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When I told people in college I was majoring in linguistics, everyone—even the most bookish types—had the same response. "What are you gonna do with that?"
I knew where they were coming from. I had started out figuring I'd be an English major. For as long as I could remember, I'd wanted to be a writer, and—the thoroughly unfunny you-want-fries-with-that? joke notwithstanding—it seemed the practical choice, one that would plop me down safely in a New York publishing house. But practicality flew out the window the day the course book informed me, to my great delight, that Linguistics 106 would fulfill the same requirement as calculus. To my surprise, it was rather like math. Even more surprising, I loved it.
So I passed up the literature of the English language in order to study the words themselves: their sounds, their evolution over time, their varying usages and nuances of meaning. As I soon discovered, there was a whole universe to be found in every single one, like William Blake's world in a grain of sand. Who says science isn't art?
But the best part wasn't the coursework; it was the feeling of coming home. I was surrounded by the nerdiest damn people I'd met in my life, and I was thrilled. The grad students in many of my classes taught me what it meant to devote yourself completely to something you loved, simply because you loved it. Sure, there was glory to be found when publishing in a prestigious journal or delivering a well-received presentation. But, really, we sat around in each other's cramped apartments discussing the incredible language diversity in Papua New Guinea. And we did it because we wanted to; it was fun, and important, and it mattered little that the rest of the world had other things on its mind.
"Linguini?" my uncle would say, to his own raucous laughter, at every family gathering during those years. "My niece is studying to be a pasta chef!" While I was in school, the Ebonics controversy caused a brief flareup of general interest in my obscure field of study, but the rest of the time the few undergrad linguistics majors in my class talked among ourselves. Somewhere I've still got those photographs of us at graduation: one of me and Aaron while Rebecca held the camera, one of me and Rebecca while Aaron held the camera, and one of all of us while a pretty, nose-ringed girl from Urban Studies did the honors.
Yes, we were a happy, nerdy bunch. But that didn't put off the question everyone had asked. What was I going to do with this degree?
The answer: I was gonna try like hell to find a writing gig. I couldn't believe my good fortune when I got the job at the biggest alt weekly in town a few years after graduating. This was a company where managers were likely to have tattoos from wrist to elbow and professional milestones—an especially thick issue, a new publisher—were celebrated in some dumpy bar that looked and smelled like a moldy basement. To me, these were the cool kids. And I was getting to hang out with them.
But incredibly, they thought they were the nerds, too. I was stepping into another kind of academic world, one where everyone was constantly cramming for finals. Tired of being the odd man out in social situations, my new coworkers were putting all their brainpower toward reinventing cool—and reinventing it so that everyone else was excluded.
For instance: When I started at the paper, I was the poor sap who edited the entertainment listings. The section is probably the most read part of the paper, but mine was a truly thankless job—tedious and time-consuming, with the only feedback consisting of irate phone calls from club owners informing you that DJ Cozmic spells his name with a Z.
As gatekeeper to the entertainment calendar, I had to be familiar with hundreds of unknown local and touring bands in order to shuffle each entry into the appropriate category. To the uninitiated, rock or R&B would be sufficiently descriptive. But the uninitiated are not the core readers of our A&E section; our readers discriminate between indie rock, punk rock, folk rock, and so on. And to write about this stuff, one also had to know even more, about emocore, math punk, trance, alt-country, new wave, no wave, nu metal, neo-soul, synthpop, garage rock, noise-rock, psychobilly, shoegazing, progressive house, and hardcore. The list goes on, but I'll spare you. I'd arrived on the scene thinking I was the Queen of Obscuria, but I had nothing on these people.
One boy who worked as a freelance music critic had a record collection so enormous and obsessively chronicled that his little apartment looked like he'd modeled it after a hall in the Library of Congress. Another writer was the inventor of a pub-quiz game that drew its questions from the annals of forgotten TV shows and movies from the 1980s. Even the employees of the paper who weren't compulsive by nature—in other words, not the writers—embraced geek chic: they all affected absent-minded-professor hair and horn-rimmed glasses. I'd certainly encountered the Rivers Cuomo sensibility before, but I guess the thing that surprised me was how seriously—deadly, earnestly, humorlessly seriously—these people took their pop-culture studies. Why would anyone devote all that mental energy to something so ephemeral? The reason pop culture is considered low art, my friend who lived in the Library of Congress explained patiently, is because it hasn't withstood the test of time. Yet. A Fischerspooner song or an Ursula Rucker spoken-word performance may contain the kind of truth that will make it relevant 50, 100, 200 years from now—or it may not. Without the benefit of the passage of time, he added, it was anybody's guess how "important" this art really was.
Fair enough. And you'd think the comprehensiveness of these endeavors—posting to fan listservs, reading music magazines of every stripe, attending shows whether you liked the band or not and then discussing them ad nauseam—would have appealed to the academic in me, but their devotion didn't ring true. These self-taught pedants should have been in hog heaven, but pretty much they seemed ill-at-ease and miserable all the time. Shouldn't they have been content to be around what they loved the way I remembered my professors and classmates to be?
It was as though their studies, exhaustive as they were, had less to do with understanding art than with creating a culture of exclusion. One inscrutable CD review made all of Noam Chomsky's syntax theories seem accessible and inviting; at least he wanted his readers to understand him. These people didn't. They were stamp collectors with fauxhawks. They were nerds gone bad!
I eventually passed the listings baton to someone new and am happily writing full-time for the same paper. I now have a working knowledge of downtempo and drum 'n' bass (and which is better to play at a party), but dealing with the music geeks also taught me not to be too easily impressed by "cool." Within a popular culture where studied studiousness is what passes for clever, I remain a true nerd, one who thrills to an issue of the Journal of Pragmatics just as much as the new Radiohead record.
The linguistics major taught me a lot—that there are at least 6,000 languages spoken in the modern world, and that children have the innate ability to understand complex grammar. But it also taught me how to be the most me.
I hope—for their sakes—that those music nerds can find their linguistics.
Katie Haegele is a contributing editor at the Philadelphia Weekly, where she writes a column on books. She has also written for the Utne Reader and Adbusters, and she studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.