Why is the world in love again?
Why are we marching hand in hand?
Why are the ocean levels rising up?
I learned the answers to these questions when I was in the 9th grade. It was 1990, and They Might Be Giants had just released a new album called Flood. Up until this point, my musical taste was quite stunted.
When I was in pre-kindergarten in Southern California, my parents had bought me a small collection of vinyl records that included Sesame Street Love, Smurfing Sing Song, Strawberry Shortcake’s Exercise and Fun, Disco Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney’s It’s a Small World with folk songs from around the world, and Walt Disney’s Children’s Favorites that featured classic American folk songs.
This was all the music I knew, aside from my parents’ collection of Linda Ronstadt, Richard Clayderman, Neil Diamond, Carly Simon, the soundtrack to the movie Ice Castles, and Sœur Sourire, the French singing nun from my mother’s childhood. I do still have great curiosity about the Ice Castles soundtrack. (What was it about that movie that prompted them to purchase the soundtrack, the only soundtrack they’ve ever owned, to my knowledge?)
In case you were curious, my parents grew up in Mexico and moved to Los Angeles in 1975. And we spoke only Spanish at home – it was a well-enforced house rule. So if you are wondering why I didn’t grow up with stereotypically Mexican music, I don’t think there was any reason for it other than my parents had very American tastes in music.
Although I loved the music we had at home, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that it wasn’t the kind of thing I could share with my classmates. “Hey, isn’t ‘Song, Song Blue’ so romantic? What do you think about ‘The Man on the Flying Trapeze’, groovy right?” Fortunately, I was able to take social cues from my peers.
My best friend since the 1st grade, Jessica, was infinitely cooler than me. She lived with her grandmother, was one of the prettiest girls in class, and was already destined to become a popular cheerleader. Even though I skipped the 2nd grade because I was academically under-challenged, we remained best friends for all of elementary school.
In the 4th grade, she turned me on to Whitney Houston’s debut album. That was my first “grown-up” album. We listened to it almost every day on her grandmother’s record player console in the TV room. We memorized the words to all the songs and created a dance routine to “Greatest Love of All” for the annual talent show. The next album I acquired was the New Kids on the Block self-titled album. Around the 5th grade, a few of my classmates started talking about “new wave” music, but how could I even comprehend alternative music when I barely grasped mainstream music?
It was all so overwhelming – I just couldn’t seem to keep up with the trends. So I reverted back to listening to the collection of music we had at home. In a way, I felt secretly rebellious listening to old folk songs that no one else my age listened to. Around that time, I also discovered the oldies station and began listening to hit songs from the 1950s and 1960s. That was seriously uncool and quite alternative, if you think about it, for a kid growing up in the 1980s. At least I was listening to the radio. Sort of keeping up with the times.
In junior high, I learned about hip-hop and went on to acquire Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel and Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. I was gradually learning to fit in with the rest of the kids, but still, I wasn’t quite cutting it. I only owned one pair of jeans that zipped up at the ankles, my clothes were generally too baggy, and I got a terrible perm on my bangs. I resembled a misfit in The Breakfast Club. Except, I had no fellow misfits where I went to school growing up.
In the fall of 1990, I went to a brand new school in the 9th grade. (The perm had grown out by then.) It was a college preparatory school in Claremont, California – The Webb Schools. It was actually two separate schools, Webb School for boys and Vivian Webb School for girls. We happened to share a campus. We had an eccentric theater director who put on originally written plays such as “Zombies” and “Alpha and Omega.” We had an honor code. We took paleontology as our first-year science course and went on fossil-hunting field trips. Finally, I was with my people.
Within the first few weeks of being at this peculiar new school, I met Sonia who became one of my best friends. It was during those first few weeks that she also introduced me to Christian Bale, who was about to become famous for his role on Newsies, and They Might Be Giants, an alternative rock band that had been around since 1982.
Sonia gave me a cassette tape copy of their new album, Flood, which I listened to religiously over the next two years. This was the music I’d been waiting for all my life. It was not mainstream, but also kind of weird even for the typical alternative/new wave kids – kind of punk, philosophical, historical, literary. Songs about birdhouses in your soul, racist friends, and particle men.
We memorized the lyrics to all the songs and even deconstructed them (“Dead” was probably about the French revolution, or so we figured). We created a dance routine to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and we performed it for the annual talent show. I’d come a long way from my first grown-up album by Whitney Houston. My love for They Might Be Giants helped me form connections to new friends – fellow intellectual nerds – in the 11th and 12th grade when I transferred to another high school. No longer was I an outsider having to keep my musical tastes a secret, but I was marching hand in hand with fellow intellectual nerds. The world was indeed in love again.
Fast forward to 2016 when the ocean levels are rising at unprecedented rates. I still know all the lyrics on that Flood album by heart. I’ve been to see more concerts by They Might Be Giants (about 4 or 5 times) than by any other major musical group. In 1992 I went with Sonia and a friend from my new high school to see their Apollo 18 concert. As we were in line to get autographs, John Flansburgh dubbed our trio “When, Where, and How” – these nicknames stuck for years.
The last time I went to see one of their concerts was in 1999. By then, I’d stopped following their new music. And as they are incredibly prolific, they’ve released about another dozen albums since then. But last night, I found out they were playing their entire Flood album at the end of March here in Austin. There was no way I’d be missing this show. I immediately purchased tickets.
So, perhaps see you there, where you’ll see me slowly twisting in the wind.