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I don’t want the world (I just want your half)

September 29, 2008

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).”

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 10:32 pm

    I stumbled upon your blog through google searching for a video for “ana ng”. Even though it looks like you don’t update this anymore, I felt compelled to answer your question (or at least give my opinion).

    In regards to this lyric (which is one of my favorites and I use it often) “I don’t want the world, I just want your half”; As a woman, I relate it to how in a relationship couples often promise this. “I’ll give you the world” etc and if you ask me what I want, don’t give me the world, just give me your share. It’s a bit greedy if you think of it as what half she could be talking about. Splitting something physical like a meal or an object or perhaps something subjective like sharing a heart etc.

    • atrainv permalink*
      November 29, 2010 2:46 pm

      Val, sorry it took me so long to respond, but you’re right–I stopped updating for a while. I just started up again, and hopefully I can keep it going this time.

      I like how you try to put it into relationship terms. If we assume that these people are in a relationship, we can definitely think of the quote as an homage to proportional gifts (as in, people don’t always want the gifts that are the grandest in quality, but rather the grandest in magnitude proportional to the person’s giving ability). “I don’t want the world, because you can’t give me that… (maybe he already “has” his half) but I’ll be happy if you give me your world (your half).”

  2. Adam permalink
    November 29, 2010 2:22 pm

    I stumbled across your blog looking for “I don’t want the world, just your half”. I loved Ana Ng, but I remember the lyric / sample from a Lemonheads song, possible “Bit Part”. Not sure what exactly it means, no where near as intelligent as Val.
    Other little point(s), Vietnam / Singapore would not be on the opposite end of the globe. It would have to be somewhere in the southern hemisphere, Singapore / Vietnam are both in the northern hemisphere. The water going backwards also says “southern hemisphere”. Lastly, I am currently living in Vietnam, have been for other 1 year, and I yet to meet Ana Ng. I am sure she is here somewhere, I will keep looking.
    Thanking fo writing the blog.

    • atrainv permalink*
      November 29, 2010 2:37 pm

      That’s a good point about the hemispheres. I was thinking more East vs. West, but of course if you were to be in the exact opposite side of the globe (and if you were starting from New York City, as I assume TMBG were) you would be somewhere in the southern hemisphere. Perhaps somewhere in Indonesia or Australia? However, I would think that there would be fewer “Ng”s in those areas.

  3. atrainv permalink*
    November 29, 2010 3:08 pm

    One thing that might be noteworthy (but is probably nothing) is this:

    I checked out the names of towns on the maps that the Johns are looking at in the video and they vary from Peru to Romania & Bulgaria. This most likely just because these were maps they had lying around when they were shooting the video, but who knows, maybe there’s something to the choices they made (not that it really has any bearing on our interpretations of the lyrics).

  4. November 30, 2010 6:01 am

    Thanks for replying. Because I use it so often in equating what I can give and get in a relationship, it’s why it’s so treasured to me. (thanks Adam!)

    @atrainv, no worries about not updating. Life get’s in the way a lot. Great to see you updating again. I will definitely follow.

  5. August 2, 2012 11:49 pm

    Dig this post. Dig the comment thread. I want your half. I totally get the quote. It’s about the grass being greener. A human experience, maybe female, maybe universal. Cheers, y’all.

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