You might know Jonathan Coulton as a Geeky musician. Maybe you know the song “Code Monkey,” “Still Alive,” or “Want You Gone.” Maybe you know Coulton as a novelty musician. Perhaps you’re familiar with Coulton’s song “First of May” or his cover of “Baby Got Back” (famously covered by the cast of Glee). Despite that Coulton has done many nerdy novelty songs, Coulton is more than geeky music. Coulton’s songs have a depth that merely funny, nerdy, and/or dorky songs don’t usually possess.
I review a handful of Coulton’s songs, and I show this depth. Hopefully, by the end of the article, you too will see Joco as more than geeky music.
I Feel Fantastic
I Feel Fantastic might seem like a novelty song at first, but the song has a lot to say. I Feel Fantastic talks about an overmedicated society that relies on prescriptions for every ailment. At a fast tempo, we get the feeling the protagonist is on a prescription version of speed. Throughout the course of I Feel Fantastic, we hear of drugs that calm the protagonist, helps the protagonist drive, and even makes his steak taste better. These drugs cost the protagonist relationships, puts the protagonist in danger, and even puts others in danger. Still, the protagonist always takes his medicine. The protagonist’s tagline is “I Feel Fantastic,” even though he hints that he wishes he could get off all his prescriptions.
With the message of I Feel Fantastic, we can clearly see this is is not a geeky song. I Feel Fantastic dives into an overprescribed world and asks if maybe, just maybe, we’re overdoing things.
Shop Vac tells a story of a couple who moves to the suburbs. At first, this couple sounds like they’re living the American dream. With wall to wall carpeting, a bathroom for everyone in the house, a shop in the basement, and a riding mower – this is suburban paradise! However, as the song progresses we see that not everything is right in paradise. We find the constant humming of the shop vac from the basement is there to drown out the protagonist’s wife’s crying. We discover the couple have no real friends and have even lost touch with their fake friends.
The final verse gets really dark. The protagonist’s inner thoughts echo over a news report of a middle-aged man going “berserk with a 12-gauge shotgun.” As he goes to sleep, he dreams of floating away from all of this “paradise.” The protagonist dreams of shedding the plasticities of his life, and yet he knows he can’t. He knows he has no choice but to keep living his mundane, suburban life. The only way out is death.
Some Guys is not a song, but rather a collection of cover songs from the 70s and 80s. These songs were particularly special to Coulton, as these songs were on the radio during his childhood. With songs such as Sister Golden Hair by America and On and On by Stephen Bishop, we find ourselves transported to another time and place. A time when things felt a lot more simple and carefree. Sure, those olden days were not perfect. Societal problems escalated. Yet we still were able to enjoy a song about Wildfire, the lost horse. We still could enjoy the saxophone solo on Baker Street (as cheesy as it sounds now). But I digress.
Jonathan Coulton does an amazing tribute to the soft rock classics of the 70s and 80s with his album Some Guys. This album is one to hit you right in the childhood.
Good Morning Tuscon
With Good Morning Tucson, we see a day in the life of a television anchor. He serves a medium market, Tuscon, Arizona. The Anchorman dreams of fame and fortune in a much larger market, like New York or LA. Still, he’s stuck where he’s at and probably will be for life. The anchorman’s frustrations show passive-aggressively for awhile. The anchorman steals the jelly donuts from the intern, mumbles about the overly chipper receptionist, and finds his thoughts wandering when the camera switches to the weather segment. During the final verse, however, the anchorman finally snaps and sets fire to the TV studio. While his coworkers burn to death, the cameras keep rolling, and the anchorman keeps reading the news. The anchorman faces death with the same cheerful and friendly demeanor he always gives his viewers.
The entire song shows how someone who so warmly greets their city every morning, someone so trusted in their community, can lead a double life. The protagonist might say “good morning Tuscon” to people all going about their daily routines, but it’s all plasticity. It’s all fake.
Ikea sounds like an advertisement for a Swedish furniture company, but the quasi-jingle says so much more. Sure, the song talks about cheap bookcases, tasty meatballs, and unassembled furniture. However, Ikea really shows the state of the brand’s patrons. Ikea shows people in transition, such as men going through divorces and college kids out on their own for the first time. Ikea also shows us how depressing a small apartment gets. People crowding into a space so small, they have to get a special piece of furniture with a desk on the bottom and a bed at the top.
To be fair, Ikea is listed as a “funny song” in the official Joco wiki. So yes, one could easily count Ikea as a novelty song, but it’s still a novelty song with a message and depth.
The Presidents talks about, well, all the presidents (through Obama at least). Written in 2005 (and revised through the year 2009), The Presidents lists the first 44 president and makes one observation for each president. Coulton tries to stay apolitical and succeeds (for the most part) during the first two-thirds of the song. Statements such as “Washington was perfect” and “James Madison kicked the British in the pants,” are hardly controversial. Still, Coulton’s opinions certainly reveal themselves as he reaches more modern presidents. Coulton mentions Kennedy’s “magic bullet,” Clinton’s “Cigar,” and calls Nixon a “sweaty, filthy liar.” So, yeah, Coulton does get a bit opinionated and controversial at times during The Presidents.
Perhaps the biggest political statement Coulton makes, however, is the fact that he has not revised this song to say something about 45. That lack of a statement makes this the most punk rock song Coulton has ever sung.
Re: Your Brains
Ok, Re: Your Brains is surely a geek song, and surely a novelty song. Still, Re: Your Brains is not just a novelty song and more than geeky music. Re: Your Brains explores what might happen (if we’re ever in the midst of a zombie apocalypse). Re: Your Brains talks about two colleagues during this theoretical zombie apocalypse, Tom and Bob. Tom is fighting for his life as a horde of zombies tries to get through his barricade. Meanwhile, Bob is one of the zombies trying to break through said barricade. While Bob has had a major change in his “living” status, we see his personality has not changed one bit. Bob is still the office jerk. Bob is a businessman trying to manipulate Tom into letting Bob and his “colleagues” feast upon Tom’s brains. While it’s a life and death situation, Tom sees this as just another business transaction.
Re: Your Brains might just be the most horrific song ever recorded. What if, during the zombie apocalypse, all the psychopaths, sociopaths, and generally unethical people keep their personalities after becoming zombies? That’s truly a world I don’t want to live in.
Even Joco’s geeky songs are more than geeky music.
To be fair, Joco’s Geek Songs certainly make up the majority of his catalog. Even so, songs like Code Monkey shows real human emotions and relates to real people. Still Alive and Want You Gone, despite being songs written for the Portal game series and sung by a maniacal AI, shows hurt, vengeance, and even pitty. Songs showing that much emotion are more than just geeky music. Skullcrusher Mountain and The Future Soon might be about mad scientists, these are mad scientists who want to find love (even if they also want to watch the world burn).
While Joco’s geeky songs might seem funny as anything, most of them present themselves as more than just novelty songs and more than geeky music.