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Geek Chic

I encountered the 'loser' phenomenon first in a record store in Lincoln, Nebraska. Though in 1990 'grungy' was just another adjective in the fanzine thesaurus, SubPop was a vibrant young label and their tee-shirts proved it: above a subtle logo, the word 'LOSER' -- all caps, in matter-of-fact block type -- loomed quite large.
Ana Marie Cox

Issue #19, March 1995

In the blink of the public eye that was the 'riot grrl' trend, many young women took it into their pony-tailed heads to magic-marker vaguely derogatory slurs upon their taut young stomachs. A blatant attempt to reclaim stigmatizing terms, one often saw variations on 'slut,' 'bitch' and 'whore' written on the flesh between tiny tees and low-slung Levis. But considering the mythology of the post-punk scene that riot grrlism called home, its surprising that no one tickled their navel writing the name of one identity indie rockers have been recontextualizing for almost a decade: 'GEEK.'

I encountered the 'loser' phenomenon first in a record store in Lincoln, Nebraska. Though in 1990 'grungy' was just another adjective in the fanzine thesaurus, SubPop was a vibrant young label and their tee-shirts proved it: above a subtle logo, the word 'LOSER' — all caps, in matter-of-fact block type — loomed quite large. In 1990 I was quite concerned about being a loser myself, and while I thought the gag was hilarious, and felt some pull towards reclaiming the word, I passed up the shirt. I was worried no one else would get the joke. Little did I know that around the same time Lou Barlow was recording a song celebrating 'losercore;' the autobiographical comic Peepshow was reveling in its author's pathetic sex life and Conflict editor Gerard Cosloy was prefacing remarks about being dumped by his girlfriend with 'You'll get a real kick out of this.' So SubPop's tee shirt wasn't just a joke, it was a real representation of the masochistic glory people took in exhibiting their own failures.

What I didn't know then, but have become painfully aware of now, is that a whole subculture exists where to claim that you aren't a geek is a social faux pas and to boast of being popular is cultural suicide.

Those of you think that this pity party started with alterna-rapper Beck's colossal smash, 'Loser,' have short memories indeed. Barlow's band, Sebadoh, has been trading upon lowliness for half a decade, writing decidedly downbeat songs like 'The Freed Pig': 'your big head has more room to grow/a glory I will never know.' Superchunk's 'Slack Motherfucker' pre-dated Richard Linklater's drone-a-mentry Slacker by almost a year, and the Replacements were praising masturbation long before Joycelyn Elders.

In fact, tropes of self-abuse in the fickle post-punk, alternative rock scene have become so knee-jerk and institutionalized that the most perceptive commentators satirize it with ease. In 'Fuck Your Big, Bad Selves,' Crank editor Jeff Koyen rails against teenage misfit revisionism:

'The LONER portrays him or herself as having suffered because of being so different than the mainstream. 'They use to laugh at me because I wore all black!' I overhear at a bar. 'Jees, now people look at you weird if you wear bright colors!' Your friend agrees — you were BOTH desperate teenage fuckheads...TO THE FORMER TEENAGE LONER ODDBALLS: I implore you to cut out your tongue and shove it up the deepest hole on your body. You didn't like Bauhaus in 83 — you liked Bon Jovi. And you didn't read Anais Nin at 14 — you read V.C. Andrews.'

The giggles with which I greeted Koyen's spew and the glee I take in showing the article to anyone standing still long enough for me to pull it out do not mean than I am not implicated in the whole sordid mess. Call me a riot geek, call me an indie rock babe — at the moment I inhabit an identity so cliched that only my dissection of it can save me from becoming my own cruel parody.

What Koyen terms 'teenage misfit revisionism' might be more broadly described as the myth of marginality, of which former geekness is only a sub-category. Equally prevalent, at least as an object of derision, are attempts by this mostly white subculture to claim musical solidarity with blacks. Seth Sanders, editor of A Nest of Ninnies, writes that 'this powerful but heretofore unnoticed stream, called alternatively 'Minstrelcore' and 'Lawn Jockey Rock' ... is identified by the overt swiping of gutter-level Black cultural themes in marginal areas of rock music.'

In the context of these musical pretensions, Happyland's Peter Landau gives fashion tips which show similar tendencies in the indie rocker's material choices:

'You want to look good? Look around you, see [the] four basic fashion groups: The Insane, The Elderly, The Homeless and, of course, Black Youth Culture ... Anyone with a few dollars or credit card can easily become the neighborhood fashion plate. How, though, does one truly develop that unique style that screams out 'Beat me up, stranger!'? ... dig into the garbage and be creative.'

The popularity of psychiatric outpatients like Daniel Johnston and Wesley Willis in these same marginal areas suggests that these fashion tips for future hipsters are not parody so much as genuine cost-cutting pointers.

The myth of the geek and its attendant fantasies about the insane and the poor mesh nicely with the underground's obsession with 'selling out,' where the threat of corporate invasion becomes just another way the 'mainstream' persecutes marginalized groups. A special issue of the San Francisco-based Maximum Rocknroll explicates in excruciating detail just how 'the punk/indie/underground scene is under attack' (italics theirs, naturally) by major record labels and 'corporate rock.' Editor Tim Yohannon and a host of contributors pull no punches in their alarmist rants. After all, Yohannon notes, 'There can be no middle ground or gray area when you're under attack by forces alien to the fundamental principles of a community or society.' MRR makes the situation sound quite dire indeed. But with the exception of a finely detailed economic analysis by Steve Albini, the writers give few concrete reasons or examples as to why this 'attack' is so threatening.

Rather, the issue devotes itself to uncovering the real owners of 'scam indies,' a major label tactic whose greatest threat and only intent is the appearance of 'authenticity.' The most extreme examples of 'corporate corruption' are narratives of violation. In describing Atlantic Records purchase of independent Matador, contributor Greg Lane asserts that 'an indie label willingly got into bed with a major, knowing that majors have a history of rape. Matador is fucked.' This is not to say that this mostly male scene shows any tendency to inhabit a feminized identity. Rather, these stories simply position the indie rocker to play out a fantasy of persecution where being an 'outsider' is not just cool but culturally revolutionary. Lane's argument that 'corporate interest is a sure sign of a strong scene' neatly captures just how indie paranoia is the flip side of indie megalomania, both of which are attempts to re-value marginality.

While parodies I have pointed to are sure evidence of a certain level of self-awareness, few satirists attempt to probe what causes this praise of the periphery. However, in 'The Underground Is a Lie,' printed in issue number 2 of the always-provocative and extremely popular ANSWER Me!, editor Jim Goad points out the class issues embedded in scenesters' romance of the rejected:

'Your gizzard ululates with 'You sellout!' Well, the wealthy are the only ones who can afford not to sell out ... In your typically egocentric way, you pretend you're the vanguard, freeing the oppressed from the shackles of ignorance ... [Yet] you ape the powers that be with every clove-scented breath you take ... You exist as a parasite, because without an Establishment to oppose, you'd shrivel into celluloid waste.'

Still, in accusing the underground of intellectual condescension and wimpy hypocrisy, Goad critiques the mechanisms of hipster's pretensions, but only alludes to their motivations.

I am typical, I think, of the kind of person who is attracted to underground Goad describes. I am well-educated, white, liberal and upper-middle class. My 22 years have been filled with privilege. And that, I suppose, is exactly the problem. In the topsy-turvy world of identity politics, the most authentic identities are the ones that have been rescued from the margins. Claiming outsider status, even through such a flimsy, subjective identity as 'geek,' or 'loser,' creates a liminal space for my own self-recuperation. I have heard variations on this notion in a dozen conversations; and I have read it in countless zines.

So how do I salvage myself from this? Having seen the trope, having been the stereotype, is there a way to redefine my identity as something other than a cliche?

A collection of the first three issue of ANSWER Me! is out on AK Press. Crank is available for $2, check payable to Jeff Koyen, POB 1646 Philadelphia, PA 19105-1646. Porn magnate Selwyn Harris produces Happyland, which is available from 137 Emerson Place, Brooklyn, NY 11205. A reprint of the Maximum Rocknroll special issue — 'Some of Your Friends Are Already This Fucked' — is a mere fifty cents, send cash to POB 460760, San Francisco, CA 94146. A Nest of Ninnies is another fine product you can purchase through the Ajax catalog, send $2 and a note to POB 805293, Chicago, IL 60680-4114. Gerard Cosloy has given up producing Conflict in order to clean toilets for the prestigious Matador record label. When not obsessing about her identity, Ana Marie Cox has been quietly working on her own zine: Noiseless provides insights into the seamy world of unpopular culture and can be had for a measly two bucks — send inquiries and cold hard cash to POB 14666, Berkeley, CA 94712. She can be reached at

Copyright © by Ana Marie Cox 1995. All rights reserved.