We all have our soft spots for certain genres. And weather it’s doom metal or dubstep, genres tend to have a lifespan. Obviously, the lives of some genres are shorter than others, and it is also not uncommon for music to evolve and transform into different styles entirely over time. Often, the death of a genre is for good reason, while, in other cases, it can be like the passing of a dear friend. Some genres are confined by decades, while others seem to define the decades they existed within. Yes, speaking in broad comparisons is fun.
However, like any sentimental change marked by the passage of time, there is often a kind of sting when witnessing the death of a genre you love. Both because it marks what could be considered the ‘end of an era’ but also because . . . well, it can make you feel old. While I am by no means what I would consider ‘old’ yet, it’s a little sobering to realize I have already witnessed significant shifts and evolution of musical genres during the course of my adult life. Not unlike like the (now undoubtedly super old) generations before me witnessing the birth and death of famous genres like disco and glam metal.
As we enter an increasingly digital age, the relationship between music and technology is something that fascinates me to no end. This ever-changing relationship has without a doubt condensed the timescale through with some genres change and others are seemingly forced into extinction. This is certainly a new element to the (genre + time = death or metamorphosis) equation. Like the shifting collective preference in music, technology is another sobering reminder of the rapid and unrelenting nature of time. I caught myself feeling especially ‘dated’ explaining the annoying and archaic novelty of dial-up Internet to a wide-eyed 18-year-old classmate earlier today. She had no memory of the dark world of DOS, dial-up, and sending countless hoards of pixilated lemmings to their doom. I do, I remember it well. I also remember a genre from this time that was particularly close to my heart and seems to have now long since run its course, not unlike the poor lemmings of ancient DOS-world. I am speaking, of course, about nerd rock.
As a nerd-child of the 90’s and early 2000’s, bands like They Might Be Giants and songs like Weezer’s “In the Garage” defined much of my high school experience. Nerd rock struck a particularly strong chord with me and my buddies while slinging late night Magic the Gathering in garages and on kitchen tables, passing the precious high school years in our own little fantasy world. But nerd rock’s frail, bifocaled roots reach back further than just my own high school experiences. With power-nerds like Devo dominating the 80’s with ‘Energy Dome hats’ and progressive nerd rock classics. And as far back as 1977 we have Elvis Costello and his pigeon-toed pose on “My Aim is True,” aiming his Fender Jazzmaster and seemingly self-aware nerd grin directly at the camera.
I suppose it would be incorrect to assume nerd rock is completely dead and gone. After a little Wikipedia reconnaissance, I have come to discover more or less all of the bands in my above examples are still fairly active today. This is an impressive testament to these artists for sure, but not necessarily a temporal indication of health for my beloved nerd rock genre. Music has changed a lot since They Might Be Giants released Flood in 1990, and maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be less a lot less space for making classics like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” when music feels more and more like it takes itself so seriously these days. Don’t get me wrong; there are many ‘cool’ things that I love about contemporary music and where it seems to be going. But that’s just it; so much of the new music I come across feels like it is trying to be to cool for school. Slick, overproduced electronic beats, sensory overloading bass wobbles, and an increasingly common departure from ‘natural instruments’ seems to be more and more common in the tunes of today.
The defining lines of genres and the ‘rules of cool’ are blurred further by the confusing and ever-ironic world of hipster paradigms, which (like it or not) have peripheral influence the world of music as well. Somewhere along the line ‘not being cool’ somehow started to ‘be cool’ in a kind of baffling inversion of youth norms. Making it hard at times tell what is what. True nerds, or irony-invoking hipsters? Who really knows? Certainly it takes more than a pair of thick-rimmed glasses these days to convince me of true ‘nerdism’. Playing accordions and singing about science or wearing ‘Energy Domes’ on the other hand, is a pretty clear display of true nerd colors.
For me one thing is certain, the wonder days of Weezer’s “Only in Dreams” are just that, nostalgic dreams of an aging nerd. And while the glory days of nerd rock may be behind us, it’s encouraging to see some of the founding fathers of the genre still plugging away and doing what they love despite the world of music changing around them. The death of genres is a natural and healthy part of music’s lifecycle, as it is ultimately what keeps things fresh and exciting as the tastes of generations evolve through time.
Google actually has an interactive musical timeline through which you can better visualize these broad fluctuations in musical taste through the decades. The focus is on broad genres, so, sadly, nerd rock is not on there. But it is still super interesting and on-theme for ideas surrounding music, change, and technology. This graphic offers up some tangible proof of the fleeting nature of musical genres. So whether you believe in heaven, hell, or reincarnation for your favorite genre of music, it is best to come to terms with the fact that one day, it will likely no longer be around. The best we can hope for is a bright future with music that we can continue to connect with and use to derive inspiration. In the meantime, extinct genres will continue to live on in our garage of memory where: “I’ve got posters on the wall / my favorite rock group KISS / I’ve got Ace Frehley / I’ve got Peter Criss / Waiting there for me / Yes I do.”