Nonsense and Sensibility

echolocation: hearing the seriousness in the silliness of they might be giants.

Person man, person man / Hit on the head with a frying pan / Lives his life in a garbage can / Person man / Is he depressed or is he a mess? / Does he feel totally worthless? / Who came up with person man? / Degraded man, person man – They Might Be Giants, “Particle Man”

At first, it all sounds like so much silliness that you want to tag all the music as novelty songs. They Might Be Giants seem to amount to nothing more than silly stoner-nerd fantasies, art-school concepts gone too cute, lyrical gimmicks and goofy Beatleseque musical quotations that float by harmlessly but slowly start to annoy. We all live in a yellow polka dot bikini, etc.

But re-listening to the songs of They Might Be Giants reminded me that there’s much more to their music than just cotton-candy fluff. What’s most intriguing about the duo of two Johns—Flansburgh and Linnell—is that it achieves a tone that mingles silliness and seriousness in a peculiar arrangement.

Two Johns: Flansburgh and Linnell of They Might Be Giants.

The absurdist lyrics of songs such as “Particle Man,” “Doctor Worm,” and “I Palindrome I” are like deadpan jokes. You start to laugh, but the more you listen, the less funny they become, the more they become tales about feelings of sadness, shame, guilt, revenge, bitterness, and other emotions one would never expect to lurk in silly sounds. These are comics who wrap bitter truths inside gaffaws. Theirs are truly punch lines.

The songs of They Might Be Giants lead to unexpected comparisons. I think of the lyrics of songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which also mingle the silly with the serious. This music draws blood from nursery rhymes, offers a sensibility rendered from nonsense. Like Nirvana, They Might Be Giants let us smell the stink beneath the underarm deodorant, show us how power lurks in playfulness, and shrink-wrap the void into the details of even the most vacuous trash of contemporary lives.

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