7/7/7 Day Four: Weird Al Yankovic and They Might Be Giants

(Note:  this post is part of a series.)

Day 4. I’m cheating a bit here in posting a pair; my rationale is that these two things contributed in equal measure to the result/effect that is inspiring their inclusion in the list. The two are:

“Weird Al” Yankovic, “It’s All About The Pentiums”

They Might Be Giants, “Nonagon”

I have always–since the very beginning–preferred instrumental music to vocal music, and in general I gravitate toward things that sometimes seem to be the very antithesis of anything remotely popular. That’s not on purpose, but it seems to have been consistent for a long time, and I’ve come to peace with the aggravations.

Thing is, though, I love things that are clever and well-done, even if it’s outside of my usual aesthetic. (Actually, I can appreciate a lot that’s outside of my usual aesthetic, if it’s well-done. Much of my listener’s education has been gaining an appreciation of stuff I don’t identify with, and I’m very grateful to have included that as a deliberate tactic. As with much “breadth of education”, it has a habit of coming back to me at a later time!)

Anyway, I had already been aware of “Weird Al” for some time, and even enjoyed a lot of his references to popular music that I knew, but it was a vague and limited appreciation at best. And at some point I started hearing from a few trusted friends about They Might Be Giants, but for some time never really crossed paths.

In a nutshell, here’s what caused the epiphany: kids.

Sabre was less than six months old when I started the practice of sitting down with the mandolin and simply improvising to her. She very quickly taught me how to hold her as an audience–by ignoring me if I wasn’t doing something interesting. Now this was a big deal at the time; I had been both learning and performing in the context of the Guitar Craft project, so in many respects it wasn’t that I didn’t know how to play–it was simply that I was focused on playing, not performing. I might stumble across an unscripted idea, and start to explore it at a student’s pace–and I’d lose her. My playing quickly changed–and at least for Sabre, became more interesting. That lesson was huge.

Not all that long after, we wanted to acquire some kids’ music that we could tolerate in the car, and we played the TMBG record “Here come the ABCs” on the way to Soldotna one day–giving me a good listen. I was floored: to borrow a phrase, this was not your father’s “kids music”. I found myself interested musically, vocally, and lyrically; and both Sabre and later Dee couldn’t get enough of it. Quickly we came by “Here Come The 123s”, and it was just the same. No beer goggles, either–the more I listened and heard, the more cleverly crafted and impressive it became.

We also played a lot of “Weird Al”‘s “Running With Scissors” record around then, and wholly aside from my newly-listening ears, we noticed that Sabre, who had just started facing forward in the carseat, would have a gigantic open-mouthed grin stuck on her face, and be rocking side to side like no tomorrow. Point taken! And I started paying exquisitely close attention to Al in the same way that I opened up to TMBG.

And so it is that I really awoke to the sort of artist that can combine musicality, vocals, and lyrical playfulness, even parody, at masterful levels, at the same time, across any genre you can imagine. It is still true that most of what both Al and TMBG do is “not my usual aesthetic”, but somehow that doesn’t matter any more–perhaps because the art and the craft are so well-done, that the meld IS the aesthetic, and so I’m in. (I’d have to give an honorable mention to Barenaked Ladies, who often live in the same space, but for me at least TMBG came first.)

So here we have “It’s All About The Pentiums” by Al, and “Nonagon” by TMBG. The sheer density of jokes in Al’s tune is mesmerizing, and it’s always a little easier to appreciate when you happen to get all of them. (I used to play the tune for students in my computer courses, just as a fun extra.) The man is a master at his art. “Nonagon” is a great example of what TMBG did on “ABCs” and “123s”, including a tune that could easily stand on its own outside the “kids music” label. Something to grow with, right? I surely did.  🙂


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Kevin Wilmeth

Professional geek. Amateur human. Credible threat to musical instruments anywhere. (I can't help it. Ideas just invade my brain...)

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