Drop Some Geek Tunes on New Year’s Eve

As an openly geeky DJ and a DJ for geeks at their weddings and such, I have often stood at the precarious nexus between multiple vectors of musical taste that – even in this era of the apparently “omnivorous” musical consumer – endlessly poses the question: “Is this the right track?”  Actually, if you’re not asking yourself this question as a DJ, then you’ve either got a killer set or you’re no DJ at all.  Let’s look at some of these vectors of musical taste, including their origin and their direction:

* The MAINSTREAM Vector – If they can play it in the grocery store, then people inclined toward this taste vector will be satisfied.  The origins of this particular taste category are from the comfort and familiarity of music consistently fed to us in the rhythms of our upbringing and lives.  “Happy Juice,” as Daniel Levitin calls it, floods into your brain when you hear certain select canonical songs.  You feel good while grocery shopping because they’re playing Michael Jackson and Madonna, and you feel like dancing because they’re playing Michael Jackson and Madonna LOUDER at a party.  No need to feel ashamed:  everyone will feel the same!

* The INDIE Vector – If a band is played primarily on college radio stations or, even better, only in exclusive locales as part of a scene that is gaining in popularity and becoming slowly co-opted by the mainstream, then those inclined toward this vector will likely enjoy it.  It is founded on the paradoxically entwined grounds of simple pleasure in the unusual and Bourdieu-style class distinction.  In its traditionally negative connotation, the indie taste vector plays on one’s ability not only to become an early adopter of a musical style, but also, as David Brooks argues, an early discarder as well: “In order to cement your status in the cultural elite, you want to be already sick of everything no one else has even heard of.”  In its rarely invoked positive connotation, however, the indie taste vector exposes us all to new and different musical material that may considerably complicate and deepen our musical taste.  Even though it was a little overdetermined for Natalie Portman’s character Sam in Garden State to call The Shins’ song “New Slang” “life-changing,” it certainly got a lot of us hooked on The Shins!

* The MY Vector – We’ve all got our own taste that isn’t entirely determined by the poles of music everybody listens to and music nobody but cool people listens to.  I, Evan Torner, have songs I like because I’ve somehow mentally possessed them.  My musical taste was shaped by falling in love with electronic music in high school and somewhat resolutely refusing to buy albums outside the genre… up until the present.  On the one hand, people know some of the artists I enjoy – The Prodigy, Prefuse 73, Squarepusher, Orbital, Chemical Brothers – and find a great affinity with my musical taste on their account.  Yet I listen to the outliers of the genre as well – Black Strobe, Ghostcauldron, Timo Maas – who may only be known in select clubs and circles in Europe.  I have to be very careful about throwing on, say, a Tim Deluxe house track or something I’ve composed because of its simultaneous lack of mainstream or indie cred.

The GEEK Vector – Then there’s the Bantha in the room:  I’m a geek.  Geeks may or may not be comforted by the mainstream music, might become offended by the indie music, and outright dismissive of the electronic craziness.  They’re likely to jointly appreciate the sounds of Weird Al Yankovic, Celtic melodies, The Phantom Menace soundtrack and Monty Python Sings on their iPods.  The origin of the taste vector stems from a sense of shared understanding about the absurdity of reality and the total awesomeness of the fantastic.  The main problem with geek taste is its eclectic field and often corporate origins.  The Matrix soundtrack is as much a product of the establishment as it is “anti-establishment.”

So what tracks should you play at, say, your New Year’s Eve party to appease a specifically geeky audience?  What tracks should I play to please myself while pleasing a geeky audience?  I’ve come up with a few over the years that are becoming time-honored components of my track “arsenal” that I only reveal and explicate to you as part of my holiday goodwill.

(Note:  This is not a prescribed set-list.  The songs are listed in my brain’s order)

R.E.M. – End of the World – “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”  There’s something very poignant in the combination of this song’s fast tempo and utterly apocalyptic lyrics that make us all join in chorus to sing of our own demise.  And the geeks at the beginning of ID4 are playing golf to it.

David Bowie – Suffragette City – With the presence of Rock Band and Guitar Hero in our lives, certain songs have taken on radical new meaning.  We can imagine ourselves jamming on them with our plastic/electronic guitars, trying desperately to keep the song’s audio on the television from embarassingly cutting out and disappointing the digital audience.  This song – WHAM BAM THANK YOU MA’AM! – has become as geeky as it ever was cool.

Chemical Brothers – The Salmon Dance – This recent addition to modern line-dancing will have you dancing “like a salmon floating upstream.”  That’s also the only move, and there’s no “correct version” of it so as to not intimidate people off the dancefloor.

Madonna – Like a Prayer – This song has swept away the heart of those born between 1975 and 1985, thereby answering Madonna’s prayers and dreams.  This entry also goes out to everyone who graduated from Grinnell College within the last two decades…

Wylde Nept – Wylde Mountain Theme – So, you’ve got some people in capes and you want to see them whirl around?  Throw on the local Eastern Iowa Celtic pub band Wylde Nept and watch the clapping ensue.  It’s so local that even the indie heads won’t know where it came from.

Jamiroquai – Canned Heat – This song was a great dance number for those into acid-jazz and disco even before Napoleon Dynamite came out.  Now we have his crazy-ass choreography to follow.

House of Pain – Jump Around – Get down to the sounds of 1993!  For some reason, this song hits nerves across the social spectrum, with geeks and non-geeks alike thoroughly appreciating its timelessly dated (that’s right) quality.  Even school teachers will start to jump.

Tori Amos – Bouncing Off Clouds – One of the very danceable Tori Amos songs, “Bouncing Off Clouds” reminds girl geeks that the time of their life when they were smoking cloves (or wishing they were) and applying liberal amounts of dark eyeshadow was legitimate and enjoyable.

YMCK – Pow_pow – This song is a good example of thoroughly obscure music that everyone will enjoy on some level.  YMCK is a Japanese chiptune band, a musical genre based off the 8-bit square-wave noises generated by our old Atari and Nintendo game systems.  These guys concoct bright and crazy jazz within their timbral pallette of bleeps and bloops.

Aqua – My Oh My – In the era following The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, there was the fantasy techno song by the band that everyone is slightly afraid to admit they love.  Scandinavian artists Aqua take the cheesy princess story to the next level.

Techno Syndrome – Mortal Kombat Theme – Whoops! How did this get on here?  Still, this’ll get a laugh… and inspire geeky men to fake spar in the middle of your living rooms.  It was composed by Praga Khan, who helped found the sexually explicit Lords of Acid.

They Might Be Giants – Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – This one’s a real sing-along song, as are many from their album Flood.  I selected this one over Particle Man because it is more danceable.

…and last, but not least:

Yoko Takahashi – A Cruel Angel’s Thesis – The theme song to Neon Genesis Evangelion has delighted fans for over a decade, with its serious, techno-inflected J-pop opening every episode of one of the greatest anime series of all time.  I have used it at any and every wedding at which I can get away with it.  People who don’t know the series think the song’s catchy.  People in the know are in ecstasy, and are – in all likelihood – geeks.

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8 Responses to Drop Some Geek Tunes on New Year’s Eve

  1. Electra says:

    Ah, nostalgic memories!
    Thanks for DJing my wedding, good sir!

    P.S. Here in Japan, everyone can sing zankoku tenshi no teeza but almost no one has actually watched the series or even the movies. Similarly, we have only run into one Japanese person who is familiar with Cowboy Bebop (which I know you were less fond of, but still…)

  2. Roy Huggins says:

    Huh, I think most people have seen the movie if they haven’t seen the series. But they definitely know all the characters. But ya, the Evangelion theme is a sure show-stopper at karaoke.

  3. Evan Torner says:

    Hi Electra and Roy!

    Yes, I too was wrapped up in the nostalgia. It was actually at your wedding, ironically after my college DJ years were already spoken for, where I discovered how to play music for a crowd. Since then, I’ve done at least 3 similar events, and more are in my future. Thanks for holding the inspirational occasion!

    Re: Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop – Nobody’s actually watched either of these!!? I’m shocked, awed and baffled. These series clearly changed my life: how I view animation, how I interpret individual vs. collective conflicts, etc. I suppose all things pass in time, but still… I am only slightly less fond of Cowboy Bebop, but it’s only due to my own existence as an “early discarder”: it was becoming too hip when it was regularly on Cartoon Network, so I added caution to my appraisal of the series. Now that even THAT has become old news, I can say after having recently watched “Stray Dog Strut” that the series still retains its magical nonchalance.

    Re: Karaoke – I’ve also discovered “Linda Linda” by the Japanese punk group The Blue Hearts this year, a song over which the Japanese apparently go nuts. Unfortunately, it’s not a trans-Pacific show-stopper… More Americans need to watch the film LINDA, LINDA, LINDA (2005) and get on board!

  4. TheGnat says:

    Well, see, when Bebop ran in Japan, it didn’t run all the episodes and was sporadic at best. NGE, while the merch is popular with mech nerds particularly, is a bit too on the “artsy” side of the scale to have any real popularity in Japan. Also, both are now over 10 years old. Since anime is just another kind of television, do you remember everything you watched on t.v. 10+ years ago, however old you are now?

    I’ve found that most geeks like electronica, whereas their other musical tastes vary drastically. Incidentally, of the songs are your list I actually know, I hate every single one but Cruel Angel and Wylde Mountain. I might not have hated Istanbul if the nerd variety of geek did not insist on singing it nearly constantly. It’s sort of like I haven’t bothered to see “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” because every funny sequence has been recited to me a hundred times now.

  5. Evan Torner says:

    Hi Nathalie! Um… it appears like you’re going straight for the jugular here, though perhaps it is your wont on this forum.

    As for your 1st Paragraph: I know all this. You forget that I taught an NGE Exco in which fan response became a hotly discussed topic. I think what is baffling is simply the ease with which tropes, styles and topics that NGE introduced to anime were so easily absorbed by notably inferior series such as Gasaraki and Argento Soma – and thereby into anime creation as a whole – while the original remains merely a cult craze, primarily in the United States. As for Cowboy Bebop, its original television presence has likely been eclipsed by its post-broadcast afterlife. Did the series _really_ have no Second Coming in Japan, or do television ratings and releases determine all cultural reception and memory? As for my memory of 10 years ago, it’s actually rather acute: I was watching Sliders, Xena: Warrior Princess and music videos on The Box, as well as NGE, Lone Wolf and Cub and other choice bits of Asian cinema. My favorite films in 1998 were Blade and A Clockwork Orange. Do you remember everything you were watching on television at the time?

    As for your assertion that most geeks like electronica, they do, but not necessarily its extreme iterations (artists like Venetian Snares, Akufen and Doormouse come to mind) of which I am a fan. I don’t have any explanation for your hatred of the songs on the list, as many geeks don’t take such emphatic exception to liking them. Since expressing your exceedingly distinct musical taste is clearly more important than your on-line respect for my list of musical suggestions, I invite you to suggest some alternative songs yourself to this forum.

  6. TheGnat says:

    O.o my comment wasn’t meant as an attack, nor to be disrespectful. I merely was expressing the amusing anecdote that while generally I agree with your assertions and find your set lists good, by random chance you managed to make a list which would include a unique set of songs I do not like. For example, Istanbul is the *only* They Might Be Giants song I have heard that I also dislike.

    Anyways, yes, I prefer to be direct, to the point, and efficient both in person and on the Internet. I am sorry you took this as rudeness or aggressiveness. I generally rewrite a post a couple times because I feel it has gotten too long, which I suppose makes me somewhat terse.

    And no I don’t remember absolutely everything I watched on t.v. 10 years ago, I remember 3 or 4 shows that stuck out for me, and that’s it. As far as ratings go, yes they do directly effect the post-release popularity of a work. Once it has finished airing, it will require existing fans to express their fondness of it in order to recruit new fans. The fewer initial fans, the harder this is to accomplish. And if a release is sporadic and partial at best, then it will have a harder time getting fans in the first place. This is not the same as saying a work is unworthy of popularity, nor to say that a work does not have an impact on other works. Bebop’s quiet critical success permitted the creation of Studio Bones, which has made a lot of things that are quite popular.

    P.S. Yes I’d forgotten your NGE exco, but I’m a couple years your junior and might not have been at the college when it happened. I also spent most of my freshman year as a hermit.

  7. Dana says:

    Oh, LINDA LINDA LINDA! They showed that in the Asian movie series at Duke this year, and it was awesome. Then again, I’m not sure how many Americans who’ve never been to a Japanese high school and/or at least had the idea of the school festival explained to them got as much out of it as intended. For a former JET, though, it was hugely nostalgic. And the song is ridiculously easy to get stuck in one’s head.

  8. Evan Torner says:

    Re: TheGnat – Ah, I see. So my song selections were merely repugnant by coincidence. I blame geeks.

    Re: Dana – The film made me feel nostalgic for school festivals, and I’ve never even been to Japan. It also reminded me of the real trials and tribulations of playing in a band: finding rehearsal time and space, dealing with lame social baggage, and vamping on-stage while waiting for the other band to show up…

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