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They Might Be Giants = the Early Internet

They Might Be Giants = the Early Internet
William Allen White (1868 – 1944) was an American newspaper editor, politician, author, Progressive, and enduring mascot for They Might Be Giants.

How a single band embodied and dominated online culture in its primordial days, simply because the only people wired in were college kids, nerds, and hobbyists

Music critic and podcaster Rob Harvilla is a much braver man than me. He spent the first 99 episodes of his wonderful and wonderfully inaccurately named podcast 60 Songs that Explain the ‘90s talking about the coolest acts of that decade — Pavement, Rage Against the Machine, Liz Phair — as a way to work up the courage on his 100th episode to admit that his “straight up…favorite band of all time” was the extremely less cool They Might Be Giants.

This is not meant to insult TMBG; it's just an objective description of their legacy. None of us can decide what’s cool any more than we can decide the day's weather. They Might Be Giants played child-like songs on an accordion, which is a far cry from cigarette-smoking angular rock bands in all black at CBGBs. The best case for TMBG's coolness, argues Harvilla, is a detached, double-reversal: the band’s “flagrant uncoolness is what makes it so cool." Regardless there’s been a palpable conspiracy of silence among people who grew up on TMBG. It's much easier to admit a love of "Weird" Al. The hope is that Harvilla's confession opens the door to a proper TMBG chic, making our previous reticence seem absurd, like thinking back to New York in the summer of 2002 when vintage Lacoste pique tennis shirts were in vogue but no one dared wearing identical shirts from Polo Ralph Lauren.

I, admittedly, have been part of the problem. Over the last two decades I've been suppressing information about my own teenage obsession with They Might Be Giants. In interviews, I’m endlessly reminiscing about listening to Jane’s Addiction, Teenage Fanclub, and Dinosaur Jr. on my carpeted floor in Pensacola, Florida. The truth is that, from 1993 to 1995, I engaged more deeply with They Might Be Giants than I have engaged with another musical act since. And it's precisely because those are the years I first went on the internet.

Growing up in the late 1980s/early 1990s, you didn’t have to be “into music” to find out about They Might Be Giants. They often appeared on the Nickelodeon music show, Nick Rocks, which prompted my friend Carter Wilkes to interrogate me on my driveway one day in third grade about whether I liked them. I said I didn’t, because I had only briefly seen the video for “Don’t Let’s Start,” and he nodded approvingly. But then sometime in the early 1990s, my sister taped “Birdhouse in Your Soul” off of MTV to show me, and that seemed good. My own personal relationship with TMBG began when I arrived at Track 14 on MTV’s 120 Minutes’s Nevermind the Mainstream… compilation — “Ana Ng” — while listening to a cassette I copied at summer camp in 1992 by sneaking into a guy from Columbus, Georgia’s room when he wasn’t there to dub the CD on his boombox. (He walked in on me as I was turning the tape over to record side two and told me that sneaking into his empty cabin was extremely “creepy," which I'm sure it was.) I later ordered Apollo 18 from the BMG CD Club for $0.01 plus shipping, and when I started high school, two older kids Isaac and Destin on my school bus lent me the first two TMBGs CDs for dubbing.

I write in superfluous detail here to outline the struggles in 1993 to discover and acquire music. Accessing other people's music collections often required surreptitious action. And there were few ways to learn about new music other than MTV or word-of-mouth from friends.

Enter the internet in fall 1993. That spring, my 8th grade classmate Anna B. returned from a trip to Athens, Georgia bragging that her older cousin somehow used his PC to access R.E.M. lyrics. We assumed he had literally hacked into Michael Stipe’s home computer. A few months later, my Wired-reading, tech-guru friend Josh figured out that Anna had connected to something called “the internet,” where there was a wonderland of song lyrics available for “download.” I deduced that my father may have access to this so-called internet through his job at the local university, and first connected via modem in October 1993.

These were days before Mosaic and the “world wide web,” so the challenge was trying to find anything at all. I would guess that 65% of the content on the internet at this time was amateur-transcribed song lyrics and poorly-deduced chord progressions for college rock songs. There was a shining beacon on a hill, however: the They Might Be Giants mailing list. This makes perfect sense: TMBG were smart, quirky musicians with a smart, quirky fan base, who disproportionally made up the small number of people in the world spending hobbyist time on the internet in 1993.

The TMBG mailing list was the best version of the early internet. Where tin-eared idiots had done out the chord charts for most rock songs, a musicology student had expertly transcribed the entire TMBG catalog. The TMBG FAQ — which I posit is one of the longest continually used documents on the entire internet — offered hermeneutical riffs on Molière’s Dom Juan and deep explanations to morse code secret messages, as well as additional background on historical figures James K. Polk, William Allen White, Allen Ginsberg, and Kurtis Blow. I had found a bootleg live cassette of TMBG during the summer of 1994, which allowed me to start swapping cassettes of live recordings with others on the mailing list. And influenced by the group, I started making long-distance calls to Brooklyn to hear TMBG’s “Dial-a-song” service and record the songs over the phone speaker. Someone on the mailing list had a more sophisticated way to make these recordings, which culminated in the now legendary bootleg tape, The Power of Dial-a-song.

I recommend taking 10 mins to listen to that YouTube video with headphones, because The Power of Dial-a-song presents a fascinating time capsule of an era when fans would voluntarily and obsessively listen to dubbed dubbed dubbed mono versions of demo tapes recorded over a phone line. (And this is a clean version of the recording! My cassette dub was way worse.) But this tape was so seductive, because it was a chance to hear semi-secret unreleased demos. The Power of Dial-a-song even included demos for the band’s fall 1994 album John Henry, so I knew the songs before they came out. I was very proud of this rare knowledge. When I bought myself a TASCAM four-track tape recorder with my life savings in late 1994, my second-ever recording was a cover of the Dial-a-song staple “Don’t Make Me Kill You Again.”

The early internet had instantly delivered so much to me, a 15 year-old kid in a culturally-stifling city, and the magic and wonder of this moment would color my entire impression of online culture for the next decade. Namely, I came to believe that the internet would forever be a media format for nerds, by nerds, and about nerd culture. This certainly marked the early internet up to the smartphone era. Boing Boing — a very TMBG mailing list kind of website — was “the most popular blog in the world until 2006.” But more broadly, I assumed, like Chris Anderson in The Long Tail, that the internet would allow everyone on earth who had a niche interest to spend their days joyfully diving into the deepest ocean of content related to that niche interest. The dictators of mass culture would be overthrown as every individual could finally pursue their own unique tastes.

Then a few minutes after June 29, 2007, the internet became a media platform for everyone — a digital version of real life rather than an adult Montessori summer camp for future, present, and former graduate students. This is absolutely not meant to advocate a RETVRN to the TMBG-era internet, which was like a poorly designed scrolling-zine and archaic penpal club, but for posterity, I wanted to offer a first-hand account of this particular moment of forgotten online culture. More objectively this era is interesting as further example of the general principle that content on platforms always bends to the taste of the median user. The internet was once an AV lab inside of a college library and then it became a combination Spencer’s Gifts/rural weekend militia camp for white nationalists.

Of course the internet still contains niche content if you know where to look. TMBG fans still have everything they need. The FAQ is there for them as it was for me. But gone is the sense of triumph that your own particular niche culture, deemed uncool in real life, could dominate a burgeoning platform. On an all-encompassing internet, niche content is niche again. The internet, in theory, remains the best media format of all time for living inside niches. The difference today is that teens looking to engage in an online community are likely to be recruited into cults around Taylor Swift, BTS, or NewJeans — musical acts who don’t teach their fans about obscure U.S. presidents and Belgian painters. The internet still offers the perfect toolkit for obsessive nerdom, but thirty years later, that toolkit mostly works to further bolster mainstream fandom.