Monday, November 07, 2011

I See Smoke Signals Coming From Them

On 4 November 1986, They Might Be Giants released their eponymous full-length debut studio album. Although I didn't buy the album on its release, I do remember seeing the video of "Don't Let's Start" a few times on MTV. It wasn't until a few years later that I actually purchased my first TMBG album - still, by the time their mainstream breakthrough Flood was released in January of 1990, their discography already numbered two full-length albums and another album of B-sides and rarities.

They Might Be Giants occupy a unique position in rock music history. They are simultaneously one of the last true "college rock" bands to emerge out of the underground independent music scene of the early and mid 1980s, as well as one of the first true "alternative" bands to rise to prominence at the outset of the 1990s. Their career trajectory was almost a textbook example of how rock & roll careerism worked in the years between R.E.M. and Nirvana respectively broke: a hard-working and fiercely talented group rises up from years of steady gigging in a supportive local music scene (in their case, Brooklyn, NY), builds a national presence on the underground level through relentless touring and a commitment to proactive DIY promotion, before finally "graduating" to a recording contract at a major label.

The only difference between TMBG and the aforementioned R.E.M. - not to mention the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, the Pixies, et al - is that TMBG were and remain doggedly strange in a way that never quite mapped onto existing notions of rock's stylistic hierarchy. Even a band like the Flaming Lips - perhaps their closest analogue, even down to the fact that both bands were signed to appendages of Warner Music - still at least somewhat corresponded to preexisting ideas of what rock music was "supposed" to sounds like. The Lips, especially back in 1990 at the time of the release of In A Priest Driven Ambulance, were very weird but they were weird in a recognizable fashion: noise-rocking acid casualties who were cool because they didn't give a shit. TMBG was two nervous-looking vaguely Judaic white guys who wore button-down shirts and played the accordion over breakneck drum machine loops. They weren't "through being cool," they had never been cool, and proud of it. While there are certainly stylistic forebears - you can see bits and bobs of "nerd rock" predecessors such as the Feelies, the B52s, Devo and a few British synth-rock acts - TMBG were unique, a cult act that should never have been able to achieve three top-twenty hits on the US Modern Rock chart, let alone a Platinum plaque and a handful of Grammys.

It might be difficult to explain, at this late date, the ubiquitous significance of TMBG to nerds and recovering nerds of a certain age. One of the problems is that, in the 25 years since the band began their recording career, what we consider "nerd culture" has changed drastically. When They Might Be Giants and Lincoln hit, nerds were still nerds in the most pejorative sense possible. Comic book stores, gaming groups, and sci-fi conventions were still fringe activities, and the collective force of societal disapprobation that accompanied these phenomena was significant enough to imbue a monstrously strong sense of entitled defensiveness on multiple generations of kids who grew up ostracized and isolated. The reasons for this ostracism were many and varied, but there is truth in the notion that whatever problems a kid growing up in the United States may have had - precocious intellect, acne, obesity, social incompetence, poverty, disability, mental illness - burgeoning nerd culture represented a welcome and essential respite from the problems of the "real" world. They Might Be Giants was for decades the house band at the Android's Dungeon, and perhaps the purest example of nerd-culture F.U.B.U. - For Us, By Us, outsiders need not apply.

But that's not the world we live in anymore, or at least, not entirely. I see sorority sisters with their Greek-branded pink sweatshirts and Ugg boots reading George R. R. Martin paperbacks on the bus. It's long become cultural conventional wisdom that for all the trials of youth and public schooling, people who look like They Might Be Giants often end up running the show when they grow up. Porn stars play AD&D. All of this is not to say that suddenly high-school bullying is over and social misfits slide through life with the greatest of ease. The continuing success of a show like Glee attests to the universality of social ostracism in primary and secondary school - despite the fact that only in Hollywood would these people not be considered immensely attractive and successful individuals.

The point, however, remains: it doesn't mean the same thing to be a nerd in 2011 as it did in 1986 or even 1996. Now almost all of the most remunerative entertainment franchises in the world are essentially nerd properties. J.R.R. Tolkien no longer belongs to nerds. Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men no longer belong to the nerds. Harry Potter never belonged to the nerds. The biggest comic book conventions belong to Hollywood. People who actually play sports and date real girls continue to play video games after middle school - which is something that I still can't wrap my head around. A man who became famous from publishing a black & white independent comic book about zombies appeared on an American talk show with Barbara Walters and Elisabeth Hasselback. Even good old "Weird Al" Yankovic is still going strong. It's a strange world for anyone who grew up having to hide comic books from their friends or was socially shunned for reading sci-fi paperbacks on the school bus. The underlying conditions remain - weird kids still get picked on and seek out divergent subcultures in order to find places they can "fit in" - but the collective nerd media apparatus has evolved to the point where it no longer really belongs to us anymore. In many crucial ways, nerd media is the media.

Where exactly do They Might Be Giants fit into this brave new world? What does Dr. Spock's Backup Band do when Dr. Spock is a sex symbol? That's a good question.

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