10 Standout Nerds of 2011


Jonathan Coulton

We previously noted that scientists, engineers and technology whizzes are the new rock stars, but perhaps we should qualify that, because we've also found a rock star nerd who actually is a rock star ... literally. To be sure, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton has pursued an unorthodox but cleverly paradigm-shifting route to his fame, one that certainly resonates with nerds everywhere.

A couple of decades ago, Coulton moved to New York City, where he hoped to make a living as a musician. Instead, he got a job as a software wonk. Show business rejection didn't crush his protean spirit, though. Instead, Coulton not only kept writing songs, but repurposed his own plight to write a semi-autobiographical song, "Code Monkey," about the loneliness of a computer programmer. Instead of cooling his heels in the waiting room of some record label, hoping in vain for a producer to listen to his demo, Coulton put the song up on his Web site for anyone to give it a listen. It soon was reposted to Slashdot, a tech news site that's long been a watering hole for nerds on the Net, and the next thing you know, Coulton had morphed into Bruce Geeksteen. Being reposted by Slashdot "was the equivalent of me being discovered by some impresario or getting to go on the Ed Sullivan show," Coulton later explained to NPR [source: Blumberg].

He followed "Code Monkey" with a string of other similarly tech-nerd-themed songs, which NPR, that widely-accepted arbiter of musical taste, has praised as "funny, melodic and pretty nerdy." As an example, the song "Re Your Brains" imagines an e-mail written by a former work colleague who is now a cannibalistic zombie. But even more impressively, NPR reported in May 2011 that Coulton is making darn good money -- about $500,000 in 2010 alone -- despite not having a contract with a music label. And since he doesn't have to support a posse of handlers, most of that money goes straight into his pocket [source: Blumberg].