#28 – “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” (2011)

Join Us
L.K.: At long last, a Join Us track!
A.S.: The first one on the album, too!
L.K.: Can we just go waaaay waaay back for a second and let me complain about Pitchfork again, because I have no idea why they decided to debut this track on Pitchfork. Granted, it was very exciting at the time because OMG NEW TMBG SONG FOR FREE, but I mean, their target audience definitely would not be on that site.
A.S.: Yeah, that was kind of odd, especially considering Pitchfork never actually reviewed the album for some reason, which may be a good thing. Actually, it probably is a good thing – the farther away TMBG can stay from the major hype machines, the more organic and sincere its reputation and following will be.
L.K.: Yeah, Pitchfork never reviewing Join Us when the first song from it debuted on their site is kind of odd, but I mean, they would’ve given the album such a low score anyway – a 5.5, tops.
A.S.:  I’m not 100% sure if we can assume Pitchfork would give Join Us a bad review, since the album seemed to do surprisingly well elsewhere, critically.
L.K.: You say that about a band that did three albums for Disney and a ton of ad work…
A.S.: I don’t think that matters, I mean indie bands are all over advertisements these days
L.K.: I think that trashed their reputation more than “hype” would, but TMBG have been around for three decades, long past the point where they would ever run the risk of being overhyped. The closest they came to the hype machine would’ve been in 1990 or so. The closest the band ever came to massive mainstream popularity was the Flood era, for sure. There was never really much of a hype backlash though because their core audience has always been so small, dedicated, and self-selected. They ultimately are not concerned at all about trying to appeal to any demographic outside of themselves.
A.S.: I feel if they had gotten a good review at Pitchfork though, I’d fear that it would have led to a billion people suddenly, mindlessly reassessing their opinion on the band, maybe even going so far as to claim that, “Oh, we liked them all along, we just hadn’t paid attention, now that they’re approved again [or whatever], they’re not the joke band we thought they were.” I know some of these people personally, and I’m confident it would happen. But you’re absolutely right that TMBG aren’t trying to appeal to demographics, and that’s one reason why I love them so fucking much and why the hip bandwagoner demographic would undermine part of what TMBG have been about. They’re doing perfectly well without hype too, selling out shows and so forth, so I issue a hearty, sincere, resounding, “Good for them!” on that.
L.K.: I just can’t envision Pitchfork ever giving this album a good review though. I liveblogged listening to Join Us on my Facebook wall, and somewhere in the middle of “Celebration” my thoughts were basically “Pitchfork is going to give this a 2.”
A.S.: Yeah, I don’t exactly know what gave Join Us the critical acclaim that The Else or The Spine didn’t have, other than that it harkens back to the sort of minimalist pop of the first two records, I guess.  But at the same time, it has the same clean production that marked the albums before it, and why should that even really matter?
L.K.: But enough about Pitchfork, what about this song?
A.S.: But anyway, right, the song itself.
L.K.: When it first came out, I thought it was ok, then it grew on me a little more, but now I’m back to thinking it’s overrated. It’s not a bad song, but they’ve definitely done better.
A.S.: You’re really not too crazy about this one? I too remember being underwhelmed at first listen, but it grew on me and hasn’t overstayed its welcome.
L.K.: I mean, this is one of only a handful of TMBG songs who are kind of ruined for me by their lyrics.
A.S.: The lyrics are great!
L.K.: Because I will put up with a lot from TMBG lyric-wise, but I draw the line at potty humor. I cringe at “bathroom in his pants” every single time. Shades of “Anaheim” here; John Linnell, did you really need to write another song involving somebody pooping his pants? Granted, this is an astronaut, so he has an excuse, but still.
A.S.: That’s one issue of space travel people often overlook.
L.K.: Yeah, but it just seems too crude a line. Maybe from another band it’d be ok. I’d expect it from Ben Folds or Ween or somebody.
A.S.: It ties in to the greater point that even though a man may be on the moon, there are still some really basic human functions that can pit him below the average (or as the song’s narrator implies, less-than-average) person.
L.K.: Yeah, but if you’re trying to convince somebody TMBG isn’t a joke band then it doesn’t really help if this is the song they’re promoting their new album with. Pooping astronauts.
A.S.: That’s just one line in the song, it’s not like it’s the chorus or anything.
L.K.: Yeah but it’s a really bothersome line!
A.S.: I disagree.
L.K.: Musically though, I really enjoy the song. The keyboard part is great.
A.S.: It’s another one of those breezy, power pop songs in G-major that John Linnell can just seemingly pull out of thin air.
L.K.: I think Flans may have been overstating the song’s greatness in a lot of the interviews promoting the new album though. “John Linnell is a genius”, etc. etc. I’m paraphrasing but I know the word “genius” was involved, which is a big, big word.
A.S.: This song, lumped in with a whole bunch of others can reinforce it, certainly. And hasn’t Flansburgh been telling people that for years now?
L.K.: Well, true. If there’s one thing we learned from Gigantic it is that if you separate the Johns they will sit around and call the other man a genius and talk about how they themselves are the less useful half.
A.S.: Oh yeah.
L.K.: You know, this is such a great concert opener in addition to being a good album opener just because of that keyboard line in the beginning. You instantly know what song it is.
A.S.: It’s as close to literally being a “hook” as you may find in pop music today. And returning to the lyrics, I just think that it’s a great character sketch.
L.K.: I think interviewers have been trying too hard to make a fuss about the fact that the main character is named “Johnny”, because he’s pretty obviously not based on John Linnell at all (or any other Johns, for that matter). That’s basically the gimmick of it.
A.S.: Right, although I suppose it can be interpreted as such, given its placement at the start of an album that was intended to draw upon ideas from the band’s early days.
L.K.: “In a way, the song is a joke in the way that both of our names our John. That wasn’t a mistake. The guy in the song is a complete and utter asshole and the song is in the perspective of [him]. Some of the characters [in our songs] aren’t very nice people, but we try to be nice people.” – John Linnell. Or as Flans says, “a classic, unreliable narrator type of song”.
A.S.: The character in the song is much more crude and beaten down than either John seems to be, which again, I think excuses the “bathroom” line – the lyrics on the whole paint the character to be a crude person, given the “dicks in this town” part and the line about flipping off drivers.
L.K.: Oh man, I can’t believe I forgot about the DICKS.
A.S.: Again, probably no coincidence that it’s placed right at the start of the new album, trying to distance themselves, slowly but surely, from the kid’s music.
L.K.: That’s definitely pretty high up there on the list of words I never thought I’d hear Linnell say, let alone sing. There was definitely some confusion when this song came out as to whether it was airsafe or not. Since it’s a non-anatomical dick, it’s apparently ok.
A.S.: Yeah, I remember when my show was still in non-safe harbor hours, I played it without batting an eye.
L.K.: They played it on Jimmy Fallon and didn’t get bleeped or anything, so it’s ok. Amusingly though, when they appeared on Hoppus On Music, while the “dicks” in the song weren’t bleeped, a discussion between Mark Hoppus and John Linnell about bands drawing dicks on the walls of venues was bleeped.
A.S.: Well, that’d be an anatomical dick.
L.K.: Context is very important. My favorite is still internet forums that censor the name of the Dick Van Dyke show.
A.S.: Oh boy.


A.S.: Hey speaking of context, can I say that I really don’t care for either music video for this song?
L.K.: Yes you can! I considered making one for the John Hodgman-judged contest, but I didn’t have the time or the materials or the assistance to put together anything that I would’ve been proud enough of to enter.
A.S.: It would have been tempting to make one, but I don’t think I would have put anything together remotely resembling a dude running around in his underwear backwards in slow motion.
L.K.: Yeah… Hodgman has weird taste.
A.S.: And as for the actual video, all due respect for Rip Torn, but the juxtaposition of this sprightly tune against the rather gritty fighting footage just doesn’t work, probably because there doesn’t seem to be any sort of connect between the song and the footage.
L.K.: Yes, the “official” video is just too unrelated to the song itself – tone-wise, content-wise.
A.S.: It almost seems like the video’s director didn’t care to synchronize anything; the song’s placement in the video seemed completely arbitrary.
L.K.: It’s a hard song to make a video for because you want to avoid just illustrating the lyrics, but the lyrics are basically just a character sketch of this guy. At the very least though, grimy footage of fights doesn’t really work in either a literal or interpretive way.
A.S.: Outside of a pretty basic interpretation of the song’s title. It might have been different if the Johns were in the video in some way (and okay, I just like TMBG videos with the Johns in them because they are relentlessly entertaining to watch).
L.K.: I enjoy TMBG videos with the Johns in them too! I think everybody does! Look how happy everybody was when the video for “Cloisonné” came out, compared to the “CKJD” video. The video for “When Will You Die” doesn’t have the band in it either, but it’s at least in keeping with the spirit of that song. This video just feels too incongruous.
A.S.: “WWYD” shows something completely new – but you can watch a fight scene in every other movie made in the last 50 years or whatever.
L.K.: Yeah, anybody can watch a fight scene anywhere, but there is only one video of the construction of a life-size pink paper monster truck hearse. Hey, at least they made videos for a bunch of songs this year. It’s been a while since they did anything but outsource animation to other people.
A.S.: And that’s been thoroughly enjoyable. 2011 was a great year to be a TMBG fan, and this song is one of the reasons why it was so great.
L.K.: Here’s hoping 2012 matches up!
One Response to “#28 – “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” (2011)”
  1. Nathan says:

    I think people might be more aware of astronauts’ bathroom habits since the story about the former astronaut who drove across the country in a diaper to kidnap some guy. Which was actually mentioned in a Ben Folds song, although I don’t think he included the diaper in the lyrics.

    I kind of like the underwear video just for its absurdity, although it’s not something I’d want to watch particularly often. Nonetheless, it shows actual creativity, while the Rip Torn one just looks like some unrelated footage with the song playing on top of it. If I hadn’t known ahead of time which one was the professionally made video, I might well have thought the Torn one was fan-made. Most of their videos don’t really have anything to do with the lyrics, but they do proceed in time to the music, you know?

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