Monday, January 20, 2014

They Finally Are Giants: the Influence of They Might Be Giants on a Generation of Geeks

They Finally Are Giants: the Influence of They Might Be Giants on a Generation of Geeks


What the movie Revenge of the Nerds did for intellectuals in the 1980's the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants has also done from the 1980's onwards: render it fashionable to be nerdy, geeky, smart, weird, different, and unique. Indeed, ever since their 1990 Billboard hit, "Birdhouse In Your Soul," an anthem to awkward relationships, which peaked at #3 on the United States Modern Rock Tracks charts, it has been fashionable to be geeky.


The band began as a duo between high school friends John Linnell, who wrote some of the most infectious of the band's songs, and John Flansburgh, who ensured the band got bookings and landed the best gigs, on top of co-writing many of the band's best songs; their earliest performances utilized a drum machine for backing, before their careers took off and they substituted the drums with a full back-up band.


They were among the first bands to air heavily on the recently created MTV, with their quirky and bizarre videos such as "Ana Ng" and "Don't Let's Start."


The artistic brilliance of the band owes most to the lyrical genius of John Linnell, as most of their singles were written and sung by him, including the band's signature song "Birdhouse In Your Soul," which was the hit single on their seminal album, Flood. Rolling Stones commemorated the landmark album, saying:


Issued the first week of 1990, Flood was a landmark release in the evolution from college rock (the awkward handle for music like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü that dominated university radio stations in the 1980s) to the alternative movement that defined much of the 1990s. Flood is still a hallmark in geek chic's rise, too: the Giants' two previous LPs proved a skinny guy with an accordion and a partner in crime wearing black-plastic glasses could rock a party (Ferris).


The inspired lyrics permeate the band's entire oeuvre, including their singles "Don't Let's Start," "Ana Ng," and "The Statue that Got Me High." The lyrics are smart and quirky, using complex puns and other verbal games, as is evident in the lyrics for their first hit, "Don't Let's Start":


When you are alone

You are the cat, you are the phone

You are an animal

The words I'm singing now

Mean nothing more than "meow"

To an animal

Wake up and smell the cat food

In your bank account

Don't try to stop the tail That wags the hound


D, world destruction

Over an overture

N, do I need Apostrophe

T, need this torture?


Not only does Linnell incorporate clever and quirky lyrics that appeal to geeks and intellectuals of all sorts, but he sings with a distinctly nasal, intellectual-sounding voice. He is called "the Emily Dickinson" of the band, the shy intellectual, and though he gratefully confesses that he owes all his success to Flansburgh's business acumen, as he said in the documentary about the band, Gigantic: a Tale of Two Johns, it is clear that Flansburgh should be just as grateful towards Linnell, whose decade long struggle with a sense of being a sort of genius, but at the same time being shy and misunderstood, speaks to nerds and intellectuals everywhere.


His lyrics for his hit single "Can't Keep Johnny Down" lay bare the dual sense of grandiosity and an antagonistic inferiority complex, when the song's speaker boasts he can best his battles, even when outnumbered “a million to one,” yet feels intimidated by such a petty gesture as when somebody pulls up beside him to tell him his "gas cap is unscrewed."


Of course, some of the nerd appeal comes from the history lessons They Might Be Giants offer, such as a song celebrating James K. Polk that outlines the course of his presidency, and another song that explores the troubled career of painter James Ensor. Such appeal to the intellectual carried over into their educational videos for children, which include the Grammy Winning "Here Comes the 1,2,3's," a DVD full of animated songs.


The band has greatly changed "college rock" and "geek rock," especially influencing such bands a  Barenaked Ladies, Frank Black, Jonathan Coulton, and impressing Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, John Stewart of The Daily Show, among many others"(“Famous Fans”).


In a sense, then They Might Be Giants are geek rock. They've done more for the genre than any other band, and more than that, they gave a soundtrack to a generation of geeks and intellectuals everywhere.




"Famous Fans." Jan, 2014. <>.


Ferris, D.X. " They Might Be Giants' "Flood": Track by Track Guide to Geek-Chic Breakthrough." Web, 8 Oct. 2009. <>.





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