It shouldn’t come as a shock to those who know me that I’m a fan of the nerd rock genre. I’ve written on this blog about those seminal nerd rockers, They Might Be Giants, and today I’m going to take a look at another nerd rock figure that’s a little less well-known, Jonathan Coulton.
TMBG’s music can be somewhat esoteric at times. Sometimes you have to think for a second before you peel back all the layers and understand the humor and quirkiness behind what they do. The “thinking man” element of their music is probably what classifies them as nerd rock. Coulton, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. His songs aren’t as layered or complex as TMBG’s, but they have the same quirky and smart appeal.
Having been a member of the Yale Whiffenpoofs in college, Coulton always had a talent for music, and while working as a programmer at a New York City software company called Cluen, he started to compose his own songs. Like many artists, he found himself writing lyrics about the things he loved the most- science, science fiction, math, technology, and others- and his career took off from there. Coulton released three albums (one of which, Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms, was packaged with a 2005 issue of Popular Science) before gaining more attention with his Thing a Week project.
During this endeavor, Coulton recorded one song per week for roughly a year, the result being 52 new songs that he marketed through the Internet and Creative Commons, a less restrictive version of a copyright which allows the artist to grant certain rights to others to use their work in specific ways. Part of the project was an experiment to determine whether an independent musician could support himself in this way, and the results were decent. After he finished, Coulton commented in an interview that, “in some parts of the country, I’d be making a decent living.” I think that just goes to show even further how the Internet has democratized content creation, and I think it’s a great development. Some of the songs that Thing a Week popularized on the Internet include “Code Monkey,” which is loosely based on Coulton’s stint as a programmer, which he viewed as a dead-end job, and “Re: Your Brains,” which is about two coworkers talking, one of which has turned into a zombie. The song’s wit comes from the fact that it’s a funny take on zombies, but also a parody of office culture.
But perhaps Coulton’s best known songs are two that he wrote for video games. Many gamers are familiar with the puzzle games Portal and Portal 2. The player’s central antagonist in this game is a sentient computer that goes by the name of GLaDOS, which the player must defeat in order to finish the game. During the end credits of each game, GLaDOS sings a song that reflects on the events of the game. In the original game, it sings “Still Alive” and in the sequel, it sings “Want You Gone.”
Finally, in 2011, Coulton released his first true album, Artificial Heart, produced by none other than John Flansburgh of TMBG. This album is a little more conventional, veering away from nerdy references and humor, but still retains that Coulton-esque charm. My favorite song from the album is “Sticking It to Myself,” which kind of summed up how I felt transitioning from being a student to being a teacher, which I did for a year out of college.
Simply put, Jonathan Coulton’s catalog is a veritable treasure trove of interesting music, lyrics, and sounds, and if you are, know, or love a geek, you should definitely check his music out. But honestly, you don’t really have to be tuned in to “geek culture” to appreciate many of his songs. If you love quirky humor full of pop culture references, you’ll probably still like his songs. And if you’re not really into that, Artificial Heart might still appeal. I’d also encourage you to check out his live show if you can. I liked the way he interacted with the audience the first time I saw him, when he opened up for TMBG. His dry wit along with great performance makes the show enjoyable. I’ll leave you with one more of my favorite songs of his, a tribute to that veritable heaven on Earth that enabled me to furnish my apartment on a shoestring budget when I first ventured out on my own. I refer, of course… to Ikea.