Jumping on the Bandwagon. We’ve all heard this phrase. We know that it means joining in on the support of an opinion, idea, hobby, etc. after it has already become popular. There is a strong sense of elitism in this phrase, often used to disregard those who have joined the fad, whatever it may be, only after it became cool. But why? Not why do people jump on the bandwagon, but why do we seemingly discredit those who fulfill that phrase? Let’s see if we can figure it out.
Etymology of the phrase
First, let’s talk about where this phrase originated. According to this website, the word bandwagon refers to the wagon that carried the circus band. P.T. Barnum uses it in his autobiography in 1855. In order to drum up business, circus workers would parade through town in decorated wagons. Of course, the next group to utilize this was politicians in the late 1900’s, creating their own campaign bandwagons.
So, where did the less literal version of “jumping on the bandwagon” start? We can thank Teddy Roosevelt for that. In Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters in 1899, he says:
“When I once became sure of one majority they tumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”
It seems Teddy recognized that once one group picked up speed, more were not far behind. While he meant it in terms of politicians and government movements, it applied easily to any cultural movements and has since developed into pop culture in our day.
Bandwagon of the Nerd
This is where it all becomes a lot of opinion. We will focus on nerd culture, but in order to understand that we have to all be on the same page about what a nerd actually is. While people will have varying views of what a nerd is, I will first explain how it became slang, what it originally meant, and its rise in popularity.
The word first appeared in the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo. On October 8, 1951, Newsweek references the word as “…someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd…” (Reference) The 1970’s sitcom Happy Days—a show based in the 1950s—uses the word extensively. We can thank The Fonz for that. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person who behaves awkwardly around other people and has unstylish clothes, hair, etc.” Unstylish is the key word, here.
It sounds a little different from today’s nerd. We have entire conventions dedicated to the modern nerd. Crowds of people pour into San Diego every summer to make up at least $80 million in direct spending to the region according to a CNBC article from July 2016. The Nerdist boasts 8 million views in the last thirty days, climbing towards 2 million subscribers. And yet a simple Google search of the phrase “nerd culture” immediately brings up an article from USGamer.net called The People vs. Nerd Culture. Can we really claim that it’s anyone versus nerd culture anymore? That article does a great job laying out how being a nerd is no longer a stigma or negative. It’s merely a demographic targeted by marketing teams across the board to tap into that flow of money.
For the sake of argument, we will use the above as today’s nerd. It’s no longer slang, but an industry. Entire movie studios base their yearly income on the comic book movie blockbusters of the summer. Since those marketing strategies aim at everyone, it’s bound to have a crossover. The old days of being the guy or gal who hides away their Star Wars comic books in the closet, reading them under the covers at night over and over again are long gone, but we remember those times, don’t we? We remember being so into something that was associated with stigma of socially inept kids who push the bridge of their glasses up their nose while the guys who could run fast and catch a football looked like heroes. Meanwhile, our heroes were drawn onto pages, imagined with powers beyond the human ability.
Now here you are, watching the world converge on those same heroes, finally accepting that Batman is just really, really cool. You were always here. You were always riding along on the wagon, blowing your trumpet in support of that. Then all these other people jumped on and try to claim it as their thing, too.
But did you really sound the trumpets? Did you really?
Nerdiness wasn’t cool. You would hide away, or at least find your niche and stick to that. Your small group of friends, huddled around a table with the best D&D campaign of your lives in a dark basement remained a secret. (I’ve been watching Stranger Things, leave me alone.) Sure, you had a bandwagon, but it was small and quiet and hidden away in a garage so the jocks couldn’t stuff you in a locker over it—according to all the 80s movies I watched.
The bandwagon jumpers are not the problem, and we all know it. It was never the fact that we wanted other people to stay away from our bandwagon. No, instead it’s that we were bullied and alienated for liking something “nerdy,” but now everyone wants in on it. Now they want to be praised for creating the best comic book movie to represent our superheroes of which they didn’t actually grow up reading. Now the world jumps in with us and forgets that a couple decades ago a nerd was a bad thing to be. We feel like we are owed something. That we were the original fans, the ones who kept the medium alive and no one wants to apologize for mocking us.
So, what’s the problem with the bandwagon? Uh, I think we are. There’s nothing wrong with people finally figuring out that nerd culture is cool and fun. Hell, we should be ecstatic that it’s gaining popularity because it’s giving us more entertainment, more stories, and more takes on our favorite things. Sure, it’s ruining some of it, too, but not really on purpose. No one is out to maliciously ruin your favorite comic. They’re just trying to understand it in a way that works in today’s world… and make a lot of money doing it. I mean, we can’t have it all.
And I get it. We still want a little retribution for those that told us our hobbies were stupid, but we have to keep in mind that the billion dollar industry is not made up of all your personal bullies. When I explain to my mom all the backstories of superheroes before every MCU release, she doesn’t even remember that any of this was written decades ago. She wasn’t aware of the existence of Ant-Man and yet here we watch Paul Rudd sass his way through another fight with a crazy genius in a super-suit. How many people do you encounter that honestly had no idea any of this was around and available to pass the time, until now? I know a lot of those people.
Not everyone was our personal bully. By lumping anyone who wasn’t part of the so-called original nerd into the category of bandwagon-jumper and childhood-tormentor, we only further alienate ourselves. We now shove ourselves into a corner to maintain the title of nerd that was forced on us. It’s our way of protecting the identity we believe belongs to us. The problem is no person is any one identity. We’re all nerds, but also friends and family members. We’re singers and writers. We’re creators. We’re scientists. Some of us will be the next big money makers. It’s okay to be all of that and a nerd, too. Maybe “nerd” came first for us, but there’s no shame in being second, either. Hell, why rank it. It’s a collection of words we use to find our similarities. It doesn’t matter where in the timeline nerd became someone’s identifier.
It’s a pretty big bandwagon, friends. I say the more the merrier.