Racking Up Plays: “Nanobots” by They Might Be Giants

John Linnell and John Flansburgh are still They Might Be Giants. (via theymightbegiants.com)
John Linnell and John Flansburgh are still They Might Be Giants. (via theymightbegiants.com)

A song about robotics is hardly new ground for They Might Be Giants. According to This Might Be a Wiki, “the premier TMBG knowledgebase,” John Flansburgh and John Linnell have written no fewer than nine songs in which robots are a central theme, plus another five in which robots are at least mentioned. So, no, it’s no surprise that the pre-eminent nerd-rock outfit would release a song titled “Nanobots.” If anything, it’s a surprise that it took them 31 years to do so. (Well, the band predates widespread public familiarity with the concept of nanotechnology, but you get the idea.)

The title track to the band’s 16th studio album, “Nanobots” has also been designed to sound robotic. Overlapping with the chorus’ syncopated, ascending-scale melody is a competing vocal part based on the uniform, emotionless drone of open fifths—because, duh, that’s how robots sing.

In another not-at-all-surprising development for a TMBG song, the lyrics are both whimsical and apocalyptic. Linnell sings of a microscopic army just waiting for its moment to awaken and replace our society with its own. He describes them testing their limbs, rearranging furniture, eating leftovers, sharing comic books—wait, is he describing nanites or teenagers? Actually he’s conflating the two on purpose. Here’s what he had to say in an interview with Buzzine:

I’ll tell you what it’s really about: it’s about reproducing, which is always on my mind because I have a fourteen-year-old. On the one hand it seems like this perfectly natural thing to have children, and on the other hand there’s something so odd about that as a kind of behavior. You could almost say that’s all that humans and other animals have been doing all this time, is just making more of ourselves. And it’s not at all clear what the point of any of that is. But it’s a process that brings up this notion of how much control you have, because – I think this is the cliché with nanotechnology – is that once you get it going, it just takes over and has a mind of its own, and you don’t have any control anymore. Which is very similar to the experience of having kids.

In short, “Nanobots” is everything that TMGB fans have come to expect from the band, which is still engineering insidiously catchy little songs out of pop melodies, heady topics and peculiar humor.

See They Might Be Giants live on June 14 at The Warfield in San Francisco. Doors open at 8 p.m. [tickets]


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