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Music / Jonathan Coulton

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Just like you, only he writes songs.

"I find it hard to write about myself—or to write from a personal point of view. So the way I get around that is by writing from the perspective of a giant squid."
Jonathan Coulton, in an interview

Jonathan Coulton (born December 1, 1970; occasionally shorted to "JoCo") is a primarily internet-based musician who writes songs on all sorts of stuff, though his more popular songs tend to cater to the nerd or pop-culture crowd. You probably know him best as the writer of Portal's ending song, "Still Alive". He also gained fame before that for his "Thing-A-Week" series of albums, wherein he challenged himself to write and record one song a week for an entire year, and actually did it.

Notable for being one of the first musicians to fully embrace the online model of earning money for his songs — most of his songs are available free on his website, if you want to dig through his blog, but they're also all for sale through a variety of media. He also uses the Internet to gauge where to perform — if enough fans petition him, he'll plan a concert for you.

He often performs with Paul and Storm, and has done collaborations with MC Frontalot. He has been involved in several RiffTrax, including playing some songs before the live Plan 9 from Outer Space and writing the theme song. He's the resident musician on the NPR game show Ask Me Another. He is also the "Official Contributing Troubadour" of Popular Science magazine, and sang the opening theme for their podcast. He also has a handful of songs featured in Rock Band. As mentioned above, he wrote the credits song for Portal, "Still Alive", as well as the sequel's, "Want You Gone". He's also long-time friends with John Hodgman, has written songs for Hodgman's book tours (which he often participates in), and has appeared on all three audiobooks for Hodgman's Complete World Knowledge series. Lately, he's done the recap songs for BrainDead (2016). Basically, he's popular, is what we're getting at.

In other media, Coulton worked with Comic Book writer Greg Pak on a comic miniseries/graphic novel based on the characters from many of his songs, named Code Monkey Save World. The Kickstarter project finished with 872% of its goal.

You can go here to vote for his best songs.

Studio Albums:
  • Smoking Monkey (2003)
  • Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow (2004)
  • Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms (2005)
  • Thing A Week One (2006)
  • Thing A Week Two (2006)
  • Thing A Week Three (2006)
  • Thing A Week Four (2006)
  • Artificial Heart (2011)
  • One Christmas At a Time (2012; with John Roderick)
  • Solid State (2017)

Live Albums:


  • JoCo Looks Back (2008)
  • Jonathan Coulton's Greatest Hit (Plus 13 Other Songs) (2012)

Cover Albums:Some Guys (2019)

Tropes Related to this Musician Include:

  • Accidentally-Correct Writinginvoked: As he found out in 2007, Joe Jackson really was bitter about being overshadowed by "the great Elvis Costello".
  • Affably Evil:
    • Bob the zombie from "Re: Your Brains", who spends the whole song politely trying to convince Tom to open the door so he can eat his brains.
    • The scientist who lives in Skullcrusher Mountain is downright friendly to his kidnapped "girlfriend", he just has no idea how to go about it. Scarface is likewise "a sweetheart".
  • Affectionate Parody: His song "Big Dick Farts a Polka" is one for/of his longtime touring partners Paul and Storm. They returned the favor with "Live", which riffs off Coulton's common "Mad Scientist In Love" theme.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Near the end of "The Future Soon", the narrator fantasizes about capturing Laura and making her "his robot bride."
  • Anti-Christmas Song: "Chiron Beta Prime", framed as a Christmas family letter... after humanity lost a Robot War and the narrator's family has been banished to an asteroid mining colony named Chiron Beta Prime. At least the robots seem to understand the meaning of Christmas, though it's all simply a cover for their dictatorship's militaristic ways.
  • Anti-Love Song: A staple. Many of Coulton's songs ("Skullcrusher Mountain", "Code Monkey", "The Future Soon" "Till The Money Comes", "Want You Gone", and others) are essentially love songs with varying levels of complete and utter dysfunctionality. And then there's "Someone Is Crazy".
    "The world's against you so you think or maybe wish it was
    And at least that way someone would care but baby no one does
    Not even you
    Baby someone is crazy and it's you."
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: The eponymous Creepy Doll's crimes against the narrator include sleeping in the narrator's bed, moving around when the narrator isn't looking, and ... requesting food whenever the narrator decides to eat something, and asking if he really needs that much honey in his tea.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Played with in "Ikea": The narrator thinks Sweden was founded by Thor, and that Ikea was one of the first things to be created in the country, along with Vikings and longboats.
    • "Kenesaw Mountain Landis." Every last word except for "Kenesaw Mountain Landis," "Shoeless Joe Jackson" and "baseball." It probably goes without saying that Landis was not 17 feet tall nor did he have 150 wives...
  • Audience Participation Song: Parts of the chorus for "Re: Your Brains." To be sung as zombies.
    • He loses track halfway through a 2011 performance of 'The Presidents'; leading to the audience singing the rest of the song.
  • Blatant Lies: "Not About You", basically a Break-Up Song for the hopelessly-in-denial.
  • Body Horror:
    • "Better" is about a man who breaks up with his heavily cyberneticized girlfriend because of her hideous appearance. The woman is thirteen feet tall with infrared cameras for eyes, gills, wings, and built-in weapons.
    • The half-pony, half-monkey monster from "Skullcrusher Mountain". The only descriptions we get of it are "I used too many monkeys" and "I ruined a pony", and judging by the fact that the unnamed love interest won't stop screaming, it's probably exactly as horrific as it sounds.
  • Break-Up Song: "Not About You" and "Always the Moon" among several others.
  • Captain Oblivious: In "Betty and Me", the narrator misses the obvious signs of his wife cheating on him.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    • The Evil Overlord from "Skullcrusher Mountain" about love.
    • In "Re: Your Brains", Bob's idea of a "compromise" for Tom not opening the door for him and his zombie horde is "If you open up the door, we'll all come inside and eat your brains."
  • Could Say It, But...: In "The Presidents":
    "And I don't like to make political statements
    [remains silent for the last line of the song]"
    • This itself was subverted in a performance that took place not long after the 2008 election. He ended up making a politcal statement at the end of the song after all: "But c'mon motherfuckers, Obama won!"
  • The Cover Changes the Gender: His cover of Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" surprisingly averts this, lending an interesting twist to the song.
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning: His cover of Sir-Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back".
  • Cover Version: He's done a lot, from the aforementioned "You Oughta Know" and "Baby Got Back", to "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions", and ultimately an entire cover album entitled Some Guys, where he takes on a series of 70's AOR classics from the likes of The Bee Gees, America, and Eagles among others.
  • Creepy Doll: The doll in "Creepy Doll" always follows you, has a ruined eye that's always open, and has a pretty mouth to swallow you whole. It also makes snide remarks about how you take your tea.
  • Crossover: In his ending theme for LEGO Dimensions, GLaDOS mentions that she's met Batman, who is "kind of a big deal".
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul:
  • Cyborg:
    • "Future Soon" is about a nerdy kid day-dreaming about replacing his body with cybernetics so he won't be "weak and strange" any more. His hypothetical future girlfriend also has bionic eyes.
    • "Better" is about a man breaking up with his girlfriend who's modified herself into a 13-foot tall abomination.
    • "Todd the T-1000" has the singer get a "smasher, like the trunk of a tree" and a saw implanted to intimidate his malfunctioning android butler into respecting him
  • Dancing Royalty: ''Dance Soterios Johnson Dance" is about an NPR newscaster who lives a double life as one of these.
  • Damsel out of Distress: The princess in "The Princess Who Saved Herself". She overpowers a dragon who attacks, then makes friends with him and they end up in a band together.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: From "Future Soon": "building inventions in my space lab in space."
  • Designer Baby: "Betty and Me" is about a loutish husband who (at least thinks) his son will be one (it's pretty clear that his wife's cheating on him with the geneticist).
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: "The Princess Who Saved Herself" single-handedly defeats a dragon — and then she offers him tea, and he comes over to visit her weekly, and when the princess forms a band, the dragon plays bass.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: "The Princess Who Saved Herself" single-handedly defeats a dragon by tying his tail to a tree, tells him off to his face, makes him cry, and gets him to apologize!
  • Don't You Like It?: The Evil Overlord narrating "Skullcrusher Mountain" is trying so hard to please his captive love interest, but doesn't quite understand that she wouldn't like a half-pony, half-monkey monster.
  • Driven to Suicide: The vampire in "Blue Sunny Day" is depressed over not being able to go out in the sunshine anymore (there are also hints that he's pining for a lover who left him). He decides on Suicide by Sunlight as a result.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: "Nobody Loves You Like Me" begins with the narrator "drinking for two" at a bar, "drowning the man that [he] used to be." This appears to be in response to a divorce that he really doesn't want to go through with.
  • Evil Overlord: "Skullcrusher Mountain" sung from the perspective of one in love.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: From "I Feel Fantastic": "All I know is that the steak tastes better when I take my steak-tastes-better pill."
  • Faux Affably Evil: The scientist in "Skullcrusher Mountain" has his affable facade slip when he reminds the girl that "this mountain is covered with wolves".
  • Foe Romance Subtext: "Nemeses".
    "Could it be that you need me
    To keep you out, to run you faster
    Promise me you'll let me be
    The one, the worst of all your enemies
    Pretending you're a friend to me
    Say that we'll be nemeses."
  • Gold Digger:
    • "Millionaire Girlfriend" has an average guy daydreaming about having one.
    • "Till the Money Comes" is about a guy who hates his wife but decides to hang around until she comes into money so that he can divorce her and take half of it.
  • Gratuitous French: Je Suis Rick Springfield is written entirely in poor French. In his live shows, Coulton insists that it's the character's bad French, and not his. The bridge, presumably from the viewpoint of the people "Rick" is talking to, hangs a lampshade:
    "Je ne comprends pas cet idiotnote 
    Quelque chose sur un très bon chien?"note 
  • Greatest Hits Album:
  • Heel Realization: Bob the zombie in "RE: Your Brains". Not that it changes anything.
    Bob: I'm not a monster, Tom... Well, technically I am... I guess I am!
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, whose guilt in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal is a matter of some debate, gets characterized in "Kenesaw Mountain Landis" as a wife-beating, baby-eating Heel, as a foil to Landis (who gets a corresponding Historical Hero Upgrade despite his infamous bigotry regarding the racial integration of baseball). Of course, the entire song is Played for Laughs, as it also claims Landis was "seventeen feet tall and had a hundred and fifty wives" and conflates Joe Jackson the baseball player with Joe Jackson the pop singer (of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" fame).
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: "Just As Long As Me" — a folksy song about a Huge Guy who is tired of Tiny Girls and wants a woman of his size for once.
  • Hulk Speak: "Code Monkey".
  • I Do Not Like Green Eggs and Ham: The narrator of "Ikea" is dismissive of the title store at first, but by the third verse he's singing praises about what a great deal it is.
  • The Igor: The narrator's assistant Scarface in "Skullcrusher Mountain," who was responsible for kidnapping the person being addressed.
    His appearance is quite disturbing
    But I assure you he's harmless enough
    He's a sweetheart, he calls me "Master"
    And he has a way of finding pretty things
    And bringing them to me
  • "I Hate" Song: "I Hate California" doesn't exactly hide its point — though it makes it clear that he's not blaming anyone in particular for the feeling, and the main problem may be that the object of his affection is there when he isn't.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: "Skullcrusher Mountain" is basically an extended (relatively polite but deeply insane) statement of the trope.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: That poor giant squid in "I Crush Everything" wants nothing more than to live a normal life. Too bad he's a giant squid.
  • Intercourse with You:
    • Subverted in "First of May", we think....
    • Played straight in "Soft Rocked by Me".
  • In the Style of: Changed the iTunes listing of his "Baby Got Back" cover to a sarcastic "...(In The Style Of Glee)" after they stole his arrangement note  without his permission and told him he should be thankful for the publicity. However, he's donating all proceeds from the sale of the song to the It Gets Better Foundation and VH1 Save The Music as a result.
  • Location Song: "I Hate California", about his hatred for California.
  • Love Martyr: The narrator of "Betty and Me." Betty repeatedly cheats on him and insults him and he's conned out of money by the other man. He still shows devotion to Betty. While he is honestly too stupid to realize that Betty is cheating on him, he just kind of accepts the insults.
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "I Feel Fantastic" is a subversion. The guy with a different pill for every single occasion of his day is perfectly happy being drugged up to the max, even if we, the listener, are aware of how terrible it is.
    • "Shop Vac" has an aggressively peppy beat, but is about the depressing, empty life of a man who obviously cares nothing about his wife anymore, spending all the time he can away from her, with the titular shop vac on to drown out any calls from her upstairs. Plus, a barely-heard news broadcast implies he snaps and then starts shooting people with a shotgun.
    • "Blue Sunny Day" has a very upbeat tune, as the vampire character talks about the lovely things you see on a nice sunny day. Except he can't, being a vampire, and is thus really depressed. It gets to the point he decides on Suicide by Sunlight, with at least then being able to see a sunny day once more.
  • Non-Indicative Title:
    • "You Ruined Everything" is not a Break-Up Song; it's actually a very happy and loving song. The full line is, "You ruined everything in the nicest way."
    • On the other side of the coin, "Pictures of Cats" is not a cheerful song about cats (or really about cats at all).
  • Noodle Incident: In "Uncle John": "He brings it up again; the famous apple crisp incident of 2010." This may or may not be connected with subsequent lines where "he loudly criticizes your cousin Jane/Who cries all the time anyway."
  • Non-Residential Residence: In "Re: Your Brains", it's implied that Tom has barricaded himself inside a mall during the Zombie Apocalypse.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: "Re: Your Brains" features a very talkative, charismatic one who tries to talk a man into opening the door so he and the other zombies can eat his brains. You can almost imagine it working, he's that good.
  • Powersuit Monkey: "Code Monkey" describes a monkey working as a programmer (or maybe just a monkey-like human programmer) who sings in Hulk Speak.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: His live album "Best. Concert. Ever."
  • Red Shirt: The official theme song of the novel by John Scalzi.
  • Robot Maid: "Todd the T1000" is about a guy who feels threatened by his robot butler.
  • Robot War:
    • "Chiron-Beta Prime" is set in the aftermath of one; with the POV character and his family "Toiling in a mine for our Robot Overlords-Did I say 'Overlords?' I meant 'Protectors!'"
    • "Todd the T-1000" is a one-man robot war, with the POV character trying to reclaim his life from his evil android butler.
    • "The Future Soon" has the narrator talk about starting one by creating a warrior robot race. The events of the war are unrevealed except that it led to Laura losing her eyes.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: "The Princess Who Saved Herself." She does. Twice. And then she forms a band with the dragon and the witch she saved herself from.
  • Rule of Three: He wrote the ending themes to both Portal games, both sung by GLaDOS. So of course, he also wrote a song for her appearance in LEGO Dimensions!
  • Self-Deprecation: His Greatest Hits album is titled Jonathan Coulton's Greatest Hit (Plus 13 Other Songs).
  • Shaped Like Itself:
    • "Shop Vac" includes the line "I like that Starbucks here, it's better than the other one/'Cause the other one's not as good." The bland, hollow, circular reasoning fits well with the song's theme of the bland, hollow, circular life the protagonists are leading.
    • In "Betty and Me", Dr. Martin's method of making a Designer Baby is described as "legal in the states where it wasn't banned".
    • In "Kenesaw Mountain Landis", the title character will "always be remembered as Kenesaw Mountain Landis".
  • Shout-Out: Manages to shout-out to himself on the Portal soundtrack — towards the end of "Still Alive", GLaDOS sings "I feel fantastic and I'm still alive..."
  • Siamese Twin Songs: On "JoCo Looks Back", "Creepy Doll" does this... and leads into "Mr. Fancy Pants".
  • Stealth Insult: The chorus to "Betty and Me" becomes this when it becomes clear that Betty is cheating on the narrator, basically saying that the baby won't be as short, stupid, and all-around inferior as the narrator with Dr. Martin fathering it than if the narrator had fathered it himself.
  • Stepford Suburbia:
    • "Brookline" portrays the title town in such a manner, from the point of view of one of the people who still has enough self-awareness to notice its unsettling nature.
    • "Shop Vac" also has shades of this.
  • Strange-Syntax Speaker: Code Monkey
  • Stylistic Suck: The final chorus of "Re: Your Brains" is sung by a chorus of moaning, groaning zombies.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: Unusually, "First of May" ends its chorus with a line more obscene than the one the rhyme scheme leads the viewer to expect.
  • Suicide by Sunlight: "Blue Sunny Day" is about a vampire who, despressed due to not seeing the sunshine anymore, deciding he'll die this way.
  • Third-Person Person: The titular Code Monkey of "Code Monkey" only ever refers to Code Monkey as such.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Implied in "Creepy Doll", when the last verse reveals that "the bag of big-city money" is still sitting in the house. Was the narrator actually plagued by a creepy talking doll, or was he just nuts?
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: "Kenesaw Mountain Landis" tells the story of the first Commissioner of Baseball and how he dealt with the Black Sox scandal. It has some relation to the actual events.
  • You Are Not Alone: "I'm Your Moon". Even if Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet, its moon Charon doesn't care, and will always see it as one from its perspective.
  • Zombie Apocalypse: "Re: Your Brains" is implied to take place during one, with Tom trapped in a mall while a horde of zombies tries to break inside to eat his brains.