Idolatry, hero-worship, fixation — call it what you want to. It is merely the human tendency to admire an entity outside of ourselves, to find a channel down which we can direct all of our hyperbolic emotions. It is natural for us, and expected of Americans who may obsess over one television show for the span of its season, to grab hold of a thing that we love and not let go. I’m talking about a true devotion to a person other than a family member. I’m talking about knowing every lyric to every song on every album one band has ever produced. I’m talking about that one band, and me.
I was a freshman in high school when my dad bought tickets to see a band called They Might Be Giants at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I’d heard of They Might Be Giants, because he’d made me a mix tape of their songs when I was seven. I listened to that tape over and over again, until cassettes finally kicked the bucket, but I had been happily buried beneath an avalanche of other musicians as I entered high school and had no true interest in a band from my youth — only a passing curiosity. It made me nostalgic to see them, and falsely nostalgic to go to Asbury, where my great-uncle owned the amusement park, and to the Stone Pony where my mom saw Springsteen before he was a superstar. But, They Might Be Giants were no superstars.
And even so, as I knelt on a barstool against the very back wall, in the darkness, with a string of white Christmas lights and a large pole obscuring my view, I fell in love with them. I heard the people around me screaming the lyrics to songs I was only just remembering — only just discovering that they had written — and I was flooded with incredible delight. If love is caring enough to want to know and appreciate everything about something, then there was no better word for this feeling. I wanted to be a part of the world of this little-known rock group from Brooklyn that had managed to neither gain nor lose fame since 1982.
I was a They Might Be Giants fan.
Even writing this, a troubled sensation comes over me. Generally, people’s dependence upon a material source of comfort fascinates me less than it disturbs me. It is a strange paradox, to not want to see someone hoarding Hershey’s chocolate like an alcoholic, slowly destroying themselves by narrowly focusing their desires, and at the same time, turn around and find comfort in my own icon obsession.
Despite having to leave the concert early, when I got home, I began looking up their songs, and the more recent albums I didn’t have. I watched their music videos, and learned to distinguish between John Linnell: the slightly creepy, creative genius, and John Flansburgh: the more outgoing and charismatic one. Everything I learned about them added to their appeal. They seemed like the obvious object that would summarize my nerdy view of life, an outside entity that could stand as a symbol for a piece of my being that was difficult to describe to other people. I felt if I could communicate my appreciation for the music of this band, someone could understand me better.
I did get to see them again (it’s embarrassing, but I’ve seen them five times now,) but this second time didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Stuck in traffic, I was terrified that we would be late, but we arrived just in time to discover that there were no chairs, and my mom wouldn’t be able to stand for the entire two-hour concert. Instead, she went outside to find a café, though my dad was worried about her wandering the streets of Philadelphia alone, at night. We left to find her, I very reluctantly, though my dad promised we’d be able to get back in again. We eventually found her, eating a muffin in a restaurant across the street, and she told us to go back inside and enjoy the end of the concert. We got back into the crowd and I hugged my dad through unskillfully repressed tears of frustration and gratefulness.
It’s an awful memory. I cringe every time I recall it, upset with myself for being upset, for putting my dad through that, and for caring that much about a band. How could I, a normally intelligent human being, act like that? I don’t like to think that an idol or hero can be admired so much that it evokes an emotional response from me. I hope that people with such fixations can enjoy the other aspects of life that require more passion and love from them, like their friends and family.
I have come to believe in the concept of a healthy obsession: a subject outside of you that you still know well enough to turn to for comfort when all other sources seem lost, and something you can share with the others to enlighten them on an inner piece of your soul that can only be expressed through the symbolic. After all, it is difficult to describe a person; it is easier to describe what they like.
I learned this definition when I was at USY Encampment, or “Jew Camp”, as we called it, two summers ago. It was nearly the worst experience of my life (next to the incident in Philadelphia), and the people I met there were exactly the kind of people I avoid in my daily routine. When they were up talking about how popular they hoped they were until three in the morning, I crawled into bed and fell asleep to the meaningless lyrics and wild melodies of my favorite band, as good as any lullaby. The people at the camp and the fact that I was away from home for a week all meant nothing when I listened to the softly swaying brass section and the lyrics, “If you and I had any brains/we wouldn’t be in this place./Here in the museum of idiots.” I felt happy again. Someone I had never met, who knew nothing of my situation, had somehow discerned the perfect words to describe what it was like to be stuck in a museum of idiots. What speaks to you speaks to you alone, until you find someone else in the world who understands, and that is comfort.
People strive to be noticed as individuals, to have their interests validated by others, to have their secret passions discovered and appreciated. Obsessions and fanaticisms are just these — loves we have found that speak to some part of our soul that cannot be described in words, only in song lyrics. I know if my friends were to describe me to someone else they would say, “Well, she likes birds. And They Might Be Giants.” And you know, I’m okay with that. If they nod in understanding, I’ll be over the moon.