For They Might Be Giants, there’s no success like failure
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, May 9, 2002) -- Simon and Garfunkel. Loggins and Messina. Eurythmics. Hall and Oates. The pop-rock landscape is littered with the scattered remains of duos that rarely lasted a decade, much less the 20 years together that John Flansburgh and John Linnell are celebrating this year.
Doing business as They Might Be Giants, Flansburgh and Linnell have a lot to celebrate. In February they won their very first Grammy Award, for the theme song to the TV sitcom, “Malcolm in the Middle.” In just a few weeks they will release their first-ever children’s album, No! And they are busy at work putting together a retrospective box-set, to be released next fall, which will undoubtedly stand as the official last word on their career, at least until the next retrospective box-set of their music is released.
As avid historians of pop music, Flansburgh and Linnell are undoubtedly aware that the odds are stacked against them, and that every year they remain together they are setting a new world record. So Flansburgh has a theory ready and waiting that explains how They Might Be Giants – who perform tomorrow night at Mass MoCA in North Adams (662-2111) at 8 -- have been able to stick it out where so many others have broken up in acrimony and lawsuits.
“I think honestly manageable success and manageable failure have really been our best friends,” said Flansburgh in a recent phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment. “We’ve always had enough success to feel like there’s a reason to go on, and we’ve always been hungry enough that we knew we had to work hard. And I think it’s led us to have a very unneurotic career.”
“Success is as big an unraveling event in a musical career as failure. Failure you can really get used to. Success is completely inconsistent. You might be successful for a short period of time, but then you just have the weird aftershock of that event to live up to or get through, and that’s usually where everything falls apart.”
Maybe that’s what Bob Dylan meant when he sang, “There’s no success like failure/And failure’s no success at all.”
Not that They Might Be Giants has never enjoyed its modicum of success. The college radio favorites have had a longtime cult following, and videos for songs including “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” were popular in the early-‘90s and have continued to be highly influential in the field.
They also scored big with the theme music for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and their web-addicted fans helped make their album Long Tall Weekend the best-selling digital download for the geek set.
Geekdom has always worked for the duo, who virtually pioneered the sort of geek-rock that bands like Weezer now play for arena crowds. But just as bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam rose to fame on a second-wave of punk-rock energy, leaving behind the genre’s innovators like the Ramones and the Clash in the dust commercially speaking, so too have They Might Be Giants nobly failed to ever catch on in a big way with the mainstream.
Commercial irrelevancy is a mantle Flansburgh is proud to wear. “Most bands are about capturing the spirit of some cultural moment,” he said, “and I think we’ve always known that we were fully and totally beside the point. We’re not about the big stuff of the culture. We don’t even like the big stuff of the culture. I don’t relate to this time in pop culture any more than I relate to any other time. I didn’t like Whitney Houston, and then I didn’t like Mariah Carey, and I don’t like whoever the new one is going to be. It’s not where I’m at.”
Luxuriating in a career that is so besides the point made winning a Grammy Award all the more thrilling. “It was really like being in a dream,” said Flansburgh, “and the fact that we won made it seem even more like a dream. At first it was like, what happened? Who made the mistake that we would accidentally get invited to this thing? Then the fact that we actually won was kind of the topper.
“The nice thing about it is that ultimately we did kind of earn it. It was the song that really resonated with people…. We were up against highly platinum-encrusted competition, so the idea that we would even have a chance is surprising. But I realize looking back on it that the reason we were nominated was somebody actually believed we deserved to win.”
Flansburgh and Linnell were friends growing up in Lincoln, Mass. They moved to Brooklyn after college and formed They Might Be Giants by pioneering a “Dial-a-Song” service, whereby fans could call their answering machine and hear a new song every day – sort of the pre-Internet precursor of free music downloads.
Since then they have gained a following for the quirky, wiseguy attitude and smart songs filled with verbal wordplay – the chorus of the song “I Palindrome I” is “Man-o-nam.” Their songs often work on several levels, as catchy rock songs but also as ironic commentaries on pop culture.
A lot of their songs are simply silly, and as such Flansburgh is already used to people reacting to the news that the group is coming out with a children’s album with shrugs of indifference. The meaning is clear: for 20 years, They Might Be Giants has been making music whose appeal in part lies in its childlike iconoclasm. So why start now?
“There’s always been a very genuine link between us and the spirit of the best kids stuff,” said Flansburgh. “And that’s really just about creating stuff that sets your imagination free. That’s an impulse that not all musicians and not all songwriters are that curious about.
“But I’ve always felt there’s a very clear distinction between what we did and kids stuff. To write a children’s record we actually had to make a very conscious effort to have it make sense for kids.”
Indeed, with its songs about liars, balloons, robots, clapping hands, and looking both ways before crossing the street, the humor on “No!” is pitched much more directly to children. That doesn’t mean, however, that grown-ups won’t appreciate it as much as they did songs from recent albums like Mink Car, Factory Showroom and John Henry. Who knows – They Might Be Giants might even win the Grammy Award next year for best children’s album. Stranger things have happened.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 10, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]