Alex Biese, writing for the Asbury Park Press, has an article about the new Jonathan Coulton album “Some Guys.” I’m the kind of middle-aged geek that fits squarely in Coulton’s nerdcore demographic. The new album is somewhat different, “a set of 14 note-perfect renditions of soft rock hits from the 1970s, such as Gilbert O’Sullvan’s “Alone Again (Naturally),” Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne” and Michael Murphey’s “Wildfire.”” I haven’t listened to it yet and so am not making a recommendation. What prompted me to comment here was Coulton’s description of the push back he got from other guys if he dared to say he liked this soft rock:
“I’m sort of exploring this aspect of my influences,” Coulton said. “But also as it relates to – you know, I’ve always loved this music – so as it relates to me being a kid and feeling shy about that, being afraid to tell people that I liked soft rock, being afraid that someone was going to say I was weak.
“You know, it’s always that thing when you’re a kid where you say you like a band and somebody else says, ‘They suck.’ And it’s even harder when you say ‘Dan Fogelberg’ and they’re like, ‘Dan Fogelberg?!’ Like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Soft rock wasn’t particularly my thing, but back in the days liking computers and science fiction/fantasy novels wasn’t exactly the sort of thing that ensured coolness and acceptance among the rest of the kids at school. The thrust of the article focuses on toxic masculinity as a force that kept a guy like Coulton from being forthright about his appreciation of soft rock. And, that’s appropriate given the zeitgeist at the moment. I was particularly interested in the discussion of “the romantic overtures of a supervillain in “Skullcrusher Mountain,” the frustrated worldview of a software programmer in “Code Monkey” or the sci-fi heartbreak of “The Future Soon.”” They all make hay out of the trope of the frustrated nerd trying to get the girl. I don’t think any of them is advocating toxicity, but in both stories, I’d say the girl is mostly a prop in a way that is maybe problematic. I don’t think this particularly registered to me as an issue prior to the #MeToo movement. For his part, Coulton says:
“You know, it has been pointed out to me several times that characters like those are sort of classic examples of typical awful male behavior. And you know, when I wrote them I don’t think I had the context to really understand them that way. You know, I had to ask myself, ‘Where did those characters come from?’ and the answer is inside my head, but that makes me feel a little weird. How did I know how those characters felt? The answer is, I think, probably, that I have experienced those kinds of feelings on some level and I recognize that they’re wrong, which is why those characters are behaving badly but they also lack a self-awareness. And I think that is the joke of those songs, that they are completely unaware of how monstrous they are. And that has always been a theme that has run through a lot of my work. I don’t know why but it’s there.
“But I sing those songs now at shows and I wonder, ‘This is maybe hitting people in a different way than it did when I first wrote it.’ Or I guess, more to the point, I’m understanding that it’s hitting everybody in very different ways, in a way that I didn’t understand when I first wrote them. I first wrote them and it just meant what it meant to me and I thought it meant the same (thing) to everybody else, but now I realize that some people might be receiving those messages in a different way. I don’t know, it’s been a very interesting time.”
Even beyond the issue of gender relations, I think there is a lesson to be taken that we should take joy where we find it. If you find something you like, be it soft rock, computer games, medieval cosplay, entomology, blogging about state government, whatever — delight in the fact that you have found something that makes your life happier. There are limits, of course. That doesn’t mean have fun at someone else’s expense. But this thing where people avoid what they like because other people will regard it as uncool is tragic. Life is short enough and hard enough without intentionally depriving themselves of joy.