On the paranoid style in the music of They Might Be Giants

October 6, 2009 at 11:00 am 3 comments

As people who have known me for a while are aware, I have a secret (I guess not anymore) and long-standing admiration of the band They Might Be Giants (hereafter TMBG). One of the many reasons I have enjoyed their music, I recently realized, was for what I’m calling the “paranoid style” here – stealing Richard Hofstader’s phrase, but only part of his meaning. I don’t consider it necessarily pejorative, as Hosftader did, but I do think his general qualities of a paranoid style – “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” – apply to a number of songs by TMBG.

But rather than having a specifically political connotation, I think the paranoid style in TMBG’s music speaks to me because, taken together, the songs construct a kind of fractured, broken musical subjectivity that is really striking. Let’s start with some examples.

The precipitous careening towards catastrophe that the narrators in TMBG songs sometimes embody is remarkable for its durability across their studio albums. I’m thinking in particular of “The Statue Got Me High,” “It’s not my birthday,” “Lie still little bottle,” “Till My Head Falls Off” and “Nightgown of the Sullen Moon” Each in their own ways, these songs incorporate drug references (with a “statue” for some representing a rock of crystal meth; the drink tank references in “It’s not my Birthday,” the “87 Advil” in “Till my Head Falls Off,” and the line about a “drug trip is not a drug trip so you feel a bit insulted” from “Nightgown”). But more importantly, the overall affect is of a narrator who is gradually losing their grip on reality over the course of the song, either with metaphors of sublimation or disappearance in the first two (“My coat contained a furnace where there used to be a guy,” “…pour through a keyhole or evaporate completely”); or with a narrator who is addressing himself repetitively in “Till My Head Falls Off.” The drugs seem to be the effect of some deeper, underlying disturbance rather than the cause of the distress in the song; the upbeat jangly pop tunes of “It’s not my Birthday” and “Till My Head Falls Off” seem at odds with the subject matter, where as the ostinato drum patterns of “Nightgown of the Sullen Moon” and multiply repeated cadential chords of “Status Got me High” seem to underline some larger uneasy, a clutching on to a rapidly receding sense of reality for the narrator.

Furthermore, these songs which might at some level be about drug use, when reinterpreted as examples of TMBG’s paranoid style, can be put next to other songs where a kind of technicolor meltdown takes place over the course of the song. “Dr. Worm,” for example, seems to depict the ravings of a character who is obsessed with a band but can’t seem to leave his house (which we don’t really realize until the end of the song); “Experimental Film” similarly unmasks the interior life of a stay-at-home filmmaker, creating a movie that “nobody know about.” These two later examples of a private life seem to expand upon the interior lives present in “No one knows my plan” from John Henry. As with the songs about overt or covert drug use, these songs tend towards the upbeat, with soaring guitar solos and a raucous brass section in “No one knows my plan.”

It’s not clear if John Linnell might get more credit for the paranoid style in their music, insofar as it crops up significantly in his State Songs album: “Montana” suggests the raving, dying moments of a hospital patient, and “Idaho” suggests a disoriented driver late at night (apparently a reference to John Lennon).

I think the argument could be made (and has been made, in a somewhat dated Newsweek article) that a specifically white, male form of paranoia has resulted in a few anti-heroes in movies of the not-too-distant past, among them Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down (1993) and Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty (1999). Yet, leaving aside the faintly antagonistic stance towards multiculturalism that the Newsweek article presents, part of the appeal of these characters lies in their refusal to participate in the social contracts which bind them, even if it results in their own undoing. Similarly, these songs by TMBG seem appeal at some level because of their flagrant indifference to societal norms. Yet the tunes are separated from the darker films because TMBG’s brand of paranoia seems to be manic yet without anger; the absence of any real critique (or comment) on how the subjects of these songs came to find themselves where they were only adds to their enigmatic affect.

Obligatory Youtube Clip (for “Experimental Film”):

Paranoia, and its cousins insecurity, anxiety, and so on, are staples of so-called “alternative” rock groups’ thematic toolkit, present in songs by bands ranging from Harvey Danger to Belle and Sebastian. In this respect TMBG is part of a larger movement. But what is interesting about their paranoid style, to me, is the vitality with which it has been pursued, and the durability with which they have steadily developed it over the course of some two decades.

Entry filed under: Drew Massey, musicology, Review, Thinking Out Loud. Tags: .

The Bowed Piano Ensemble On the self-referential style in the music of They Might Be Giants

3 Comments

  • 1. Jake  |  October 18, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Drew – there’s a professor at Syracuse named Theo Cateforis who did his dissertation on paranoia and anxiety in New Wave/post-punk bands of the late 70s and early 80s. It’s a fascinating study, and it is an interesting look at one of my own personal rock heroes, David Byrne from the Talking Heads, who is one of rock’s great anti-hero paranoid nervous wrecks of an artistic persona.

    The fact that so many bands today (you used the term “alternative,” I might go for the highly inappropriate and overused but still somewhat useful genre “indie rock”) cite the Talking Heads and their Brian Eno produced sound as an influence might suggest that they picked up something of their paranoia from the Heads, too.

  • 2. Brendan  |  November 12, 2009 at 1:07 am

    I agree with Jake pointing to the New Wave/post-punk scene because the Johns’ mention in their documentary, “Gigantic,” that they were influenced by the New York punk scene. Fans, as well as the band, also like to point out how depressing there lyrics can be despite the upbeat musical presentation, such as the song “They’ll Need a Crane,” which describes a divorce. Its interesting to take it a step further and see the common thread of paranoia/anxiety behind the voice of these slightly depressing tunes.

    Drew, feel free to stop me in the Tufts music building if you want to talk more about TMBG, for I now have outed myself as a big fan

  • 3. Drew Massey  |  November 12, 2009 at 6:58 am

    Good points Brendan! I haven’t seen the documentary yet. I am a huge TMBG nerd, though, so you have to tell me to stop if I start rambling at you about my favorite order of the Apes vs. People tracks on Severe Tire Damage…


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