They Might've Been Giants

Last night, unexpectedly, I found myself at a They Might Be Giants show in Princeton. TMBG are a band I’ve known and enjoyed since high school, when their album Flood served my circle of friends as a kind of nerd anthem. I saw them twice during those years (the late nineties) and enjoyed it; the crowd I remember from both of those shows was a mix of youngish nerds and more standard rock audience. Those shows were packed, but last night McCarter theater, the local venue, was only half full, with hardly any undergrads.

The demographics were odd—grad students and older, plus a smattering of parents with kids—leaving me to puzzle over them as I listened. The first clue came when John Flansburgh mock-boasted somewhat sheepishly that the band recently took home a grammy for best children’s album (which, indeed, they did). So they are now stars on the music-bought-for-children-by-their-parents circuit. In fact, they’d done a whole earlier midafternoon show for the bedtime-conscious set. This evening set was the big kids’ version, targeted at adults but still conscious of the kid demographic. S-E-X-X-Y was not on the set list.

The second clue came when Birdhouse in Your Soul, the signature song of the group as I first knew them, drew a muted response from the crowd. It was clear many of the people there had never heard it before. (Which is a shame. It’s sung by a night light in someone’s bedroom: “There’s a picture opposite me / of my primitive ancestry / which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free”).

That’s when I realized: Even though Flood wasn’t new by the time my friends found it (having been released in 1990), it was still riding the long wave of primary popularity. By the time today’s undergrads first began listening, it had faded from view. Rather than draw in new fans by capturing the new entrants to a fixed age bracket as, say, U2 has over the years, or age with its listeners, as the typical rock band does, TMBG has done something rarer: Allow its primary audience to age and tail off, but simultaenously find a new and younger one. It’s a neat trick, and the fact that they’ve made it work is a tribute to their finesse.