They Might Be Genius [Guest]

Alex, mother of two, possessor of a doctorate in literature and an extensive music collection, and my main source of mix-tapes, is also a regular reader and commenter here. This is her first post (of many, I hope!), introducing us to a band you need to know about. Welcome, Alex!

I first encountered the music of They Might Be Giants in my early teenage years, through their superb single Birdhouse in Your Soul.

I remember taking it into a school music lesson as my very favourite track on the grounds that I thought the lyrics meant something more than the average pop song (such things being very important to my 13-year-old self; and my 35-year-old self too, if I’m honest).

However, although I still love the song, and still love the lyrics, I can no longer claim I have any idea what on earth it all means, if I ever really did. It’s the sort of song that sounds like it is saying something profound, thus appealing to the inner teenage philosopher that (I suspect) lurks within us all, but I haven’t got the foggiest what that something might be…

I’m your only friend
I’m not your only friend
But I’m a little glowing friend
But really I’m not actually your friend
But I am

Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
Who watches over you
Make a little birdhouse in your soul
Not to put too fine a point on it
Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet
Make a little birdhouse in your soul

… At least, I didn’t have a clue, until I did a bit of googling in the process of writing this piece and discovered the following explanation on the band’s very own website: ‘The song is a story of a child’s nightlight, told from the nightlight’s point of view.’

So there you have it. Straight from the horse’s mouth.

And that, I suppose, is as reliable an introduction as any I can think of to what sort of band TMBG are. If you’ve never heard them and think that sounds too kooky by far for you, then you may as well stop reading here. If, on the other hand, you rather like the sound of that, then read on, for many more such delights await.

Cover of "Here Come the ABCs [CD/DVD Comb...

My next encounter with TMBG came a couple of decades later courtesy of my good friend Caroline, who kindly gave my son a copy of their CD/DVD set Here come the ABCs as a gift for his third birthday. It quickly became a firm favourite in our house (American pronunciations of ‘zee’ rather than ‘zed’ notwithstanding): how can you not love a CD with songs on it like The Alphabet of Nations and the unfeasibly catchy E Eats Everything?

As well as several songs that introduce children to (or reinforce their knowledge of) the alphabet in alphabetical order, the band also take individual letters, or groups of letters, as their focus for songs. For example, there’s one about the Vowel Family (‘vowels are important letters, there’s a vowel in every word’), one about QU (‘…are often a pair, make KW sounds together, like squid, squash and square’), and the fabulous Go for G (although I think my son’s preschool teachers were a bit taken aback by his pronouncement that ‘G is for Gyroscope’ following multiple viewings of that song…).

There are also some delightfully daft and touching ideas, like the Alphabet Lost and Found and the love story of ICU (the lyrics need to be read aloud to make any sense…):

U R N X, N I, I M N X
I C T V, N I C U
I C U, I C U, N U R O K
U R N X, N I, I W
I C A D V D, I C A D V D, N I C U
I C U, I C U, N U R O K
I C U, I C U, N U R O K

So enamoured were we of this collection, that we quickly sought out and acquired the others in the series: Here Come the 123s and (probably my favourite of the bunch) Here Comes Science.

It is really hard to pick out ‘best’ tracks from either of these – spend a little time on YouTube, or the band’s own website, and I’m sure you’ll find plenty of your own favourites with which to while away a rainy afternoon (with or without a little one to entertain!). But here are a few starters for ten:

If you’re in the mood for sparking some philosophical reflections, you could do worse than starting at the beginning of the 123s with One Everything:

What if you drew a giant circle
What if it went around all there is
Then would there still be such a thing as an outside
And does that question even make any sense?

Or, if you’re after something more quirky, yet still informative, how about brushing up on your polygon nomenclature with the marvellous Nonagon?

Everybody at the party is a many-sided polygon
When a guest arrives, they will count how many sides it has on
Standing by the window over there
There is a shape with four sides so it’s a square
And the one who has nine is looking fine
And its name is Nonagon

The science songs are, on the whole, probably more straight-forwardly educational than those on the other two sets, but none the worse for it. They cover all the bases – from the colours of the rainbow, the names of the planets and the differences between solids, liquids and gas to introducing the concepts of cell structure, evolution and photosynthesis. All delivered in their trademark catchy style, with superb animations.

I’m not ashamed to admit I have learnt (or, if we’re being charitable, re-learnt!) several little snippets from them. For example, do you know why the sun (really) shines? Can you explain the various functions of blood in the body? TMBG can help provide the answers! Although I can almost guarantee they will spark just as many questions, but isn’t that just part of the fun?!

For me, though, a large part of the attraction of this set in particular is its gentle but insistent introduction to the important underlying principles of science and the process of scientific investigation – it can surely never be too early to begin encouraging a spirit of enquiry. Their take on the scientific method is a particularly good place to start:

If there’s a question bothering your brain
That you think you know how to explain
You need a test
Yeah, think up a test

If it’s possible to prove it wrong
You’re going to want to know before too long
You’ll need a test

It should, of course, be acknowledged that TMBG are by no means the first or only band to take an educational approach to children’s music. In fact, two of the songs on the Science set are actually cover versions of tracks originally released in 1959 on a collection called Space Songs.  I’ve not found a copy of that yet, but I’d love to get hold of one.

An honourable mention should also be given to Beth Nielsen Chapman and her The Mighty Sky project, which contains the current most favoured sing-along song in our house, The Moon:

Oh the Moon, oh the Moon, oh the big round Moon
I love to watch the beautiful Moon
It’s a wonder in the sky from July through June
There’s nothing quite as lovely as the Moon

However, for breadth, depth and sheer brilliance, you’d have to go a long way to beat the Giants.

As Angela writes on her site, ‘bloggers live for comments.’ Also true for guest posters, I’m guessing, so please let Alex know if you have enjoyed this post! Do you have favourite ‘educational’ songs or bands for kids? Share recommendations or links in the comments below.

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18 comments on “They Might Be Genius [Guest]”

    • Alex Reply

      Oh good! Glad it’s not just me.
      I have to confess I only really know Flood and their children’s songs, though. Are there any other albums you would recommend?

  1. Anna G Reply

    I wish I had known about this when I was teaching! Will definitely be on the YouTube list for my 22 month daughter and her two preschool cousins.

  2. not a wild hera Reply

    This is so great, Alex, thank you!

    My first TMBG experience was overhearing you on Facebook – I think maybe you and Caroline? One of you posted the video for Alphabet of Nations and I LOVE IT.

    ‘West Xylophone’!!!

    • Alex Reply

      🙂 Why, thank you for having me!
      I’m a little ashamed that I’d never previously noticed the absence of NZ on the map for Alphabet of Nations… still a great song, though, particularly the West Xylophone!

  3. David G T Reply

    Surprised they claim “there’s a vowel in every word”… Clearly they have no rhythm!

    V nice post Alex

  4. Caroline Reply

    Great post, and I can confirm the TMBG children’s songs are brilliant – equally enjoyable for adults & children. My daughters are too young to understand the science behind the science songs,but they love the songs anyway and it’s introducing them to some of the concepts – photosynthesis, elements etc. The songs also prompt lots of questions.

    Thanks for the explanation about the birdhouse song – sounds about right! Although I do sometimes wonder if they come up with the songs and then make up a “credible” explanation afterwards!

    If anyone’s got recommendations for other children’s music that’s fun for adults too, I’d love to hear them.

  5. Andy Reply

    will have to source some more of their music. my favourite song of their so far is “I am not your broom”. Lovely post.

    I am not your broom
    I am not your broom
    I’ve had enough, I’m throwing off
    My chains of servitude

    I am not your broom
    I am not your broom
    No longer must I sweep for you
    For I am not your broom

    • Alex Reply

      Thanks Andy, glad you enjoyed it.
      That’s a new one for me – will have to hunt it out.

  6. Pingback: When Words Fail [Guest] | Sacraparental

  7. Miriam Reply

    Oh – they are genius aren’t they! There is also an album titled ‘No’ – which is a gem (and contains the broom song that someone else has commented on above). The icthyosaur carrying 9 bowls of soup is a regular companion during sleeplessness, as are the dozen monkeys, and I have been known, on occasion, to put their children’s albums on when it’s just me in the house. My three-year-old loves them too… I hadn’t realised there was a science album, will definitely have to track that down. Great post, thanks!

    • Alex Reply

      Ah, thanks – I’ll look out for ‘No’. Must be about time we added some more to our collection!

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