Break Yo’ TV: They Might Be Giants – “Birdhouse In Your Soul”

There are innovative, disturbing, wacky, oftentimes surreal music videos out there. One of my favorites of all time (Genesis’ “Land Of Confusion”) scared me half to death as a child. From sopping up MTV’s once perpetual stream of videos like Anti-Pop incarnate to scanning the annals of YouTube for some goofy retro moment, standards are no longer to seek the sheer goofy (see: “Safety Dance”) or horrifying (see: “August Underground”). Instead, let us have a little…harmless…fun.

Before Weezer, Harvey Danger, and today’s indie empire, there were They Might Be Giants. Originally consisting of just two men — John Flansburgh and John Linnell — TMBG have been known for years as Brooklyn’s crowned geeks of alternative nerd rock. The two Johns have a deeply rooted following that appreciates them in a way I could never fully encompass here.

Their style is indicative of later act The Presidents of the United States of America (they probably share a fan base, at the very least) or even reigning mentally advanced grandmasters Devo; but where PUSA tends to be more novelty in the dork sense and consisted of a fully-fleshed rock band upon inception, TMBG is the bookworm in band class that made Revenge Of The Nerds an instant reality. Even if you are like me and merely enjoyed the singles output, it still gets mighty strange, not to mention educational.

Think Barenaked Ladies’ Snack Time presented by a prodigious grad student, and that should be a rough estimate of what to expect.

References to US Presidents (“James K. Polk”), obscure artists (“Meet James Ensor”), science facts (“The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas”), and the 1964 World’s Fair (“Ana Ng”) run rampant throughout the TMBG canon. This is the same band who went on tour with an express purpose to write and perform a new song on each stop in tribute to the places and venues they were in (see: “The Orange Peel”, based on the club in Asheville, NC). Since all of us who were raised on Tiny Toons probably recall the “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Particle Man” animated skits written around two of TMBG’s most well-known songs, we bring to you another example to pick apart: “Birdhouse In Your Soul”.

The 1989 single “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is essentially a lullaby wrapped in a verbose pop song full of random factoids (I now know what a Longines Symphonette is, for starters) — easy to sing along to, even if you feel a bit stupid afterward. Once the plot begins to manifest itself, you are a child again, longing for that precious night light to keep you safe from harm in the shadowy bedroom.

Simple enough, yes? A “blue canary” night light (L-I-T-E) that plays the role of “guardian angel” and feels warm and familiar. Lullaby sung from the night light’s perspective? Very Dr. Seuss of them, so we can totally buy into it. Looking like cult priests in the music video? Suffice it to say, a resurrected childhood sweetheart couldn’t do a better job. On a side note…Pushing Daisies got canceled?

Our music video here kicks off with John Linnell’s head detached from his body, illuminated by a circle of what appear to be candles or light bulbs. With me so far? Floating head? Ring of fire? We have to assume this is intended to make Linnell appear as the song’s night light, but given his sinister grin, who knows? After this, we see a barrage of randomness that defies any means of literal translation, with exception of the numerous antique light fixtures, lit-up fun house hallways, and dimming switches surrounding the Johns’ rotating stage.

The camera alternates between four primary targets during the course of the video: John Linnell singing from a balcony, taking the role of narrator and dictator; Flansburgh (picture a cross between Eraserhead and Greg Proops on guitar) and Linnell dressed in all black, dancing either like seizure victims or robots depending on when they are being filmed; a group of cult onlookers mindlessly hopping (yes, hopping) and marching along in black Converse All-Stars (the originals, mind you) and red plaid shirts with cardboard cutouts of eyes over their actual eyes (just don’t ask); Flansburgh and Linnell walking down their flashy hallways like Wonka trying to stalk you Voorhees-style.

This song is so addictive that one could eat up the music video and dismiss it as two zany guys having some fun with the camera crew — if not for one scene. During the final verse of “Birdhouse”, you see Linnell on the rotating stage in an antique chair. He has what appears to be a phonograph speaker or old-timey microphone in his lap and a dimmer switch near his left hand, which controls a nearby lamp; he fiddles with the switch like an ADHD-diagnosed toddler, all the while singing his verse and keeping a dead-eyed stare and wide-mouthed grin at the viewer, the camera steadily zooming in on him. I can grasp the absurdities of the dance moves, the irrelevance of most anything in a music video, especially one from the ’80s, but seriously. Was Linnell just really trying to foreshadow Heaven’s Gate in a humorous fashion? Was it telling of a future candy-striped zombie apocalypse?

Fun house or madhouse? Your call. There are even happy faces over the ends of the trumpets being played during the song, and I still have no idea what the purpose is. Was the brass section on Prozac? Is that medicinal reference anachronistic? I don’t even care anymore. Look away, Timmy, look away! Up next after this commercial break: how Ana Ng got her groove back, how a vermes percussionist can feasibly lift his drumstick, and why “no” still means “no” — a million times, “NO”.


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