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One of the reasons I truly believe America is the land of opportunity is from my years of ping-ponging around the many fringe music phases–from Gothic new wave, to poppy punk, to psychobilly, and full on hardcore slam dance in a pit punk rock (before it was considered moshing). All this while remaining a steadfast fan of old school sounds like swing and Sinatra.
Along the way, I learned that anyone can pursue their dreams as a rock star in this world. I’m not saying you’ll be a success, and I’m certainly not saying you’ll have lasting success, but by cracky, you can give it a go.
This includes my fellow nerds. Some of the most wonderfully weird and memorable pop, punk, and alternative music featured some of the best and brightest nerds and geeks who blossomed from being classroom bully-bait to being full on rock frontmen. (RELATED: The Return of the Drive-In (and Other Cool Things We Need to Bring Back))
Sure, there’s glam rock, hair bands, emo, and new wave, where everyone’s dad in the 80s and 90s pointed out the prettiest women in the music industry were often “dudes,” but nerd-led bands were always there through the decades, and they were and and still are awesome.
I’m not talking about the mainstream nerdiness from the 80s “Hip to Be Square” concept (although I love Huey Lewis), to the more recent Big Bang Theory phenom. These were geeky guys who knew they could rock, create catchy pop-punk sounds, and simply be themselves on stage.
Here’s a look at five of my favorite songs that let nerds be themselves and still be, frankly, badass.
“Punk Rock Girl” from Dead Milkmen
Dead Milkmen leader Joe Genaro was not a tall guy, nor was he particularly fashionable, but his Philly-based band created fun, punky, bouncy earworms with songs like “You’ll Dance to Anything,” and “Punk Rock Girl.” When “Punk Rock Girl”appeared on MTV’s Bevis and Butthead, even Butthead commented to Bevis, “I think this is the only guy who’s ass you could kick.” Make fun of this one all you want, but Joe evoked the name of Mojo Nixon, so he knew his stuff.
“American Music” from Violent Femmes
I love the geeky, desperate facial expressions of lead singer Gordan Gano on this video. I can also attest after seeing this trio live, that yes, Gordon Gano is a nerd. He stopped the show halfway through a song to lecture the rowdy audience on tossing items around when a water bottle bounced off his head. “Some guys are into that…but not me,” he said in his distinct voice. I can’t say I blame him, but still it helped to solidify the nerdiness, and we all love him for it.
“Once in A Lifetime” from Talking Heads
If you’re a Gen-Xer like me, it might be hard not to hear even the title of this song without either shouting out the phrase, “This is not my beautiful house!” or trying (and likely failing) to mimic some of David Byrne’s spazzy cool calisthenics. Don’t feel bad. I’m guilty of this and there are many witnesses to prove it. Byrne is an exceptional talent still producing some great things, but many of us will always know him as the big-suited geek dancing wildly to some groundbreaking new wave and alternative sounds.
“Keep Fishin’” by Weezer
The hardest thing about this choice was picking the best song that completely exemplifies Weezer as the kings of nerdy cool, because there are just so many great examples. I could pick from their Happy Days tribute in “Buddy Holly” to their cover of Toto’s “Africa” featuring an appearance by Weird Al Yankovic, to their Mister Roger’s Neighborhood parody on “High as a Kite.” However, I’m going with “Keep Fishin’” because…MUPPETS!!!
“Riding on the Rocket” from Shonen Knife
The Japanese pop punk trio Shonen Knife are neither American nor men, but their appeal in the United States and worldwide helped make them punk icons for decades. There are plenty of Asian girl groups who took on a “Hello Kitty” style, but most went for the poppy cutsie-poo sound. Shonen Knife had such a cool retro punky vibe with drilling guitars and funky claymation. Me? Well, I made my daughter a Shonen Knife costume when she was a kid, and am envious of my college friend who got to slam dance to them doing a cover of The Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” so I will defend this band with the power of seven claymation candy monsters.
Not every rock star is a bargain basement Adonis, or a counter-balanced curvy DIY centerfold. I have no problem with that, as we all love eye candy, and some of them actually have talent. Just remember, there’s always a place for us nerds. They might not be the ones we lust over, but they are more often than not, the ones we can rock out to. If this doesn’t give you reason to love this country…and world…I don’t know what does.