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Secret Abilities

The geeks have taken over popular culture—including rock & roll


Secret Abilities
  • Secret Abilities

The nerds have had their revenge: Geek culture is now mainstream culture, with nerds ruling movies, books and television. The mythology of current pop culture is largely based on variations on the theme of being a geek, not fitting in. ComicCon, TV series like The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley, online retailer Think Geek and others have shown there's big money in the preoccupations of the socially frustrated class.

In popular music, however, the geek phenomenon hasn't been as pronounced. It's still largely used as background soundtrack for an (ideally) smooth social scene at dance clubs or is mired in the macho obsessions of myriad heavy-metal subgenres. There have been geeks in music, though, dating at least back to the '70s, but they've dwelled mostly in the margins until now. But as The Rubinoos prophesied in their theme song from the 1981 movie, it "won't be long, mark my words/ time has come for the Revenge of the Nerds!"

Geeky rock bands find a way to make their geekdom an advantage, and in doing so have become won the affections of the disaffected. Devo wears flowerpots on their heads, calls them "energy domes," and sings, "I'm through being cool." They Might Be Giants give musical geography lessons; The Decemberists are history nerds. Weezer's "Sweater Song" is the anthem of awkwardness. Nerf Herder embraces Sleestaks and being "Lamer Than Lame." Dinosaur Jr. seems to find a kind of geekiness in stonerisms, and Beck pairs awkward dance moves with Dylan-meets-suburban mall rap lyrics. Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard heads an entire cult of obsessed geeks, and crafts songs from an obscure poetics of loneliness—see his latest solo album, Faulty Superheroes (Guided By Voices Records).

There's an element of rebellion in geekdom: "Weird Al" Yankovic has made an entire career out of goofy, nerdy parodies of Top 40 pop songs. GWAR took the comic-book look to the extreme with their space-Viking/Paleolithic stage show and Slave Pit merchandise line, which includes comics and toys. Glenn Danzig—a dork beneath his gruff exterior—has his Verotik line of comics and toys, too. Hip-hop even got into the act, geek-wise, with nerdcore acts like MC Frontalot. "Geek rock" is even pulling a heavy metal and splintering into genres based on fandoms: Time Lord rock, aka "trock," focuses on the TV series Dr. Who, and wizard rock ("wrock") bands write odes to Harry Potter.

Locally, a number of local bands are plenty awkward, including the nerdy power trio Pentagraham Crackers, the '90s indie throwback Color Animal, and Albino Father with their self-proclaimed "dad rock." The Layton-based band Secret Abilities' very name suggests superpowers beneath a nerdy veneer. Singer/guitarist Davin Abegg had been writing songs about geeky subjects like monsters, robots and difficult relationships for years in Chameleons Among Us and Ex-Boyfriends, but the addition of geek-girl singer Tink Safeer in 2010 clinched the local nerd-rock crown.

"B movies are a good example of what we're all about," Abegg says, "because you've got bad acting, bad monsters ... and I think we're the musical version of that." The band's fifth release, last year's Music To Break Up By, was even recorded at uber-nerd Calvin Johnson's K Records' Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, Washington. Abegg also released the compilation Let's Get Awkward on his own Swoody Records label. Subtitled The Sounds of Off-Step Sincerity, this collection of bands from Arizona, California and Utah looks at ways the best intentions go awry. Safeer makes costumes and recently volunteered at Salt Lake ComicCon repairing costumes.

So, awkward rock is alive and well, especially in the Beehive State, with its own awkward cultural mores. To some extent, geek is chic; but if it gets too popular, is it still awkward? It's a perpetual conundrum. For the time being, as Huey Lewis once noted, completely without irony, "It's hip to be square."