One interesting quote from John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants that I’d seen before came up in this post on the song “Love Is Eternity”: “We’re not into jabberwocky. I feel like we could write a song with the title ‘I Wanna Fuck You’ and people would still say, ‘I don’t understand.explain to me what that song means.’ For whatever reason, the reputation that the band has, people just assume that we’re somehow cryptic. But I think a lot of what we do makes quite a bit of sense at face value.” I suppose there are really two issues at hand here, one being whether their songs have an obvious meaning, and the other being whether there’s some kind of cryptic, hidden meaning. The lack of the former does not necessarily imply the latter. While I don’t know what’s going on in the Johns’ heads (or any songwriters’ heads) when they write songs, it’s possible that some of their stuff doesn’t really mean anything in particular. Take a song like “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes.”
Does that mean ANYTHING at face value? Seemingly not, unless I’m missing something obvious, which I wouldn’t totally rule out. When I first became a fan of the band, though, I noticed that some people in online communities were coming up with rather convoluted interpretations for TMBG songs, and I tried my hand at a few myself. What I came to realize is that such interpretations say a lot more about the person writing them than about the actual songwriters. I guess, if pressed to it, I’d say “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes” is about the fragility of the human condition. We’re snowmen with protective rubber skin, and tiny dancing skeletons surrounded by fleshy overcoats. That doesn’t mean that every line in the song has to reflect that overarching idea, however. Still, I’ve come across a few comments from the Johns about what they were thinking when they came up with certain lyrics, and I have to say many of them aren’t exactly what I would consider obvious. Take one of their recent songs, “Cloissoné,” about which Flansburgh said, “The lyric is kind of from a Rat Pack point of view—like the guy singing is really into his own swagger, but he’s also kind of out of date and out of it.” I don’t know that I ever would have come up with that on my own.
I know they’ve also said that Triangle Man in “Particle Man,” a song that tends to get a lot of interpretation primarily because of its inexplicable popularity (Tiny Toons probably had a lot to do with that in my generation, but that doesn’t explain why it’s successful with younger crowds as well), was based on how one of the Johns thought Robert Mitchum looked like an evil triangle. Would anyone have thought of that on their own? That said, it’s not like the song is really ABOUT Robert Mitchum; he’s just one component of it.
As a Lewis Carroll fan, I can’t help but wonder why Flans’s word for cryptic lyrics is “Jabberwocky.” I’m sure he didn’t think a whole lot about it, but the poem itself really isn’t that hard to understand. It’s about a guy who kills a monster; that much is pretty obvious. The cryptic part lies in all the nonsense words Carroll uses. And while TMBG doesn’t seem to be that much into nonsense words (“Prevenge” notwithstanding), there are quite a few where a noun seems to be a rather nonsensical placeholder. Take something like “Dirt Bike,” which Flans has confirmed is about cults, and isn’t that difficult to understand once you get past the dirt bike itself. Or take “Spiraling Shape,” on which the band has said that the spiraling shape can stand for just about anything. So I think there IS a fair amount of Jabberwocky there, but you’re less likely to get mimsy borogoves than you are a picture in a book of a beautiful crook.