist.) In “I Took My Baby Home,” however – Ray Davies’ first song on record – the man is the object, sexually submissive to his female partner.

Of course, this is only the band’s first single. There are countless instances throughout their catalog of Ray portraying himself as something less than a cock-of-the-walk alpha male, in defiance of typical rock and blues lyrics. Consider the narrator of “Sunny Afternoon,” where the man who has lost everything is hardly an object of pity, instead a newly-single abusive alcoholic who doesn’t pay his taxes. The Kinks also make plenty of references to queer sexuality, as well. There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gay reference in “A Well Respected Man,” while the male main character in “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” is described as wearing “frilly nylon panties.”

On Preservation, Ray sings “Mirror of Love” in the voice of a female character, and it is hilarious, and yet this character is later voiced in the story by the great Maryann Price. There is a fey glam campiness in Ray’s onstage banter during the live cuts on Everybody’s in Showbiz (supposedly, he was hamming it up for members of Andy Warhol’s entourage sitting in the front row), while the eponymous track from 1987’s The Road (primarily a live album, this was its one studio cut) provided the title to this article. From 1978’s Misfits, “Out of the Wardrobe” portrays a married couple who not only cross-dress at home, they swap traditional gender roles entirely: “He does the dishes, she smokes a pipe.” Much like “Lola” eight years earlier, the depiction is one of bliss, however not normal it may seem by conventional standards.


Before wrapping it up, I would like to shift the focus from Ray and talk about Dave; occasionally overlooked, Dave deserves to be a focal point in any discussion of the band’s sound or appearance. At a time where the Stones’ shaggy hair caused an uproar and more than a few dirty looks while touring the American south, Dave sported shoulder-length locks. He writes at great length in his autobiography Kink about this, as well as his affinity for wearing campy stage makeup in their early days. Where Ray delivered subtle gay winks in his lyrics, Dave, the ever-smirking maniac whose guitar solos in the band’s early days injected an orgasmic rush into the proceedings, admitted to his own bi-curiosity in the 1960’s. (Homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967.)

As if you all needed another reason to listen to The Kinks. Do it. Now.

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).

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.