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TMBG WEEK: Video Vault, Episode 14: TMBG

Happy They Might Be Giants Week! We’re celebrating the release of the 88th volume in the 33 1/3 series: They Might Be Giants’ Flood. On our final day, co-author Philip Sandifer presents the essential TMBG video vault.

Central to our take on Flood is what we call the aesthetic of flooding–an aesthetic of unrelenting excess. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the promotional video for Flood itself, in which they claim, with poker-straight faces, that their album is better than other people’s because it has nineteen songs on it, whereas most other albums have ten or fewer.

The video then switches to the Johns taking turns reading off the track list with various degrees of enthusiasm, followed by snippets of the song consisting purely of the song’s title being sung, often ostentatiously cutting off a phrase in a blatant parody of offering previews of the songs. In some cases this results in the entire exercise taking less than a second–“Dead,” for instance–whereas in other instances–“Women & Men” and “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”–the song titles take an exaggeratedly long time. In the background, meanwhile, the Johns sit, sprawled out, lazily snapping their fingers not entirely in time with the music, as though they themselves are overwhelmed by the flood.

The video continues with a melange of interview clips and a live performance of “Particle Man” that is backed in part by a metronome with a microphone pointed at it. The overall effect is to on the one hand give a wholly accurate sense of what the album will be like and to on the other fail utterly to give any coherent sense of anything at all.

The aesthetic of flooding is on one level a natural fit for the over-the-top physical humor of the Looney Tunes aesthetic, with its surplus of physical degradations and ludicrous bodily elasticity. The Tiny Tunes video for “Particle Man” illustrates this, turning the song into a litany of violence extracted against Plucky Duck, the series’ Daffy Duck equivalent. And yet while both song and video are entertainingly wacky, there’s an odd dissonance to them. One is never convinced that Tiny Tunes gets the joke they’re trying to tell. Their clear revelry in the violence depicted cuts against the song’s more nuanced ambivalence and the sense of disappointment implicit in having the rather wonderful-sounding Particle Man get beaten up by the bullying Triangle Man. The result is, in many ways, a demonstration of the difficulty inherent in Elektra’s task of connecting the Johns’ creative sensibility with the mainstream.

On their own terms the aesthetic becomes somewhat clearer. The sense of excess is still present – look at the shot of a vast expanse of feet in identical Converse shoes jumping in time to the music, or the slow pan-out from the Johns in their armchairs to reveal the crowd of people on bicycles circling them. More to the point, consider the way in which the video refuses to settle down on a single set of imagery, adding more and more odd images and conceits to the song as it continues. Where other music videos attempt to pick one catchy image and wed it memorably to the song, They Might Be Giants keep piling on the images, allowing the video to overwhelm the song. By the end one is left in the strange position of wanting more in the hopes that somehow there might be some revelation that explains why people twitching oddly while wearing fake eyes, John Flansburgh in a welding mask driving a tractor, brass instruments with faces, the Johns wandering through a corridor of lightbulbs, bicycles, sandwich boards, pipe-smoking, bones, and a variety of idiosyncratic dance moves all fit together.

Tellingly, the video contains no birds or birdhouses whatsoever.

Lest you think that the aesthetic of flooding is unique to Flood, the promo video for their follow-up album, Apollo 18, ought put this to rest. From its promo-exclusive song proclaiming the album to be their “integrity project,” with its excessive five-second hold of the final note (fully a tenth of the song) it’s clear that the sense of “too much” is well in place. While the video is framed as a curiously low-fi “slide show” with an audio recording talking about the album seeming to be an exercise in minimalism, the decentering of the Johns themselves (who are never seen in anything other than a handful of still photographs) allows the promo video’s real focus to take the center stage.

As with the Flood promo we get a litany of the album’s contents, this time arranged thematically, as the narration proclaims a variety of themes from the album (“Nature,” “Human Relations,” “Personal Ambitions”) accompanied by song clips and various animations, both hand-drawn and stop motion. This is followed by an extended parody of marketing speak, as the video speaks with exaggerated seriousness about a “hole in the world’s cultural donut” and the “power spheres” of melody, quantity, and fidelity. As with the Flood video, the end effect is more a refusal to give a singular and coherent sense of the album than any sort of useful explanation or preview.

They Might Be Giants’ Flood is on sale on Amazon now, or at your local retailer. Thanks to Alex and Philip for their hard work this week!

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