They Might Be Giants’ 1990 song “Birdhouse in Your Soul” hardly sounds like a chart-topper—which makes sense, given that it only ever reached No. 3. (On the Modern Rock chart, thank you very much.) But what makes a bona fide classic, Billboard stats aside, is a song’s ability to communicate across decades, reconciling our past and present selves with one another. (In the case of “Birdhouse,” those selves are awkward teenage geeks trying to navigate their own identity—and thirtysomethings who live in a world rather more respectful of geekiness than our high schools were.) This is exactly what “Birdhouse in Your Soul” does, though in a way that the band’s John Linnell and John Flansburgh couldn’t have imagined when they wrote it 25 years ago.
They Might Be Giants had cut their teeth in New York’s early-’80s No Wave scene, playing the overly exuberant kid brother to “serious” acts like Sonic Youth and Swans. Armed with samplers, puppets, and yardstick-tall hats, they earned a reputation as thrillingly bizarro showmen. Every journalist who reviewed the duo exhausted his thesaurus in search of synonyms for quirky. But with modern ears, we can hear something in They Might Be Giants’ music more profound and specific than what Roget might call eccentric, madcap, or zany.
“Birdhouse in Your Soul” announces itself in the way that a curious visitor haphazardly clicks from page to page on Wikipedia. The song’s narrator is a blue nightlight, but he’s shaped like a canary, so he compares himself to a proverbial bee in the bonnet. Then his luminescence leads him to a comparison with a painting of a lighthouse, which reminds him of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Along the way, the lyrics hyperlink to midcentury wristwatches and congressional procedural maneuvers, while the music pays tribute to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” (A choice, John Linnell notes, that “corny as it sounds,” was inspired by the brutal heat of the summer of 1989 when they were recording the album). The song is barely three minutes long, but it changes keys 18 times. And let’s not even try to make sense of the video.
Strange as it sounds, the song was always intended as a big single—a goal that almost wrecked the entire song. Linnell, in cutting a second demo, attempted to, as he put it, be “more impressive and professional sounding.” Instead of the now-familiar drum pattern with the snare on every beat, Linnell switched to a straightforward rock groove with a snare drum on the second and fourth beats of every measure. “To their enormous credit,” Linnell notes, the album’s producers, Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley responded, “You wrecked it, why are you playing this? You ruined it.” Thus was “Birdhouse” rescued from excessive populism, preserving its idiosyncratic charm.
Both literary and exuberantly naive, the song epitomizes a particular everything-at-once way of thinking and being. In the ’80s, it was easy to disparage hyperassociation like this as awkwardly geekish. It belied an ignorance of when to shut up—think Rick Moranis as the factoid-spouting Louis Tully in Ghostbusters. (Or for that matter, Rick Moranis in anything.) But something funny happened on the way to the millennium: the geeks won. Seemingly everyone “geeks out” about something in this, an age characterized by its overabundance of information. Enthusiasm became cool: we crave to connect our obsessions to the world around us in haphazard polyphony. In short, everything that once seemed weird about “Birdhouse in Your Soul” has become, well, normal.
It’s apt, then, that the song appeared on an album called Flood. After two solid indie efforts, Flood was They Might Be Giants’ major-label debut, and it broke them out from the avant-garde and into real transatlantic fame. Aided by a congregation of zealots in college radio and in the MTV offices, Elektra Records pushed Flood on a newly ascendant generation of—let’s not beat around the bush—geeks. Suddenly playing concerts in suburban theatres increasingly full of spectacled teens, the bewildered band was left wondering what had become of their old art-damaged urbanite fans. There was little to complain about, though, as the crowds grew and the record sales crept slowly up—eventually bestowing upon Flood, according to the band, the curious distinction of having taken longer to go platinum than any other million-seller.
But although Linnell and Flansburgh themselves never self-identified with the G-word description (Flansburgh continues to identify as a punk, noting that his musical idols “punched people in the face”), the importance of their music to this new audience is tough to understate. We were, after all, the generation for whom “geek” ceased being an insult and became a badge of honor. And in a funny way, Flood played a real part in that.
“Birdhouse in Your Soul” and its littermates reject the fundamental expectation that a song is about a particular topic, and that its identity comes from that topic. This is a rule of pop. More insidiously, if you replace song with person, then this expectation translates to an unwritten rule of social identity, or as it’s commonly called, being cool. “Birdhouse in Your Soul” refuses to be about one single thing, and elsewhere on the album, this refusal hits fever pitch. On the would-be theme song “They Might Be Giants,” the band uncorks a flood of all the things they might be, never quite hammering down what they are: “They might be rain, they might be heat, they might be frying up a stalk of wheat.” When John Flansburgh later sings, “They might be Dr. Spock’s back-up band,” you’re left wondering whether it’s a botched reference to Star Trek’s geek idol Mr. Spock, or whether he seriously just namedropped pediatrician Benjamin Spock. (That this seems plausible in a pop song is itself amazing.)
The answer never comes, of course. That sort of ambiguity was the point. And those two songs were nestled in among 17 others covering topics including pet rocks, the Young Fresh Fellows, racism, quantum physics, and the 15th-century renaming of Constantinople. And it was gleeful. In 1990, no other pop music offered such a freeing affirmation of wholeness and weirdness to teenagers who risked being uncool whenever they spoke.
For many of us, the world is a bit scarier than it was in 1990: There are a lot of reasons, now, why the ocean levels are rising up. But nearly a quarter-century on, Flood and, of course, its most iconic song is still a source of comfort in a world that too often tells us to stop drawing in margins, to stop playing the class clown, to speak up, run faster, act cooler, stop daydreaming, stop sulking, stop singing, stop underachieving, stop overachieving, stop flooding. If we were to give in to sentimentality—and why would we hold back while talking about Flood—we might even, not to put too fine a point on it, call the song our nightlight.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Irritating Confidante
John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.
My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s
Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band
Can it be again?
The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee
Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?
Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?
Driving in Circles
The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.