The very first time I heard They Might be Giants (TMBG) was in the late 80s, when, as a kid, round 7 or 8 years old, I liked to cycle through the radio stations on my AM/FM radio, enjoying the random peals of voices and musical collage the rotation created. I guess this was my personal lo-fi precursor to a YouTube Loop.
One day a snippet from the now seminal Birdhouse in Your Soul flared up through the crackle and hiss. It would not be another 5 years before I would accidentally hear the tune again and be able to assign it to a band name, and even then I thought they were called The Giants…
Such were the dark ages of pre-Shazam and pre-internet search queries. If you didn’t know it, you just didn’t, and had few tools to remedy it. Other than stopping people on the street.
This band, now in its nigh on 3rd decade of activity, has recently made a foray into children’s music, and we should collectively thank them for the result.
I hate children’s music. Not because it’s for children, but because a vast amount of it is rampantly shit; preening, tuneless simplicity that condescends to the smartest section of humanity, usually by artists hoping to make an easy buck from the nag factor, and who are usually the last kinds of people we would willingly choose to have educate our kids.
Not so with TMBG. The band have created four albums alongside their normal fare (which is extensive and prodigious to say the least), all with different focuses, specifically for the children’s market. They are No! (a familiar word that parents will know all too well), Here Come the ABCs (you guessed it – learning the alphabet), Here Come the 123s (numerals) and easily the best, Here Comes Science (which is about 19th Century relativist abstract art as seen through the cultural prism of oh OK then, Science.)
The “Here Come The” album Series come (if obtained as hard copies) with an accompanying DVD each featuring videos of every single song. Varying in style (puppetry, animation, etc), they have been collaged together by friends of the band who work in video and art direction. Videos can be watched individually, as a set from beginning to end, or as a “Show”, with each video introduced by two puppets called John and John (the wonderful John Linell and John Flansburgh, who head up TMBG) who make wonderful and bizarre conversation with each other.
And while the songs are instructional, teaching kids subtly the difference between even and odd numbers, that the secret life of the number 6 is to stand on his head and pretend he’s a 9, or that “There’s Only 1 Everything” – teaching children not only about “One” but about Unity with seemingly effortless subtlety, they are also so extremely hilarious and bizarre that every parent will most likely shed a quiet tear that these guys weren’t THEIR children’s music.
Here Comes Science is, in my opinion, just about the best musically and thematically. A fast-paced semi-punk cover of the song “Why Does The Sun Shine?” explains that “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas/A gigantic Nuclear Furnace”, but is then rapidly followed by another song called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?”, which revises the understandings of the sun’s function up to present day knowledge, with a line that encompasses the willingness, indeed necessity, for science to happily abandon prior understandings based on EVIDENCE:
“The sun is a miasma of incandescent plasma, the sun’s not simply made out of gas … forget that song, they got it wrong, that thesis has been rendered invalid.”
Yeah… show me some children’s music that gets anywhere NEAR teaching children how to learn about learning, or that revising knowledge is OK and nothing to be ashamed of. In fact this emotional angle is directly noted in the video for the song, in which the scientist singing the updating song flinches when the scientist from the prior song approaches him, worried he will put his nose out of joint – literally. Instead they shake hands in a happy, enlightened fashion. They have gained from the collective advancement of knowledge.
The album additionally covers evolution (A family reunion for the singer which surprisingly includes apes, cows and giraffes!), the spectrum of light (embodied by a crazed elf called “Roy G. Biv”, a hilarious mnemonic for “Red Orange Green etc” that was new to me until I heard the song, but is well established in the US), what the work of a paleontologist involves, what elemets are and how they can be combined…man – the list goes on and on, so I won’t.
And when your 4 year old turns to you and starts talking about what a scientific theory is, you’ll see the true value of children’s music isn’t just the children’s music per se, but what you are left with afterwards.
TMBGKids on Youtube hosts what looks like everything from TMBG’s Kids Music career for free (it also looks like it’s been set up by the band themselves) , along with some podcasts (with even more bizarre puppetry-based comedy.)
Do yourself and your sprogs a favour and sit down to witness them together.
I am hugely indebted to the artist Puy Soden for introducing me to this series.
If nothing else, it reminded me suddenly of that little boy in the 80s, skipping the sizzling and sparking channels on his AM/FM Radio in his bedroom.