Music: They Might Be Giants
"We can't be silent
Cause they might be giants
And what're we gonna do, unless they are?"
A band founded in 1982 by John Linnell and John Flansburgh. Initially became famous as a part of a wave of Alternative Rock
bands to find success between the 1988 creation of Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart and the Grunge explosion of 1991-1992; other likeminded bands that became successful during this time include The Pixies
, Midnight Oil
and The Church.
The band is named for the 1971 film
starring George C. Scott as a man who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes
, and Joanne Woodward as his psychiatrist, a doctor whose name happens to be Watson. The name of that
film is a reference to Don Quixote
(that's why he attacked the windmills, you know)... which was itself a sideways reference to The Bible
The official unofficial band of TV Tropes Wiki.
They often perform songs attributed to animated projects, or other forms of television entertainment. They sing the theme songs to Malcolm in the Middle
, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
and Higglytown Heroes
, as well as the film The Replacements
and wrote Dr. Evil's theme in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
(in the style of Shirley Bassey). Some older readers may remember the videos made for two songs from their 1990 album Flood
, "Particle Man" and their cover of The Four Lads' song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", on Tiny Toon Adventures
. Others might remember their late '90s Shout-Out
to the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog
, which, along with several other their music videos, would later appear on KaBlam!
. They also worked with the creators of Homestar Runner
, resulting in an official music video for "Experimental Film" starring the H*R cast, as well as some jam sessions with the Homestar puppet. As well, "Birdhouse In Your Soul" appears in an episode of Pushing Daisies
. Their cover of "Dog on Fire" (originally performed by their friend, Hüsker Dü
guitarist Bob Mould) has been the theme song of The Daily Show
ever since Jon Stewart
And finally, the Coraline
movie was initially meant to be a musical featuring TMBG songs specially written for it; the only ones released so far, "Careful What You Pack" and "The Other Father's Song" (which made it into the movie), could be seen as an indicator of What Could Have Been
. Although The Other Father is voiced by John Linnell while singing his above-mentioned song, he is otherwise voiced by TMBG frequent collaborator John Hodgman
, discussed below.
The band's 1987 music video for their single "Don't Let's Start" was the first ever video by a band on an independent label (Bar/None Records) to go into regular rotation of MTV outside of its alternative block 120 Minutes
(which was only created the previous year).
Parodied by the Discworld
dwarfish band "We're Certainly Dwarfs". They are also partially responsible for Foul Ole Ron's Catchphrase
"Millennium hand and shrimp" in the same setting, by way of Terry Pratchett dumping a Chinese restaurant menu and the lyrics sheet for Particle Man
into a travesty generator.
Pratchett is confirmed as a fan.
In 2004, they started the Venue Songs project, whereby they would go on tour and write a new song for every venue they played. Venue Songs was released as a CD/DVD combo, the DVD consisting of videos to the songs, with host segments featuring John Hodgman (author of the Complete World Knowledge
series) as The Deranged Millionaire, a mysterious figure who had set the band with this challenge. If they failed, they would be forced to give up their magical songwriting talisman forever, leaving Brooklyn vulnerable to attack from The Deranged Millionaire's roving baseball gangs and monstrous creatures. Luckily, they won, and the Millionaire was therefore indebted to do an interview in one of their podcasts. It's one of the funniest things ever recorded.
Studio album discography:
- They Might Be Giants (1986)
- Lincoln (1988)
- Flood (1990)
- Apollo 18 (1992)
- John Henry (1994)
- Factory Showroom (1996)
- Long Tall Weekend (1999) (The first album ever exclusively released over the internet.)
- Mink Car (2001)
- The Spine (2004)
- The Else (2007)
- Join Us (2011)
- Nanobots (2013)
Children's album discography
- No! (2002)
- Here Come the ABCs (2005)
- Here Come the 123s (2008)
- Here Comes Science (2009)
Tropes that got their names from TMBG:
Series that got their names from TMBG:
Tropes and other entries associated
with the band include:
- Accidental Misnaming: People frequently get the band's name wrong. "There May Be Giants" and "There Must Be Giants" are some of the most common examples. This was immortalized in the untitled 13th track of Miscellaneous T, where a Dial-A-Song caller named Gloria refers to the band as "There Might Be Giants," "There May Be Giants" and "They May Be Giants" all in quick succession.
- An edition of the band's podcast "hosted" by a speech synthesis program added "Ain't They Giants?" and "Might Be Giant" to the list.
- All Love Is Unrequited
- Alter Ego Acting: They've been their own opening act on several occasions, posing as Sapphire Bullets, "the only They Might Be Giants tribute band that matters."
- Ambiguous Syntax: As pointed out by an interpretation of a line in Marty Beller Mask, "It's been fifteen long years since I put on the Marty mask", either the narrator's been wearing the mask for fifteen years, or it's the first time in fifteen years he's donned the mask.
- And There Was Much Rejoicing: "When Will You Die?"
- The narrator of "Dead" fears this was his end:
Did a large procession wave their torches
As my head fell in the basket,
And was everybody dancing on the casket?
- Anti-Christmas Song: "Santa's Beard," "We Just Go Nuts At Christmastime," and Mono Puff's "Careless Santa" all fit the bill.
- And for those looking for an Anti-Hanukkah song, they also have "Feast Of Lights."
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair"
- Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: Shows up in some of their music videos:
- "With the Dark" has a Giant Squid, which tries to kidnap Linnell at one point.
- "Icky" has the titular icky guy growing to giant size and climbing buildings King Kong style.
- Awesome McCoolname: The title trio of "Three Might Be Duende": Necropolis Blownapart, Apocryphal Espadrille, and Dystopio Smashedtobits.
- In real life, Dr. Zenos M. Linnell (Linnell's father) and Brigadier General Ralph Hospital (Flansburgh's grandfather).
- Audience Participation Song: Quite a few. In live performances of "Drink", The Audience is requested to chant "Drink! Drink!" whenever the word 'drink' is sung during the chorus, for "Careful What You Pack", the stage lights are turned off and the audience is requested to turn on their cellphone lights towards the stage, and "Battle For The Planet Of The Apes" splits the audience into two factions, one chanting "people" when the drums and bass are played, and one chanting "apes" when the keyboards and guitar are played.
- For "Hide Away Folk Family", the audience is encouraged to scream as if they were in Hell during the bridge.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: "Ballad of Davy Crockett in Outer Space"
- Berserk Button: "Someone keeps moving my chair"
- Big Applesauce: They do several songs referencing their base in New York City.
- Bo Diddley Beat: "Nightgown of The Sullen Moon"
- Brand X:
- To avoid a lawsuit, the song "Nyquil Driver" was listed as "AKA Driver" on the track listing for John Henry, and it is still to date the only album track that does not have its lyrics listed in the liner notes. Avoided in the song itself, however.
- In the song E Eats Everything to avoid saying "Coke": H burns food so horrible/all I tastes is smoke/J just likes drinking juice/and K drinks only soda
- One more for Coca-Cola. The band did a series of bumps to advertise Coke. Flansburgh later took one of his bumps and expanded it to the song "Poison Flowers" for his side project, Mono Puff. However, the line "Who's going to wear my sandals stained with Coca-Cola?" was changed to "cherry cola" for the album version.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "Lesson 16" starts out as a fairly standard language learning recording, before revealing that the narrator killed your father.
- "You're On Fire" starts with a bit of light conversation, and then the narrator says, "My point is... hi, your head's on fire."
- Buffy Speak:
- From "No One Knows My Plan": "But they're like the people chained up in the cave / In the Allegory of the People in the Cave by the Greek guy".
- Nanobots uses this in "Insect Hospital" (" 'Cause we are like, literally, literally, literally") and discusses it more extensively in the appropriately-titled "Stuff Is Way" ("You say, stuff is way / Way to go, go away...")
- Captain Obvious: The entirety of "Older," with lines such as, "You're older than you've ever been / And now you're even older / And now you're older still."
- Call Back: The song "Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal" references three earlier songs from their first two albums:
Well, I told you about the world (its address)
I wonder when they're gonna clean up the mess
You know the Rabid Child is still tuning in
Chess Piece Face's patience must be wearing thin.
- Closer Than They Appear: In "She's Actual Size": "Squares may look distant in a rear view mirror, but they're actual size, actual size to her."
- Concept Album: "They Might Be Giants vs. McSweeney's", which was (mostly) by the band and meant to accompany McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #6.
- All the Disney albums but "No!" are loosely based around, the ABCs, the 123s, and science.
- The Venue Songs, where they wrote a song for each venue they performed at on their 2004 tour.
- John Linnell's "House Of Mayors" EP features a series of instrumental songs named after New York City mayors. The opening track, "Preamble: Fernando Wood" is a speech inspired by Fernando Wood. "Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May?" is a cover of a songs written by mayor James J. Walker. The title track is about fictional museum called the House Of Mayors. Linnell's full length album "State Songs" consists of tracks named after (but not actually about) US states.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: "Kiss Me, Son of God" is written from the viewpoint of one of these.
- Crapsack World:
- "The Shadow Government": the chorus consists primarily of "It's a bad, bad world", and the last non-chorus verse is: "Crawling out of the flophouse/I saw the mayor stealing my junk/I doth protest, citizen's arrest/Now my body's in his trunk." Yeah, and the point of the song is that the oft feared Shadow Government is preferable to the state of affairs in their world. Yeah.
- "Pencil Rain" implies a Crapsack World too: "And none who have witnessed all/ Can speak of a nobler cause/ Than perishing in/ The pencil rain."
- Cute Kitten: "It's your kind of kitten".
- Educational Song
- Excited Show Title!: No!, and its title track.
- Extreme Doormat: Mr. Horrible in "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair", who keeps having bad things done to him by the narrator and his Ugliness Men, yet Horrible's only complaint is the song's title.
- For Science!: The title of one of their songs.
- Funny Background Event: In any of their older music videos, whichever John isn't singing will be in the background flailing hysterically, spilling coffee cups, and otherwise keeping things interesting.
- Fun With Palindromes: "I Palindrome I" is full of variously palindromic stuff; see the trope page for a full listing.
- Giant Squid: Apollo 18 has one battling a sperm whale on the cover.
- The stop-motion video for "With the Dark" also features one fighting the Johns.
- Gratuitous Greek: "Greek #3," which is "Number Three" translated into Greek.
- Hand Puppet: Their sock-puppet mini-show, the Avatars of They, featuring Linnell as the Green Avatar, and Flansburgh as the Blue Avatar. They are projected on the venue screen, and usually thank They Might Be Giants for "opening up" before performing a few songs and exchanging banter, usually alongside cutouts of famous celebrities like Meg Ryan or the Supreme Court of the United States.
- Headless Horseman: Apparently a fascination for They Might Be Giants, who namedrop the Headless Horseman in their songs "You Probably Get That A Lot" and "Headless". "Authenticity Trip" contains references to Sleepy Hollow and to Ichabod Crane, but not to the Horseman himself.
- Intentionally Awkward Title:
- "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," among several others.
- "Kiss Me, Son of God" makes a few folks squeamish. One of the verses makes it abundantly clear that the song's Villain Protagonist is not supposed to be Jesus, though.
- James K. Polk: A whole song about him.
- Karma Houdini: "Reprehensible", kind of. The only punishment available involves reincarnation and horrible nightmares.
- Last Note Nightmare: "Hide Away, Folk Family", dear God.
- "The Bells Are Ringing" qualifies, once you pay attention to the lyrics.
- Latex Perfection: "Marty Beller Mask".
- Like Is, Like, a Comma: Flansburgh is often guilty of this in interviews. He even Lampshades it in the commentary track of Gigantic.
- Lyrical Dissonance: A hallmark of the band is to create up-beat songs with humorously dark lyrics. At least a quarter of the songs on any given album will some sort of lyrical dissonance, be it power-pop murder ballads or uptempo break-up waltzes, or piano ditties about death by guillotine.
- Miniscule Rocking: Most of their songs are below the three minute mark. Particularly brief songs include the "Fingertips" songs from Apollo 18 that range from 6 seconds to one minute in length and the 9 tracks under a minute on the Nanobots album.
- Motor Mouth: "Letterbox". AND HOW.
- Murder Ballad: "Erase."
- Must Have Caffeine: Lampshaded in the documentary about the band, Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns. Coffee doesn't actually come up in their lyrics as often as you might think, although it's there.
- New Sound Album: They moved up from "Two guys, an accordion, a guitar and a drum machine" to a full band for their fifth album John Henry. Not everyone was pleased.
- No Sense of Direction: While fictional, the song "They Got Lost" is about the band running into this problem (it doesn't help that one of the Johns apparently mistakes a fast food wrapper for a road map).
- Only, it did actually happen. Also the line Julie at the station refers to Julie Kramer, who works for WFNX in Boston. This song is about that particular incident, though Linnell says it pretty much happens every time they get in a car together.
- One Steve Limit: Averted; the band currently consists of nothing but Johns and Dans (with one Marty, who replaced another Dan).
- This is Lampshaded in the lyrics to "When Will You Die":
"This is Dan, and that's Dan, and here's Marty on the drums to complete the band, and I'm John and he is also John..."
- Phrase Catcher: "You Probably Get That A Lot":
You probably get that a lot
I'll bet that people say that a lot while you
Are sarcastically lip-syncing along
To words they felt were spoken spontaneously
- Rainbow Motif: The song on their science album about the color spectrum is named after the common mnemonic "Roy G. Biv."
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Flansburgh is more outgoing. Linnell is more reserved.
- Religion Rant Song: It wasn't intended as an anti-religion song, but "Science Is Real" was perceived as being one by some of the band's religious fans. "Kiss Me, Son of God" could be easily taken as one of these, although it's more a critique of the theocratic abuse of religion than the concept of religion itself.
- Rockumentary: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns.
- Rule of Three: "Number Three" is all about this:
- The song itself is about itself being the third song the speaker wrote.
- It contains all three three-line rhyme schemes.
- It's the third song on their first album.
- The band claims it's the third song they learned to play.
- At the end of the song, the saxophone hook (taken from a 45 rpm record played at 33 1/3 rpm) repeats three times.
- Running Gag: Flansburgh uploaded videos to the band's YouTube channel titled "[Location/Show] not going well", wherein he records the audience staring at the band silently and angrily. One of the last of these videos topped it off with the audience singing "Boring! Boring! Why are we waiting?"
- "Boat of Car" sampled Johnny Cash "Daddy sang bass"
- Their instrumental cover of Frank Sinatra's "Lady is a Tramp" sampled "Tramp" by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas.
- "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" sampled "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens
- "Now That I Have Everything" sampled "5/4 rock" by Joey D. Viera
- The bridge to "Rhythm Section Want Ad" is Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse".
- The saxophone hook in "Number Three" is from Lou Monte's "Skinny Lena."
- The bridge in "Where Your Eyes Don't Go" is the 'someone's in the kitchen with Dinah' section of "I've Been Working on the Railroad".
- Self-Made Orphan: Hinted at in "Stone Cold Coup d'Etat", a surreal song about underlings uprising and killing their leaders:
Around a dinner table a family says grace
And the son sees the secret signal on his sister's face
Dad smiles at his wife
Daughter reaches for the knife
- Self-Titled Album: Their first.
- The band also did a Self-Titled Song. Just to keep things confusing, it's on the third studio album, not the first (self-titled) one. It was originally written when the songs from the first album were, but they decided to hold off releasing it for a few years.
- Selling The Show: Near the end of the DVD Commentary for Giganitc, the director asks the johns if they have ever had a show where they felt they were "phoning it in". The Johns wisely brush off the question.
- Sesame Street Cred: Tons, needless to say.
- Shout-Out: Several, from I Love Lucy to Plato's ''Allegory of the Cave' to Surrealist party games. The B-side "We're the Replacements" is an allusion to The Replacements, a fellow college rock band.
- Shown Their Work:
- The song "Am I Awake" displays some accurate themes in dreams that are common to everybody, and can be used to identify that you're dreaming. "And when I close my eyes it looks the same as when I open them again" is a real phenomenon that closing your eyes in dreams does nothing at all. "What time is it?" is because whenever you look at a series of numbers or letters in a dream, look away, and look again, the sequence changes, and is often gibberish.
- "Mammal" accurately describes the characteristics of mammals. It is also very likely the only song to contain a reference to allotherians, a group of prehistoric mammals that are now extinct. They even refer to it as a "dead uncle." On the other hand, they do refer to the koala as the 'koala bear', but almost everyone outside Australia does that.
- Then there's their biographical songs about such figures as James K. Polk and James Ensor.
- Silly Love Songs: Very, very rare for them, but they do indeed have one straightforward love song: "Another First Kiss." Though, for a straightforward love song, it's extremely melancholy and could be easily interpreted as being about the inevitable decline of happiness in relationships, and the resulting resignation.
- Small Reference Pools: This one works both ways. While not the most common band misattributed, quite a few songs on file-sharing services are mistakenly labeled as being by They Might Be Giants ("88 Lines About 44 Women," by The Nails, seems to be the most common, despite sounding utterly nothing like TMBG). On the flip side, some of their tracks are labeled as belonging to other bands, particularly remixes (you'll find some people distributing the Brownsville Remix of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" as a "Weird Al" Yankovic song, although it was a B-side for the single for the original).
- Solo Side Project: Mono Puff was the side project of John Flansburgh.
- Spin-Off: John Linnell's "State Songs" and "House of Mayors" projects and John Flansburgh's other band, Mono Puff.
- Spontaneous Human Combustion:
- The song "The Statue Got Me High" makes reference to spontaneous human combustion supernaturally induced by a humanoid statue, along with some subtle Don Giovanni references.
My coat contained a furnace where there used to be a guy.
- To say nothing of "You're On Fire", which is entirely about this.
Oh damn, you must've got one of them
Combustible heads, I read an article all about them.
- Stalker with a Crush: The narrator in "I'm Your Boyfriend Now".
- Step Up to the Microphone: Danny Weinkauf, the band's bass player, wrote and sung "Where Do They Make Balloons?".
- Subliminal Seduction:
- Several of their songs parody the "backmasking" phenomenon, ranging from an actual backwards message ("They Might Be Giants would like to include a verse about the suffering people of the world, but they couldn't figure out where to put it into the song" in one version of "Which Describes How You're Feeling") to an earlier part of the song reversed ("Subliminal"), to... John Flansburgh just singing nonsense syllables intended to sound backwards ("Hideaway Folk Family").
- Taken to a bizarre conclusion with "On Earth My Nina", which sounds like nonsense until you play it backwards, whereupon it becomes "Thunderbird", another of their songs. Even more bizarre, "Nina" was released first.
- They even got to do the Twin Peaks 'Listen to something played backwards, mimic the sound, and then play that backwards so it sound forwards' process on "Dinner Bell"
Show-der, bicep, ew-bow, ahhhm! Foreahm, thumb, wrist, knuckle, pahhhhm! (etc.)
- Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion:
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: In "Critic Intro":
The performers are not grinning scarecrows sent to torture and manipulate you.
- Technician Versus Performer: The Johns describe themselves this way. Flansburgh compliments Linnell's ability to whip out catchy tunes, while Linnell compliments Flansburgh ability to create memorable and unusual details. They each point to the other as the reason for their success.
- This Is a Song: The song "S-E-X-X-Y" begins with the lines: "Dressed only in clothes / From her head to her toes / This is the way / The talking part goes."
- Time Travel: The song "2082" is about this. It's also an inversion of Never the Selves Shall Meet and Help Your Self In The Future, as the character finds and murders his elderly future self.
- Truck Driver's Gear Change:
- "Alienation's for the Rich".
- "Birdhouse in Your Soul" does this in the second bridge before reverting back to its original key for the following verse.
- Two Lines, No Waiting: "Spoiler Alert" consists of two overlapping stories: Flansburgh the tired trucker and Linnell the author who texts while driving. The ending implies that their cars collide.
- Unreliable Narrator: The Johns have referenced this trope by name in interviews. Many of their songs' protagonists are implied to be some combination of deluded ("Destination Moon"), paranoid ("The Shadow Government"), or just generally clueless ("Purple Toupee").
- Villain Song: "Kiss Me Son of God", "I Palindrome I", and "No One Knows My Plan" are definites. Others... perhaps.
- Vocal Tag Team: Linnell and Flansburgh each sing about the same amount in every conceivable way - about the same numbers of songs singing lead, singing backup, and a smattering of full-fledged duets. In general, the one who wrote a given song will handle lead vocals, with the occasional exception.
- The Walrus Was Paul: "Particle Man" seems like a very cryptic song, and it isn't clear who the four "men" are supposed to represent, if anyone. John Flansburgh described it as "just a song about characters in the most obvious sense" and claims that the lyrics are not intended to invoke real people, though Linnell later said that "Triangle Man was based on a friend's observation that Robert Mitchum looked like an evil triangle when he took his shirt off in Night of the Hunter.
- Who Writes This Crap?!: "Who came up with Person Man?"
- White Mask of Doom: The train engineer in the third verse of "Turn Around" reveals a "face which was a paper-white mask of evil".
- Word Salad Lyrics: Commonly. The most blatant example would be "On Earth My Nina", which has an odd genesis. While recording "Thunderbird" for the first time, John Linnell tried backmasking the lyrical part of the song, and thought he heard the lyric "On Earth My Nina". He then proceeded to fill in the rest of the song with random words that kinda-sorta sounded like the other lyrics of "Thunderbird" backwards. "Stuff is Way" takes it to the fullest extent.
And the old man whose face you see in all their videos is named William Allen White. He was a famous journalist in Kansas from The Edwardian Era
to World War II
. The band were secretive of this for quite some time in case his surviving relatives were to sue them.