Today we’ve got the intro to They Might Be Giants’ Flood, the book I wrote with the brilliant S. Alexander Reed for Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 series. The book is out November 14th, and is available for pre-order at Amazon and Amazon UK.
I’ll surely write about the book again closer to release, so I don’t want to do too much beyond just put the intro here and let it speak for itself. I will say that even if you’re not a huge They Might Be Giants fan, I think the book probably has plenty of cool stuff for you. It’s not just about They Might Be Giants, but about a particular historical moment. It’s not just a book about music, but about how 1990 was a turning point for geek culture, and about the nature of what geek culture is, in a way that goes beyond the conventional nerdy references. Indeed, one thing the book is very much about is how “geek” went from meaning twenty-sided dice and fluency in Klingon to meaning something much broader and more inclusive. I think most people who like my stuff will like it too.
But I will add a personal note. In the current publishing climate, the saying is that anything that sells a thousand copies is doing well. The TARDIS Eruditorum books do that. Handily. Unfortunately, they do it through channels that don’t show up when publishers do searches on authors’ past sales.
One of the explicitly stated reasons I didn’t get a traditional press contract for the Wonder Woman book (out towards the end of October, I believe) is exactly this – my sales figures look way smaller than they actually are. And by way smaller, I mean that when traditional publishers check my sales, I have sold two books. Ever.
All of which is an overly long way of saying that this book is kind of a big deal for me. If it does well then when I shop future projects to traditional publishers I look a lot more credible. It opens doors. So if you’re interested, please consider putting in a pre-order. Impressive pre-orders make the publisher put more time into supporting the book. The publisher supporting the book boosts sales. Strong pre-orders are, in current publishing, a huge deal.
But more broadly, and with the knowledge that my readers have been incredibly generous to me this year, and that I have a lot of material coming out in a short period of time, I just want to pause and say thank you to everyone who supports my work, however you support it, and whichever bits of it you support. It means a lot knowing that I do work that people enjoy enough to support. More than a few days have been genuinely brightened just by knowing you lot exist. Thank you.
OK. This is getting maudlin. Let’s talk about 90s geek rock.
PROLOGUE: THEME FROM FLOOD
Two Floods (There’s a Picture Opposite Me of My Primitive Ancestry)
A photograph of the Ohio River’s 1937 deluge emblazons the cover of They Might Be Giants’ 1990 album Flood. Both Floods poured into a million American homes, but while the former killed 385 people, the latter managed to kill absolutely no one. Flood is, after all, not a ferocious record. Where rock fans might want John Flansburgh’s guitar to roar, they get a pinched meow instead. There are no awesome drum solos or trancelike beats, just a sterile, tinny rhythm machine. Flansburgh and his accordionist bandmate John Linnell sing in voices so nasal that a rock critic once asked them if they sounded like Olive Oyl on purpose. This is not music for cool people.
But there’s actually something more interesting happening on Floodthan rocking out. Despite the sleeve photo, the flood that the album uncorks doesn’t refer to a past event, but instead we might hear it as a creative practice. And not to put too fine a point on it, the band’s “flooding” on this album can tell us a lot about an important shift around 1990 that gave a new social, technological, and ultimately economic legitimacy to what we might call geek culture.
The authors of this book first heard Flood as middle schoolers at an academic summer camp. The program’s name was CTY—Center for Talented Youth—but to our classmates during the regular school year, it was usually just called nerd camp. In our public schools, it was a statement of fact that we were nerds; there was no use denying it. CTY by its nature attracted a lot of people like us from the outskirts of various social groups, and its own culture is heavily impacted by the fact that for large swaths of its student population, those three summer weeks are the first time that they have been in a like-minded social environment. Campers’ parents sent them for the academics, but more than coursework, every kid there treasured that sense of belonging, and as such, the weekly dances served as major centerpieces of the larger experience. Each Friday, Flood’s iconic single “Birdhouse In Your Soul” marked a peak of giddy, electrified togetherness for 400 teenagers. For a few minutes, being a nerd wasn’t about isolation.
If the media’s portrait of They Might Be Giants is to be believed, this experience was no fluke. Billboard magazine declares them “nerd-rock heroes,” Pitchfork media champions them as “geek-rock kings,” and England’s New Musical Express dubs them a “nerdhouse cabaret act.” The words geek and nerd—setting aside any arguable differences between them—are cavalierly tossed around in writeups of the band without much definition or qualification, which suggests there’s an unwritten assumption that readers not only understand the terms, but that they also understand why such labels might be applied to They Might Be Giants’ music, fairly or otherwise. The implication is that whatever it is that makes someone a geek, you’ll find it in on Flood.
Flood, then, helps us to understand a certain identity, a way of being. It’s especially interesting to scope out the album’s supposed geekdom in the context of its time, because 1990 was a transformative moment for that pocket of culture. For the band’s own part, the Johns Linnell and Flansburgh grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s, a time when the meanings of nerd and geek first came to specify bookish social outcasts, limited in both physical strength and traditional attractiveness. To their generation, geekdom offered little more than ostracism, and so accordingly the band is defensive about the label: Linnell explains, “As far as the ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ thing goes, I think that’s a way of describing unusual things when you’re uncomfortable with them.”
But part of Flood’s importance in 1990 comes precisely from its dearness to that culture—most of whom were a half-generation younger than the two Johns—who reclaimed the smear of geek and shaped it into a viable social identity. To some, it even became something worth aspiring to. After all, when Flood came out on January 5 of that year, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time ranked as a top-ten New York Times bestseller, Garry Kasparov had secured genuine rockstar status just a few weeks earlier when he defeated the Deep Thought chess supercomputer, and Bill Gates was the richest thirtysomething on the planet.
For geek to turn from an insult into a source of individual and collective empowerment meant that it needed to connote more than booksmarts, Star Trek fandom, or an enthusiasm for Dungeons and Dragons. Indeed, Flooddoesn’t offer much in the way of traditionally geeky iconography. It’s true that after Flood, the band was declared “Musical Ambassadors to International Space Year” (as endorsed by the United Nations in 1992), and they released the children’s record Here Comes Science in 2009, but these achievements serve less to market the band to geeks than to reaffirm a longstanding public identity. Instead, Flood encapsulates in 43 minutes and 14 seconds a moment when geekdom demanded recognition not as a set of interests, but as a way of thinking. It’s not reasonable to claim that the record on its own turned the tides of outcast identity, but Floodnonetheless helps us to understand how and when such a shift could happen. The appeal of They Might Be Giants doesn’t come from what they write songs about, but instead from how they write songs. What other explanation is there for fans’ dizzy adoration of “Minimum Wage”—a song containing nothing more than John Flansburgh’s triumphant belting of the title, a crack of a whip, and forty-five seconds of retro lounge sauntering?
Overflow (That’s All I Can Think of, but I’m Sure There’s Something Else)
This is where the notion of the flood comes in. In the music of They Might Be Giants, flooding is an artistic overflow; it is a supply of creative resources that so overwhelms the demands of creation that songwriting ceases to be about clearly expressing a single idea, and turns into a playground of excess ideas.
John Flansburgh explained to the New York Times in 1987, “Most people just don’t bring everything they’ve got to what they do. We don’t feel we have to strip things away and make the songs more simple for people to understand what we’re about… it’s a cornucopia, a myriad.”
The notion of sheer quantity arises time and again in the band’s output. In the 1990 promotional video for Flood, the two Johns make their case clear:
Linnell: Some records that come out today only have ten songs, or less.
Flansburgh: This makes us angry.
Linnell: But instead of cursing the darkness, John and I have decided to do something about it. We’ve put out a record with nineteen songs on it.
Flansburgh: And that’s why our record is better.
Behind this joke lurks a telling possibility. If nonsense, variability, and excess are the hallmarks of “cornucopia,” then the songwriting practices of clarity, focus, and restraint are the stuff of famine—certainly boring, and quite possibly stupid.
As we’ll explore, even as the album’s nineteen songs overflow by virtue of their number, the songs themselves are little floods. With no stylistic foreshadowing, the heavy metal guitar solo of “Your Racist Friend” suddenly drowns beneath a calypso trumpet interlude. In the chorus of “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair,” the vocal rhythm is every bit as non-sequitur as the lyric. The knowledge of musical genre on parade throughout Flood might seem outright boastful if its specifics weren’t so desperately uncool by 1990 standards—Edwardian musical theatre in “Theme from Flood,” rockabilly in “Lucky Ball and Chain,” contradance in “We Want a Rock,” and sea chantey in “Women and Men.” Humbly armed with a cheap Alesis SR-16 drum machine, the two Johns actually exhibit little interest in showing off; conspicuous virtuosity is additive within a rock song, whereas They Might Be Giants’ music is, as Flansburgh says, the result of not stripping things away. One gets the sense that the music is really just that effortlessly overrun.
What’s going on here is playfulness. Flood embodies the idea that creativity is an open-ended result of asking “what if,” and not the single-minded pursuit of a pre-imagined ideal. The band’s music rejoices in a continual sense of play, altering and subverting the expected order of things, whether imagining the world from the perspective of a canary-shaped nightlight or inventing bizarre fictional fads involving prosthetic foreheads. The point isn’t whether “Particle Man” is a metaphor for the struggle between science and religion (as many fans suppose it is), but instead that “Particle Man” is both unwriteable and incomprehensible under the assumptions of order and of one-to-one lyrical meaning that a lot of performers and audiences bring to their musical experience. Because They Might Be Giants’ music is (almost) never in service of a joke, the silliness of songs like “Particle Man” is exploratory, not goal-driven. Musical, lyrical, and visual ideas then exist for their own sake.
The word flood shares a root with affluence, and it’s easy to see that there’s an economics of mental resources at work here, both on the part of the band in playing haphazardly with ideas (rather than investing them carefully) and on the part of audiences in relating to this particular sort of mental excess. Enjoying Flood’s brand of playfulness affirms a listener’s sense of her own intelligence, imbues fandom with a secret language shared between artist and audience, and celebrates weirdness for its own sake. See why this might be appealing to an auditorium of allegedly gifted teens at nerd camp?
All of this has further implications in terms of cultural criticism. Geek culture occupies an unusual social space. On the one hand it is defined by the enormous privilege implicit in having access to computers, wide swaths of literature and media, and education. Unspoken in an aesthetic of playfulness is the economic security necessary to “play” in the first place (it’s fitting that private college campuses have been a lynchpin of the band’s tours since the beginning). On the other hand, geekdom is often marked by a sense of social isolation and even by bullying.
This mix of privilege and outsider status is, in many ways, also mirrored by the band itself, particularly during its time at Elektra Records, starting with Flood. They Might Be Giants were in many ways an odd choice for so large a record company, and Flood is an exceedingly strange animal. On the one hand it is self-consciously designed in its production and song sequencing to be a breakthrough major label debut. On the other, it is nearly self-evident that the two Johns were destined never to become mainstream stars. This tension is audible throughout the album, and it speaks to the oddness of 1990’s musical moment, when the reversal of social tides loomed large enough in culture (and sounded clearly enough in the band’s music) that somebody figured—rightly, as it turned out—a million people wanted to hear this.
What follows, then, is an exploration of the thicket of historical and cultural contexts that Flood encompasses. This means tracing the musical and cultural origins of They Might Be Giants inasmuch as they help us to understand why and how this record matters. It also means looking at the people who have embraced this album and investigating how in 1990 it was so poised to interact with their own particular ways of being. In the pages that follow, we’ll see the collisions of childhood, technology, and subculture, their unintended effects rippling well beyond the domain of music.