“Birdhouse In Your Soul” — They Might Be Giants

Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

Considering it was a hit way back in 1990, until this week I never knew what “Birdhouse In Your Soul” by They Might Be Giants was all about.

That didn’t stop me enjoying the record. It had a idiosyncratic, indie feel to it along with a quirky video, perfect for MTV. So I haven’t spent 30 years consumed with a sense of frustration from not knowing what They Might Be Giants were singing about. Quite frankly there are plenty of other records from around that time I still don’t fully understand either, and that doesn’t stop me humming them when they come on the radio and putting a smile on my face, even on the toughest of days.

Just by chance this week I read an article about They Might Be Giant’s biggest hit to date — a UK Number Six — and everything clicked into place. What had previously been a jumble of lyrics… where I understood the meaning of every individual word they used without ever understanding the totality of the song…fell into place.

It turns out “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is about a nightlight…you know, the sort of dim lamp you put in a young child’s bedroom to help them get off to sleep if they’re afraid of the dark.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have picked up the hints. Maybe I was enjoying the MTV video too much back in the early 90s to pay as much attention to the lyrics as I should done, but They Might Be Giants hardly made it easy…

I’m your only friend
I’m not your only friend
But I’m a little glowing friend
But really I’m not actually your friend

After that somewhat confusing opening, I suspect my brain just shifted into neutral and I stopped listening to the details from that point on. Back then there was a lot of weird stuff about, I probably just assumed it was another “one of those”.

In my defence, as a Brit I wouldn’t have picked up on some of the hints The Might Be Giants gave, which might have contributed to my confusion. They use the word “outlet” to mean what we might call a plug or a socket over here, whereas outlet is a term a Brit is more likely to use to describe the pipe taking the finished product from a sewage processing plant to the sea. It’s not a term we typically use to refer to something hooked into the electricity grid.

If I’d picked up on that reference, I might have made the connection…pun intended…a long time ago…

But I am
Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch
Who watches over you
Make a little birdhouse in your soul
Not to put too fine a point on it
Say I’m the only bee in your bonnet
Make a little birdhouse in your soul

You’ll forgive my Britishness not picking up the reference, but when you add this to the intro, without understanding the electrical reference, you might understand why I gave up trying to understand “Birdhouse In Your Soul” and just enjoyed it for the bouncy sing-along song it was. None of it made any sense.

However this isn’t just a song about a nightlight. It’s a song written from the perspective of the nightlight. Our illuminated little pal is looking out across the room, presumably with a young child fast asleep in it somewhere, and singing about some of the things it can see in the bedroom.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell — collectively They Might Be Giants — had scoped out the melody some years previously but hadn’t quite figured out the finer details by the time they were due to start recording their album Flood.

They decided to finish it off with what John Linnell later described as somewhat “oblique”, “Gilbert and Sullivany” lyrics which just happened to fit the beat and the melody. He admitted the final version sounded a bit like the dummy lyrics songwriters sometimes use to work out the musical components of a song which they rewrite once they’re happy with the music.

That might be a little hard, but I know what he means. “Oblique” certainly explains the rather unexpected reference to a story from Greek mythology part-way through…

There’s a picture opposite me
Of my primitive ancestry
Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free
Though I respect that a lot
I’d be fired from my job
After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts
Bluebird of friendliness
Like guardian angels it’s always near

The birdhouse reference is a nod to the fact that children’s nightlights are often made so that pictures shine dimly through to illuminate the room…a train perhaps, a unicorn or, in this case, a canary.

That’s the blue canary in the outlet (power socket) by the light switch…of course! Now I see it!

Maybe the subject matter of “Birdhouse In Your Soul” had been nagging away at me for a lot longer than I had realised. My feeling of release when all the elements of the story fell into place was an unexpected pleasure.

Like the satisfying “thunk” you get when shutting the door on a very expensive motor car, it was immensely satisfying to discover They Might Be Giants’ record was about a nightlight after 30 years of listening to them singing it.

If the song itself fell into place for me last week, unfortunately I can’t say the same for the video. That’s still somewhere out on the far side of Crazy Town. But, like I say, there were a lot of strange songs around back then and even stranger videos.

Back in the heyday of MTV, record companies would hand out big dollops of cash to video directors in the hope of getting plenty of airplay on the hottest way of getting music in front of kids with money in their pockets since radio had been invented.

Having a cast of thousands, exotic locations and bizarre storylines were very much par for the course in those far-off carefree days for the record industry.

They were awash in cash. The internet hadn’t been invented yet, and Napster wasn’t even a gleam in somebody’s eye…never mind Spotify, Tidal and Deezer.

So why not spend thousands on a crazy music video? If MTV like it, the kids will see it every hour or so and, hey presto, the top of the charts beckons in next to no time.

Which is exactly what happened to They Might Be Giants. In fairness, they didn’t quite get to the absolute pinnacle of the charts, but a UK Number Six was a perfectly decent result. Their record company was pretty happy, I’m sure.

“Birdhouse In Your Soul” would turn out to be the high water mark of They Might Be Giants’ chart success, but to this day it’s a song which always puts me in an excellent mood for no particular reason I can explain logically. If I’m feeling a bit down before it comes on the radio, my mood turns around completely in about three minutes. This is a song with magical properties.

That was true even before I understood the lyrics. But now that I do, there’s no telling how much I’m going to enjoy it next time I hear it.

Although I’m still not at all sure about that video…

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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