Episode 16: Baby Got Back Catalog with Jonathan Coulton

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Jonathan Coulton has called into existence a world in which a bearded Brooklyn-residing, Yale-graduated, Whiffenpoof-participating programmer singing songs on nerdy topics he records in a home studio posted to the Internet can quit his job, build an army of fans, give his music partly away, attract 700 people to a themed cruise, become a regular on public radio, and have his work ripped off by a major network television show. We talk about his singing background, how his career began and progressed, and how you bring your fans with you when your style matures.

Jonathan Coulton is on Twitter.

Show Notes

Hexbugs are extremely impressive micro-robots that anyone with children who hasn’t banned battery-operated toys will be well aware of.

Coulton started his Thing-a-Week project in September 2005 with a 48-second song called “See You All in Hell.” He finished a year later with “We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions.” The four compilation albums made from the project can be purchased.

They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song service was an answering machine you could call that offered a different song (or sometimes just a snippet) every day from about 1983 to 2006. Technology ultimately failed them.

You should definitely listen to “Baby Got Back” and “Code Monkey” to put you into the JoCo mood, but don’t let it define what you think of his music as a whole. Yeah, he’s got a user-managed wiki about all his songs and everything else. Don’t act surprised.

Doesn’t Sarah Silverman have a sweet face? But the things that come out of her mouth, oy, yoy, yoy.

Coulton and I overlapped at Yale together, but didn’t know each other. But that allows me to be pretentious and drop in things like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht‘s figurative use of counterpoint.

Skullcrusher Mountain” is a seriously hilarious and catchy song about a supervillain mad scientist and his attempted girlfriend. The Awl documented with side-by-side videos a whole bunch of music that black artists had defined that was then stolen by white musicians.

While it is sometimes argued that I speak nonsense — and American Public Media once paid me to write gibberish for an in-house ad — Lewis Carroll was the master with internally consistent frameworks on which his insanity played out.

I like novelty songs, and I cannot lie, having grown up listening to Doctor Demento, but one has to admit most won’t sustain repeated listening. Like “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Don’t even listen to that. (Do listen to “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha Haaa,” however.)

If you live in New York or are visiting soon, see MoMA’s “Inventing Abstration, 1910–1925,” which charts the development of surrealism, dadaism, and a bunch of other isms. The Awl (them again!) offers a good introduction to Laurie Anderson, whose number “Difficult Listening Hour” I cite in the show. It’s impossible to discuss Anderson without trying to imitate her style, just like the B-52’s Fred Schneider.

Coulton tried to bring his fans along when he made Artificial Heart, a studio album produced by TMBG’s John Flansburgh. You can read a conversation at The Awl (curses! they’re everywhere!) between Coulton and Flansburgh about making the album. John Roderick, a Seattle musician who is part of the band The Long Winters, performed Skullcrusher Mountain at a taping of NPR’s Ask Me Another.

After Woody Allen moved into more serious films for a time with Interiors and others, he was ridiculed for leaving the genre that made him famous. He parodied himself in the film Stardust Memories in which his thinly veiled self-referential character is accosted after a screening by a fan who says, he liked his “earlier, funnier moves” better.

We then talked about the songs “Code Monkey,” “Chiron Beta Prime“, and “Now I Am an Arsonist” (a duet with Suzanne Vega); the seminal essay on kitsch by Clement Greenburg; Leonard Cohen’s song “Famous Blue Rain Coat” by Leonard Cohen; Elvis Costello and his album Spike and also his song “Veronica” on that album.

Coulton was big into the a cappella singing scene at Yale, which had (by his count) 14 such groups when he was there (there are now at least 15). He got into the Whiffenpoofs, which is a signal accomplishment given the competition. He can do a really killer version of “Satin Doll” as a result.

Newsradio’s “Chock” episode (Season 4, Episode 10) features Mr. Show personnel David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and the guy whose name I forgot on the podcast but who is, of course, Brian Posehn!

Planet Money tried to convince Jonathan that he didn’t exist. The Long Tail explains how digital distribution changes the availability of media, among other things, and the resulting sales or revenue. Kevin Kelly wrote an essay about “1,000 True Fans,” which crowdfunding is helping to bring fully into fruition.

The JoCo Cruise Crazy event takes place at sea, looks like a ton of fun, and is happening next Feb. 23–March 1, 2014. Jonathan is the house musician for NPR’s Ask Me Another. Felicia Day is a versatile impresario who found her calling with Internet audiences and distribution; check out her Geek & Sundry network on YouTube. YouTube funded 100 such experiments in 2011 and then renewed a few dozen of them late last year.

The Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license allows the use (not for sale) of material so long as the creator is properly identified. The PopTech conference is a bit like TED, although in a somewhat different format. Check out Spiff’s Machima World of Warcraft videos of JoCo songs. Cory Doctorow, an upcoming guest, gives away his books and rights and in turn sells more of his work.

I covered the “Baby Got Back” cover/Glee controversy at the Economist. Compulsory licenses are great for musicians, but they can be legally abused as Fox did.

These show notes were written while listening to Artificial Heart.