The Noble Purpose of They Might Be Giants

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In a world as imperfect as this one, there are four things that are really necessary: bravery, a moral compass, a steady supply of chocolate milk, and a sense of humor. Of these, perhaps the last is the rarest, and the most often overlooked. Many people forget how important it is to be able to laugh, and how much we ordinary folk rely on people funnier than us to supply us with our daily dose of fun. Luckily, there are many such people: comedians, comedy writers, YouTubers, Fox News anchors, and a number of other categories. But few have performed this unappreciated task with more determination and sense of purpose than two guys named John from Massachusetts.

Now, make no mistake: They Might Be Giants, the band John Flansburgh and John Linnell formed in the late eighties, are not a comedy band. They are not a slightly quirkier version of Weird Al, as I once believed. But the world-view they espouse, and have espoused for the past 25 years or so, is one which reminds all who subscribe to it to take things lightly. Or at least as lightly as they can.

Back in the seventies, the late, dearly missed Robin Williams broke the tradition of comedy as escapism by giving us this immortal piece of advice: “'re only given a little spark of madness. And if you lose're nothing.” Here was a man who knew that his work made a difference, that his art wasn't just a distraction, but a vital part of society. You can watch hilarious YouTube videos all day, and that does help keep the darkness of the world at bay, but not very many of them will acknowledge the noble purpose they serve.

Which brings us to the Johns, who rather rather than shying away from mentioning the serious, frightening world they exist in, write anthems calling for its downfall, or at least for keeping strong its face. “Make a little birdhouse in your soul!” Few songwriters have ever written such a succinct statement of purpose, and TMBG manages to do it while still thoroughly sticking to their aesthetic, by having the song be from the perspective of a nightlight. To the Johns, a nightlight is a sacred, glorious object, worthy of praise and honor, and maybe they're not far off. After all, what better symbol for all the good on the earth could there be than a light in the darkness, steadily, unassumingly fighting against fear and ignorance?

There are more anthems. Fed up with humanity as a whole, we are invited to go down to “Cowtown”, or to embrace the power of music in “The Guitar”. We move on to serious subjects: the crumbling relationship in “They'll Need A Crane”, the crumbling world in “The End of The Tour”, the corporate greed and arrogance of “Kiss Me, Son of God.” But let us not dwell on those, for we still have the joy and abandon of creativity in “Experimental Film”, the unlikely transcendence of “Statue Got Me High”, and, of course, the hope for love and a better life somewhere far away in the classic “Ana Ng.” High pleasures, certainly, but not empty ones.

There is a certain warmth and comfort to be found in even the slightest TMBG song, because the mere fact of the band's existence is enough to bring a smile to your face. For all the humor in most of their music, Flasnburgh and Linnell are anything but empty-headed clowns: theirs is a thoughtful, intelligent kind of fun, one that shows a level-headed perspective on frighteningly complex things, too smart to be romantic, too idealistic to be cynical. Their career has become a quiet kind of crusade, a mission from Glob to spread the word, and the word is something along the lines of "Listen, why don't you have a cookie and think about this for a minute, okay?"

Perhaps I am beginning to sound pretentious. Perhaps I am. But there are few things less pretentious than They Might Be Giants, since they are quite obviously, openly, even aggressively, doing this for fun. The difference between them and your average pop star is simply that the Johns know what a high goal that truly is, and ever since they came to that realization, way back on their first record when they declared “Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful!” they have righteously soldiered on, not always respected by the elite, not always swallowed by the masses, but always with a small, faithful army in tow, possessed and inspired by the knowledge that on a planet full of things trying to control through fear, hatred, and intimidation, all one needs to do to rise above it all is laugh.

Tim Foley's picture

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