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.

Review of 33 1/3’s Flood by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer

In Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture, I wrote the chapter on They Might Be Giants, entitled “They Might Be Lacanian: They Might Be Giants, Jacques Lacan, and the Rhetoric of Geek Rock.” I am a long time fan of TMBG, and in many ways, I could credit them with inspiring our book. After all, I originally pitched the idea of a geek rock panel to Alex DiBlasi in large part because I wanted to write about They Might Be Giants. I found it strange, to say the least, that in all the writing on music, there was no scholarship addressing TMBG, or, as we found out, geek rock as a genre. That, of course, is now no longer the case.

For They Might be Giants in particular, it also now no longer the case because the 33 â…“ series has recently published their book on Flood, written by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer. The pros of the book are many.The writers take a cultural studies lens in order to explore 1990, geek identity, and the idea of excess: aesthetic excess, creative excess, and excess of meaning.  Reed and Sandifer are clearly fans, and not just because they say so–their writing demonstrates a level of familiarity with TMBG that belongs to the long-time listener. I was also very pleased to find that Reed and Sandifer constructed geek identity as more of a process, a way of interacting with the world, then a collection of sci-fi references and t-shirts. The history of the band was traced a little more extensively than the beginning led me to believe, where the authors claimed they would not be providing “biographical analysis” (2) and then proceeded to fill the next 25 pages with band biography. Technically, I suppose, the authors don’t really analyze the biography, but the disconnect was a little jarring.

To give a synopsis of the book: the biography of the band covers the first three chapters “Who Might Be Giants?,” “Lincoln,” and “Brooklyn’s Ambassadors of Love,” while the next chapter, “America,” places the band within a more global context. “Flooding” focuses on the idea of excess, while “Childhood” explores TMBG’s return to themes of childhood in their music. “Childhood” was, in my opinion, the least convincing and weakest chapter, and I found many arguments here a little too reductive. I suspect that the authors were limited by space, and I wish they had a larger book to flesh out these ideas more. “Mediality” focuses on tech, a la Marshal McLuhan, and is an excellent chapter, which I would frankly like to see turned into a book in its own right (however, as a rhetorician who specializes in delivery, that could just be me). The chapters“Geek Culture” and “Post-Coolness” were larger discussions of the evolution(s) of geek culture and geek identity, and the discussions were interesting enough that I could almost forgive the easy theoretical out of “post” in “post-cool” (which I realize is an academic fad at the moment, but I think categorizing what is supposed to be beyond category with “post-” is silly enough that we should just think of something new instead of just having “post-” thing). These chapters are particularly valuable in their contributions to defining the geek in the rock.

However, in addition to the pros of this book, there some cons. The flooding metaphor becomes repetitive and is punned a little too often. While no human with ears and a heart in the TMBG fandom could write about the Johns without punning, it’s a little, well, excessive.  The rigor is surprisingly lacking for two such robust scholars. The lack of a bibliography, or any provided references, is glaring, especially since sources are mentioned throughout the text. I’m assuming this a publisher mandated lack, since the authors have clearly done their research. The audience, then, appears to be dictated by the publisher, rather than authors. While the authors appear to conducting research, the publisher appears to marketing to a general audience that it believes isn’t ready for “real” research–the kind that comes with a bibliography. These flaws are, in my opinion, more due to the 33 â…“ series, which really has yet to decide if it is fan-based or scholarship based, and which tends to, in my opinion, underestimate their readers. I think Reed and Sandifer did a pretty great job, especially considering the overall constraints of the 33 â…“ series: books should be general, academic (but not scholarly), and short.

Overall, Reed and Sandifer’s Flood is a neat book. It’s worth reading,not only if you’re a fan of TMBG and/or Flood, but also if you’re interested in geek culture and geek rock. If you’re looking for a scholarly treatment of any of those topics, however, this isn’t it, which is a little disappointing if that’s what you’re expecting. But don’t let that dissuade you. There are quite a few delightful tidbits in here, and I hope this book (and mine and Alex’s!) is only the start of a much larger foray into geekdom, and a continuing spread of geekdom into the mainstream. The reclamation of geekiness and the spread of geekdom has been inspiring. But that’s just how geeks are, I suppose. We get knocked down, and we get up again.

And then we take over the world with our robot army.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!