In David Pogue’s Connecticut home, Making Music’s photographer snaps shots of the tech whiz at his grand piano. In order to capture a natural—but not blurry—photo, Pogue is directed to imagine that he has been playing piano, but was suddenly asked to stop. Instead of freezing his fingers on the keys, which he knows very well is what the photographer is after, Pogue, ever the showman, furrows his brow and scrunches his face into a scowl. The Making Music crew gathered in his living room breaks out in laughter. “I’m a natural-born entertainer,” explains Pogue. “Plus, I’m the youngest of three, so I was always the one showing off and vying for attention.”
These days, all eyes in the technology world are on Pogue, who writes the New York Times column “State of the Art,” maintains a tech blog, authors the books in the popular Missing Manual series, and makes weekly appearances as tech correspondent on CBS News and CNBC. He was also host of the recent four-show “Making Stuff” series on PBS’s Nova. But underneath his affinity for whozits and whatsits designed for practicality, Pogue also has a strong artistic side, which he finds an outlet for by both writing and playing music.
While many people pursue music as a hobby outside of their working hours, David Pogue has found a way to integrate the two. His main musical endeavor is parodies á la Weird Al Yankovic, except that Pogue’s remakes all relate to computers and technology. For example, under his hand, “I Write the Songs” is transformed to “I Write the Code” (told from the perspective of Bill Gates) and “The Girl from Ipanema” becomes “The Girl I Met By E-mail” (in which the protagonist’s online dream girl turns out to be a guy).
His knack for song parodies must be genetic. “From the time I was a child, I remember my family writing new lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan operas for things like a couple’s 50th wedding anniversary, or somebody’s 90th birthday,” Pogue says. “It’s always been in this family as a way of entertaining ourselves and making people laugh.” Now, he incorporates song spoofs into the 50 or so speaking engagements he’s booked for each year, making him undoubtedly the most entertaining technology lecturer around.
“The audience at these lectures is generally pretty baffled about why a tech writer is singing and playing the keyboard,” says Pogue, who spent about 10 years after college trying to make it as a Broadway composer. “But musical comedy has always had a certain effect on people, and if it delivers the message and keeps people watching and listening, then why not?”
One spoof that really caught people’s attention was written in 2007 when the iPhone first came out. Based on Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” a video for Pogue’s “I Want an iPhone” was filmed at the Apple store on the day of the release; he even got some Apple fanatics, who had been waiting in line for days to get their hands on the phone, to sing bits of his song.
“The video became a big deal on YouTube, and it was actually reviewed by the theater critic for New York magazine, who had the gall to say, ‘You know, this guy’s got some talent. He ought to consider a Broadway career!’” Pogue recalls, raising his voice in a crescendo, in theatrical mock rage. “It was like, you’re a little late, pal!” he adds good-naturedly.
Pogue, who turned 48 in March, graduated from Yale with degrees in English, computer science, and music, all of which he ended up putting to good use. But right out of college, music was his biggest focus, and more specifically, writing musical comedies. “I was staging readings and making demo tapes and banging my head against the wall, trying to get these things produced,” he says. Unfortunately, there wasn’t high demand for new Broadway composers.
Instead, Pogue edged his way into the Broadway scene by conducting, arranging, and playing the keyboard. He rubbed elbows with show biz greats, like composers Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and soon discovered a niche that he could fill: teaching musicians about music software that could make their lives a lot easier.
Pogue had been a Mac aficionado since getting his first computer in college, and during his Broadway days, he earned extra cash writing for a newsletter called Mac Street Journal. Around that time, the music notation software program Finale was introduced, opening up new possibilities for composing and creating sheet music. Pogue was itching to get his hands on a copy of Finale, but the price tag for the new program rang to the tune of $1,000. Luckily, there are perks to working for a technology publication.
“My editor said, ‘Why don’t you call up the company and ask them to send you a free copy?’ I was like, ‘What?! And I get to keep it?’” Pogue remembers. “So Finale turned out to be my first review.”
Soon, he was tutoring all sorts of Broadway professionals on how, with Finale, they could hook up a MIDI instrument to a computer and see their compositions appear on the screen as they played. “One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was the 25-year-old who everyone called for help with their computers,” Pogue says. As he got more involved with technology, writing a column for Macworld and eventually The New York Times, he let go of his Broadway aspirations.
Still, besides his notorious song parodies, some of the books to his name reflect Pogue’s continuing passion for music. Although his best-known title is Macs for Dummies, he also co-authored Classical Music for Dummies and Opera for Dummies, among several other books in the series. Pogue admits that he was not an opera connoisseur when he began working on Opera for Dummies, but that he got “totally into it” along the way. “By the end, I was buying tickets to the Met, and I could jump into opera conversations—‘Ah yes, Tristan, of course!’” he says, imitating a hoity-toity intellectual.
In 2007, Pogue learned that he was to be awarded an honorary doctorate degree in music from Shenandoah Conservatory (“That’s Dr. Pogue to you!” he quips). The news came as quite a surprise, considering he had not made music a full-time career—but that was kind of the point. “The dean of the conservatory had a most unusual message for the student body: Even though you’re here at music school, you guys are not all going to wind up playing with symphonies,” Pogue explains. “But he assured the graduates that they would use their music in whatever they wound up doing, and he introduced me as a classic example of that. Music has kept my regular career entertaining, interesting, and fun, and even though it’s not my profession, it’s still an enormous part of my life.”
It’s something he can now share with his three children, too. Pogue’s 13-year-old son, Kelly, has followed in his footsteps, recently appearing as the major general in the musical The Pirates of Penzance, and he also plays piano. His 11-year-old daughter, Tia, plays piano and violin, and she’s taken voice lessons since she was eight. His six-year-old son, Jeffrey, is currently more interested in playing with Legos, but Pogue says that he already shows lots of musical talent.
Pogue is convinced that music can be incorporated into—and even help—any career. “Whether you’re an accountant and decide to get out your instrument at an office party, or you’re an architect showing a building to a client and you come up with a clever song to sell it, you can work music in,” he says.
“I recently read that you can raise someone’s pulse by having them listen to upbeat music. And did you know that you buy 37% more groceries in a store where music is playing? What is that about?!” Pogue exclaims. The point, he reasons, is that the minute you start making music, you not only have people’s attention, but you have them biologically. “So, the only things stopping you are self-imposed: ‘I’m too shy,’ or ‘It might not work,’” he says. “And the advice is, ignore those things—because it will work.”
Meredith Laing, true to David Pogue’s graduation speech, holds degrees in music and now uses that knowledge in her writing.
To read our full March-April 2011 issue click here!