On the self-referential style in the music of They Might Be Giants
It seems that the self-referential style and the learned style, at least in certain circumstances, go hand in hand. The example I am thinking of is the final fugue from Bach’s Kunst der Fuge (where Bach uses the letters of his own name – B-A-C-H (i.e, B-Flat) as the third subject), but I suppose, if you stretch a little, the “Es Muss Sein!” of Beethoven’s last string quartet, Op. 135.
In the process of writing my last blog post, though, I realized that They Might Be Giants actually have a self-referential style of their own, even if it does not have the lofty status of Bach and Beethoven in the minds of some. So, as a continuation of my previous post, I thought I would continue with looking at how self-reference works in their music – and how much it does or doesn’t correlate with any kind of “learned” elements in their music.
Their very first song on the very first album, “Everything Right is Wrong Again,” is as good as any place to start. The final chorus, “And now this song is over now” happens against the background of a hyper-kinetic harpsichord buried deep in the mix, replete with the trills and arpeggiations that make me imagine that they have cribbed it from some 18th-century keyboard suite. This keyboard absent in the first chorus, but the addition of it seems to add a conclusive flourish to the song. The third song on the album, “Number Three,” seems to continue this trend, as they sing (somewhat ungrammatically) “There’s only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third.” On its own, I suppose, there is nothing terrible learned about this song, but it is worth noting that on a B-side (available on Then: The Earlier Years) there is a version of this song recorded in Greek. As far as I know, this is the only song I know by TMBG that is entirely recorded in a foreign language (the “Savoir-Faire” song from John Henry doesn’t count).
But, I would suggest, it goes far beyond just the first album of TMBG. Consider, for example, the song “Older” from their album Mink Car. I find this song always intensely depressing. But, it is also an excellent example of their self-referential style. In fact, the entire body of lyrics is references the fact that music, as an art form, takes place over a period of time: “You’re older than you’ve ever been,” the song begins, “and now you’re even older” it continues. Musically, the piece uses exceptionally reedy instruments at the beginning: it sounds like some sort of highly processed oboe and a contrabassoon, playing in a canon before the beginning of the first verse.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the self-referential style in their music, though, is the song “I Palindrome I” from Apollo 18. Palindromes, at some level, are always superficial, since it is not required that they make sense (although “Man O Man,” the backup lyric throughout the chorus of this song, shows that this is not necessarily the case). What is remarkably brilliant about the main lyric here, though is that “I Palindrome I,” as a phrase, is actually not a palindrome; it subverts the premise of the song in a very clever way. Similarly, the bridge, which constitutes an extended palindrome – “Son I am able she said though you scare me watch me scare you though she said able am I son” (adding the quotation marks and punctuation is an exercise for the reader) – is actually accompanied by a two octave ascending scale on the guitar and octave-doubled pizzicato strings; even though the harmony would work just as well if the scale ascended and then descended. The intersection then, of the most extended textual palindrome (apologies to purists who only allow palindromes to be at the letter-by-letter level, rather than word-by-word), with a music figure that is noteworthy for failing to reach its palindromic potential, is a remarkable feat.
There are perhaps other examples that could be fleshed out: “How can I sing like a girl” from Factory Showroom jumps to mind. So what does all this mean for fans of TMBG? Not much in terms of a pure appreciation of their music. But it does suggest an affinity for coupling musical play with lyrical play, which, taken together, seems like it is a way of reaching for a “learned” style of popular music. No wonder they have been pigeonholed as nerd rock.
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