August 06, 2007

Nerdcore: Runnin with my beta cuz I'm takin chances

In 2001, as Mary Bucholtz wrote in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, California high-school nerds "[employed] a superstandard language variety to reject the youth culture norm of coolness", adopting linguistic and other practices that "ideologically position nerds as hyperwhite by distancing them from the African American underpinnings of European American youth culture."

This cultural polarization was part of the joke behind "Weird Al" Yankovic's 2006 album Straight Outta Lynwood, especially the track White & Nerdy:

So it made sense for Benjamin Nugent ("Who's a Nerd, Anyway?", NYT 7/29/2007) to focus on this polarization in promoting his forthcoming book American Nerd: The Story of My People.

But American culture continues to transcend oppositions, as Alex Williams illustrated in a NYT Fashion & Style article yesterday ("Dungeons, Dragons and Dope Beats", NYT 8/5/2007).

There was a time that brainy, pimple-cheeked misfits could only work out their frustrations alone, in action-figure-filled bedrooms, blasting through level after level in "shooter" video games likes Wolfenstein 3D.

Then nerdcore came along.

A largely white subgenre of hip-hop that celebrates the solitary pleasures of science fiction, computers and bad teenage movies, nerdcore is emerging from the shadows of the Internet, where it spent the last half-decade as an in-joke. This do-it-yourself brand of rap, part self-expression and part self-satire, has inspired two documentary films, and its own festival, Nerdapalooza, in California. This month, MC Chris -- otherwise known as Christopher Ward, 31, the son of a finance executive from the affluent Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill. -- will attempt an unprecedented nerdcore crossover when he joins mosh-pit-friendly rock acts like New Found Glory and Sum 41 on the Warped Tour.

Nerdcore is still mostly a genre-bending joke:

Many nerdcore anthems -- "You Got Asperger's" by MC Frontalot, "Fett's Vette" by MC Chris, "View Source," by Ytcracker ("Eagerly awaiting my macro advances/running with my beta cuz I'm taking chances") -- are as much efforts at comedy as they are attempts at sincere hip-hop.


From its early days, hip-hop has been an art form born from oppression and marginalization, where performers sought to turn limitations into strengths, and the harshest circumstances yielded the best material. While no one is going to compare life in the high-school computer lab to the streets of the South Bronx -- or certainly, wedgies to racism -- suburban dweebs have their beefs with society, too.

If historical tragedies can repeat themselves as farce, maybe this cultural farce will someday express a tragic vision. Meanwhile, nerdcore performers like ytcracker are certainly not positioning themselves as hyperwhite, either stylistically or linguistically:

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 6, 2007 07:32 AM