Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My Fans Are Pretty Geeky and I Say That With Some Degree of Pride

The title is a quote from this NY Times Video staring "singer/songwriter, musician and internet superstar" Jonathan Coulton (link via).* Yes, Noble Readers: I've decided it's time for more Jonathan Coulton-y goodness.

Coulton just got prominently featured in this (fascinating) NYT Magazine piece (to which the above-linked video is an accompaniment), so I'm guessing his name might be familiar to more of you than was true a week or two ago. In case it's not, though, I've written a post about Johnathan Coulton before, right after first discovering his music.** In that post I listed some of my favorite Coulton songs. But I've developed some new favorites since then. I intend to name names.

First, though, let me direct you to a great new page on his site: The JoCo Primer - Listening Suggestions. Coulton's done a lot of songs by now (I haven't heard them all myself, though I've listened to more than two dozen more than two dozen times each (probably a serious understatement, actually)); here he has set up a primer by categories; four each of "Most Popular Ones", "Funny Ones", "Sad Ones", "Funny/Sad Ones", "Geeky Ones" and "Sweet Ones". Almost certainly the place to start if you haven't listened to him before. (Apart from all my sage suggestions in my two posts, of course.)

Okay, on to some new suggestions:

Shop Vac. This is definitely one of the half-dozen or so Coulton songs constantly contending for position as my all-time-favorite Coulton song: I started out liking it, but it's grown on me the more I hear it. In his primer, Coulton lists it under his "funny/sad" songs, but that seriously understates the number of different registers at work. One's first impression of the song is that it's a corking good rock song: you could do a good dance to it. The funny is the second impression: like much of Coulton's work, it's very funny indeed. The sad comes third -- but instead of "sad", it's closer to "suburban existential despair". And the end of the song -- with the news show noticeable but not quite audible under the music -- veers into the realm of the eerie, if not downright menacing.

But what makes it work is that, through all of these different modes, the others remain: the song remains a corking good rock song, even once you notice that it is also a funny, menacing song about suburban existential despair. This sort of two-step is, I think, absolutely essential to Coulton's appeal. Even after going all the way through the humor, the songs remain good and powerful. As you listen, over and over (if you do), you go through the different cycles, re-experiencing (in this case) Shop Vac as powerfully rocking, funny, despairing, eerie by turns, as if for the first time. The temporary predominance of other impressions clears the way for the others to return with yet more strength. The sweet and the sour play off each other, each enhancing the other, in an endlessly rising gyre.

This is also the reason that the various comparisons I offered in my previous post don't bear up. I mentioned Weird Al Yankovic -- but Yankovic, funny as he can be, isn't nearly as rich a talent as Coulton: equally funny, perhaps, but lacking the other dimensions that Coulton has.*** Tom Lehrer (who I mentioned by comparing Coulton's The First of May with Lehrer's Poisoning Pigeons in the Park) has been suggested to me as a better comparison, and in some way he is: the different mimicry of genres, the sophisticated as well as distinctly geeky humor, etc, are very much parallel. But I think that ultimately Coulton's songs work better simply as songs than Lehrer's -- which, admittedly, is probably more a genre preference on my part (rock music over solo nightclub-style piano) than anything else, but my feeling nevertheless stands.****

Anyway, Shop Vac is a great humorous rock ballad of suburban despair. When we were in Benicia, California recently for a wedding, my wife & I kept singing this song to each other.

SkyMall. This one isn't in Coulton's primer, but if it were it'd probably be in the funny/sad category too. It's not quite as rich as Shop Vac -- funnier, but not quite as despairing (although definitely somewhat) -- but it, too, is a good rock song. And, hey, it's about SkyMall: yes, the airline magazine. ("There's something special waiting there/It's a whimsical statue of a bear/That holds a bottle of wine...").

The Future Soon. This one's also in the primer -- actually, all the rest of the ones I'm going to recommend are in the primer, although I'd picked them out as a favorites before he posted the primer; I think it shows that he did a good job of selecting them (but then, I would think that). Anyway, the Future Soon, like "Shop Vac" is there under funny/sad -- which it is, although I would have categorized it under "Geeky". In some ways it's the ultimate geek song, since it talks about the experience of being a geek in geek terms: sort of a two-fer.

I'm hesitant to say to much about this because -- while this song plays wonderfully on its fiftieth play (cough, cough) -- the first verse is actually very different from the rest to the extent that talking about it too much could actually constitute a spoiler. Let's just say it starts out at sweet and geeky... and veers into weird and hilarious and wild and geeky, before returning to sweet and sad and menacing and geeky. Geeky is the common thread, sure, but the song goes lots of other places too: the Coulton two-step goes on.

I'm Your Moon. This one is in the primer under "sweet": and it is. It's become one of my favorite love songs -- it's just so touching and so tender and so overwhelmingly sweet in a "I'll-always-love-you- it's-us-against-the-world" sort of way. A great love song.

What makes it a Coulton love song is that it's a love song sung by Charon (yes, the moon) to Pluto upon the latter's demotion from "planet" to "dwarf planet", trying to buck it up:
They don’t think you matter
Because you don’t have pretty rings
I keep telling you I don’t care
I keep saying there’s one thing they can’t change
I’m your moon
You’re my moon
We go round and round
From out here, it’s the rest of the world that looks so small
Promise me
You will always remember who you are
It's a hilarious song -- a really funny reaction to Pluto's demotion. (It's what I was trying to get at when I wrote a post titled Pluto, We Still Love You! as a reaction to the news. But Coulton has the talent to do it really right.) While there were lots of other funny reactions (see my post for some links), Coulton's is definitely my favorite...

...because, again, it's not just funny. Once you're past the joke, you return to the really sweet love song. It doesn't matter that it's sung by one dwarf planet to another. It remains an incredibly sweet, touching -- even moving -- song of devotion and loyalty and love.

Just what Charon would really say -- almost certainly did say -- in the situation.

A Talk with George. This one is in the primer under "sweet" -- but that's not how I'd describe it. In some ways it's geeky, but it's literati-geeky rather than the usual nerd-geeky or math-geeky that the word "geek" conjures.

The song is mostly a biography of journalist George Plimpton -- through the literary device of having him accost you in a "dark and smoky" bar and give you some advice about "the things that you should do/If you don’t want to take life lying down". But for some reason it is far more powerful than it has any right to be -- it ends with a stanza saying, roughly, "seize the day" -- but coming from a man who seized it so thoroughly, and so powerful a way, it transcends the cliché that that sentiment can become. Plimpton really did live a rather remarkable life, which Coulton documents well. My favorite lines, I think, are (and remember that these are offered as advice on how to live):
And when they shoot poor Bobby down
Wrestle Sirhan to the ground
You should go three rounds with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray
It’s so damned scary you won’t mind the pain
Anyway, I like this song all out of proportion to any reason I can articulate. Give it a listen.

You Ruined Everything. Yet another "sweet" one; this one I would have filed under "sad" -- but I get why Coulton didn't. This is a song about the birth of his daughter; the full lyric that the title excerpts is "You ruined everything/In the nicest way". It's a love song, sure -- another touching one (Coulton's good at them) -- but it's also a comparatively rare acknowledgement that parenthood sucks (especially with a newborn).

But here I'll let Coulton speak for himself; here's how he describes the genesis of the song:
I was having a conversation with a friend who had recently become a parent, and she reminded me of something I had forgotten about since my daughter was born. She was describing this what-have-I-done feeling - I just got everything perfect in my life, and then I went and messed it all up by having a baby. I don’t feel that way anymore, but the thought certainly crossed my mind a few times at the beginning. Eventually you just fall in love and forget about everything else, but it’s not a very comfortable transition. I compare the process to becoming a vampire, your old self dies in a sad and painful way, but then you come out the other side with immortality, super strength and a taste for human blood. At least that’s how it was for me. At any rate, it’s complicated.
This is something I've seen in a lot of my friends who become parents; but most won't admit it -- because, primarily, they genuinely and overwhelmingly love the child (who nevertheless ruined everything) and, second, because the culture says so strongly that Parenthood Is A Good Thing.

Anyway, it's a wonderful song -- and it's love (as is often the case with such emotions) comes through all the stronger and clearer and more powerfully for the genuineness that accompanies a frank acknowledgement of problems. This may be why I find what I have referred to as "the Coulton two-step" (metaphor still under construction) so powerful -- one of the reasons so many people love Buffy the Vampire Slayer: that mixing modes and genres makes each more powerful. Real humor makes genuine emotion stronger, since it allows (or requires) admitting elements that go against the emotion stronger (and there's always something: life is too complex to let any single reaction ever fully capture a moment). By putting in a frank acknowledgement of the "ruined everything" aspect, the "in the nicest way" -- the love song -- works all that much better.

That's really why, all the way through, Coulton works so well: his many modes each make the others stronger.

Oh, and that detour into the riff on "parenthood-as-vampirism"? Also why I totally love Coulton, or at least another part of why. You gotta have a bit of love for vampires and zombies and such to like Coulton, I think.

Which is why his fans are pretty geeky.


Still more fun ones that I don't like quite as much as those five (and which I'm too lazy to write up), but which are also good (and which I may write up if I ever do a third Coulton post): See You All in Hell, I Crush Everything (primer category: "sad"), Soft Rocked By Me, Furry Old Lobster, My Monkey, Todd the T1000, Betty and Me.

And none of this is to take anything away from the many favorites I discussed in my earlier post: Re: Your Brains, Chiron Beta Prime, Mandelbrot Set, The Presidents, Code Monkey, and so on, and so forth...

Oh, and that NY Times Video (which is about the internet success of Coulton's song "Code Monkey")? It's actually interesting and, as Patrick said, rather "oddly moving" (I'd add: and unexpectedly sweet). If you like the song, it's worth a look. (The video Coulton discusses at the end, with the dance, is here.)

* The quote continues: "...because I'm also a geek myself."

** Also from Making Light. Have I mentioned the Nielsen Haydens' blog is awesome?

*** In fairness to myself, I wasn't claiming that he was. What is comparable to Coulton (although maybe not even) is the combination of Yankovic's lyrics with the musical inventiveness and power of the artists he's satirizing: he (often) replaces banal lyrics with funny ones in songs with genuinely catchy music, creating a superior result. Coulton does the same thing... but better, and he's writing original music, and his lyrics (often) aren't just funny.

**** Incidentally, towards the end of my recently-concluded semester at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I polled my two classes (right before starting, waiting for stragglers) and not one single student in either class had heard of Tom Lehrer. I found this rather shocking. When I was in college (1989-1993) Lehrer was still quite popular and widely known. Nor can this be attributed to my being an old-age, out-of-it old fogey: Lehrer had stopped recording songs before I (and most if not all of my classmates) were born, so he was no more out of date for my students than he was for us. (I missed all sorts of references in Lehrer songs for years after I had (as a teenager) memorized them through repeated listening. -- Actually, the same has happened for me with Coulton in at least a few cases.) I don't know if this is a cultural difference between where I went to school (Harvard) and HWS, or if there has been a genuine cultural shift over the past decade and a half whereby Lehrer has ceased to be popular, or if my dual non-randomized samples (college friends; students) just happened to fall out that way (were my friends that much geekier than any of my students? (quite possibly, I'd say)), or if there is some other explanation I haven't thought of. Anyone who has any data, or even anecdotes, on this are encouraged to leave them in comments; I'm curious. Do kids still like Tom Lehrer?


Melissa Sorrells said...

Hullo! I no longer attend HWS (I graduated in 2005), but I still work on campus (in the Office of Communications), and I totally know who Lehrer is! Maybe you were asking the wrong people!

Stephen said...


Ah, that's good to hear! I'd hoped that was the explanation. And I assume you weren't the only one?

Incidentally, if you like Lehrer, you should really give Coulton a try if you haven't already. (I mean, you probably have, or you wouldn't have read all the way to the footnote... but you never know.)

And thanks for reading!