THE BLOG
07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Internet Famous

I have to get better at the part where they ask me what kind of musician I am, because that's where I always get stuck. It happened to me just the other night at a party when I was swapping what-do-you-do's with someone I had just met. I breezed through "I'm a musician" pretty smoothly, and in a powerful demonstration of my own personal growth, did it without apologizing, rolling my eyes, or looking at the floor in shame. At the ripe old age of 38 I have finally come to terms with the fact that I make music. These days it's the follow-up question that gets to me.

I usually start with a straightforward description, telling them that I'm a singer/songwriter and that I do a kind of folk-influenced pop that is sometimes funny and sometimes about geeky things. This is a terrible way to put it, and it usually fails to satisfy them. That's because it doesn't address the question they really want to ask: is this poorly-dressed, shaggy fellow a famous rock star, or is he just an unemployed guy in a crappy rock band? They want to know, is it actually my job to be a singer/songwriter? And if so, am I, like, a famous person?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about this last question because I've been putting together a live concert DVD, BEST. CONCERT. EVER., which means I've spent countless hours in the edit room watching myself pretend to be a famous rock star. It's bizarre. There I am on stage, holding my arms above my head in an awkwardly triumphant pose shouting "Thank you San Francisco, we love you!" into the microphone while an audience of people, many of them dressed as zombies, scream and cheer. I sure look like a rock star there on that DVD, but there's something about that term that doesn't quite feel right.

I am what you might call "Internet Famous." While it's true that I can assemble an audience of cheering zombies out there in the real world, the real core of my fame on my website www.JonathanCoulton.com. I don't get much radio airplay and I'm not in record stores, so if you've heard of me it's probably through some kind of new media channel like podcasts, blogs, YouTube or Pandora. Or maybe you play video games and you heard my music in Rock Band or Portal. Or maybe your friend, who loves the new Battlestar Galactica and whom you always call for help with your computer, emailed you an mp3 or dragged you to one of my live shows. It cannot be denied, I owe every bit of my success to the geeks.

And while it's true that geek culture has lately become a more visible part of popular culture, it's not always a great match. The way geeks simultaneously create and consume culture is so vastly different from the way we all used to be entertained, it's not surprising that there's not a lot of real cross talk. You will probably never see a network television show about LOLCats, which is kind of surprising when you think of how many millions of people enjoy LOLCats. Sure, a lot of people know about LOLCats, but is it famous?

The answer is yes, it is famous the way I am famous, which is to say only sometimes, and in a weirdly fuzzy and context-dependent kind of way. It's the best of both worlds really: when I am among fans a truly amazing thing happens -- we construct a bubble of reality, this tiny alternate universe in which I am somehow, impossibly, a famous rock star. It feels fantastic, but it only lasts as long as we're together. An hour later, and half a block down the street, I am once again a poorly-dressed, shaggy unknown (and secret Internet Superstar). All of which is a very difficult thing to convey to someone you just met at a party. That's why I'm currently working on saying the words "Internet Superstar" with a straight face.