I don’t want the world (I just want your half)
I’m not going to do a post on They Might Be Giants because it would be a ginormous undertaking. They are, after all, my all-time favorite band. However, I will do a post on my favorite song of theirs: Ana Ng.
I’ve read several renditions of the story behind the song, but the one that I believe the most was that the Johns were reading through the telephone directory in New York and happened to notice an abundance of listings for “Ana Ng.” After that, they followed through with a story about a soul mate on the opposite side of the world who the speaker may or may not ever meet.
The song is set at the 1964 World’s Fair which was held in New York City (which TMBG co-founder, John Linnell, attended as a child). You can see several references to this in the lyrics: “All alone at the ’64 World’s Fair”, “Eighty dolls yelling ‘Small girl after all'”, and “Who was at the Dupont Pavilion?” However, the best lyrics are those that describe the distance between the two characters:
Make a hole with a gun perpendicular
To the name of this town in a desk-top globe
Exit wound in a foreign nation
Showing the home of the one this was written for
My apartment looks upside down from there
Water spirals the wrong way out the sink
And her voice is a backwards record
It’s like a whirlpool and it never ends
Really, the imagery is pretty incredible. It’s so easy to see the gun pointed at the globe shooting a bullet through NYC and coming out somewhere in Southeast Asia (relevance for me is completely obvious–although it’s most likely a reference to Vietnam and not Singapore…). The globe is the key prop in the story. Without it for reference, it would be hard to imagine somebody on one side of the world seeing an upside-down apartment on the other… or why the water would seem to spiral the wrong way out the sink.
The “relationship” between the speaker and their estranged soul-mate is pretty clear throughout the song in the chorus:
Ana Ng and I are getting old
And we still haven’t walked in the glow of each other’s majestic presence
Listen Ana hear my words
They’re the ones you would think I would say if there was a me for you
The part that’s always confused me, however, is the section just before the bridge where a voice on the telephone calls out:
“I don’t want the world, I just want your half”
Given the specifics of the story, what does that actually mean? I like to think that it’s the usual TMBG quirkiness where, given that there are only two people in the story, the only other half must belong to the speaker (and, therefore, they would be acquiring the missing half). I’m not exactly sure about this, however. Regardless, it still sends chills down my spine when I hear it.
Speaking of hearing… the music is pretty awesome as well. Sure, it’s nothing spectacular in its complexity–but what a great hook the main part is (you know, the part that goes “bum-ba-bum bum ba-bum-bum bum-bum). Yes, yes, it’s all done electronically in classic TMBG style, but it’s a great rigidity next to the human element in the lyrics. Furthermore, the swell up to the bridge always grabs me and prepares me for John’s emotive section that follows.
Finally, the song really is a fantastic opener. It’s full of great pop hooks and it contrasts perfectly with the next track, Cowtown, which is a silly song about manatees that takes much more from TMBG’s avant-garde side.
All-in-all, it’s an absurd little song that strays a bit from TMBG’s usual pattern of playful artsy-pop to become a bit more emotionally meaningful. The music is great and gets stuck in your head very easily, and the lyrics are fantastic in-and-of themselves.
I leave you with the most necessary video of all videos: Tiny Toons set to TMBG’s version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”