January 30, 2009

Words & Guitar: The nerd/punk dialectic

[img id="77132" align="alignleft"] In high school, I was part of a smart Asian girl clique. When my friends got bad grades, their parents would ground them for a few weeks.

We have smart Asian girl cliques at the University of Chicago, too. When those girls get bad grades, their government deports them to Singapore.

For me, this fact of the high-school-to-college transition was part of a larger culture shock, one I think a lot of kids here go through. Not only do we come from all corners of the globe, but we’re also the representative nerds of those corners. Realizing this, our high school–era social identifications dissolve, and we’re sent scrambling to find a niche within a niche.

Like “nerd,” “punk” is a much more nuanced idea than its leather-and-liberty-spikes image suggests. In punk’s American heyday, some practitioners made liberal use of drugs and alcohol; others eschewed those things completely. Some punks were silent on political issues; others seemed to mention Reagan in every other song.

Maybe we can deal with the problems of the “punk” and “nerd” labels in one go. It’s a stretch, but species of nerds at the University of Chicago can be matched with analogous musical equivalents.

So for your possible enlightenment and more probable mild amusement, I’ve taken it upon myself to marry the punk/nerd categories and mine the comparisons for whatever they have to offer.

1. First years/skate punks

In this schematic, skate punks are the well intentioned, somewhat uninitiated members of the scene. They’re against The Man, but they’re not too sure who he is. They regard granddaddy bands like the Descendents and Minor Threat with an aura of reverence, but if pressed, they couldn’t tell you much about either one.

Nobody tells them that DIY doesn’t mean getting your mom to sew a NOFX patch on your backpack. They’d be shocked to learn that it actually means calling up venues to schedule shows with the expectation of getting ripped off or spending days on end gluing together record jackets and hand-folding lyrics sheets.

By the same token, intellectualism isn’t merely a disproportionate fondness for books. It’s weeks spent wasting away in the Reg, backbreaking amounts of reading, and the forfeiture of a normal social life.

We come here having heard the stories, and yet we expect the glamorized, X-Games version of intellectual life. Some of us adjust, but nearly all of us start off with a pretty rude awakening.

2. International students/Good Charlotte

Can you really call Good Charlotte punks? No, you can’t. Can you really call international students nerds? No, you can’t.

Don’t get me wrong—in a battle of wits, I doubt there’s a single Singaporean on campus who I could throw down with.

But for Good Charlotte, punk is just an outfit and a haircut, another hoop to jump through on the obstacle course to being America’s Hot New Band. Nerddom, I think, is similarly tangential to the experience of foreign students here.

They, I believe, are merely smart. In contrast, the dorky, wannabe-intellectual qualities that constitute true nerdhood were hand-picked traits in the rest of us—Admissions’ job is basically to hound down the kids who salivate at the words “life of the mind.”

Even though a lot of them are superstars in Hum and Sosc, foreign students aren’t here for a solid liberal arts education. Overwhelmingly, they’re here for the econ program; when they’re done with that, they’re going home.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Rest assured, ROFLs Junior College grads—unlike your musical analogue, for you I have the utmost respect.

3. Frat boys/Red Hot Chili Peppers

Fact: The frat boys here are all really nerds. Try not to faint.

After all, why would they come here if they were true jocks? Where else could they say things like, “Dude, I wrote the most baller lab report last night!” and be taken seriously?

What does this have to do with the Chili Peppers? Consider this: John Frusciante records with Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, even though he’d never think to espouse their ethics. Flea pledges allegiance to Gang of Four, even though sounding as original would never have gotten him to quintuple-platinum status.

It’s a case of wanting the best of both worlds, the punk and the mainstream; or, in the case of our friendly neighborhood Greeks, the party school and the upstanding research institution.

4. Normal kids/Replacements

On their second album, Stink, the Replacements tried really hard to sound like a hardcore band. They almost got it right. The songs are fast enough, and Paul Westerberg certainly growls enough.

But ultimately the songs are too catchy, the delivery too heart-on-sleeve. A couple of albums later, the Replacements embraced mid-tempo completely and never looked back.

Likewise, some of us come to this school wanting really badly to fit the mold of “inquiring young person.” We try on the funny glasses and the grad-student turtleneck for size, and they just don’t fit. So we transfer, disappear into extracurriculars, or coast until graduation.

Let me tell you, I’m really looking forward to the mid-tempo years.