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They Might Be Giants.

They Might Be Giants

They scamper onstage, just the two of them with their prerecorded backing tacks and a weird assortment of instruments that includes electric guitar, accordion, baritone sax and stick--as in limb of a tree. They don't wear spandex or black leather or funny suits with water-squirting flowers in their lapels or big floppy shoes on their--well, wherever they'd put them; but they do sometimes don gigantic puppet heads and hands and ridiculous giant turbans that look like something the tomb-builders for Ramses II discarded. They twitch and pogo during their tunes in a schioid frenzy that suggests they're recent escapees from an electroshock clinic. They are They Might Be Giants, a duo whose whimsical irony and sharp-witted parodies have cut them a path to the high-school and college audience that listens to the Smiths, Sonic Youth, U2 and Run-D.M.C. and has, it seems, begun to perceive the web of social pathology linking their individual angsts.

Whimsy and irony aren't words you find nestling comfortably alongside rock and roll in too many places even though they have always had their place in it. As Robert Christgau has suggested, those qualities explain how a lot of Chuck Berry tunes--"Memphis," "Sweet Little Sixteen," "No Particular Place to Go"--gently overcame the distances separating this black adult (over 30 years old and already a prison yet when he penned hit after hit) from white teen-age America. Duckwalking across the stage, slinging his guitar over his back and between his legs as he played, Berry is a Founding Father not only of rock and roll but of rock vaudeville.

Berry and other key performers of that first generation--Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard--were the main vehicles by which the minstrel show and vaudeville came into rock and roll. Twist Berry's good-natured view of adolescence into the surly, know-it-ll smugness brandished by many teen-agers and you get the Mothers of Invention. The Mothers soon squandered the promise of their early social critizues on two mutually exclusive (though neurotically connected) projects: increasingly feeble "satire" (largely limited to sneering at safe targets like suburban America's hypocrisy) and inflated musical pretensions (leader Frank Zappa's constant citations of Edgard Varese as his model--the need to justify by appeal to European classicism that infects the American body cultural).

While the Mothers were squatting in the Village in the lat 1960s at the theater upstairs from the Cafe Au Go Go, the Fugs were down the block in the basement of the Cafe Wha?, hurling beatstyle lyrics and deliberately disjointed rockability- and country-flavored tunes at the tiny audience in a kind of anarchohippie cabaret. No small historical irony that this was the cub where an unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix (calling himself Jimy james, and his band the Blue Flames), first played on his own. Hendrix, of course, reclaimed and expanded a wilder staging aspect of rock vaudeville, which had been largely dormant (except for the likes of James Brown or the Velvet Underground) outside the black must ghetto known as the "chitlin circuit"; Hendrix had played that circuit, and developed his onstage mania, backing stars like little Richard and the Isley Brothers.

While Mothers offshoot Captain Beffheart and Fugs Offshot The Holy modal Rounders plied their odd musical trades, there were other vaudervillians at work in different arenas. Beginning with a free-form radio show in the late 1960s (and verboten ever since on commercial radio), Firesign Theatre molded old detective novels. B-movies from the 1930s, TV channel-jumping, social and political radicalism and rock and roll into a thoughtful and hilarious Joycean pastiche that became at once an acute social critique andd lot of recycled fun. Monty Python, their British counterparts on tV, often worked their Britisn counterparts co-conspirator in the collection of zany Brits known as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Less overtly political and more self-consciously arty than some of their contemporaries, the Bonzos shared with their fellow vaudevillians the genre's defining traits: a highly developed sense of parody, a broad knowledge of musical formats, a love of wordplay, a keen feel for the ridiculous.

Which brings us to They Might Be Giants. The Giants have indeed been laughing hard all the way from the now defunct East Village performance club called 8BC (a bomb crater of a basement where I first saw them years ago) to the Ritz (one of New York's top-line venues, where they played mid-January) and MTV (where their video single "Don't Let's start is aired three times a day). One of the best things about their drawing closer to the bank is that there's no single cause behind it, no simple way to expain how their quirky parodic anthems, their knotted and witty takes on adolescent viewpoints, have reached out to the numbers they obviously have. The Giants have no major-label contract, and so there's no machine grinding out P.R. releases, spitting out pieces of vinyl for radio stations and print media, rounding up rock critics or hauling in loads of TV promo spots on The Tonight Show. Instead, what you have here, as with hip-hop, is a phenomenon that is both fundamental to rock and roll and frequently all but forgotten--word of mouth and spontaneous appeal through the call to rebellion. It's no accident that some Giants' tunes have titles like "Kiss Me Son of God" and "Alienation's for the Rich."

The Giants' sense of how skewed the world is also plays a part in their approach to the music business, which accounts for some of their popularity. Since doors were not exactly opened at the Giants' approach, they devised Dial-a-Song. Pick up the phone, punch in 1-718-387-6962, and you get that day's Giant-penned loony tune (there are more than 300 to choose from). To understand how subversive this tack is, especially in light of its success, you have to understand a few things about the U.S. music industry.

It's no news to anyone that over the last fifteen years the handful of major labels have come to dominate the release of the "product," as they call the items they make from pop music. (Previously they'd occupied themselves by raiding whatever "fad" established an audience for itself, as when RCA, bought Elvis's contract after his initial hits on the minuscule Sun label.) Plainly put, this effort to regularize the market, to make a more predictable commodity out of recordings and more predictable consumers out of a jumpy patchwork of audiences, was just another instance of the way top-heavy corporations grew via mergers and mutual monopoly agreements in almost all other areas of the U.S. economy during this period. There's no need to invoke a conspiracy theory of history to understand how this narrowing of possibilities for both musicians and audiences is enforced: By an interlocking and self-regulating control apparatus, options are rendered unavailable.

That apparatus, as it currently exists within the recording industry, is built from three main parts. First are the large labels--WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic), CBS, RCA, Capitol-EMI, PolyGram and MCA, all of which shelter clusters of smaller lines beneath their expansive corporate umbrellas. Their sheer distribution muscle--they own the only truly national pipelines to service retailers--both determines what they release (sales are intended to average six digits' worth of "product" to break even) and allows them to overpower any potential competitors. Then there are the large commercial radio stations, whose reach over the airwaves via their high-wattage signals and metropolitan locations is all the more damaging givn their rigigly focused and formatted playlists. Their commandments direct them to take what "product" makes it through the pipelines and break it down even further accordin gto the "demographics" (read racist, economic and cultural imperatives) the labels and stations share as ways to categorize sound and decree which are playable on what particular station. (A substantial cadre of "programming consultants" has grown up over the past decase to service just this habit; they do the breakdowns, make the playlists and take the station's responsibility to the audience into their own well-manicured hands.)

Finally (though the bloom is off this particular rose) there is MTV. Initially owned in large part by Warner Communications, WEA's corporate parent, MTV has since been bought by Viacom, a subsdiary of National Amusements that deals extensively in music videotapes. Whatever its ownership, MTV has in effect appropriated the narrowcast formats that have throttled creativity on commercial radio. In short, this triadic bureaucratic tangle may not be able (and doesn't really need) to fix what will be the number one record in Billboard during a given week, but it can sure as hell choke the range of entry points for musicians and outlets to audiences.

They Might Be Giants neatly side-stepped (and quite possibly undercut) the whole thicket with Dial-a-Song. And when you think about it, what else could they have done, short of accepting their own oblivion as inevitable and just? Outside of college radio, that beleaguered and wildly uneven haven for the idiosyncratic, what programmer would have knowingly (never mind willingly) aired songs like "Youth Culture Killed My Dog," a tragic tale of a puppy whose mind was blown by hip-hop and white funk when all he really loved were Bacharach-David tunes; or "She's an angel," a literalization of that cliche, which observes of the winged folk, "When they sing you can't hear, there's no air"; or "Everything Right Is Wrong Again," which traces "the line dividing laugh and scream"? (one of the Giants' favorite live ploys is to ask their audience between songs to "scream as if you're in hell.")

Surely one reason the Giants have succeeded in circumventing the industrial apparatus between them and their potential audience is that they give that audience a lot of credit for brains--something few major-label or commercial radio execs can be accuesed of. Not only are their lyrics consistently well worked and able to turn on thought-provoking paradoxes or allusive situations but their music grips and shakes those lyrics with the tenacity of a grinning pit bull. Thus their brilliantly executed parodies: of Elvis Costello's paranoid Hitchkockian visions, as in "(She was a) Hotel Detective"; of the who's 1960s-youth-culture banalities ("Hope That I Get Old Before I Die"); of the pseudo-Rimbaudian babble that Bob Dylan and his ilk all too often palm off as poetry ("Absolutely Bill's Mood"); of that tired country and rock staple, the road song ("Toddler Hiway"); and on and on.

But the Giants aren't pumping out some enervated artsiness. The social implications undergirding their mordant satires and their self-marketing campaign become clear on a number like "Put You Hand Inside the Puppet Head": "Ads up in the subway are the work of someone/Trying to please their boss/And though the guy's a pig we all know what he wants/IS just to please somebody else/If the puppet head was only busted in/It would be a better thing for everyone involved/And we wouldn't have to cry/Put your hand inside the puppet head." Whether the puppet head is MCA's, I.B.M.'s, A.T.&T.'s or Reagan's, the advice couldn't be better taken. So put your hand inside the puppet head and pull out their LP They Might Be Giants, and their twelve-inch single "Don't Let's Start," (both on Bar/None Record); the'll give you as much laughter as you can take and you'll help them edge closer to the bank. That's what I call a fair exchange.
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Title Annotation:music group
Author:Santoro, Gene
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 27, 1988
Words:1904
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