Guest Post: They Might Be Giants, They Might…ROCK? by Barry Hall

I’ve known my friend Patrick since 1990, and he is, without question, the most dedicated and loyal fan of They Might Be Giants that I’ve had the pleasure to know. In early 1996, Patrick made me a cassette tape of TMBG songs (titled “They Might Be Mixed”), and that spring, I attended my first TMBG show at Trax in Charlottesville, Va..

Now, a confession: I’ve been a card carrying member of The KISS Army for 37+ years, which at first glance appears to be the polar opposite of Geek Rock and TMBG. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, the instruments that stood out the most for me in TMBG’s music, particularly the first few records, were a keyboard, a drum machine and an accordion. Sure, there was guitar in there too, but I wasn’t expecting a “Rock Show” as I made my way into Trax.

I’ll use just two moments from the evening to illustrate my surprise:

“Why Does The Sun Shine,”  in its studio version, is a very quiet, unassuming song that features primarily xylophone and accordion. I believe this song opened the show. If it didn’t officially start the show, the song was featured early in the set and was the first moment where I (literally) sat up straight on my barstool and paid very close attention to what was happening onstage.

Instead of a quiet “science lesson” explaining all about the wonders of the sun, John & John (You’re  reading this blog, so you need no last names, right?) ripped into the number at breakneck, almost thrash-metal-like speed, playing loud and obnoxious guitar. I was shocked! Flansburgh literally screamed the lyrics at one point. It was wonderful. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting THAT! And, to his credit, Patrick never hinted at what the show would be like, so my surprise was genuine.

The other moment came about midway through the set, and it was from an album that had not even been released yet. The song was “Till My Head Falls Off” from the (then forthcoming) album “Factory Showroom.” No one in the audience had heard the song yet (unless of course they’d seen a previous show on this tour) and, for me at least, this track combined three elements that make it, almost twenty years later, still one of my all-time favorite TMBG songs:

1) Smart, laugh out loud lyrics (“There were eighty-seven Advil in the bottle, now there’s thirty left/I ate forty-seven so what happened to the other ten?”)
2) Great, bombastic drums. (They don’t do “BIG DRUMS” often, but when they do, they always deliver.)
3) A great guitar solo that sounds almost like it doesn’t belong, yet fits perfectly.

This “quiet” duo with their accordion and keyboard literally rocked that night, and thus made me a fan for life. I’ve seen TMBG so often that I’m not sure on the exact number of shows. It’s at least fifteen, but probably more.

I see them whenever I get the chance, and they never disappoint. I can say, because of They Might Be Giants, this card carrying member of The KISS Army is also a proud fan of Geek Rock!

Barry Hall has been a radio disc jockey, an executive producer, the manager of a rock band and drummer. Above all, he is a fan of all kinds of music, and believes that music is a necessary part of daily life. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longarm04.

Jupiter Ascending: Reboot This Movie

Last night I went to see Jupiter Ascending with Captain Skyhawk and Kat Ninetails. We were literally the only three people in the theater, which allowed us to go full MST3K (or HDTGM, depending on your tastes).

Following standard internet protocol, here is the warning that spoilers are coming, but frankly, the movie makes so little sense that it’s practically unspoilable.  Just go ahead and read this and any other spoiler-filled review — it won’t matter.

I’m not going to get into everything that’s wrong with this movie, because that would take longer than the film itself. Suffice it to say that Sean Bean plays a half-man/half-bee character, Channing Tatum spends most of the film on space roller blades, and Mila Kunis both has an incestuous engagement and gets into bestiality, attempting to seduce a half-wolf character by saying, “I like dogs.” And none of these are even the craziest and stupidest parts of the movie.

If you want a review of how terrible this movie is, you have find lots of those online. Instead, I want to offer a different suggestion here: That this movie should be rebooted.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has a habit of remaking (and ruining) good films, rather than remaking bad films that could have been good. While there are some happy exceptions to this rule (The  1941 Maltese Falcon was the third film version of that book), the Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man is more representative. Oh, and just to keep with our horrible bee-movie theme, here’s a short clip from The Wicker Man expressing how we felt watching Jupiter Ascending:

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing about Jupiter Ascending: It’s trying to do big things.  Although most of the practical effects are Fifth Elementesque, the non-action space scenes are truly beautiful.  Terry Gilliam makes a cameo in a bureaucracy montage scene (yes, bureaucracy plays a major role in the film) that pays homage to his own wonderful Brazil. It introduces interesting themes that never get fully explored, on topics such as transhumanism, cross-cultural identity, and the amorality of scientism.

Here’s an example: In the beginning, we find that Jupiter (the ostensible protagonist, who is so ill-constructed as a character that she defies description) is being taken advantage of by her cousin. He convinces her to sell her eggs to a fertility clinic so that he can buy a Roomba and a big-screen TV.  Somehow, he has convinced her that he should keep 2/3 of the split, though it is unclear as to why he should get any of this money, nor why she is so stupid as to agree to this when we know she is genetically predisposed to be one of the most ruthless capitalists in the universe.

This whole subplot seems like at one time it was supposed to be a comic parallel of the darker, larger plot: A relative is exploiting her, getting her to sell out her genetic heritage for his own gain. Her cousin Vladie and pseudo-son Balem Abrasax even have parallel speeches about the nature of capitalism. The problem is that those parallel themes never get fully exploited, and are in fact hard to see in the final cut of the film.

Lots of people have complained about how many characters are introduced in the film, then mysteriously disappear without a story arc. Jupiter has a best friend who is about to get engaged to a wealthy sort-of Olympic athlete, which presumably in one draft of the script of another was supposed to mean something? Sean Bean has a daughter who in no way advances the plot, coughs in a way that seems to big significant, then never appears again. We’ve got bounty hunters who start to get developed as characters, then suddenly fall off the edge of the movie.

This flaw, however, is exactly what makes the movie ideal for a reboot. It is a horrible movie, but it has many bits and pieces of a wonderful and important film. Kat Ninetails compared it to a ransom note: A weird message pasted together out of bits of other media in a way that makes the reader feel confused and threatened. It’s as if Dune, The Fifth Element, Anastasia, and Brazil were all blended together and forced down your throat. A reboot that picked a single theme and single visual style, stayed disciplined in that, and was competently acted, could not only be a great film, but the beginning of a great franchise.

Now, before we go, I offer you Captain Skyhawk’s Jupiter Ascending prequel fanfic, which I would like to note he wrote before seeing the film, and still manages to be a better version of the first act  of the movie.





I need to land on this planet to get the plot moving.


[Caine, Jupiter, Baron Harkonnen]


I hate cleaning toilets. It stinks.


I have come to take you to outer space.

Who are you?

I am Channing… Caine. I am Caine.


Baron Harkonnen
No! This is my story! You won’t steal it from me. (MANIACAL LAUGHTER)

Don’t worry, my queen I
shall defend you!


Mastodon, Geek Metal, and Geek Rock

I’m currently working on a paper for the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference on Mastodon’s video for “The Motherload.” The working title of this paper, by the way, is “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s “The Motherload” Video.” (I’m very pleased with my title.) But the upshot of all this writing and planning for my paper  is that I’ve been thinking a lot about Mastodon recently. Their most recent album, Once More ‘Round the Sun (which features “The Motherload”), is excellent. One of the things I particularly enjoy is the exuberance running throughout this album. While Mastodon is always good, there’s an energy here, almost a frenetic, desperate joy, providing an undercurrent that lifts their artistry to another level. Always different, and always fresh, I appreciate the ways that Mastodon continually subverts their genre.

Which brings me to the question, are Mastodon geeky? Could they be considered geek metal? Geek metal falls into the same genre bending as geek rock and nerdcore, with the same result. Much like geek rock has fallen by the wayside of rock, geek metal remains mostly subsumed within metal. Even Urban Dictionary’s definition is poor, although if there was any doubt about the marginalization of homosexuals, the existence of hate speech, or the instability of hyper-masculinity, these definitions clear that up. Geek metal is metal by virtue of it’s subject matter, typically fantasy, and is somehow, as Urban Dictionary seems to imply, “lesser” than “normal” metal. This implication, I think, is because metal tends to be associated with a performance of hyper-masculinity, and any deviation from that is discouraged.

Which brings me back to Mastodon. These guys are not your (stereo)typical metal band. They innovate in unexpected ways. They keep it fresh. They have videos with clowns (or, in the case of “The Motherload,” a great deal of twerking). They subvert the genre of metal which is a subversive genre to begin with. But are they geeky? I say yes. Their acclaimed album Leviathan is about Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick. Crack the Skye is another example, addressing astral travel and Stephen Hawking’s theories of wormholes. They wrote the score for the movie Jonah Hex, based on the DC comic, and released on an EP titled Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly. From great literature, to great physics, to great comics, Mastodon knows their way around geekdom.

But is that all it takes to make geek metal geeky? User Zipzop 5565 lists lists the Top 5 Geek Metal bands on Sputnik Music, and Mastodon is not on the list. However, neither is DragonForce, who are perhaps the quintessential geek metal band. The list includes Dethklok, Anthrax, Swashbuckle, HORSE the band, and Wormed. I’m only familiar with Anthrax and Dethklok, and neither would have come to mind immediately as geek metal. However, this user provides justification for his choices, which not only make sense, but which would also include Mastodon in the category of geek metal. However, much like geek rock, the geekiness is the ear of the beholder as much as it’s in the music itself. Whether Mastodon consider themselves geeky is another question entirely. But this geek is happy to call them geek metal, as an accolade and tribute to their brainy metal sensibilities.

Why Jon Stewart’s Departure from the Daily Show is Good News

A cry of dismay went out yesterday when Jon Stewart announced he would be leaving the Daily Show.  Social media was filled with distressed fans. His departure, though, is good news for Comedy Central and good news for comedy generally.*

A bit of history — back at the dawn of cable channels, 25 years ago, there were two competing television comedy channels: The Comedy Channel and Ha! These two channels really were trying to get a grip on how to do comedy in the era of cable, and so were a mix of stand-up clips, old classic TV (similar to Nick at Night), talk shows, and things like MST3K. They merged to create Comedy Central.

In pulling those two together, Comedy Central never quite hit a big audience, but produced cult classics (Dr. Katz and Kids in the Hall spring to mind). It wasn’t until about a decade ago that they seemed to develop the right chemistry, with South Park, Reno 911, Chappelle’s Show, and the Daily Show/Colbert Report. Of those, South Park and The Daily Show were old standbys that had slowly built and maintained an audience, while Chappelle’s Show was a cultural juggernaut that suddenly imploded after two seasons (and Comedy Central hasn’t ever found a true heir to Chappelle since).

Here’s the problem — Reno 911 eventually faded, and that left South Park and The Daily Show franchise not just carrying the channel, but sucking the air out of everything else. Because cartoons are inherently more expensive and difficult to make than talk shows, South Park took a lot of money, but not a lot of programming space. The Daily Show, however, has become a problem.

These types of shows are addictive to basic cable channels: They are dirt cheap to make, and because the topics they deal with are so ephemeral, people are forced to watch them, well, DAILY, thus getting eyeballs on your advertisers.  Why  experiment with an ambitious scripted show with an entourage cast when you can just slap out a Colbert Report or a Tosh 2.0 for next to nothing? These shows might not be great, but cheap-and-reliable mediocrity keeps the profit margins much higher than more expensive show. Look at what Comedy Central has been doing over the last decade, and it’s clear that their programming has grown stale, the only good things being departures from The Daily Show style.

Aside from the staleness of their programming, the problem with The Daily Show is that, despite its efforts to market itself as young and hip (bringing to mind Steve Buscemi on 30 Rock) it’s a show for old people. Don’t believe me? Try watching an old episode of The Daily Show, anything more than two months old. Since the political critique rarely rises above the level of snark, and the pop culture references are so ephemeral, it’s no longer funny and often makes no sense out of the context of the moment.  This isn’t a show for binge-watching young people to stream — it’s a show for the late 1990s. And while shows like this can probably find some niche, that niche is getting smaller and smaller. Two years after its cancelled, you won’t remember The Daily Show, and if you happen to find clips online, it will seem hopelessly dated, like Laugh-In. Ten years ago, my students all watched The Daily Show religiously. Today? Meh, maybe if someone posts a clip online that will disappear from their Facebook feed in a couple of days.

Of course, The Daily Show isn’t over. Heck, Jon Stewart wasn’t even the original host. But all those 30-somethings who still think they’re young and hip will find themselves scratching their heads at whomever the next host is, and grousing about how much funnier it was in the old days. Comedy Central will be forced to search for truly fresh programming — or embrace a role as one of the dying basic cable channels.

[Feature Image heartlessly stolen from Rolling Stone]

*In the interest of full disclosure, let me confess that I've never found Jon Stewart funny. Ever. When people post clips of him and shower them with great praise, I'm as puzzled as I am when people praise Friends, a show that was almost aggressive in its refusal to be amusing. Stewart seems to be able to take the most mediocre Tonight Show-style monologue and use his delivery to beat any humor our of it. He did the impossible -- he made me long for Jay Leno to deliver the same material. For the sake of this piece, though, I'm going to pretend that Jon Stewart isn't just funny, but is hilariously so. I'm going to pretend that Jon Stewart is the Funniest Man Ever to Live, the Voice of a Generation, a Revolution in Comedy, etc. Those who know me should be aware that this is merely a rhetorical position for the sake of this piece, and that I have not taken leave of my senses.