Trans TMBG Songs
I started this list of They Might Be Giants songs that can be interpreted as to having a transgender theme. It started with just four songs: "Impossible," "The Secret Life of Six," "Sally Boy Candy Bar," and "Doctor Worm." I went to the Miscellaneous T Facebook group to ask for suggestions to add to the list. What I forgot to write in my original post was to ask people to explain their choices, but I took the time to figure out why they chose that song with the help of others and I quite enjoyed trying to figure out how this certain song can relate to the trans experience or has some trans vibes. Below is the entire list with explanations in chronological order of when the songs were released or it's at least close to it. If you have any songs you would like to add to this list or want to expand upon the meanings of some songs already listed, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear your thoughts. Also, if you know of any interviews where they talk about these songs or anything trans related, please send them to me.
This Might Be a Podcast trans themed episodes: episode 1, and episode 2. They're all previews because they're Patreon exclusive episodes.
Sally Boy Candy Bar - 1983
This one was added to the list by a friend of mine. This suggestion breaks my brain a bit because I don't really understand it. My friend's interpretation of it is that it sounds either angry and transgender, in love with someone who is transgender, or both especially with the lyrics "I've been told that a boy is a girl / This isn't true anywhere in the world" and also with "never mind the clothes you wear / Never mind the cross you bear / None of these things can compare when the circle gets the square." There is some sort of commentary on gender roles in this song, but I need Flansburgh to clarify what everything means. My friend expanded his thoughts on this song to say that it's about someone getting over the transphobia in their life to fall in love with a trans person and maybe even coming out as trans themselves. At first they're confused and scared because "I've been told that a boy is a girl / This isn't true anywhere in the world" and is accusing themselves of letting their feelings override the facts. At the lyric, "you got a heart for a head," they start to realize that they relate. With "and it illustrates the way we are," the narrator decides that "never mind the clothes you wear / never mind the cross you bear" because none of that compares to how beautiful it is when two things that they were told don't fit together do after all. This also fits with "circle gets the square" like a square peg in a round hole. The second verse references "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bike" and advises that you choose your own relationships with the lyric "the fish can walk or take a hike." Also, the repated parts aren't repeated exactly: "with breakfast in bed, heart for a head" isn't accusatory anymore and it's "the clothes WE wear" and "the cross WE bear." The song ends angry in solidarity with gender nonconformity. The "making me mad" part in the lyric "it's making me mad because it illustrates the way we are" might also be a word play on "being mad about someone" as in being in love.
Mrs. Train - 1994
This suggestion is something I am not so sure about. I think Mrs. Train is transgender, but I can't get anywhere past that.
S-E-X-X-Y - 1996
One popular interpretation of this song is that the person the narrator is talking about has klinefelter syndrome since there is an extra x in the title of the song and also because of the chorus being "X because it's extra baby / Y because it's extra baby." Since having XXY chromosomes only happens in people who were assigned male at birth, there could be a possibility that the person the narrator is talking about is a trans woman since the narrator does used she/her pronouns for her (although, this doesn't mean much since pronouns aren't inherently gendered and anyone can use any pronouns of their choosing, but we're making things more simple here since a cis person wrote this song). I always thought this song was about having sex, but who the narrator is having sex with is important. There's also this other idea that maybe the narrator mistook the other person for being a woman. This could go with the "unnoticed by few / Very very few / And that includes you" since someone can go their whole lives not knowing that they have XXY chromosomes, but the person in this song has more noticeable symptoms. This can also fit with the whole wig thing and the lyric "she wants to be your man." There's another interpretation of that lyric being that this person wants to become a man, but I always interpreted as wanting to dominate the narrator in a sexual way. Obviously, Flansburgh never meant for the song to be like this. In this one interview from 2007
, he said, "In a lot of cases I feel like even when were trying to write things as directly as possible they end up sounding like theyre filled with coded messages. Even the title of that song ["S-E-X-X-Y"] if we had thought about it or worked on it longer or thought about it in a smarter why the song would actually be called "S-E-X-X-X-Y"! Because the just "S-E-X-X-Y" makes people wonder if its like an extra chromosome. Which again is something that really didnt cross my mind until the song, like, is this about some kind of transgendered German swimming team thing? Which is fine, it totally fits the spirit of the song in a way but its so much more specific than the intention. Thats the terrain of writing lyrics -- theyre open ended whether you like it or not." Linnell also got asked about this song and also the song "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?" in an interview from 2020
. It starts around 32 minutes in. Of course, he wouldn't know the actual meanings behind the songs because he didn't write them, but it's interesing to hear his take on them.
Till My Head Falls Off - 1996
This song was added to the list by another friend of mine. They said that the song is about some sort of depersonalization on seeing what you look like rather than what you feel or what you want to look like. You can see this the most where the narrator says "clearing his throat and smiling with his hands on the bathroom sink" since it suddenly changed to third person. I assume the narrator is looking at themselves in the mirror and this is where the depersonalization starts to evolve. The narrator now sees themselves as someone else rather than as their actual self. This can tie into how some trans people feel so disconnected from the visual aspect of their bodies because it doesn't fit exactly what they need it to be. The two lyrics "and when I lean my head against the frosted shower stall / I see stuff through the glass that I don't recognize at all" and "and when I lean my head against the frosted shower stall / I see a broken figure silhouetted on the wall" also ties into the idea of feeling so disconnected from your physical body that it just doesn't look right to you or is not what you need it to be.
How Can I Sing Like a Girl? - 1996
This one I was quite hesitant to add to the list because I really hate the part where he says "freak flag," but I must add it since it's one of the more popular ones and more obvious ones being about gender. The main theme to this song seems to be about wanting to do feminine things without being perceived as a woman or without being objectified like a woman or just being ostracized for it in general. This is something that most people can relate to no matter what their gender is. Anything deemed as being feminine is always seen in a negative light. When it comes to trans men and some nonbinary people, there's this fear that if you do certain things or wear certain things then people will misgender you and assume you're a woman. I can really relate to this because I like a lot of feminine things especially makeup, but I tend to stray away from stuff like that because I hate when people assume I'm a woman. It's especially more difficult that I'm really short and have a high voice and even when I'm looking in my most masculine way I still get misgendered. When it comes to trans women and for some nonbinary people, wanting to wear feminine clothes or do anything feminine can be quite tricky. There are always going to be people who assume you're a man no matter how feminine you look and it can be quite dangerous especially for trans women. Cis people can get really angry at your existence and could harm you because of their transphobia. This goes with the chorus "how can I sing like a girl / And not be stigmatized / By the rest of the world?" This also goes with the verses because the narrator is terrified about existing and if they express themselves in a certain way people are going to bar them from the rest of society. It just sucks how we can't exist without being constantly misgendered. There's also this expectation from some cis people that we must perform masculinity or femininity to the highest degree or we're not truly a man or a woman. They're all just complete assholes. Anyways, Flansburgh got asked about this song on Tumblr in 2017
. I don't really enjoy his answer because I feel like he's dodging the question a little bit and is ignoring exactly how trans people can relate to this song, but he is cisgender so there isn't much I expect of him to say there. His answer is somewhat of a simplified version of what I've already typed out, though. He was asked about this song again on Tumblr in 2021
. He gave a longer answer this time around. I really enjoy this answer and it's an interesting perspective from a cis person.
Doctor Worm - 1998
Despite whatever bullshit Linnell said in that one interview that's quoted on the "Doctor Worm"
page on the wiki, this song is on the list! This is a popular fan interpretation of Doctor Worm being trans since they want people to call them by a certain name. The lyrics "I am a real worm / I am an actual worm / I live like a worm" can also have somewhat of a trans interpretation of it since Doctor Worm really wants people to know that they are an actual worm. It's kind of like how trans people need others to know that they are the gender that they say they are and nothing else. The lyrics "Someday, somebody else besides me / Will call me by my stage name" is like a trans person that's not entirely out yet and still has to go by their dead name or all of the people around them are really transphobic and continue to dead name them even though they've told them multiple times that that is not their name. Trans Doctor Worm!
This person also made a little video
about this song.
Bangs - 2001
This is one of the songs that was suggested to me by someone in Miscellaneous T. I couldn't find much at first, but my friend gave me an idea that it was about gender envy. It's somewhat of a realization for the narrator. This person thought they were just in love with this woman, but actually they're just in love with the way that she presents herself. It's a way of presenting femininity that would seem more accessible for the narrator. With the lyric "a proscenium to stage a face / That needs no makeup," it's like maybe wearing makeup would be too far out for the narrator to be comfortable expressing themselves with, but changing their hairstyle is. There's also this comment from a trans fan on Tumblr
which I thought was cute. I wonder if she still has bangs.
Impossible - 2003
This was the first song I thought of and it's what started the list. I always related it to the trans experience as seeming like you're not something that can happen (i.e. transitioning whether it be through surgery, hormones, socially, or something else), but being trans is something that is possible and not something that is just a far off idea that no one would think to touch. One lyric that can fit into this is "yes, they say it is impossible / It's a thing that I can never be." That can be about how cis people say that the idea of a trans person or the idea of changing your sex is something that should never exist and can't exist. They can't understand why someone would want to do something like that because there's this idea that you must live with what you're born with and there's no way that you could hate it. I also interepreted the lyrics "you can change your shape and you can grow / Out of nothing into something new / Something made up into something true" as being about transitioning especially in a physical way. The part where Flansburgh says "or just want to be more like you are" plays into needing to become the you that you need to be and being the real you. Through transitioning you can finally be who you really are.
The Secret Life of Six - 2008
This one isn't very specific. The only trans part I got from it is Six pretending to be Nine and Nine pretending to be Six. They also do this in secret so maybe they're not ready to come out yet or they know people aren't going to be accepting of them so they have to keep it a secret. Maybe I'm thinking too far into this, but there's no harm in interpreting it in that way.
Even Numbers - 2008
This one isn't very specific either. The only lyric that's giving off trans vibes is "you're a girl, but you're a boy / Girl, boy, girl." It's obvious that Linnell is just mentioning opposites since he's talking about even numbers and odd numbers.
Let Your Hair Hang Down - 2011
This one was also suggested by someone on Miscellaneous T. I would assume that the person the narrator is talking to is transgender. The person might be hesitant to express themselves in some way or to just be themselves so the narrator is telling them to just go for it and ignore what the others say in the chorus and also with the lyrics "let the wrong be wrong / Would it be so bad? / When your hair's so long / When you look so sad." I know more could be said about this song, but that's all I got so far. There is an interpretation
like this on the interpretations section for this song on the wiki which is quite interesting.
Too Tall Girl - 2013
Another song that was a Miscellaneous T suggestion. I can't get much from this, but all I can think of is maybe this too tall girl is a trans woman because sometimes trans women are tall. I'm not so sure. If you or a friend have any ideas then please let me know.
Let Me Tell You About My Operation - 2015
How obvious! Okay, so the backstory is that the title of the song was taken from "an album by stand-up comedian and female impersonator Rae Bourbon, whose adults-only, under-the-counter records became a sensation in the 50s after Bourbon claimed to have just returned from having gender correction surgery in Mexico (although it's believed this was a publicity stunt and untrue)." This isn't that important to the trans interpretation, but there's a transness to it that goes along with the song itself. Let's start with the surgery aspect of the song. I would assume that it's some sort of gender affirmation surgery, but the narrator is using it in a more metaphorical way with the "doctors removed your memory" part. With the gender affirmation surgery, there's this addition to it where it's like their former memories of themselves are gone now because maybe their past wasn't so great. Or the memories mentioned in that lyric are of someone else's memories as if this surgery will make others forget about the narrator's past life before their surgery. The lyric "find happiness through surgery" can also go along with the whole gender affirmation surgery since that's obviously something that can make people feel better about themselves. If we continue the thought about the memory being someone else's memories, there's some sort of relationship that the narrator is talking about in the song with the second verse and mentioning some sort of liaison. Perhaps the relationship was awful and this person was quite transphobic towards them. This relationship could also be interpretated as the relationship that the narrator has with themselves. It could be about the hatred that hey had towards themselves previous the operation, but now they feel much better about themselves after the operation.
Underwater Woman - 2015
This is another suggested song that I don't quite understand, but I'll try to get something out of it. I think possibly that the underwater woman is transgender or her being underwater is a metaphor for her being transgender. There's the lyrics "fiercely alive, will to survive / Able to thrive on her own" as if she has to go through all of this on her own ... maybe. Possibly other people refuse to help her with her transition. There's also the lyric "no one on the shore will ever know what's in her heart" which could mean she hasn't told anyone yet. I don't know. What do you think?
What Did I Do To You? - 2015
I would interpret this song as how cis people could be mean to you only because they're transphobic and you don't truly don't understand why because you've done nothing to wrong them. I also had the idea with the first lyric "whatever happened to chopped off / Unloved, resentful appendages?" as being about some sort of surgery whether it be top surgery, bottom surgery, or some other thing that could be unloved by some trans people. There's also this interpretation
that has nothing to do with trans people, but I like it a lot and can incorporate it into my interpretation. It can tie into how sometimes you wonder in the middle of the night if the surgery you've gone through is worth it or if you've made some sort of mistake. You're just doubting yourself in a way and you're over thinking it because all of the cis people around you are telling you not to do it or they despise the fact that you're going through with this. There's also this one idea that it can be about your past self haunting you in a way like with the lyrics "though my pounding heart nearly drowns it out / What is that scampering sound?" This could mean that the narrator is fearful that their history that they want to get rid of is coming back and they're terrified.
Long White Beard - 2015
Another kids song! What I got from this song is that the narrator is changing into things that they don't want to change into. It's like going through a puberty that you don't want to go through or having a body part that you don't want to have, but you were assigned a stupid gender at birth that's getting in the way. I feel like this is similar to "Impossible."
Shape Shifter - 2015
Unfortunately, I don't like listening to this particular song that much. I always thought it was about trans people in a way and the first time I listened to it I somehow forgot that the narrator is obviously not the same as the person singing so I just thought Linnell was being transphobic for three minutes straight. I don't want to say that any of the people in this band aren't transphobic since they're all cisgender and cis people are inherently transphobic, but I know they wouldn't be like that on purpose. I think the narrator in this song is transphobic, though. The narrator is completely annoyed that the things around him keep changing and refuses to adapt to this change. I know he mentions a lot of inanimate objects, but he does mention some humans like the tv repairman, the anchorwoman, the UPS delivery man and in some lyrics like "if you're someone I used to know / I sure don't recognize you so" and also in the chorus "I accepted what you were and then / Everything changed / And I don't want to live in any / Place where the people are / Shifting their shapes." There are too many trans people and the narrator is going absolute bonkers!
I Left My Body - 2017
One of my friends contributed their thoughts to this interpretation. He said that leaving your body is like having severe dysphoria so you stop relating to your physical self. Also, leaving your body and going on a journey is like deciding to take matters into your own hands and start this self-discovery and to transition. Waiting endlessly on the receptionist at the desk is like getting stuck in the medical system waiting for surgeries, hormones, and anything else that will help alleviate dysphoria. The lyrics "I left my body / And right away I knew I'd made / A mistake" is like how you could want to completely leave your body, but you can't. No matter how bad your dysphoria is, you have to keep feeding, washing, and loving your body because afterall you can't really leave it behind. It's the only one you have and will ever have. Of course, you can change it physically, but it's still the same body as before.
Unctuous Robot - 2018
The person who suggested this one said it has major dysphoria vibes and I agree with that. One lyric that stands out to me is "all my works are forgeries / Impressive, yes, but worthless forgeries / Impressive, yes, until you learn they're forgeries" because it's like how sometimes you feel rather fake and aren't actually a man or woman and feel like no one is believing you in at all. This can go either way if you're acting like the gender that you actually are or if you have to act like the gender that you were assigned with at birth. Having to ignore your actual gender and having to masquerade as a different gender can be absolute hell and can make you feel incredibly awful and uncomfortable. You know that you're actually not this specific gender, but you have to continue on with it to fit in or to stay safe in certain situations. On the other end when you're presenting as your actual gender, that can also be absolute hell. There's this thing that some cis people will do where they expect you as a trans person to perform femininity or masculinity to the highest degree because if you don't do that then you're obviously not the gender that you say you are. When you try to do that just to fit in then it can make you feel like you're doing this weird performance for others and aren't living for yourself. This can also go with the lyrics "I know you are but what am I / Is what I say when I'm admiring my reflection / While dressing in the clothes / I found in your room." These lyrics could be some sort of story of the narrator "cross-dressing" (couldn't think of a better term here) and enjoying it. Maybe this is the start of their gender discovery. I'm not so sure. I feel like the entire song is about the narrator feeling like they're some sort of robot who is just copying others in a way whether it be for their actual gender or the one they were assigned with at birth and don't feel like an actual human being.