Not Into Jabberwocky


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is kind of from a Rat Pack point of view—like the guy singing is really into his own swagger, but he’s also kind of out of date and out of it.”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.

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4 Responses to Not Into Jabberwocky

  1. Ah, good ol’ triangular Robert Mitchum! But yeah, when it comes to interpreting TMBG songs, it does seem that the majority of them fall into two or three fundamental types: those that are about exactly what they sound like they’re about (i.e. Love is Eternity), those whose lyrics don’t actually mean much of anything in particular (i.e. Fingertips), and that tenuous third category of songs whose “true” meanings are fairly straightforward to the Johns but not to anybody else (i.e. Cloisonne). I mean, taken purely at face value, “Particle Man” is an incredibly straightforward song that is just about assorted dudes beating each other up. Since it isn’t secretly a treatise on religion or homosexuality or physics or whatever the billion other weird interpretations are, the Robert Mitchum thing seems almost beside the point since the other characters in the song don’t seem to be related to other actors or movie characters at all.

    Like you though, I always wonder why that’s the ONE TMBG song everybody seizes upon as somehow being the most cryptic. The one that puzzles me the most is always “Sally Boy Candy Bar” because for as disjointed as the lyrics are, there’s that whole weird gender thing running throughout which makes it seem like the sort of song that’s right on the verge of meaning something.

    I think the other thing is, we’ll never know exactly how much thought was put into each particular line and word of each lyric too, outside of songs who have demo or dial-a-song versions that are lyrically different from the finished product (i.e. demo vs. final versions of “Maine” or “I’m You Boyfriend Now”). Cloisonne seems really confused but was actually really meticulously constructed to appear that way, as opposed to, say, S-E-X-X-Y, which seems underthought in that Flans was totally unaware of the way most of the listeners would wind up reading a meaning into the song that was completely unintended by him, but is actually feasible within the context of the lyrics.

    -L.K.

    • Nathan says:

      I find the gender stuff in “Sally Boy Candy Bar” interesting as well, but it makes sense that it doesn’t come up as much in discussions of obscure TMBG songs since it’s nowhere near as famous as “Particle Man.” I think the only version of SBCB we have is a Dial-A-Song recording, though, and those often weren’t fleshed out. Just listen to the DAS version of “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” which is full of nonsense, while the finished version is pretty straightforward. Maybe it would have made more sense if they’d deemed it worth recording for an album.

  2. I watched the movie Pi the other day and parts of it really reminded me of Spiraling Shape.

  3. Pingback: The Future Sound | VoVatia

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