The Ongoing History of New Music, Episode 822: The history of nerd rock

nerd: (nərd) n. informal. 1. A foolish of contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious. 2. A single-minded expert in a particular technical field. Example: a computer nerd.

This is an old word, too. The, er, nerds at Google have a thing called The Ngram Viewer, which scans the texts of books going back to 1500–virtually the dawn of the printing press.

According to these nerds, “nerd” shows up for the first time in a book called A True Discourse of the Assualt Committed Upon the Most Noble Prince, Prince William of Orange, County of Nassau, Marquesse de a Lever & C by John Jarequi Spaniarde [sic] with the True Copies of the Writings, Examinations, and Letters for Sundry Offenders in that Vile and Diuelifh [sic] Attempt.

I can’t tell what “nerd” refers to in that book because it’s written in Old Spanish and I couldn’t be bothered to find a translation.

I do know that the word fell into disuse after about 1725, returning to the popular lexicon thanks to Dr. Seuss in 1950. To him, a nerd was some kind of creature found in a zoo.

Then, the following year, Newsweek reported that nerd was being used in Detroit to describe an awkward sort of fellow who just wasn’t very cool. It lingered in the slang world for the rest of the 50s and into the 60s before it really took off in 1974 with the debut of the TV series, Happy Days. Fonzie was always calling Richie and Potsy nerds for being uncool dorks. Props, then, to Henry Winkler.

By the end of the 70s, and coinciding with the rise of the culture around the personal computer, consumer technology, Star Wars and other sci-fi pursuits, the use of the word became even more widespread. Remember the Revenge of the Nerds movies from the 80s?

Today in our technological society, being called a nerd is a compliment. People asipire to be nerds like Bill Gates, Elon Mish and Mark Zuckerberg. Shows like The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley are big hits. We now celebrate nerddom. The geeks have truly inherited the earth.

This brings me to music. Nerdishness is now so widespread that nerds even have their own genre of music,. And as you might guess, it falls squarely in the world of alt-rock. Here, then is a short history of what we unreservedly, unashamedly and unironically called Nerd Rock.

Song heard on this show:

Weezer, Pork and Beans

Leslie Fish, Banned from Argo

Devo, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Talking Heads, Life During Wartime

Thomas Dolby, She Blinded Me with Science

Pixies, Monkey Gone to Heaven

They Might Be Giants, Particle Man

Barenaked Ladies, If I Had $1,000,000

Nerf Herder, Van Halen

alt-J, 3WW

Here’s Eric Wilhite’s handy playlist.

Don’t forget that you can get the podcast version of this podcast through iTunes or wherever you get your on-demand audio.

The Ongoing History of New Music can be heard on the following stations:

We’re still looking for more affiliates in Calgary, Kamloops, Kelowna, Regina, Saskatoon, Brandon, Windsor,  Montreal, Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton, and St John’s and anywhere else with a transmitter. If you’re in any of those markets and you want the show, lemme know and I’ll see what I can do.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “The Ongoing History of New Music, Episode 822: The history of nerd rock

  • March 6, 2021 at 8:05 pm

    Just heard this on the podcast feed. Didn’t realise the episode was three years old!

    I have little to contribute except I thought it was funny that your sign-off mentioned being able to find you on Google+.


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