But really it’s not actually your friend.
John Linnell and John Flansburgh of Brooklyn, New York, form the unlikely alternative rock group They Might Be Giants. Compared to their peers, their albums have a strong kid appeal. It only makes sense that TMBG would eventually release kids albums teaching the alphabet, numbers, and science. They were good at it: Here Come the 123’s won the Grammy for Best Children’s Album.
Their music can be found in unlikely places. Homestar Runner, Sky High, Dunkin’ Donuts ads, the theme song to Malcolm In The Middle…. John Linnell’s voice can be heard as the singing voice of The Other Father in the movie Coraline.
My first exposure to the two Johns was from Tiny Toon Adventures, which featured cartoon shorts that animated Plucky Duck as he tries to survive the songs “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (a song originally sung by Canadian group The Four Lads) and “Particle Man”. It was from the all music video episode. I don’t even remember what the other songs on that episode were, because gosh darned it was TMBG that was the real standout. I cannot hear “Particle Man” without imagining a bunch of over-muscled wrestlers beating the crap out of the poor child protege of Daffy Duck.
Those two songs were lifted from their platinum third album, Flood, which was released in 1989. Another song from that album is “Birdhouse In Your Soul”. It is, simply put, a song about a blue canary nightlight. (One note spelled “L-I-T-E”.) How does a song about a nightlight become the two Johns’ biggest hit? I think, despite its simplicity, many find the song symbolic and find a deeper meaning. It raises questions such as:
- What does it mean that this little nightlight cannot live up to its primitive ancestors?
- Perhaps while it cannot protect heroes like Jason and the Argonauts, it can still provide comfort in the most humble of origins?
- Is this what it means by the story being infinite, because even our own stories are defined by those who came before us?
- Is the reference to the Longines Symphonette simply an obscure callback, or does it tap into John Linnell’s hazy nostalgia of youth?
Not to put too fine a point on it, this song is the bee in my bonnet.
For more on TMBG, there’s a wonderful Artist Spotlight on this site looking at all their albums.