Geek Pride Blooms Into a Real-World Subculture

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

NEW YORK -- The nerds are in the hoouusse!

On a steaming Saturday, a horn-rimmed posse of software engineers, computer programmers and support technicians was grooving at a most unlikely spot -- a fierce underground music venue here. The act: MC Chris -- king of the burgeoning world of "nerdcore rap" -- who dropped rhymes like Jay-Z with a pocket protector, Eminem with complexion issues.

"Sometimes I rhyme fast, sometimes I drink Quik.

If this was a gym class, I'd be the last picked."

In a world where iPhones are more coveted than muscle cars and where the robotic toy film "Transformers" is breaking box-office records, perhaps it is no surprise that nerdcore rap has sprung up as part of an emerging geek social scene that observers say is changing what it means to be a modern nerd.

The Internet already has succeeded in turning groups including the devoutly religious and singles on the make into online communities through niche Web sites, forums and blogs. But for so-called nerds, widely seen as the first group to coalesce online, the Internet has taken its power one step further. It is transforming them from an alienated and virtual community into a thriving, real-world fraternity -- and, to a lesser extent, a sorority -- whose members are physically interacting as never before at concerts, comedy clubs, even "nerd expos."

"You can come here and listen to the music, referencing the Internet and video games, all the stuff you go through in life for being a nerd, and you know you're not the only one," said Doug Rodgers, a doughy 26-year-old who bused four hours from Worcester, Mass., for the recent MC Chris concert. "How cool is that?"

To be sure, geek culture, from two buddies video-gaming on the couch to roundtables of Dungeons & Dragons paper warriors, has been around for years. But it is not just about "Star Trek" conventions anymore. Take, for instance, the Penny Arcade Web comic that, with its hard-core gamer and science-fiction references, brought hundreds of thousands of socially challenged and electronically gifted netizens together online in the late 1990s. In 2000, a few fans who met via the Internet gathered at the food court near the Space Needle in Seattle for a first meet-and-greet. Since then, the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) has exploded into one of the nation's largest annual social events.

Next month, PAX 2007 is set to draw a record 30,000 self-described "geeks" to Seattle -- almost double last year's attendance, with many people traveling cross-country via road trips and tailgate parties to immerse themselves in a world of video-game competitions, after-hours parties, discussion panels and geeksta rap bands including Freezepop, the Minibosses and MC Frontalot -- the pale white rapper who coined the term "nerdcore" in 2000.

This September, the first Nerdapalooza concert kicks off in Eureka, Calif., with two days of "geek music" from more than 30 nerdcore, nerdmetal, geekpop and video-game rock bands. Last month, New York saw the birth of Wiimbledon -- a simulated tennis championship in which players of the hugely popular Nintendo Wii game system dolled up in character costumes and tennis outfits for a shot at the title.

"The isolation that used to be endemic to geek culture is now an option," said Jerry Holkins, Penny Arcade's writer and a geek culture icon. "It started as a digital culture, where you met online because you had similar life experiences of feeling ostracized. . . . We still feel it, but now we see ourselves as part of a vast organized body. Ironically, isolation is what brought us together."

Nerd nights have hit the club circuit -- including San Francisco's 111 Minna, where, this week, geeks were invited via the Internet to "come out and have a drink with people who won't make fun of you" for "hacking," "building nuclear reactors in your garage," "reading science fiction, "collecting Buffy dolls" or "dancing with robots." By nerd, for nerd comedy acts -- including Brian Posehn, the chunky, bearded funnyman whose latest CD, "Nerd Rage," includes segments such as "Dork for 30 Years" -- has packed clubs and venues nationwide.

Comic-Con -- the convention that has long been a staple for the cartoon costume-wearing set -- will probably attract more than 120,000 people to San Diego later this month. It has not only become a major social event, but is also hugely influential. The giants of Hollywood and television regularly test their upcoming projects there in the hopes of winning acceptance, and, more important, Internet buzz. ABC held an hour-long panel at Comic-Con with "Lost" cast members before debuting that show in 2004. This year, NBC will do the same with its upcoming remake of "The Bionic Woman," event organizers said.

Observers note that "nerds" or "geeks" are embracing those long-pejorative labels in part because it has never been so cool to be uncool. Gadgets -- once the realm of Wired-reading early-adopters -- have become part of mainstream culture. Witness the iPod, and, more recently, the mania over the iPhone. In 2000, a poll by Oregon-based CNW Marketing showed that among 16-to-29-year-olds, a new car was considered the possession that most impressed their friends. This year, however, the poll found that cars had fallen behind cellphones, with 70 percent of respondents calling an iPhone the ultimate status symbol.

Is America becoming nerdier, making geeks feel more mainstream? Maybe, say some, who point to the pasty heroes of our day, including Microsoft's Bill Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Top-grossing films, such as "Transformers" and the "Spider-Man" series, were respectively written and directed by self-proclaimed geeks. Perhaps not surprisingly, they contain nerds-saving-the-world plots.

"A lot of people are coming out of their geek closet and proclaiming themselves a nerd, and they are joining together in doing it," said David Glanzer, Comic-Con marketing director. "It's partly because we've seen a validation of geek culture by mainstream America."

Yet the self-described geeks who have come together via movements such as nerdcore rap have also done so in part out of a need for physical community.

Casey Kolderrup, a 22-year-old software engineer, traveled more than an hour from Connecticut last month to hang with other geeksta fans -- and a smattering of local hipsters -- at an MC Chris show. Inside a venue in Brooklyn's ultra-hot Williamsburg neighborhood, about 100 fans from 18 to 40 sang the lyrics to each song while moving their arms as if bouncing a basketball on the moon.

"Some of his songs are about 'Star Wars' or whatever, but he also talks about stuff in his life, about what he went through in high school," said Kolderrup, clad in a blue Firefox T-shirt. "When I first got to high school, I played video games when I got home and didn't really know anybody. I couldn't walk around and meet people, so I started feeling kind of lonely. . . . That's the stuff he sings about."

At the concert -- which included a barbecue lunch and mixer and was advertised solely on the Internet -- Kolderrup found a bevy of like-minded souls. "You can be cool here as the skinny guy in glasses," said Isaiah Samson, a 21-year-old part-time computer technician. "It's not as foreboding to be lame."

The nerdcore movement started in the early 2000s, when acts such as MC Chris and MC Frontalot -- suburban white youths who had grown up listening to hip-hop -- engineered rap to sing about video games, science-fiction films and their own brand of alienation. Their songs gained Web popularity in part because their lyrics have the ring of inside jokes. Some acts, such as MC Chris -- 31-year-old Chris Ward -- also rap about the dark side of being a nerd, identifying with the victimization that provoked the Columbine High School massacre. Others, such as MC Frontalot -- 33-year-old Damian Hess -- are more comedic, using self-deprecating props on stage such as Ventolin inhalers.

There are dozens of geeksta rappers touring the national club circuit and selling digital CDs via the Internet. But Ward -- a former product assistant at the Cartoon Network -- has come the closest to breaking out. Last year, one of his releases landed in the top 10 hip-hop records downloaded from Apple's iTunes store. This month, he launched a national club tour with a "Transformers" premiere concert in Eugene, Ore.

"You know, I'm rapping about how it's okay to like 'Star Wars,' it's okay to be a nerd, like, let's get together anyway," Ward said. He later said, "These are not the jocks and the homecoming queens who are coming to my concerts. . . . This is about geek pride."

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