The first time the word "Nerdapalooza" crossed my desk in 2008, I thought little of it. The festival was birthed by Northern California college-radio DJ John "Hex" Carter, a then-24-year-old with a hankering for so-called nerd music, a subgenre that featured mostly geek rapping badly over 8-bit backbeats and parody songs in the tradition of proudly uncool artists such as Weird Al, Tom Lehrer and Dr. Demento. Following massively under-attended test runs first at Carter's alma mater, Humboldt State University, then in Gainesville, Fla., and even a disastrous showing in the U.K. – "We had, like, five performers," Carter says – the tiny festival was imported to Orlando in 2008 with the help of early supporter Rob Tobias.
That semi-official inaugural year was not the most timely in which to celebrate nerddom's niche subversiveness: The year's two top-grossing movies were The Dark Knight and Iron Man for a combined $850 million at the box office; the year's four top-selling books all included the word Twilight; and presidential hopeful Barack Obama fought back against accusations of being "Spock-like." For the first time ever, the San Diego Comic-Con International sold out of all passes weeks in advance of the convention. Amid the atmosphere of the meek inheriting the pop-culture Earth, the Nerdapalooza lineup – rapping pirates! indie Harry Potters! – seemed, if anything, almost crassly commercial.
"It's difficult, because the lines of who is a nerd and who isn't blur so easily," says the jovial Carter, now prepping his fifth official Nerdapalooza festival, the first held downtown, with an expected attendance in the thousands. "Back in the day, if you liked Batman, played with computers and liked video games, you were a nerd. Now, everyone's playing Halo, everyone's watching The Dark Knight, and everyone has a laptop. So the definition of 'nerd' has changed."
Nerdapalooza was promptly assigned to the far reaches of my editorial mind, even as it garnered notice in magazines like Blender and was even slavishly covered by the Wired blog, GeekDad. Photos emerged of nerdier happenings than once thought, like attendees with tattoos of a waveform from the Voyager Golden Records shot into space in 1977 or hyper-enthusiastic fans legitimately anxious to hear the Protomen's concept album based on the Mega Man video game.
By this year, the din became simply unavoidable. The Nerdapalooza contingent made themselves known, most conspicuously in last month's Best of Orlando issue of this paper, where Carter's friends and affiliates walked off with Best Local Music Festival, Best Local Website and Best Local Big Shot, among other awards. Nerdapalooza headliners cleaned up in the music reader's poll, claiming wins for Best Pop Act, Metal Act, Indie Act and more. The era of nerd acceptance, it appears, is over. Welcome to the age of nerd dominance.
Or so it would seem. Watch closely, however, and the inverted high-school illusion is revealed as just that – an illusion. When a photo of America's Next Top Model winner Adrianne Curry crossed Fashion Police's Joan Rivers' desk, the comedian proclaimed giddily, "This outfit sucks more than George Michael in a ballpark men's restroom." Curry was in cosplay gear as a character from the video game Tekken. Last month, perennial Nerdapalooza standouts Captain Dan and the Scurvy Crew shuffled onto the stage of America's Got Talent; Howard Stern called them "pathetic."
"There's still this underlying theme in a lot of nerds or geeks' past, which is the concept of being bullied," says Carter, whose nickname derives from his innate skill at programming hexadecimal characters in XML color-coding. "Fortunately, I'm working with people who aren't here to bully. We don't care that we get bullied. We're here because we love this and other people do, too. I mean, someone still has to organize the chess club. If this is still high school, the nerds still need to congregate somewhere."
So it is that despite a brutal monetary situation (proceeds of every Nerdapalooza have gone to local charities), the festival, which Carter says has always had one foot in the concert classification and the other in the convention realm, will this year test organizers' bravery when the largest-ever gathering is hosted in the heart of downtown Orlando, "where the cool kids play," Carter says.
"This is something I've had concern for since 2008, especially when we had [local space rockers] Killer Robots! walking up and down the street in full-on [costumes]. I was afraid someone would hassle them. Didn't happen in '08. This year, I have a little concern."
With the national geek media and a massive local groundswell behind him, however, cosplayers can mosey Wall Street with more pride than ever this year. The supposed new nerd paradigm, I've come to learn, only really covers the user-friendly consumerist tip of the iceberg; to be a nerd takes more than money – it takes passion. Cultural tourists are easily distracted by the obvious signifiers and miss completely the rabbit hole of devotional fandom running deeper than the word "nerd" is capable of conveying. From chiptune to nerdcore hip-hop to felk music (nerdy folk), Carter, who recently merited a mention on a U.K. blog as "one of nine John Carters that are more interesting than Disney's John Carter," has definitively, perhaps irrevocably, enhanced nerd music's profile in Orlando. Fear not, however: Nerdapalooza fans, by their very nature, come in peace.
"When you're rapping about online etiquette or making music based off the Atari 600 chipset, you can't take yourself too seriously. There's always gotta be a smile on your face, because there's a level of goofy nostalgia in what you're doing," Carter says. "It's the fun of picking up all the musical rocks, seeing all the communities crawling out and going, 'Now kiss.'"
with the OneUps, Random Encounter, the Megas, Metroid Metal, the Protomen, NESkimos, Captain Dan & the Scurvy Crew, Mega Ran, Sci-Fried, No More Kings, Math the Band and more
Friday-Sunday, Aug. 3-5
The Social and the Beacham