Culture, Community, and Nerdy Music

Church emailed me yesterday (at Matt S.‘s prompting, I think) to invite me to check out an interesting conversation. The whole thread started with Z.’s year-end wrap-up post at Hipster, Please!, which reflected on how the nerdcore hip-hop scene has long seemed less community-oriented than the wizard rock scene. Nerdcore artists seemed to move past that in 2007 to help a fellow artist in need, leading Z. to conclude that for him, 2007 “will be remembered as the year we came together, if only for a minute and if only under the worst of circumstances.”

The conversation that followed the post, however, was mostly concerned with why nerdcore hasn’t had that sense of community more often, or in a more sustained fashion. Noting that the post was getting so many comments that it looked like a forum, participants moved over to the Game Music 4 All forum to continue. The conversation touches upon a number of related points, such as what “nerdcore” really means, what binds the various interests related to nerdcore, and whether nerdcore and wizard rock are better approached as genres, scenes, or movements. It’s very interesting reading, and I encourage you to go check out the whole thread yourself.

As it turns out, it’s not just the wizard rock scene that seems to have a more close-knit sense of community than nerdcore. Anthony echoes the observation brought up in the post, comparing nerdcore to various video game music scenes:

While I know pretty much nothing [about] wrock, it seems like you could have switched that with chiptunes, VG Rock, OCremixers, or a few other things. Floating around all these different VG inspired genres has made me proud, seeing so many communities sharing a common goal and working together, playing together, and being supportive of each and every person in the scene, whether promoters, musicians, or fans. Though, when I hit nerdcore, I didn’t get that same sense of community, which was a bit saddening.

The participants in this conversation—including fans, bloggers, and musicians—offer a good range of theories for why this is. I offered some myself (see the forum thread), but the basic thrust of my input right now is this: There’s a difference between a geek culture (or a subculture, if you prefer) and a geek community. Nerdcore draws upon a bunch of overlapping cultural domains, largely concerned with intellectual ability and media interests. You may feel that you connect with nerdcore music, or even describe yourself more broadly as belonging to “geek culture”—invoking all the enthusiasm, pride, and indignities that this may imply—but that’s not quite the same as connecting with a community of mutually supportive individuals.

The first time I really thought about this distinction was when I saw an ad in a hobbyist gaming and sci-fi store for a local writers’ group. I have a friend who has long hoped to make science-fiction writing his primary occupation, and I thought I could recommend the group to him to help spur him into action. Quite suddenly I realized that he would want nothing to do with the group: He loves science-fiction, but he has no particular desire to interact personally with fans (whom I suspect he regards as too likely to be smelly). He enjoys the material culture of science fiction, and considers it part of his own culture insofar as it interacts with his identity and enables certain kinds of interactions with the friends he already has. He isn’t really interested in interacting with a community built specifically around sci-fi writing, though.

(Side note: About a week after I suggested this distinction to my friend—who agreed I was about right in my assessment of how it applied to him—I read an article by Rhiannon Bury in the Post-Subcultures Reader that makes the same culture/community distinction in a discussion about X-Files message board participants. This was reassuring to me; it’s easy to be the first person to say something, but it’s harder to come up with something independently that anyone else finds worth discussing.)

In my forum post, I suggested that nerdcore may find it more difficult to build community because of its broadness. Or, alternatively, wrock and video game music scenes find it easier to build community because of the relative narrowness—and thus intimacy and lower barrier to entry—of their interests. Another thought just occurred to me, though: I wonder if nerdcore fans include a greater number of people who are more interested in geek culture than in geek community. I don’t know now why wrock or VGM would be any more likely to attract people who want to meet or at least more directly interact with their fellow fans online. Being much more overtly based on feelings of social isolation, though, is it possible that nerdcore attracts those who have little interest in meeting other nerds? If that were the case, the easy explanation behind that would be that those nerds are uninterested in socializing; even more plausible, I think, is the possibility that they, like my friend, would prefer to keep their distance from the nerds they don’t know yet.

6 thoughts on “Culture, Community, and Nerdy Music

  1. I like the culture vs. community distinction. I think my GF would fall into the same category as your friend. She likes science fiction etc., (we’ve actually had arguments that were only settled by dragging out the Franz Joseph Technical manual) but she generally avoids conventions, for example (at least once she hit high school.)

    Thinking about that further, it may be that she just hasn’t found her ‘niche’ within larger fandom. She won’t go to a “comic book convention,” but she quite likes the Small Press Expo (which is pretty much a comic book convention.) There is a segment of comic book fans which find that perfectly understandable (and is probably why SPX exits) so she is aligned quite nicely with a subset of comic book fans, but she doesn’t realize it.

    I guess my point is that there are folks who ARE geeks, but just don’t realize they’re geeks because they think of geeks as a different subset of geekdom. And because of that, they’re less likely to find similarly-minded folks.

    Which is pretty tangental to the main discussion, I guess.

  2. Oh, and for the record, yeah, Matt S’ comment prompted me to email you. I will say that I was going to do just that earlier, but I wasn’t sure which forum the conversation would be actually followed up in until that point, so I wasn’t sure where to point you.

  3. @ Church:
    I am all about tangential stuff.

    @ Church again:
    I believe you. I have noticed that you are so diligent about forwarding relevant links to geek bloggers that I think we need to come up for a special award for you, should bloggers ever have their own academy awards. (Do bloggers have their own academy awards..?)

  4. The distinction between culture and community is an interesting idea. It is one of those things that I think has been in my head, but never stated out right, thanks for taking that step for me.

    For me, I think this is the money quote from this piece, “is it possible that nerdcore attracts those who have little interest in meeting other nerds?” That is a really important question that I hadn’t considered before and feel kind of silly for not doing so. I’m going to have to give that some serious thought before I can come up with a response, but this plays into some ideas that I’ve had that I’m still chewing on.

    I knew getting Church to bring you into this discussion would prove to be a good idea. Thanks a lot!

  5. You know, Jason, I think we should call said award “The Church Tucker Award for Nerd Journalistic Excellence, One-Removed.” It has a ring, no? 😉

  6. @ Matt S:
    No, thank you! I would’ve missed that conversation entirely if not for you guys.

    @ Z:
    Do we know anybody who makes attractive yet affordable plaques and statuettes?

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