The sun is just starting toset as I steer my car off Aloma Avenue into the sketchy strip-mall parking lot. As I approach a nondescript entrance with blackened windows, deep waves of barely muffled bass batter me through the wall. Pulling open the door, I step into a smoke-laden atmosphere heavy with the hoppy scent of spilled happy-hour drafts. On a tiny stage surrounded by Stonehenge-sized speakers, a pair of microphone-wielding rappers stalk the stage, screaming rhymes as the long-haired, black-shirted crowd bobs their heads.
Can this really be … where the nerds are?
As stereotype-shattering as it might sound, the answer is "yes." This Nerdapalooza night (Friday, June 10) at the Haven Lounge in Winter Park was organized by the folks behind the annual convention (returning to Orlando's Airport Marriott July 16). And upon closer inspection Krondor Krew, the opening act I walked in on, are more nerdcore than hardcore; they had the audience waving plastic swords and chanting, "We are ninja."
Of course, "nerd" is in the eye of the beholder, and the definition seems to have changed significantly since I was growing up. The socially isolated, aesthetically awkward, perpetually virginal lads of Revenge of the Nerds lore have been transformed in a tech-saturated generation that embraces the formerly pejorative label. And mainstream media hasn't just accepted former nerd-only domains like comic and video games; it's dominated by them. In other words, contrary to what you may have heard, today's nerds are hip, and some of them are even girls (gasp).
No one understands this dork dichotomy better than Marc Sirdoreus, better known as Orlando singer-songwriter Marc With a C. Over the last decade, Marc's indie pop has become associated with the area's burgeoning "nerd rock" scene, and he's been a repeat performer at Nerdapalooza. But even he still can't say exactly what the label means. "I didn't know I was nerd music [until] this scene embraced me," he told me outside the Haven following his set. "I'd be hard-pressed to try to define ‘nerd'," Sirdoreus says, "but everyone is a nerd about something. Jethro Tull is nerd rock. The Decemberists [are like] if Garrison Keillor had a rock band … and don't tell me the guys in Metallica aren't playing Dungeons & Dragons on their private jet."
If nerdiness equals obsessive enthusiasm for offbeat pop culture, then Marc may be nerddom's musical poster child. Some of his fan favorites are odes to That '70s Show star Laura Prepon and social networking sites MySpace and LiveJournal (newly updated with lyrical references to Tumblr), and he does a wicked mashup of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" with "Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer." His latest album, Motherfuckers Be Bullshittin', may be the nerd-rock apotheosis. For starters, it's a concept album inspired by classic rock operas, from the great (Pete Townshend's Quadrophenia and Lifehouse) to the godawful (the Kinks' Soap Opera). All the vocals and instruments were performed by Sirdoreus, and he mastered the album at super-fine 32 bit/96 kHz to preserve the dynamic range lost on most modern mixes and "remind the listener that the volume knob has a purpose." And geekiest of all, the vinyl packaging is a perfect replica of the Spectravision VideoDisc of Steve Martin's The Jerk: You don't get that kind of old-school obscurity just anywhere.
Throw the new platter on your turntable and you'll find 10 tunes with trademark Marc With a C wit. Together, they tell the tale of Brian, a misanthropic Wisconsinite who loses his law-student girlfriend, goes on a flossing binge and eventually starts a squid-worshiping cult. While the songs work well as a rock album – Sirdoreus says it began as "five good songs [that I] didn't see how they'd fit next to each other" – you really want to see Marc With a C perform them live, just to hear the backstories he shares between songs. (For instance: "You're My Princess," a perversely peppy little love ditty, was written, recorded and uploaded to YouTube during an Ambien-induced stupor.)
Sirdoreus has no immediate plans to tour, saying "touring scares the living shit out of me … I'm too old to sleep on a floor." But hopefully he'll be back onstage in an Orlando theater soon; in 2009 he appeared in Wallflower Theater's Sex Times Three at GOAT's now-defunct Cherry Street space, and he's now in preliminary talks to perform a one-man evening of music and storytelling. Until then, I'll leave you with Marc's exhortation to his audience at the end of his set: "When trolling and negativity are the spirit of the time, the most punk-rock thing you can do is just be nice." If that's the ethos of the new nerd, sign me up.