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Music / They Might Be Giants

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"We can't be silent
Cause they might be giants
And what're we gonna do, unless they are?"
— "They Might Be Giants", Flood

They Might Be Giants is a band founded in 1982 by John Linnell and John Flansburgh. They 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 1991–92; other like-minded bands that became successful during this time include The Pixies, XTC, Midnight Oil and The Church.

The band is named for the 1971 film starring George C. Scott as a judge 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.

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 Clubhousenote  and Higglytown Heroes, 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 contributions to the Cartoon Network Groovies project in the early aughts (creating songs for the cartoons Courage the Cowardly Dog and Dexter's Laboratory), or their music videos 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. Their cover of "Dog on Fire" (originally performed by their friend, Hüsker Dü guitarist Bob Mould) was the theme song of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

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's singing voice is performed by John Linnell, he is otherwise voiced by TMBG frequent collaborator John Hodgman.

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 on MTV outside of its alternative block ''120 Minutes'' (which was only created the previous year).

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 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.

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.

Studio album discography:

Children's album discography

  • No! (2002)
  • Here Come the ABCs (2005)
  • Here Come the 123s (2008)
  • Here Comes Science (2009)
  • Why? (2015)

Tropes 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.
    • Another example comes to the intro for "They Got Lost" off "Severe Tire Damage" - "Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for They Must Be Giants!"
    • 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.
    • Strong Bad and Homestar Runner parody this phenomenon in the commentary for the "Experimental Film" music video, calling them the "Super Giants" and "Supreme Giants".
  • Action Girl: The titular detective of the "Hotel Detective" series of songs is written as one.
    Will she shoot you?
    She won't have to
    You're already dead
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: "Pictures of Pandas Painting" from Here Come the ABCs is made up almost entirely of alliterative phrases.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: The video for "Thinking Machine."
  • All Love Is Unrequited: "Withered Hope" has a veritable pentagon of unrequited love.'
  • Alphabet Song: An entire album of them on Here Come The ABCs.
  • 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," or an Unplugged duo called Count Drinkalot (Flansburgh on acoustic guitar and Linnell on accordion).
    • For their TMBG Unlimited mp3 series around 2001, they had a project called "Battle of the Bands", directly inspired by the 1968 album The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, with the same concept: TMBG recorded a bunch of songs In the Style of different genres under Fake Band names. The oddest one was probably the alleged Boy Band Too + 3, whose song "Too + 3 R One" featured a Piss-Take Rap by Linnell in the bridge.
  • 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 she's donned the mask.
    • Also, the lyrics to "The World's Address" make (slightly) more sense if you interpret the title as "the world's a dress" (after all, it's "a place that's worn," which would certainly be a "sad pun.")
    • "Dead" begins with "I returned a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the expiration date." The next line makes it clear that the narrator doesn't mean asking a clerk for a refund:
      I came back as a bag of groceries accidentally taken off the shelf before the date stamped on myself
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing:
    • "When Will You Die?"
      On that promised morning
      We will wake and greet the dawn
      Knowing that your wicked life is over
      And that we will carry on
    • 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?
  • Anthropomorphic Vice: "They'll Need a Crane":
    Lad looks at other gals
    Gal thinks Jim Beam is handsomer than lad
    He isn't bad
  • 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.
    • Subverted with "She's Actual Size"; the lady in question gives the impression of being literally larger-than-life, even though she's only actual size.
    Words fail!
    Buildings crumble!
    The ground opens wide!
    Light beams down from heaven -
    She stands before my eyes!
  • 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.
    • "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.
    • For “No One Knows My Plan,” the audience is encouraged to start a conga line.
  • Awful Truth: This is a common theme for the band, which along with the Lyrical Dissonance that TMBG often employs, gives them a darkly comedic style. This might help explain their intergenerational appeal, as kids who cut their teeth with the band's children's music can easily find deeper and more complex material in TMBG's adult catalogue.
    • "Answer"
      It may take an ocean of whiskey and time
      To wash all of the letdown out of your mind
      And this may not be the item you selected but I
      Am the answer to all your prayers
    • "Sometimes A Lonely Way"
      We can see it now, the scratches
      On the back of the door
      We can see it now, no mistaking
      What you're better for
    • "The World's Address"
      I know you deceived me, couldn't sleep last night
      Now my tear stains on the wall reflect an ugly sight
      I can see your secrets, no need to confess
      Everyone looks naked when you know the world's address
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: "Ballad of Davy Crockett in Outer Space"
  • Berserk Button: "Someone Keeps Moving My Chair"
  • Blatant Lies: Besides their favoritism of the Unreliable Narrator, "Everything Right Is Wrong Again" has a verse repeatedly stating "and now the song is over now"...just before the bridge.
  • Big Applesauce: They do several songs referencing their base in New York City.
  • Big "WHAT?!": Linnell delivers three of these in response to the last verse of "Thinking Machine".
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: "Erase."
    Think of this as solving problems that should never have occurred
    Please don't call it strangulation
    That is such an ugly word
  • Bo Diddley Beat: "Nightgown of The Sullen Moon", "Hypnotist of Ladies" and live performances of "Particle Man".
  • Brand X:
    • To avoid a lawsuit, the song "Nyquil Driver" was listed as "AKA Driver" on the track listing for John Henry, and it's the only cut of John Henry 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
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick:
    • "Lesson 16", one of Linnell's occasional spoken pieces for TMBG's podcast, 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...")
    • "Wait Actually Yeah No," down to the title
  • Call-and-Response Song: "Thinking Machine" is a conversation between a human being (Linnell) and a faulty chatbot (Flansburgh).
  • Call-Back:
    • The song "Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal" references three earlier songs from their first two albums (in a manner not unlike The Beatles' "Glass Onion"):
      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
    • "McCafferty's Bib" references the same performance art piece that inspired them to make William Allen White's head a recurring motif.
  • 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."
  • Careful with That Axe: John Flansburgh towards the end of "Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes"
  • Celebration Miscalculation: The song "It's Not My Birthday" deals with someone being wished a happy birthday on the wrong day.
  • Chess with Death: Played with in the music video for "I'll Be Haunting You". A person falls off a building and finds themself face-to-face with Death, who challenges them to a game of... ping-pong. They win, are restored to life, and then immediately dies again due to a falling toolbox, at which point Death goes back to the more traditional chess game.
  • City Shout Outs: The band had a tour in which they wrote a song about each venue they visited and then performed the song at the venue. By all accounts, they were good songs, too! Darn musical geniuses.
  • Closer than They Appear: In "She's Actual Size": "Squares may look distant in a rearview mirror, but they're actual size, actual size to her."
  • Companion Cube: "Birdhouse in Your Soul" is sung from the perspective of a night light and their friendship with their young charge.
  • 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 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 a 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, and his "Roman Songs" EP is sung entirely in Gratuitous Latin.
    • 2018's "The Escape Team", with each song depicting a different punnily named character thought up by artist David Cowles.
  • Confusing Multiple Negatives: Used in "The Neck Rolls Aren't Working:"
    This gut wrench
    I'm using to fix the bad drainpipe
    That's leaking all over my gut wrench
    Is right on the brink of destroying
    My chances
    Of wrecking my chances of wrecking
    Any last hope of destroying
    Any last hope that I had
  • Continuity Nod: The music video for "Push Back the Hands" has a cameo of Hammurabi from the video for "The Mesopotamians", as well as a black-and-white segment that references the bands' videos for their earlier songs like "Don't Let's Start".
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: "Kiss Me, Son of God" is written from the viewpoint of one of these.
  • Cover Version: Two of their greatest hits, "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" and "New York City", are covers. Also note "Bills, Bills, Bills" by Destiny's Child and "Starry Eyes" by The Records.
    • Another notable example is "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)", which was written in the 1950s by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Lou Singer and Hy Zaret and recorded by folk singer Tom Glazer. The Why Does the Sun Shine? EP also includes a cover of "Jessica" by The Allman Brothers Band.
  • 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."
    • "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head."
  • Cute Kitten: "It's your kind of kitten."
  • Damned by Faint Praise: A fake political ad for John Hodgman, aired on Dial-a-Song, smears his previous subletter for (among various things) masturbating out the window on two separate occasions, and notes Hodgman only masturbated out the window once.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: From "Everything Right is Wrong Again":
    And now the song is over now, and now the song is over now
    And now the song is over now, the song is over now
  • Distinction Without a Difference: "Lazyhead and Sleepybones" from the No! album is all about this, describing two people who are too tired to realize the only thing they can't agree on is the wording of their observations.
  • Double Meaning: The song "Dirt Bike" is vague, but it sounds as though it is advertising a band called "Dirt Bike". The narrator "hears they're over their sophomore jinx/jinks", which could be interpreted in two completely different ways. Either they're over their "sophomor[ic hi-]jinks", which means they are no longer playing childish pranks and are ready to grow up, or they are over their "sophomore jinx", which means that unlike many second-string bands, releasing their second album has not meant the end of their career.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Spoiler Alert" can be read a few ways. It foreshadows that the song has a Twist Ending (the two speakers are driving on the same road and are going to crash), but it could also refer to the writer discussing the ending of his book, or him being alerted to the oncoming truck hood.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Flo Wheeler in The Escape Team. "Pick a lane / 'Cause your driving is driving everybody insane!"
  • Dying Alone: The lyrics of "Last Wave" talk about dying afraid and alone.
  • Educational Song: Before they even started writing kids' albums, they had songs like "Meet James Ensor" and "Mammal".
  • Employee of the Month: "Employee of the Month" is about someone bragging about being named Employee of the Month at "the crumb factory". The music, especially the vaguely ominous slide whistles that continue into the outro, give the impression of someone clinging to a minor accomplishment to keep themself from going crazy.
    Got a job at the crumb factory
    It's my very first job
    I'm working at the crumb factory
    It's my number one job

    I'm employee of the month
    Number one crumb-making son of a gun
    I just need one sandwich
    And I'm set all day for making crumbs
  • Enhance Button: Alluded to in "Unpronounceable" - "Zoom and enhance, if that were even a real thing / which it isn’t"
  • Evil Twin: The song "My Evil Twin".
  • 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!: A good reason to kiss a girl from Venus.
  • Frying Pan of Doom: Person Man gets hit on the head with one, it seems.
  • 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.
  • Genre-Busting: A hallmark of their sound is their unusual arrangements, which often mix-and-match elements from music styles ranging from techno, country music, and hip-hop to polka, free jazz, and lounge music.
  • Giant Squid:
    • Apollo 18 has one battling a sperm whale on the cover.
    • The stop-motion video for "With the Dark" features a similar one fighting the Johns.
  • Giant Woman: The titular girl from "Too Tall Girl".
    Too-tall girl can see
    Past the rooftops and the trees
    Too-tall girl can see
    Past the crosstown mall and townie sprawl
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: In live "family-friendly" concerts when all ages are present, the band will bowdlerize the title of "Damn Good Times" to "Dang Good Times."
  • 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.
    • The second track from their first album is "Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head". The entire chorus is a repeated Title Drop.
  • 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.
  • Hidden Track: The original release of "Token Back To Brooklyn" was as a pre-gap track before "S-E-X-X-Y" on Factory Showroom, although it was later released as a proper track on Long Tall Weekend.
  • Implausible Deniability: In "Icky", the "icky guy" borrows a "nice pair of slacks", but "only return[s] one of them". (So...a single leg?) He then defends himself by claiming it was like that when he borrowed it.
  • Inconvenient Summons: In their 2015 Dial-A-Song tour, their "mother" calls mid-concert.
  • 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.
  • Invisible Stomach, Visible Food: Discussed in the song "I Am Invisible" from Why?. The invisible man isn't sure whether the trope applies to him or not.
  • James K. Polk: A whole song about him.
  • Karma Houdini: "Reprehensible", kind of. The only punishment available involves reincarnation and horrible nightmares. It's suggested that the viewpoint character of "Kiss Me, Son of God" is also one, as he vaguely refers to terrible acts done to screw over large swaths of people (those closest to him in particular), but he ends the song at the acme of his wealth and influence.
  • 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.
  • Limited Lyrics Song: "The Famous Polka", which is mostly instrumental aside from one stanza of lyrics at the end. When the song is performed live, the band tends to omit the lyrics entirely, aside from yelling "Hey!" at the end.
  • Longest Song Goes Last:
    • I Like Fun closes with "Last Wave", which only clocks in at 3:24.
    • Similarly, The Escape Team closes with "The Poisonousness", which clocks in at a mere 2:55.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: A hallmark of the band is to create upbeat songs with humorously dark lyrics. At least a quarter of the songs on any given album will have some sort of lyrical dissonance, be it power-pop murder ballads, up-tempo break-up waltzes, cool futuristic tunes about discovering one is paralyzed, or piano ditties about death by guillotine.
  • Man on Fire: "You're On Fire", which also counts as Spontaneous Human Combustion (see below).
  • Marionette Motion: The band themselves, in music videos.
  • 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.
    • "Songs About Coffee" magically combines this with Epic Rocking by being a twenty minute track made up of most of the very short ad songs made for Dunkin Donuts' "America Runs on Dunkin'" campaign. Released as part of the last part of the 2018-2019 Instant Fan Club although parts of it were released as "I'm in a Rut", "Contraption", and "Burning Coffee" on their podcast.
  • Mood Whiplash: The opening of "Shoehorn with Teeth".
    He wants a shoehorn, the kind with teeth
    [glockenspiel hit]
    People should get beat up for stating their beliefs
  • Moonwalk Dance: The monkey in "Triops Has Three Eyes" pulled a moonwalk.
  • Motor Mouth: "Letterbox". AND HOW.
    • And if you thought that was too slow, "Santa Cruz" off of Venue Songs goes even faster.
  • 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.
  • Noodle Incident/Nothing Is Scarier: John Linnell's sense of humor tends to occupy the middle ground between the two, especially in later works ("I Made A Mess," "Synopsis for Latecomers," "Aaa")
  • No Sense of Direction: "They Got Lost" is about the band running into this problem, which Linnell admits happens frequently when he and Flansburgh are on the road together. The song is based on a real instance when they were driving to Julie Kramer's show at WFNX in Boston (although in the song's version of the story, one of the Johns mistakes a fast food wrapper for a road map).
  • On the Rebound: This is explicitly the subtext (if there is such a thing) of the song "Contrecoup", which discusses the trope in terms of a brain injury resulting from the brain hitting the far side of the brainpan.
  • One-Steve Limit: The founders are commonly referred to by their last names or collectively as "the Johns." At one point their backing band consisted of guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Dan Hickey, which was referred to as "the Band of Dans." The trope is lampshaded in the lyrics to "When Will You Die," recorded after Marty Beller replaced Hickey:
    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...
  • One-Woman Song: Ana Ng, of course.
  • Only Friend: Thoroughly zigzagged by the narrator of "Birdhouse in Your Soul".
    I'm your only friend
    I'm not your only friend
    But I'm a little glowing friend
    But really I'm not actually your friend
    But I am
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Flansburgh's generally not direct in his sentiments, but the rare occasions in which he is ("Sometimes a Lonely Way", "Good to Be Alive") are some of the band's most poignant tunes.
  • Pep-Talk Song: "Hovering Sombrero":
    When you take yourself for granted
    Feel rejected and unwanted
    Know you're never just a hat
  • 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
  • The Problem with Pen Island: The inspiration for "Weep Day" came from the tracklist for a Bob Dylan LP which printed "Mr. Tambourine Man" as "MR TAMBO- / URINE MAN", reflected in the songs chorus: "It's samba time for Tambo and weep day for Urine Man".
  • Protest Song: "Your Racist Friend" was their most direct one in their early years. After The War on Terror started, they've occasionally dipped into political commentary, though done in their usual whimsically sardonic way (e.g. "Black Ops").
  • Pun-Based Title: Back To Skull is a companion EP to the album John Henry (which has a recurring skull motif in the artwork), and it was released during "back to school" season.
  • Questioning Title?: Their children's album Here Comes Science features four examples, "How Many Planets?", "What Is A Shooting Star?", "Why Does the Sun Shine?", and "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?".
    • The title of another of their children's albums, Why?, also qualifies.
    • Examples from their adult albums include "What Did I Do To You?", "How Can I Sing Like A Girl?", "When Will You Die?", and "Why Must I Be Sad?".
  • Rainbow Motif: The song on their science album about the color spectrum is named after the common mnemonic "Roy G. Biv."
  • Rearrange the Song:
    • The original version of "Why Does the Sun Shine (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)" (from their 1993 EP of the same name) features a slower tempo and is mainly driven by accordion and glockenspiel, more closely resembling the original version of the song from 1959. The band rearranged it into an uptempo, punk rock version for their live album Severe Tire Damage. A variation on this arrangement was later used for their children's album Here Comes Science.
    • "Another First Kiss" and "Man, It's So Loud In Here" were both played live in very different arrangements before appearing on Mink Car:
      • "Another First Kiss" first appeared on Severe Tire Damage as uptempo New Wave Music, but appeared on Mink Car as a ballad.
      • "Man, It's So Loud In Here" was originally guitar-based alternative rock, but appeared on Mink Car in a more electronic arrangement with elements of hi-NRG and Synth-Pop. This was said to be the idea of Record Producer Adam Schlesinger, who noted the lyrical references to disco and nightclubs and thought it would be fitting to make the song sound more like something you might actually hear in a dance club.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Flansburgh is more outgoing, while Linnell is more reserved.
  • Repetitive Audio Glitch: A subtle case in "Ana Ng":
    And it sticks like a broken record
    Everything sticks like a broken record
    Everything sticks until it goes away
  • Rhino Rampage: The boss in the music video "Seven Days of the Week". He gets mad at the boy for not going to work, but cools down at the end.
  • Rockumentary: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, mixing cinéma vérité footage of their live shows and related activity in the summer and fall of 2001 with interviews, historical material, some animation and special inserts, plus people like Harry Shearer and Michael McKean reciting the band's lyrics.
  • Round Robin: The song "Exquisite Dead Guy" probably alludes to the Round Robin pastime that is known as Exquisite Corpse.
  • 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.
    • The vocals are a three-part harmony.
    • 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?"
  • Sampling:
    • "Boat of Car" sampled Johnny Cash's "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)" interpolates "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens.
    • "Now That I Have Everything" uses "5/4 Rock" by Joey D. Viera for a pre-recorded drum track.
    • The bridge to "Rhythm Section Want Ad" interpolates Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse".
    • The saxophone hook in "Number Three" is from Lou Monte's "Skinny Lena".
    • The backing track to "Minimum Wage" samples Frank Sinatra's Cover Version of Petula Clark's "Downtown".
    • 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".
    • "See The Constellation" samples the intro (specifically, Dee Dee Ramone yelling "One Two Three Four!!") from "Commando" by The Ramones.
    • "The World's Address (Joshua Fried Remix)" samples "Convoy" by C.W. McCall, but otherwise all the odd soundbites ("someone in the club tonight has stolen my ideas") and musical snippets ("Paging Mr. Saxophone!") were actually created specifically for the remix.
  • Self-Deprecation: The Avatars of They (the Johns' sock puppet alter-egos) often take chances to belittle their "opening act", They Might Be Giants, when they come onstage, calling them "cool, for a bunch of SUPER-OLD GUYS", saying they're total dicks, and lamenting of their poor treatment of being trapped in a suitcase for weeks on end and being forced to do covers of TMBG songs instead of their own.
    • An earlier example is the title of the collection of b-sides from their Bar None years - as a nod to the section of the record store where they often found their albums filed, the band named it Miscellaneous T.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Hinted at in "Stone Cold Coup d'Etat", a surreal song about underlings revolting 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 Gigantic, the director asks the Johns if they have ever had a show where they felt they were "phoning it in". They wisely brush off the question.
  • "Sesame Street" Cred: Tons, needless to say. There are the five children's albums, plus several songs contributed to children's shows (including Tiny Toon Adventures, KaBlam!, Higglytown Heroes and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse).
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Fans enjoy spotting words in TMBG lyrics that have probably not been used in any other song, ever, genre-be-damned. Sometimes the listener is forced to reach for a dictionary. For instance:
    • Cephalophore, from "You Probably Get That a Lot". A saint martyred by beheading, thus depicted as carrying their own head.
    • Cloisonné, from "Cloisonné". Artwork where colored glass is melted within non-glass borders.
    • Countrecoup, from "Contrecoup". A brain injury caused by collision between the brain and the side of the skull opposite the initial blow. The song is a metaphor for On the Rebound, and it also spouts phrenology (analysis of the psyche from the shape of a skull), craniosophic (learned in the ways of the cranium), and limerent (infatuated).
    • Métier, from "Never Knew Love". Synonym of "vocation" or "forte".
    • Mohenjo-daran, from "The Mesopotamians". Mohenjo-daro is an archeological site in the Indian sub-continenent that yields results rivaling those from Mesopotamia in age.
    • Obsequious, from "Turn Around". It means "groveling".
    • Omniverse, from "One Everything". As a synonym of multiverse, it means "all that could ever be in all dimensions", and it gets serious bonus points for appearing in one of their children's songs. ("We share the same omniverse. Please clean your room. We share the same omniverse.")
    • Panacea, from "Snowball in Hell", is a cure-all.
    • Savoir-faire, from "Extra Savoir-Faire". It means "social grace even in adversity".
    • Sophomore, from "Dirt Bike". This is actually a very common word in U.S. English, but see Double Meaning.
    • "Three Might Be Duende" swings for the bleachers. Framed as a Putting the Band Back Together story, it trots out apocryphal (of doubtful authenticity), espadrille (a light, flat-heeled shoe), martinet (a military disciplinarian), and duende itself, an Iberian "goblin".
    • The song "Money for Dope" almost doesn't count, since it is a Patter Song with no particular theme: the words are essentially random. Nevertheless, "banjolin" (a banjo-mandolin hybrid) is probably unique.
  • Shout-Out: Many.
    • Some shout-outs range from I Love Lucy to Plato's ''Allegory of the Cave' to Surrealist party games.
    • "Ana Ng" features the line "Make a hole with a gun perpendicular / To the name of this town in a desktop globe", a reference to a gag from Pogo.
    • The B-side "We're the Replacements" is an allusion to The Replacements, a fellow college rock band.
    • "Rhythm Section Want Ad" namedrops contemporaries Menudo, MDC, and Eurythmics.
    • "XTC vs Adam Ant" mentions, of course, the titular bands, as well as Bow Wow Wow.
    • "Thunderbird" references the chorus of "Fun, Fun, Fun" by The Beach Boys, changing "Daddy takes the T-Bird away" to "T-Bird takes her dad away".
    • The cover artwork on The Else features the Spanish words "Se aprovechan" (They take advantage), which are taken (in their original lettering) from a print of that title in Francisco de Goya's series The Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra). The song "Bee of the Bird of the Moth," on the same album, references Goya's etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razón produce monstruos), which features various spooky animals including owls, which also figure in the cover art.
  • 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.
    • "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)", a cover of a song by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Lou Singer and Hy Zaret, features lyrics explaining why the sun shines. The song's lyrics (which were written in the 1950s) have since been proven to be inaccurate (the sun is made of plasma, not gas). They later wrote a new song with updated lyrics to correct the errors. Both songs are featured in the band's fourth children's album Here Comes Science, which features many songs on scientific subjects.
  • Signs of Disrepair: The song "Alphabet Lost and Found" deals with many words and signs missing letters.
  • 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.
    • From My Murdered Remains, we have "Ampersand", which is almost certainly their happiest love song.
  • Singer-Songwriter: Flansburgh and Linnell basically use the Lennon/McCartney collaboration model—they write songs separately, then work together in the revision and performance stages, with whoever sings the lead vocal generally being the song's main writer. Of course, there are exceptions, with some actual co-written songs and cases where one John sang a song written by the other John ("The World's Address" and "Subliminal" being the most prominent examples).
  • Smoking Is Cool: John Flansburgh had a wooden pipe which was a huge part of his image until around 1992.
  • Solo Side Project: John Flansburgh had the side project Mono Puff, John Linnell had "State Songs" and "House of Mayors", and bassist Danny Weinkauf has a career in children's music.
  • Song of Song Titles: "Why Must I Be Sad?" is about a kid who, according to John Flansburgh, "hears all of his unspoken sadness given voice in the music of Alice Cooper". It name-drops several of Cooper's songs, including "No More Mister Nice Guy", "I Love the Dead", "Dead Babies", "Raped and Freezin'", and "Only Women Bleed".
  • Song Style Shift: "How Many Planets?" from Here Comes Science changes styles several times to represent each of the planets in The Solar System.
  • Spin-Off: John Linnell's "State Songs", "Roman 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". He's not even subtle about it.
    If you don't know by now, just look, I'm right outside
    You've got to admit that I'm your boyfriend now
  • Step Up to the Microphone: On the kids' albums, the backing bandmates will sing lead on songs they themselves wrote.
  • Studio Chatter:
    • "(She Thinks She's) Edith Head" parodies this, with both versions having non-sequitur spoken word mixed very low when the song goes quiet.
    • Their (instrumental) cover of "Lady Is A Tramp" starts with a yell of "Yeah!"
  • 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". Even more bizarre, "Nina" was released first, by more than five years.
    • 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.)
    • In 2020, a song called "Stillub" started appearing in their live sets - it was simply the band imitating a reversed recording of their song "Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love" on live instruments. Fans naturally recorded and reversed it, winding up with something recognizable as the original song, albeit with that "Twin Peaks" effect mentioned above. The Johns even did a little bit of choreography designed to look strange until the video was played in reverse, complete with walking away from their microphones backwards at the end of the song. Starting in 2022, they perform this version of the song in the evening's first set, and then play a reversed video of the earlier performance just before they come on stage for the second set.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion:
    • "Kiss Me, Son of God" has one. Two if you have a dirty mind and forgot the title.
    • "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head", too: "The check's in the mail, and I'll see you in church."
    • "I'll Sink Manhattan":
      I've got a message
      So before I get
      I'll find your answering machine
      And I'll sink it
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: In "Critic Intro":
    The performers are not grinning scarecrows sent to torture and manipulate you.
  • Take That!: "Purple Toupee" is a jab at '60s musical revivalism, featuring a speaker who is similarly both obsessed with and clueless about the 1960s.
  • Technician Versus Performer: The Johns describe themselves this way. Flansburgh compliments Linnell's ability to whip out catchy tunes, while Linnell compliments Flansburgh's ability to create memorable and unusual details. They each point to the other as the reason for their success.
  • Textless Album Cover: Lincoln, The Else, Glean, and The Escape Team each have one.
    • In contrast, the covers of Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (a 2011 compilation album), Phone Power, I Like Fun, and My Murdered Remains are made up of nothing but text.
    • The cover of Flood was originally just going to be the picture of the guy in the makeshift raft with no text, but Elektra insisted on adding something else, so they compromised with the fairly unobtrusive Flood logo.
  • 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."
    • "Everything Right is Wrong Again" contains two different instances of the lines "And now this song is over now (x3) / This song is over now." For added humour value, one of them is in the middle of the song.
    • "Number Three" is the third track on their first album, and is entirely about itself.
    • "On Earth My Nina" starts with Linnell saying softly, "Here's my song."
    • Midway through "Creepy" (from Flansburgh's side project Mono Puff), Flansburgh announces, "This song is called 'Creepy'."
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Played for Horror on "If Day for Winnipeg," based on a simulated Nazi rade used to sell Canadian war bonds.
  • Time Travel: The song "2082" is about this. It's also an inversion of Never the Selves Shall Meet and Help Yourself in the Future, as the character finds and murders their elderly future self.
  • Tongue Twister: Quite often, perhaps best exemplified in their early, early song "Now That I Have Everything:
    I wasn't always so fortunate
    But I knew what I had to do to be well-to-do
    And it had to do with the things
    I had to do
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Implied in "ECNALUBMA", which tells the story of its protagonist bruised and battered, lying in wait for medics to arrive, after "a day of impulsive fun".
    Well, it's a good thing that I brought a napkin
    I knew that this would happen
    Why does this always happen
    That a day of impulsive fun becomes an evening
    Of injury, blood and grieving
    Injury, blood and grieving
  • 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.
    • "Los Angeles" from "Venue Songs" in the last 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.
  • Uncommon Time: They've done a fair number of songs with this, particularly favoring 6/8. "Now That I Have Everything" uses a 5/4 drum track (a recording actually called "5/4 Rock") in an otherwise 4/4 song, giving it an off-kilter rhythm.
  • The Unpronounceable: The appropriately-titled "Unpronounceable" deals with the narrator's obsession with decrypting someone's unpronounceable name.
  • 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.
  • 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 The Night of the Hunter.
  • Wham Line: The last two lines of "You'll Miss Me": "It must be raining, 'cause a man ain't supposed to cry, / But I look up, and I don't see a cloud."
  • 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".
  • Who's on First?: When you tell people about They Might Be Giants, you'll often hear an Obligatory Joke of "Well, are they?"
  • Why Won't You Die?: Prominent in - shocker - "When Will You Die?"
  • 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 "Thinking Machine" does the same, but lampshades it.
  • Would Hit a Girl: "Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel". Quoth John Flansburgh: "The entire conceit of the song is that it’s about an extremely formal person, like the kind of person that would challenge someone to a duel — only that the twist is that they are challenging a lady to a duel, which breaks every code of behavior in the world of dueling." The lyrics imply the eponymous madam is a Combat Pragmatist.


Higglytown Heroes

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