Friday, June 15, 2007

The Best Song That Barely Exists/The Best Dialogue Song

TBOE continues breaking boundaries, as is to be expected of the blog run by someone who is one of the brightest minds of his generation.

Before going further, I should probably let you know that I’ve decided to refer to myself, as often as possible, as “One of the brightest minds of his generation.” If I do it, then other people will start to do it. They’ll start to do it because eventually someone will refer to me and will say “I heard that he’s one of the brightest minds of his generation.” And the person they tell that to will likely believe it, and pass it on.

That first person to pass it on, that person who heard it from someone, will have, of course, heard that saying from me, and will have forgotten that they heard that from me, but will remember that they heard it, and will therefore pass it on. This hypothetical person obviously has some very tricky memory issues, but a fondness for me. It’s probably my mom.
So, as one of the brightest minds of my generation, I’m pleased to announce (as I began a couple of paragraphs ago) that TBOE is breaking another boundary. What, you ask, is left to break in this compendium of knowledge that has celebrated numbers that don’t exist, has re-interpreted The Wall for a new generation, and has in compelling fashion decided that Paris Hilton and Rachel’s hair are both as worthy of celebration as peanut butter-flavored cereal? What can possibly be left?

What’s left is the first DUAL nomination. Which is what this entry is all about. If you go to the table of contents, you’ll see (in case you missed it in the title) that this entry nominates the first item to be The Best in two different categories.

That’s right. TBOE has already looked at two identical things and declared one better than the other. This time, TBOE declares one thing to be The Best in two different categories at once.

TBOE: the blog where space and time have no meaning.

This nomination came about because I picked up some new albums the other day, and one of them was the album NO! by They Might Be Giants.

I’ve had a love of They Might Be Giants ever since I was a college DJ on a cable-radio station. Right, “cable” radio. I’m pretty sure that means that our radio station was only able to be picked up by radios hooked up to the cable provider, which meant a few houses in Waukesha County and, for some reason, a city in Florida. We once had a call-in contest where we asked listeners to name the group that sang the song we played in exchange for tickets to the concert that group was giving. Nobody called. So we opened it up, and asked listeners to name a group or song we’d played that show. Nobody called. So finally, we asked them just to call in to get the tickets. Nobody called.

The tickets were for The Hooters. Remember them?

So either nobody was listening, or The Hooters were really, really unpopular in that area. I ended up using the tickets and going to the concert with friends, where we got so bored that my friends dared me to see if I could get up on stage. I did, and shook hands with the lead singer, and then got thrown out, so we left. On the way home, one of my friends made out with the girl who was, technically, my date.

So I’m not crazy about The Hooters, but I do love They Might Be Giants because while working at that station, I played the album “Flood” a lot and grew to love their crazy music. I actually watched a documentary once about them, and learned that people think the lead singer could make up a song about anything on the spot and that it would be good, and they were probably right.

An offhand list of songs and their topics that I can think of from They Might Be Giants includes “Dead,” about being reincarnated as a bag of groceries, “E Eats Everything,” about the letter E, “Ana Ng,” about a girl, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” which I think is about electricity but I’m not sure, and “James K. Polk” about James K. Polk The song “James K. Polk” is by far the best song ever about a president, by the way. It’s insanely catchy.

But on their new album, They Might Be Giants outdid themselves with a song, which I’ll get to in a minute, after explaining the two categories.

First, the “Dialogue” song category. It’s the easier one to explain: It’s songs that are two people singing to each other. Think of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” by Elton John and Kiki Dee.

Or you could think of “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights,” which is already nominated as The Best Rock and Roll Song, and therefore would be a shoo-in for this category because if it’s The Best Rock and Roll Song, then it’s by definition The Best Dialogue Song, right? Wrong! Because the one I’m picking is not really what I think of as rock’n’ roll, and further because the one I’m picking is also the only one that fits both categories, and also because I’m always right, so if I say the song I’m picking is The Best Dialogue Song and that it somehow beats out The Best Rock and Roll Song which is also a dialogue song, well, you’ll just have to live with it until you can come up with an explanation to best one of the brightest minds of his generation.

So Dialogue songs are just that: two people having a dialogue. One person talking about what another person said, like in Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” doesn’t count.

Then there’s Songs That Are Barely There. I love these songs: songs that are so short they might almost not exist. They pop into your consciousness (or up on your iPod) and almost before you can react, they’re gone.

The first one of those songs I can remember hearing is “Old Mother Reagan,” by the Violent Femmes (who are not too far off from being enshrined in here, one of these days, but I need just the right category). That song clocks in at 31 seconds. Thirty-one seconds!

Then there’s “Passive Manipulation” by the White Stripes: 35 seconds. Or “In This Temple As In The Hearts of Man For Whom He Saved The Earth,” by Sufjan Stevens, which is also 35 second and which has a title that’s almost longer than the song. And the quiet “Guitar, Flute and String,” by Moby, practically a symphony in this category at 51 seconds.

One neat thing about barely-existing songs is just how stripped down and elemental they are. The White Stripes have another barely-there song, “Little Room” which is not only just 52 seconds long, but it consists of only drums (and not fancy drums), a few lines of dialogue, and some chanting. It sounds bizarre, but it’s hypnotic and compelling. If you haven’t listened to it, go do that now.

But one song towers above all of the others in both categories, a song so stripped down and short that it almost isn’t a song. It’s almost just a spoken word piece. And it’s also a dialogue, but one of supreme absurdity that somehow tells a story in just a few words, and a story that hits a universal theme we can all relate to.

I’m talking about They Might Be Giants’ “I Am Not Your Broom.”

I can give you the complete lyrics to the song. They show far better than any description I could give just why this song is so brilliant. The song has two singers – as all good dialogues must – who I’ll call (because that’s what the song demands) “John” and “Broom.” John’s lyrics are in regular type. Broom’s are italics:

Now broom you must now sweep for me

The dust it fills my room

No John I will not sweep for you

For I am not your broom

What nonsense are you speaking broom?

My words you must obey

Another life awaits me

And I'm leaving you today

I am not your broom

I am not your broom

I've had enough I'm throwin 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

After the singing, the song on the album alternates between accordion mixed with – yes—sweeping, and humming. John, I believe, is doing the humming.

You can watch the demo version of the song:

Or you can listen to the actual song by clicking here.

The video, I understand, was created when John Linnell of They Might Be Giants bought a video camera and wanted to write a song to make a video of, and the only thing handy in the room was the broom.

I doubt that Linnell understood just what he was capturing when he wrote that song, though. Look at the lyrics again; listen to the song. It captures the very essence of our lives: our struggles to control our environment, our love-hate relationship with the things we own, our secret fears that the inanimate aren’t really inanimate and will one day rise up…

… well, that one is mostly just me. But the song is simply, purely, wonderful. There’s something about listening to it that both makes me smile and tugs at me. So that’s why it’s both The Best Song That Barely Exists and The Best Dialogue Song.

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