Mentally Hyperactive and Proud of It

The New York Times, January 28, 1990
by Jon Pareles

"Clever" may be the most feared compliment in rock. A band can labor for a year over a set of songs, agonizing over every syllable and note and reverberation; it can rack its brains over the cover art and lie awake nights remembering whom to thank in the fine print. But let anyone suggest that the results are clever, and the party might be over. Cleverness is a sure sign that the musicians are (a) glib, (b) heartless, (c) overeducated, (d) insincere and (e) doomed to the ministrations of a cult following. Amazingly, that doesn't stop everyone. Musicians who are smart enough to know better still put out albums like "Flood" by They Might Be Giants, the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. Its 19 songs and fragments riffle through so many styles and pile up so many non sequiturs - or are they? - that it could well overload ordinary pop-music receptors. Its mentally hyperactive and proud of it.

They Might Be Giants crack jokes in "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," get serious in "Your Racist Friend," envision a population explosion in "Women and Men" and free associate elsewhere about terminated romances, human duplicity and cosmogony; they pour out catchy tunes but switch arranging gambits in mid-song, lurching from currently hip styles like organ-driven garage-rock to the corniest movie music. After working too hard to prove they weren't just zanies on their previous album, "Lincoln," They Might Be Giants shrug off most typecasting - emotional, musical, rhetorical - on "Flood"; they flaunt their mulitiplicity. And they're bound to draw flak for packing too much into their songs, for revealing that they're too clever in too many ways at once.

Like much other American popular music, rock is supposed to seem effortless, springing straight from the heart to the published or filmed or recorded artifact. Think of Mark Twain playing folksy so he could get his hard-headed ideas across to a wide public; tote up the disparaging synonyms for "intellectual" (big-dome, egghead, smarty-pants), and consider the reverence for "street smarts." Anti-intellectualism can easily be confused with all-American egalitarianism.

Rock is especially susceptible to the presumption that its finest moments can only come from shamans or idiot savants. For one thing, rock songs are short and colloquial, and a great one - "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" or "What'd I Say?" - doesn't need much more than a conceit and a chorus (although it can have more). Just as important, rock emerged as a rebellion against the brittle sophistication and hack fluency of Tin Pan Alley pop. Its models were unschooled blues and country musicians who could set simple language to three chords and work emotional miracles. Even now, rock's many inarticulate masters make the music seem at once more accessible - no training necessary - and more mysterious, since if anybody can do it, why can't everybody?

All other things being equal, simplicity is still the best strategy in rock, as it is in any other art form - but other things are rarely equal. Self-consciousness arrived in rock by the early 1960's (if not before), and while it made music and lyrics more complicated, it didn't destroy rock. It expanded rock's domain beyond songs about love, lust, and movin' on.

Still, songwriters who wanted to say more than "baby, baby, baby" learned not to flaunt their cleverness too much. Bob Dylan exploded rock's old rhetoric, but he kept the music basic - three or four chords, recognizably blues and country and folk. So did the Rolling Stones. And when the Beatles started fiddling with rock's musical parameters (bringing back pop harmony) and then its verbal ones, they had their popularity and their indelible tunefulness to keep diehard rockers from getting too suspicious.

With the Beatles, rock engulfed pop; pop became one end of the spectrum defined by rock, not an opposing camp. Broadening the music also broadened the audience beyond teenagers and dancers, and changed the pool of potential musicians. And the Beatles' rampant musical allusions encouraged their followers, from Todd Rundgren to NRBQ to Prince to Elvis Costello to XTC to They Might Be Giants, to go even further.

Most rockers still pick a genre and stay with it; it makes marketing easier, and it automatically rules out a myriad of nagging choices. And slipping abstract lyrics into determinedly basic music is a gambit that works just as well for the Mekons or the Jesus and Mary Chain as it did for Bob Dylan in 1966. But typical working musicians in 1990 know too much to be spontaneous primitives; if they go back to three-chord songs, it's a choice every bit as self-conscious as hiring a brass band or updating vaudeville songs. On many college and alternative radio stations, where self-conscious rock rules, neoprimitives and clever eclectics battle for air time.

Rock has always prized honest excess over artificial restraint, and in their own way, groups like They Might Be Giants join rock's tradition of excess. Where rock's founding fathers were happily hormone-crazed, They Might Be Giants are intoxicated with allusions and associations and ideas, both musical and verbal, and they've got to let them out. In fact, records are too slow an outlet for them; They Might Be Giants have an answering machine called Dial-a-Song, 718-387-6962, with a new song daily.

Cleverness can ring false when it's a defense against candor, or when it's idle doodling (something They Might Be Giants can't always resist). Yet typical pop platitudes, delivered with unctuous sincerity, can be just as phony, or more so in a bewildering world, truthful responses might well be convoluted and jumpy and oblique and maddeningly witty. But even clever rockers can have a heart.

back