Day 38: They Might Be Giants' Birdhouse in Your Soul, from a choreographer's perspective

I've been digging through my email backlog. I've gone from 1100+ emails in my personal inbox to 561 at present. Most of these emails are just things I didn't archive when I should have (thank you for letting me know my bank statement is available). Some of them are emails that should stop arriving (I know where to find my bank statements when I need them, thank you) and some of them are legit emails that I have been ignoring.

It forms a kind of geologic/ecologic situation: The first category are leaves that I can blow away. The second layer are weeds I must remove. The last category is sedimentary rock formed over the years as friends have kindly reached out to me and I have rudely ignored them. The rock is a lot tougher to deal with but I am dealing with it.

(Not sure where this metaphor goes, exactly, other than straight to the earth's molten core.)

I found a gem from 2014, when Paul sent me this great article about They Might Be Giant's Birdhouse in Your Soul. I'm tempted to say This Is The Song That Made Me Love They Might Be Giants For Real, and indeed I feel very close to this song (it's weird how we can feel close to things like songs). But the truth is They Might Be Giants has been climbing into my pysche for the better part of twenty years, and Birdhouse is just one stop along the way. Before that there was Ana Ng and Don't Let's Start, before that there was Istanbul.

Anyway, the essay is great. It's from the 33 1/3 series. It shares how the song changes key 18 times in 33 minutes. It shares a story about the almost ruination of the song with a standard rock beat. It illuminated the connection between Birdhouse and Summer in the City, which blew my mind.

It fails entirely on one point, though:

"And let’s not even try to make sense of the video."

But! my heart cried. But it DOES make sense! There's tons of good stuff in the video! They Might Be Giants ARE their videos! They are brilliant! The choreography! The design! Let's not sell short an entire visual language as rich as the song itself, man!

But whatever, here we are. After some googling, I can turn up zero articles about They Might Be Giants' choreography. I assume they made it themselves. I can envision some of how this might have happened, but it's all just me making stuff up.

I personally have ripped them off in my dance making, from early attempts to make those giant cutout faces in Don't Let's Start to small versions of same in Mad King Thomas' dance about the Cold War to bringing their music to rehearsal. I have never talked to any other choreographers about how TMBG's visual style has influenced them, but I feel like I see their work resonate in all kinds of places.

ANYWAY. Now I'm going to drink beer and nerd out about this video.

0:06 I mean, the essay above wants Birdhouse to not be about anything, but I feel a case can be made that it's about light; specifically light in the darkness. And here we have Freddie Mercury I mean, John Linnell, glowing, a light in the darkness. And then we cut to a warming, vibrating filament.

0:27 I'm skipping over the first image of the jumping Converse because we'll get back to these people later, but can we talk briefly about how TMBG loves to use signifiers of a very orderly world (skyscrapers, cardigans, New York County's Surrogate's Court and Hall of Records) while doing really freaky shit. I love the birdhouse-like hands here and the bound, bouncy moves. The stiff, robotic motions of John Flansburgh sitting down to put on his welding outfit.

0:33 I believe John Flansburgh plays the guitar in this video, but mostly he seems to gesture with it.


1:11 A whole fuckton of people in matching outfits on bikes in a big library rotunda, while John Flansburgh welds....something. Is it the thing that holds a globe?

1:14 Back to weirdly formal signifiers, here is a great bicycle contraption that you can smoke a pipe while riding.

1:19 And in case you're not getting how this video and song are about lights, here's a bunch of different lights.

1:28 Finally we get to look at these plaid shirts as a group. All different heights, though largely a bunch of skinny white people, wearing the eyes. This is a postmodern dance costume I can't get enough of.

1:35 Other than the fact that the trumpet is yet another light (sun? moon?), you get to see them dance here! When I see these people dancing, I get filled with that particular jealousy that is how much you really wish you were them, even though you were seven at the time. I don't know who these people are but they are dancers. They are good. Crisp. Timely. They fold in half beautifully.

1:57 We get a whole new movement flavor here--the rest of it has been very sharp, regimented, geometric. This is a funny, sad, saggy kind of movement--still stuck to that beat but a lot more room for expression. Those floppy hands at the end of those straight arms, man.

2:03 Let's not miss the movement of John's hand on the light switch here. He's controlling a series of analog lights, lighting himself and plunging into darkness. It's suddenly a sinister thing, not the haunting light tunnel from earlier, or the Freddie Mercury floating face, but a stern man in a chair, controlling what you see and what you don't. Which, duh, this is the part of the song about a light failing to protect Jason and his Argonauts to their death. About which he seems a bit gleeful, don't you think?

2:19 The plaidshirts are now protesting with their own left eyes, instead of writing bicycles. Stop Rock Video, they say.

2:40 And now they're doing a move which I am realizing Mad King Thomas has stolen--a kind of sinister evil guy finger tapping, greatly exaggerated. They're both bored and extremely fixated on the symptoms of their boredom.

2:47 In case you were wondering about the sinister undertones of this nightlight relationship, here's a big bone falling from the sky.

2:53 John Flansburgh is leading a host of plaidshirt rock and roll zombies.

2:56 Not to put too fine a point on it, TMBG are both ripping out their hair and their hearts, in front of a Hollywood building of some kind.

3:10 Classic punk rock/postmodern dance thrashing here from John Linnell.

I'd love to write a comprehensive essay about all their videos and all their great dancing, but it's time to hit publish.

Birdhouse in Your Soul - They Might Be Giants from They Might Be Giants on Vimeo.

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