Jonathan Coulton

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"Joco" redirects here. For other uses, see Joco (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Jonathan Moulton.
Jonathan Coulton
Jonathan Coulton cropped.jpg
Coulton at Union Chapel on September 13, 2009
Background information
Also known as JoCo
Born (1970-12-01) December 1, 1970 (age 46)
Origin Brooklyn, New York City
Genres Folk rock
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter
Instruments Guitar, banjo, ukulele, zendrum, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, glockenspiel, analog synthesizers
Years active 2003–present
Associated acts Paul and Storm, Kristen Shirts, John Hodgman, Molly Lewis, Ellen McLain, Ze Frank, RiffTrax, They Might Be Giants, John Roderick
Website Official website

Jonathan Coulton (born December 1, 1970), often called "JoCo" by fans, is an American singer-songwriter, known for his songs about geek culture and his use of the Internet to draw fans. Among his most popular songs are "Code Monkey", "Skullcrusher Mountain", "Re: Your Brains", "Still Alive" and "Want You Gone" (the last three being featured in games developed by Valve: Left 4 Dead 2, Portal, and Portal 2 respectively).

His album Artificial Heart was the first to chart, eventually reaching #1 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers and #125 in the Billboard 200.


Coulton, Paul and Storm, and Molly Lewis performing at Dragon*Con 2011

Coulton's music tends to fit a folk rock style, with elements of pop and indie rock.

Early career and geek culture[edit]

Coulton graduated in 1993 from Yale, where he was a member of the Yale Whiffenpoofs.[1] A former computer programmer employed at Cluen, a New York City software company,[2] and self-described geek, Coulton tended to write quirky, witty lyrics about science fiction and technology: a man who thinks in simian terms, a mad scientist who falls in love with one of his captives, and the dangers of bacteria. Rare topical songs include 2005's "W's Duty", which sampled President George W. Bush, and 2006's "Tom Cruise Crazy". Most of Coulton's recordings feature his singing over guitar, bass, and drums; some also feature the various other instruments Coulton plays, including accordion, harmonica, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, zendrum and glockenspiel.[3]

In the early days, Coulton's music was discovered by podcasters. Notably, podcasting early adopters Adam Curry of the Daily Source Code and The Wizards of Technology made regular use of Coulton's music.[4] In April 2006, he lent his voice to one such podcast, The Spoilers, in which he and hosts Rick Yaeger and Bill Douthett provided a 2-hour fan commentary for Raiders of the Lost Ark.[5][6]

He was the Contributing Troubadour at Popular Science magazine, whose September 2005 issue was accompanied by a five-song set by Coulton called Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms.[7] He was also the Musical Director for The Little Gray Book Lectures.[8]

Thing a Week[edit]

From September 16, 2005, to September 30, 2006, Coulton ran "Thing a Week", during which he recorded 52 musical pieces in an effort to push his creative envelope via a "forced-march approach to writing and recording"; to prove to himself that he could produce creative output to a deadline; and to see whether a professional artist could use the Internet and Creative Commons to support himself. Coulton was quoted in a September 2006 interview as stating that as a result of the experiment, "in some parts of the country, I'd be making a decent living".[9] In a February 25, 2008, interview with This Week in Tech, he stated that he made more money in 2007 than he did in his last year of working as a programmer, 40% of it from digital downloads and 40% from merchandise and performances.[10]

"Still Alive" and album hiatus[edit]

Coulton wrote and performed a song titled "Still Alive" for the ending credits of Valve's 2007 video game Portal, with vocals by Ellen McLain. On April 1, 2008, Harmonix made this track available as free downloadable content for the game Rock Band.[11] A version with Coulton's vocals was also included on the Orange Box Original Soundtrack,[12] in addition to the one heard at the end of the game. "Re: Your Brains" made an appearance as an easter egg in Left 4 Dead 2.[13] The song has been called "the most influential game music".[14] In 2011, Coulton followed up the success of "Still Alive" with a new song at the end of Portal 2, "Want You Gone", with a third song, "You Wouldn't Know", being written for Lego Dimensions.

Coulton is also known for original pieces such as "Code Monkey", which was featured on Slashdot[15] on April 23, 2006 and linked from the webcomic Penny Arcade.[16] It was also the theme song for an animated show on G4 called Code Monkeys.

His work has been featured on NPR's All Things Considered. Good Morning Silicon Valley featured a link to a video set to his song "Re: Your Brains".

Coulton accompanied John Hodgman on his "700 Hobo Names" promotional track for Hodgman's book The Areas of My Expertise as the guitarist (he was credited as "Jonathan William Coulton, the Colchester Kid"). Coulton also can be heard throughout the audiobook version of the same book, playing the theme song to the book, playing incidental music, and bantering with Hodgman, who reads the audio version of his work. Hodgman has also mentioned Coulton on The Daily Show: a Jonathan Coulton of Colchester, Connecticut, was Hodgman's pick to win an essay contest on overpowering Iraqi resistance to American invasion.[17] Coulton wrote and performed "the winning entry", a song about dropping snakes from airplanes. Coulton appeared on the tour for Hodgman's second book, More Information Than You Require.

Coulton composed the title music for the show Mystery Diagnosis, and also has contributed other songs under "The Little Gray Book Lectures", a series of audio releases from John Hodgman.

In 2006, Coulton began touring with comedy-duo Paul and Storm. At their first few shows, Coulton opened the concerts, but soon after his rise to fame, he was headlining.

A DVD & CD of a concert performed February 22, 2008, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, entitled Best. Concert. Ever. was released in 2009. At the concert, Coulton played "Still Alive" along with guest "musicians" and geek/celebrities Leo Laporte, Merlin Mann and Veronica Belmont.[18]

Coulton opened for They Might Be Giants for a few shows of their March 2010 tour.[19] He toured with them again in February 2012.

The Aftermath and Artificial Heart[edit]

Coulton had been working on his follow-up to the Thing a Week albums, tentatively titled The Aftermath. He since stated that the title was merely an umbrella term to classify non-album tracks released after Thing a Week. On May 25, 2010, Coulton said on his official site that he would be working on a new album, to be produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants,[20] and for the first time ever with a full band, including Marty Beller of They Might Be Giants,[21] in a professional recording studio. The resulting album, Artificial Heart, was released on September 2, 2011.

Glee dispute[edit]

One of Coulton's best-known works is his 2005 light-acoustic cover of the Sir Mix-a-Lot hit song "Baby Got Back". Coulton wrote a new melody for the song which was copied without permission (including his original line "Johnny C's in trouble") in 2013 by the American TV series Glee.[22][23][24] The show's lawyers contended that they were within their legal rights, and that Coulton should be happy for the exposure, though Coulton received no acknowledgement or credit.

In response, Coulton released the single "Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee)", a "cover of Glee's cover of my cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's song, which is to say it's EXACTLY THE SAME as my original version". Coulton said he would donate the proceeds from all sales until the end of February 2013 to two Glee-related charities: The VH1 Save the Music Foundation, and The It Gets Better Project.[25]

In January 2014, the CBS drama The Good Wife based its fifth season episode "Goliath and David" on the incident.[26]

Current status[edit]

In May 2011, Coulton was interviewed on NPR's popular economics-related program Planet Money. He disclosed that he makes about $500,000 a year from his music despite lacking a record label contract. He expressed gratitude towards his fans for his surprise success, the degree of which he called "absurd". In a broader discussion of whether or not the internet is good for musicians, Coulton answered in the affirmative, while journalist Frannie Kelley described his success as a "fluke," comparing it to the unexpected popularity of the Snuggie.[27] Coulton posted a tongue-in-cheek response on his blog about the comparison, saying "to which I say: snarkity snark snark!"[28]

In May 2012, Coulton became the house musician for the NPR game show Ask Me Another. Coulton performs some of his own songs on the show, as well as covers of other songs related to the trivia and puzzle challenges.[29]

On April 15, 2013, Coulton announced that he was working with comic book writer Greg Pak on a graphic novel based on the characters in his songs, called Code Monkey Save World.[30] The project was funded on Kickstarter, and reached its goal within 12 hours.[31]

On August 31, 2013, it was announced that Coulton would be contributing lyrics to The SpongeBob Musical.[32]

In June 2016, Coulton started doing a one-minute "Previously On" song at the beginning of the CBS TV series BrainDead, a summer series with a planned run of 13 episodes.[33]


Coulton releases his songs under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license, allowing others to use them in their own noncommercial works. As a result, a number of music videos have been created using his songs, including such machinima as the ILL Clan's video for "Code Monkey" and a kinetic typography video for the song "Shop Vac".[34]


Studio albums[edit]


Other releases[edit]

Most of Coulton's songs are published on his website as MP3 and FLAC downloads. Some of them are free, and none of them are subject to digital rights management. All of his original songs fall under the Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 3.0 License. "Still Alive", "Want You Gone" and "Wikipedia Chanukah"[35] are the only exceptions to this, as Coulton assigned all rights for the former two songs to Valve and "Wikipedia Chanukah" is under a BY-SA license to comply with Wikipedia's similar license. Along with "Still Alive," Coulton's song "Re: Your Brains" appears in jukeboxes in Left 4 Dead 2. "Want You Gone" also features in the end credits of Portal 2. All three of these games were designed by Valve.[36]

Other versions and covers[edit]


  1. ^ Rapkin, Mickey (23 March 2008). "Perfect Tone, in a Minor Key". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  2. ^ "JoCopedia, the Jonathan Coulton wiki". Jonathan Coulton. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  3. ^ Best interview ever - Talking with Jonathan Coulton Archived September 23, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ "How I Did It". 
  5. ^ "The Spoilers Podcast". 
  6. ^ "I Ruined Raiders". 
  7. ^ "The Future of The Body: The Soundtrack" (accessed on 23rd June 2008), Popular Science
  8. ^ "Witty Tunes Are Jonathan Coulton's 'Thing'" (accessed ) on NPR's All Things Considered
  9. ^ "Quick Stop Interview: Jonathan Coulton". View Askew Productions. 2006-09-28. Retrieved 2007-02-19. 
  10. ^ "TWiT 133: Jonathan Coulton — Functional And Elegant" (MP3). 2008-02-25. Retrieved 2008-06-08. 
  11. ^ Chris Kohler (2008-03-31). "Rock Band Gets 'Still Alive' Tomorrow, Free". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  12. ^ Valve Corporation. "Orange Box Original Soundtrack". Archived from the original on March 13, 2008. Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  13. ^ "LFD2 Easter Egg". October 17, 2009. Retrieved May 22, 2011. 
  14. ^ "Most Influential Game Music". February 20, 2011. Retrieved 2011-02-21. 
  15. ^ "Code Monkey Like Fritos". April 23, 2006. Retrieved 2007-10-22. 
  16. ^ "Prinny Please". 
  17. ^ "Essay Contest". Daily Show: Hodgman. Comedy Central. Retrieved 2008-02-27. 
  18. ^ "2/22/08 Concert info". Retrieved 2010-05-31. 
  19. ^ "Jonathan Coulton to open shows for TMBG!". They Might Be Giants. Retrieved 2010-09-23. 
  20. ^ Michael Harrison (2010-06-11). "Jonathan Coulton and TMBG's John Flansburgh to Collaborate on New Record". Retrieved 2010-09-23. 
  21. ^ "Blog Archive » Band Shows, New Songs". Jonathan Coulton. 2010-07-16. Retrieved 2010-09-23. 
  22. ^
  23. ^ Hudson, Laura (2013-01-25). "Jonathan Coulton Explains How Glee Ripped Off His Cover Song — And Why He's Not Alone". Wired. 
  24. ^ "Singer alleges 'Glee' ripped off his cover song -". CNN. 2013-01-26. 
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ "An Internet Rock Star Tells All : Planet Money". NPR. 2011-05-13. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  28. ^ "Jonathan Coulton". Jonathan Coulton. 2011-05-23. Retrieved 2012-08-03. 
  29. ^ "About Ask Me Another: NPR". 2012-08-15. 
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^ Rickwald, Bethany."Musical-Theater Noob Jonathan Coulton Is Getting His Feet Wet With The SpongeBob Musical",TheaterMania, June 10, 2016
  33. ^ Raftery, Liz. "Here's the Story Behind BrainDead's Delightfully Wacky "Previously On ... " Song", TVGuide, June 21, 2016
  34. ^ "Shop Vac (kinetic typography animation)". Jarrett Heather. 2010-12-01. Retrieved 2011-01-25. 
  35. ^
  36. ^ "Left 4 Dead 2 (video game)". Giant Bomb. 2009-11-16. Retrieved 2010-11-14. 

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