January 1994, midmorning. A Ford Econoline van, lionized by Minutemen and every post-punk band of the 1980s, rattles its way toward Big Bend National Park in far west Texas. The van carries eight high schoolers from Dallas. This is a school trip—nature-watching, journal writing, lectures, camping, javelinas, and frigid nights in thin-walled tents await them. There are three or four other vehicles similarly occupied, a veritable caravan from TAG Magnet High School. The driver is a parent of a kid, though not a kid in the van in question.
That poor driver. He’s being driven out of his mind, agog with awe and fear at these kids. High schoolers weren’t like this when he was growing up.
A well-worn tape’s in the deck. Four of the kids—myself included—are singing along at the tops of their lungs. All are boys. When the tape started, at the request of a kid we’ll call Jorge, a female-led barbershop quartet began to intone:
Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Scary thing: Jorge sang along. Scarier thing: By the third line, “Why are the ocean levels rising up?,” two other boys were singing along. By the fourth line—“It’s a brand new record/ for 1990/ They Might Be Giants’s brand-new album Flood”—I was in, too.
We all knew Flood well enough to sing along to every line. Singing along’s not quite right. The next song, the skewed organ-guitar pop “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” takes the point-of-view of a child’s night light, makes an allusion to Jason and the Argonauts, and features a bizarre horn break that sounds like a traffic jam. We knew it all. How could I be sure? Well, we not only sang the lines and backing vocals; we did the guitar and bass parts a capella.
No one really quite decided which part we’d take up; the vocal parts just beckoned to us. Eric put his fingers over his mouth and imitated the accordion part in “Lucky Ball and Chain,” while I hummed/intoned the bass part because I’d forgotten the lyrics. Fritz sang the wordless background vocals—dohs and aahs filtered through an electronic keyboard—and then we all did it at the outro.
And so on. With increasing confidence, and with applause from the non-participating kids, we plowed through the entire 43-minute album. The muezzin call during “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)?” We did it, along with the do-do-dos in the backgrounds. The whip-crack that starts “Minimum Wage?” Yep. The fast-tempo singing of “Letterbox?” Affirmative. The multiple vocal layers of “Dead,” with one vocalist singing in a lower register and at half the speed of the other singer during the chorus? Yessir. The faux-country accents during “They Might Be Giants?” Indeed. The slashing feedback at the end of “Hearing Aid?” You know we did. The Latin horn solo during “Your Racist Friend?” Hell, Jorge and I did the beats, too, slapping palms on the car seats.
I doubt we were in key, much less properly harmonizing. Then again, neither were John Linnell and John Flansburgh. Of the four of us, I’m pretty sure only Jorge had a girlfriend during high school. Still, people clapped and cheered. One girl asked that we play the tape again, so we’d repeat the experience. We did, dear readers, we did. It was, after all, a 12-hour drive.
None of these boys knew that the other boys knew this album so well. It was a secret that we’d kept to ourselves. Even at our school, a haven for public-school misfits, a TMBG fetish wasn’t something to proclaim. Flood is an album that skewers nearly every genre of pop available at the time—doo-wop, showtunes, indie rock, synth-pop, new wave, folk, country, dance—while still remaining pop. It’s not really parody, since the band embodies the experience of these subgenres without directly quoting specific songs.
So, Flood occupies a liminal space. The band isn’t Weird Al Yankovic, but it also clearly doesn’t take pop all that seriously. The lyrics are obscure and clever (sometimes too clever), and allude to sci-fi, Greek mythology, political movements, marriage, existentialism, and other things of which most 18-year-olds are only tangentially aware. There are few love songs. The music is cheery and bright but the arrangements aren’t typical rock. The drumbeats are odd—strange tempos, weird time signatures, lots of handclaps and drum machines rather than actual drums. The guitar is rarely the lead instrument, but horns play a big role. Keyboards—sometimes warm and human, sometimes a step away from the Casio—propel the songs. The nasal lead vocals and low-toned, odd-phrased backing vocals aren’t visceral like rock, but aren’t polished like much of 1980s pop, and the tone is usually ironic, even sarcastic.
Even as much as I liked the album, I didn’t understand half of it. All four of the boys had theories about the songs’ meanings, and together we hashed it out after our “performances.” For me, “We Want A Rock” held resonance—still does, by the way—because I was looking hard for a metaphorical “rock to wind a string around” (a center), and nobody I knew was happy with his/her body and would be happy to trade with someone more attractive, so all of us metaphorically “wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads.” Jorge summed up “Minimum Wage,” a 45-second instrumental that made most of us scratch our heads, in half that time: “It starts with a cowboy bellowing ‘Minimum wage! Yeehah!’ and a whipcrack, and then sounds like music you’d hear in a Western. It’s just comparing perpetual minimum wage, treatment of workers, with cattle drives, and how dehumanizing that is. How hard is that to understand?” Eric explains that “Twisting”—12 years later, and it’s still my favorite—is a narrator telling a jerk that his ex-girlfriend wants to see him “twisting in the wind,” as in strung up like a hung man. But it sounds so poppy. (He also pointed out that the dBs and Young Fresh Fellows mentioned in the song are actual bands, not just concoctions by TMBG. Who knew?) Fritz was pretty sure that “whistling in the dark” was a euphemism for cunnilingus. A good portion of the trip turned into a bull session on Flood.
In college, TMBG and I parted ways. The cleverness got over-cute, and I guess I got sick of irony. TMBG is very much a pop band about being a pop band, consciously questioning pop conventions and turning them on their sides. I suppose I wanted more sincerity and straightforwardness.
When I installed iTunes a year ago, I converted all my They Might Be Giants CDs (I hadn’t bought one since 1996’s Factory Showroom) and subsequently sold them. Really, though, they’ve just laid dormant. I haven’t listened on one in full in ages. I haven’t thought about Flood in five years.
Last night, though, “Whistling in the Dark” swam back into my mind, unbidden. I don’t know why. But it’s not a mystery. When an album seeps into you so much I know its lyrics and musical arrangements well enough to mimic all of them, it’s no surprise that snatches of it might return in full force, like a bad acid flashback.
So, I listened to Flood last night and today, trying to make sense of why this particular album grabbed me so. After all, it’s scattershot—it jumps from style to style, as if flipping the bird at the idea of cohesive production design. The first half is far better than the second; although the first ten songs are all keepers, “Hearing Aid,” “Road Movie to Berlin,” and “They Might Be Giants,” could all have been dropped. Flansburgh’s voice grates after three songs in a row. There’s way too much accordion for this not to be a polka record. Some of the perspectives and phrasings are too arch by half. Some of the arrangements are forced brilliance, which is to say not all that brilliant.
But, damn it all, TMBG gets pop. For all the imposed weirdness, the songs are all catchy as hell. The beats are still the best part. (Check out the looped percussion on “Sapphire Bullets of Love.”) They’re short, too; only “Hearing Aid” and “Birdhouse” crack the 3-minute mark. I found myself singing along again, looking around for my boys.
The problem is that, after a decade of avidly following TMBG, I know what the band doesn’t believe in, and what it’s willing to skewer, but I don’t know what it believes in. I still giggle at Flood’s cleverness and sly references, but only “Dead” and “We Want A Rock” affect me emotionally. Only “Twisting” makes me want to dance, as opposed to just bob my head.
Our impromptu performance (again, twice!) of Flood was much more affecting than the album itself. 14 years later, I acknowledge that They Might Be Giants is not quite a great band, though it comes close on Flood. I know that my attachment to the album occurs because it was the first pop album that told me that it was okay to be geeky and to look askew at the pop barraging me at every turn. It’s pop music and pop critique all at once. In this sense, Flood is the MAD Magazine of pop music.
But you don’t feel a connection with others by reading MAD. As we loopily recreated Flood together, however, we were bonded by the feeling that we weren’t alone, that we could have giddy fun and be applauded and thumb our noses together—instead of by ourselves—at a pop culture that wanted to sell to us more than communicate with us. They Might Be Giants’s Flood is very good, but I’d rather listen to the version we made in high school, rolling down a Texas highway.