Things that Made Me: They Might Be Giants

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series ... That Made Me

When it came to music I wasn’t exactly a late bloomer, but I did follow a strange path. As a small child I listened almost exclusively to classical, film scores, soundtracks1, and musicals. My main exposure to pop music was what I absorbed through osmosis by way of my parents. This mainly consisted of Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, some Beatles, and other things that my parents referred to as “classical music”. Do you know that thing when a child is too young to understand a joke or turn of phrase and ends up accepting it as literal truth? Yeah, that was fun and didn’t peg me a “the weird kid” at all.

So while I had no idea about the music that was on the radio, or that my friends were listening to, I was able to hum along to the orchestral music from nearly every movie out2, as well as belt the random pop song or power ballad from the closing credits of a score. That is the reason I could sing along the Original Sin as performed by Taylor Dayne, and wasn’t even aware it was more commonly known as a Meatloaf song. Though even that was not commonly known by other 11 year olds.

And so when I was eleven, one summer day I made a conscious choice to get into pop music. So I did the most logical thing I could think of; I asked my musical friend, a piano prodigy, for a recommendation. The first band I tried to get into was Ace of Base. It did not go well. I wasn’t sure if it was me or the music, but something just wasn’t working. I needed another avenue. And then I remembered something.tt_tmbgA couple of years back Tiny Toons had done an episode consisting of animated music videos. I have no idea why, but I did remember two songs stuck out to me at the time, and they were both by the same band. Those songs were Particle Man and Istanbul (Not Constantinople). The band was They Might Be Giants.flood_coverI went out and purchased Flood, the album containing those two songs, and only their third album. My mind was blown. Until now most of my music had been orchestral. I was used to music that built in complex layers, each simple piece slowly combing and weaving into something larger. I was used to leitmotifs haunting the edges of movements, tying things together. But this verse/chorus thing was hitting me hard. It wasn’t a net, layering over itself until it was something solid cradling you. It was a hand that grabbed your wrist and took you places. Birdhouse in Your Soul has this urgency and power. Dead had a macabre humor that has marked me for life. Your Racist Friend confused me with its lyrics, and Minimum Wage showed me how bizarre and capricious pop could be. Letterbox had a syncopation that changed how I listened to music from that point on. Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love had a musical complexity and lyrical simplicity that I could get lost in every time I hear it. In short, most of the tracks on this album changed how I thought of music. It was the very definition of seminal.

TMBG continued to be a highly formative force in my life. They were my first real concert, and how I was exposed to Brian Dewan (whom it turns out I had heard on the odd Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego tv show soundtrack). I remember skipping the opening night of Return of the Jedi (special edition) to go to yet another New York show. It was because of them that I entered high school familiar with Irving Plaza, the Bowery Ballroom, and Summer Stage. I bought my first fake ID to try to get into a John Linnell show3 for his State Songs tour4.

So many non-musical things are tied to them as well. Paired with being an only child, attending their shows probably has a bit to do with me becoming comfortable with groups of older people from such a young age. My first whiff of pot was at one of their shows. They gave me a reason to go into the city on my own. I met one of my best friends throughout high school because of a Dial-A-Song shirt. And their appearances and gust stars kept crossing my path as well. Of course there was the Tiny Toons connection. But they guested on Viva Variety, which paired them with members of The State.

Their shifting genres, too, carried me through musical discovery. Their references set me on the path of The Replacements and XTC. Their first album brought me around to the mid 80s New York rock scene. Apollo 18 kept me in more experimental circles in the 90s, rather than succumbing to radio hits. John Henry pushed me toward grunge, with their rough chords and walls of sound pummeling. Factory Showroom gave me permission to just be weird.

As I moved through their discography and came to Mink Car I also came to the end of the period when I would identify as a hardcore They Might Be Giants fan. By this point, I had seen them live over a dozen times, and had amassed a sizable collection of their b-sides and bootlegs. But that album is the last when I would be waiting for new releases when they dropped. From that point forward their albums would come as pleasant surprises when browsing online, in stores, or reading reviews. It’s strange, because I don’t adore them any less, and I still enjoy their music. But there was an urgency that was no longer there, pushing me to stay current with them. My feelings for TMBG had moved from a pressing lust to a comfortable, long term love.

Which is about where they sit with me today. So I’d just like to put this out there as a thank you to them. Much in the same way that Bruce Coville has shaped me as a reader, They Might Be Giants were perhaps the most single formative influence in me for music.

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1 Funny story. When I was a kid I assumed that soudntracks were literally the sound played during a movie. Dialogue, music, and foley work. Picking up the Who Framed Roger Rabbit “soundtrack” did nothing to disabuse me of this concept, as it is the plot of the movie performed as a period radio drama.
2 And perhaps have a very awkward moment when I burst out laughing during one of the trailers for Titanic as the boat went down because I recognized a theme from Waterworld playing in the background.
3 Half of the founding TMBG duo, the other being John Flansburgh.
4 It didn’t work and I ended up spending the night in New York with an older friend and at fifteen attended my first college party.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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