There’s a great tradition of educational songs being produced for children, with the intention of helping them to learn all about different things in a fun way, and thereby sweeten that bitter pill a little by making things into edutainment.
One of the most obvious and notable of these examples is Sesame Street, which has been doings its thing for nearly five decades (come November 2019). There have also been other TV shows, like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was a staple part of American childhood for over 30 years, and would include songs as part of its way of teaching life lessons to its young viewers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of albums known as Ballads For The Age of Science or Singing Science were released, which had been produced by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer (with Zaret having also co-written ‘Unchained Melody’, trivia fans), and they proved to be fairly successful. Continuing this proud legacy have been They Might Be Giants, who’ve also released their own run of albums for pre-teen audiences with an educational slant – from No! (2002) to book and EP Bed, Bed, Bed (2003), Here Come The ABCs (2005) and Here Come The 123s (2008), culminating recently in 2015’s Why?
However, 2019 happens to mark the 10th anniversary of their album Here Comes Science, which is the most controversial of all their releases for children, due in no small part to the incredibly deep-rooted anti-science and pro-religious sentiments which still strongly prevail in some parts of the United States. Songs which proved to be especially problematic were ‘Science Is Real’ (which lumps angels into the very same bracket as mythical creatures such as elves and unicorns), and ‘My Brother The Ape’ (which attracted the ire of pro-creationists).
It was actually a deliberate move to leave tackling science until the end of their run of Here Comes… albums, as they wanted to cover the basics first like numeracy and the alphabet for younger audiences, then graduate to the more mature subject that science represents, helping to bridge that gap between these younger listeners and the rather more typical adult audience for TMBG. Having reached the heights of #4 on the Billboard Kids Chart, it managed to also garner the accolade of being TMBG’s album with the longest Billboard Charts run, racking up a total of 54 (albeit non-consecutive) weeks on the Billboard Kids Chart.
One of the notable traits of TMBG is how their songs never overstay their welcome – with an average duration of somewhere between two and three minutes, they get a lot of material onto their albums, and in the case of songs for children, this seems to be the ideal length to suit the attention spans of youngsters, without running the risk of overwhelming them, or cramming too much into a single song. Here Comes Science has a total of 19 tracks (20, if you include ‘Waves’, which was exclusive to the Amazon MP3 release), and it manages to cover all manner of topics, from cells and blood, to photosynthesis, the periodic table, computer assisted design, the solar system, palaeontology, and the difference between speed and velocity, to name but a few.
It means that they’re able to have such a great variety not just in terms of subjects featured in the songs, but also the styles they use, with everything from the sort of full-on rocking out you might expect from the adult albums that they’ve released, to a more typically pre-school or juvenile sound. However, all of the songs are still perfectly accessible to both grown-ups as well as kids, without being patronising to one, or going way over the heads of the other. It’s a very difficult task to produce something that appeals in equal measure to a wide audience, but TMBG certainly are old hands at this, and manage to do it with consummate ease.
Usually on TMBG’s albums, the two Johns – Linnell and Flansburgh – write and share vocal duties, but on their Here Comes… series, they’ve opened things up, meaning that members of their backing group have a chance to come to the fore. Their bass guitarist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller wrote and sing their own individual songs – ‘I Am A Palaeontologist’ and ‘Speed And Velocity’ respectively – and both tracks are easily the equal of anything else on the rest of the album. It shows how in sync they are with John and John, and why they’ve been long standing fixtures in the group.
One thing which TMBG have never shied away from is doing their own versions of other artists’ songs, not just as part of the sets used in their live shows, but also as a part of their albums. It takes skill to take someone else’s compositions, and make them feel as if they’re your own, shaping them to your own sound and style, to the point where you could forget (if you even knew in the first place) that they weren’t the group’s own work. They’ve done this here, by incorporating a number of other science-based songs, which already deal with subjects perfectly well enough, so it makes perfect sense to use them.
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The most notable of these is ‘Why Does The Sun Shine?’, which has been a staple part of their live performances since 1985, and they’ve previously released in 1993 as part of an EP, as well as on their 1998 live album Severe Tire Damage. One of the compositions by Hy Zaret and Lou Singer from their album Space Songs, it shows how science is still constantly evolving, as it’s no longer as factually accurate as was thought back in the 1950s; as a result, the next track on Here Comes Science comes in the form of an addendum by TMBG – ‘Why Does The Sun Really Shine?’, which is a nice touch on their part.
As with all of their other Here Comes… albums, a full set of music videos were made for the songs, and with Here Comes Science, these are included on a separate disc alongside the CD. It certainly helps to add an extra dimension for the kids, as the videos help provide a visual element to illustrate some of the subjects that are featured in the songs; they also manage to use a variety of different animation styles throughout, so that also helps keep things interesting, and reflects the playfulness and variety that’s evident throughout the whole album.
By no means just a release for TMBG fans alone, Here Comes Science is also well worth picking up by parents who want to help give their kids a good grounding in this field. You could do far worse than to join They Might Be Giants in their musical laboratory. I mean, it’s not rocket science, after all, but it’s well worth making a song and dance about.