If you got hold of my iPhone and started rifling through my music collection, this is what I would say: “I don’t know how that got on there. I don’t even know who Justin Bieber is!” Then I would laugh nervously and snatch my iPhone back and jam to a little “One Less Lonely Girl.” (Note: Justin Bieber has yet to respond to my request for a signed photo and to change the name of that song to the grammatically correct “One Fewer Lonely Girl.”)
But before all of this happened, you’d probably notice that the most heavily represented group in my music collection is the eclectic and long-lived They Might Be Giants.
From my first encounter with a They Might Be Giants (TMBG) album, the self-titled They Might Be Giants (1986), I was smitten. Their songs were catchy, quirky, and included lyrics like this from the song “The Day”:
The day Marvin Gaye and Phil Ochs got married
The trees all waved their giant arms
And happiness bled from every street corner
And biplanes bombed with fluffy pillows
I was in middle school when I first saw the cover of the so-called Pink Album (on a cassette tape*, no less), and though I probably could not have predicted that TMBG would be my favorite band for at least the next three decades, I had an idea right away that I’d like them. I was struck by the pure differentness of the cover, and that quality carried through to their music. (I was also struck by the football players’ spitballs and an occasional shoe. But the joke’s on them. I grew up to be a blogger!)
Right from the get-go, TMBG demonstrated an understanding of and appreciation for the role graphic design plays in building an identity. While the artwork for each of their 14 studio albums is unique, and they are distinct from one another, they have in common that they stand out from the rest of the crowd. One of my favorites is the cover art for the album Mink Car (2001), not just for the obviously intriguing illustration, but the striking typography and subtle use of color.
Way back in the days when people acquired music by going to Tower Records** (or in Shea’s case, Walmart) and perusing the alphabetized CDs***, TMBG stood out among a sea of airbrushed glamor shots and photos of backlit bands on stages. They accomplished this largely through the use of strong illustrations, as with Apollo 18 (1992), Long Tall Weekend (1999), and The Spine (2004).
When TMBG has used photographs instead of illustrations, they use carefully crafted images that tell stories. For instance, their second studio album, Lincoln (1988), is named for Lincoln, Massachusetts, the childhood home of the band’s creators, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, and features photos of Linnell’s great-grandfather and Flansburgh’s grandfather. Similarly, the images on covers for Flood (1990), John Henry (1994), and The Else (2007) do something other than show a picture of the band; they tell stories.
And no discussion of TMBG would be complete without mention of their children’s albums, including Here Come The ABCs (2005), Here Come The 123s (2008), Here Comes Science (2009), and No! (2002). TMBG’s quirky music and illustrative style lend themselves perfectly to this demographic. (Another reason TMBG is better than Justin Bieber? Better grammar! Note the lack of apostrophes in 123s and ABCs.)
What I love about their kids’ albums is that they’re not fluff. TMBG continues to use a distinct, edgy style—both visually and in the music itself—but it’s aimed at children. I think that Freeman Tilden, who tells interpreters that communication aimed at children should not just be dumbed-down versions of grown-up programs, would be proud.
Ultimately, I think that the reason I enjoy They Might Be Giants’ aesthetic is this: It’s clear that they actually care about graphic design. Every one of their album covers could be the subject of its own blog post because they’ve taken so much care with them. From the meticulously childish illustration of their first album to the carefully art-directed photograph in The Else, the covers actually engage the viewer and invite us to explore their meanings.
And while I now have “Don’t Don’t Let’s Start” stuck in my head, it’s a heck of a lot better than “One Fewer Lonely Girl.”
Glossary for Our Younger Readers
*Cassette Tape: A device about the size of six taped-together iPod Nanos that could hold up to 12 songs. They could be played in a “tape deck” or “Walk Man” up to 17 times before said devices chewed up the actual tape and you had to dub your friend’s copy on your awesome dual tape deck.
**Tower Records: An actual building where people would go to purchase music and interact with other human beings.
***CD: Shiny round discs that look like those free coasters we used to get in the mail from AOL. They could hold more songs than their predecessors and could be played repeatedly until you held one wrong and got a thumb print on it.