Pop culture’s stereotypical nerd is a plot device: annoying, self-righteous, sexless, embarrassing, slated to experience endless complications and misunderstandings. It’s never about the nerd’s intelligence or obsessions or anything else that would make us whole and valuable — only our inadequacy when relating to other people. The best we can hope for is a makeover montage with a sugary soundtrack.
Now we find ourselves stuck with a president-elect who fully embodies the worst stereotypes of the nerd’s antithesis: the movie bully. He’s big, blustering, dumb, loud; he’s the one who didn’t study for the test and has zero knowledge of the material so he calls the people who do rude nicknames like Little Marco or Lying Ted. Trump has spent much of the last year lashing out at the American left by creating for his acolytes an image of the liberal voter as an underweight, hyper-intellectualized, white-collar know-it-all who couldn’t possibly understand the common man because he simply can’t relate — in other words, a nerd. Uncool. After all, you can’t “think” America great again.
But nerds run deep, and nerds win in the long run in terms of life expectancy, potential future career success, and, in a less concrete but equally important sense, audience. Unlike President-Elect Biff, who has spent his career leapfrogging from bankrupt casino to failed mail-order steak catalogue, nerds tend to do the thing they care about the most, the thing they’re best at, forever and ever. Despite their obvious status as gigantic fucking dorks, Stephen Hawking, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and the like maintain huge followings because of their dedication to a single subject. Whatever it is that makes them a nerd is also what makes them an expert — knowledge that will make them pretty valuable when the capitalists go bankrupt.
J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph of Dinosaur Jr. are nerds. When I tweeted through tears from the balcony of New York’s Irving Plaza last week that I was “pleased to report dinosaur jr still looks like a band made up by tim and eric,” I received some choice messages from the nerdiest Dinosaur Jr. fans imaginable. I wished I could condense into 140 characters the fact that I was there at the show because back in 2001, the first time I heard “Freak Scene” on a mixtape given to me by my new best friend — the quintessential girl two grades above me who smoked cigarettes and whose thrift store skirts were always covered in paint — something clicked. Nerds don’t always pass science or go full-ride to Ivy League universities, and rock stars aren’t born in leather pants with those cheekbones.
To become that good at guitar, to bring those soaring solos one after another out of a wall of fuzz, means spending a long time in the basement diddling around in front of a practice amp while your peers are out crashing their dads’ cars and doing subpar jobs of diddling each other. To build and master a pedal board of that size and depth, you must understand what each pedal does in sequence, the correct way to chain them, and how best to use them in every moment, on every track. It means fixing your own blown tubes and rehearsing scales in different tunings, and practicing, practicing, practicing. It means sticking to your life’s masterwork, that one thing that is cool and true, for 11 albums. That is so many guitar solos.
Those in attendance at Irving Plaza looked, for the most part, like they’d just come from work at an office supply chain, where their last task of the day was pulling off a copy scam on behalf of a friend’s new zine. We find each other here, sweating in sweaters, doing an uncoordinated pogo in clunky, anonymous shoes. It seems somehow safer than the average show, even when the nation is grieving and few public spaces feel truly safe. Here we are on common ground, looking like the grownup cast of Stranger Things, present to cheer on three of our own.
The band’s new material felt new, no matter how reminiscent it was of their entire back catalog. For Dinosaur Jr., this is a feature, not a bug: An appreciation of consistency is the key to the true pleasure of their work. It’s the anticipation of knowing there will be a sweet guitar solo, because there’s always gonna be a sweet guitar solo, but not knowing quite what it will be, just that it will be daring and unexpected and, above all, masterful. It's the inside-out knowledge of the art and your role in the group that made it, and the secret to whatever’s kept you on stage together for this long. As J yelps "Are you with me?" over the freakish rhythmic palm-muted banging at the core of “Goin Down,” the answer is all yes, so long as we can match our hips to the tempo, which is harder than it should be in 4/4. They trust the audience to keep up because they’ve been here long enough to know that we’re experts too.
The highlight of the set was “Crumble,” from Dinosaur Jr.'s 2007 album Beyond. Obsession can be isolating, and being in a band is hard; Beyond was, at that point, their first album in 10 years, and the first with the original lineup since 1988’s Bug. It’s a portrait of misunderstanding, the kind that functions as the long-running subplot of a meaningful relationship. It captures interpersonal anxiety without resolve, and if the lyrics aren’t clear enough, it wrings that same feeling out of us at its close with an exhausted cadence: I want, I want, I want, I want.
Seeing three geniuses do the thing they’ve done for more than 30 years with the same energy they did on day one brings on an unparalleled awe, and we watched, frozen, from the balcony, as the audience promptly filed out in an orderly manner when the house lights came up. The room mostly emptied; bored staff swept a ballroom floor noticeably devoid of the usual crushed plastic cups and nuclear post-show slime. People ambled into the street, hailing cars, or went off alone toward the subway with ears ringing. These are tired times, with little respite from our necessary awareness of those living all over us, so we wander from show to show wondering what it would be like if everybody threw their cups away instead of chucking them on the fucking floor, and thinking of a safer world.