Nerd Music: 33 1/3’s Flood.
Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
It’s a brand new record, for 1990.
They Might be Giants’ brand new album:
Some of you just sang that in your head. Some of you may have even sung it aloud. If you didn’t? Well, that’s fine too. But fair warning, this is gonna get super nerdy from here on out.
I’ve covered Boss Fight Books before; each book goes in depth into a particular video game. In the initial Boss Fight Books pitch, they compare themselves to 33 1/3, an earlier series, in which each book goes in-depth to a particular album. On a whim, I went ahead and looked at 33 1/3’s list of over 115 (and counting!) titles, and I immediately fixated on number 88: Flood, by S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer.
I’ve been a They Might be Giants fan since I first saw their songs featured on Tiny Toon Adventures, back when I was a little kid. I’ve seen them perform live many, many times over the years, and I’ve got several of their albums tucked away amidst my CD collection. While Flood isn’t my favorite TMBG album (that honor would go to John Henry), I’m still enough of a fan (read: nerd) that my attention was more than perked.
In Flood (the book, not the album), Sandifer and Reed make a very compelling case for why Flood (the album, not the book) has endured for decades, eventually going platinum 19 years after its release. What it really boils down to is the fact that Flood was released at the perfect time, coinciding with the birth of Usenet, the Internet, and the blossoming and spread of “geek” culture that followed. They Might be Giants have always been a band influenced by technology, be it drum machines or their “Dial A Song” service, so the way their music was tied into the rise of geek culture is especially fitting. Though amusingly enough, TMBG owe a lot more to the 1980’s punk scene in their musical influences, which takes them on a far different thematic trajectory than the likes of, say, Jonothan Coulton or MC Frontalot and so on.
One of the key points Sandifer and Reed continually go back to in their book is the concept of “flooding.” They Might Be Giants’ music (and nerd culture in general) is tied into an excess of stuff. Overwhelming emotion, or sound, or information, or anything, really. This “flooding” phenomenon even carries over into the book itself. While Flood is only 127 pages long, it’s dense. There’s a great deal of information packed into the book, ranging from a basic history of They Might be Giants as a band, to the aforementioned development of the internet and geek culture, to the psychology of childhood, to occasional bits of dense music theory that went right over my head. For example, here’s an excerpt talking about “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”
“Enthusiasts of music theory will note that the song’s point of tonal focus– C, E-flat, F-sharp, and A– symmetrically divide the octave into four equal intervals of three semitones each.” (Page 84)
You don’t have to be a music theory nerd (or really a nerd in general) to enjoy Flood (the album OR the book), but I imagine it helps. All and all, Reed and Sandifer’s book is a fascinating exploration of They Might be Giants’ music, both in general, and Flood in particular. I’d heartily suggest this slim little book to anybody who has Flood in their itunes somewhere or another. And if you don’t? Well, give the album a listen, and then check the book out. And as an added bonus, I’m now fairly interested in 33 1/3’s other output– they’ve got volumes on Tom Waits and Andrew W.K. that are looking fairly tempting for the next time I go on an amazon binge … not that I don’t already have a fairly tall to-read pile, but hey, you could argue that I’m just “flooded” with books right now.