Song of the Day: “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”


Happy Monday, LemonWire readers. Today, we’re going to look at the song, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” by They Might Be Giants.

While we usually like to stick to a unifying theme each week, this week will be a little different. The method I’ll be using to select a song each day will simply be to pick a song out of my own personal playlist that I’m in the mood to hear. So I guess you could say that our unifying theme this week is me.

Would you believe me if I told you I wasn’t a narcissist?

Anyway, this morning I woke up with that familiar Monday feeling with the whole week stretched before me. In an effort to get myself pumped up for work (while releasing some pent-up energy), I browsed through some old favorites, and came upon this little gem.

They Might Be Giants

For those of you unfamiliar with the band, They Might Be Giants is an alternative rock band that formed in 1982. Now, almost forty years later, they’re still coming out with albums.

If you remember them from anything, there’s a good chance it’s from the Malcolm in the Middle theme song, “Boss of Me”. But it could also be the song “Dr. Evil” that they contributed to the 1999 film, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”, that springs to mind first.

They Might Be Giants is a highly prolific band, having released 22 studio albums, 10 compilations, 10 live albums, 8 EPs, 7 videos, and 11 singles over the course of their career.

“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is a 2011 single from They Might Be Giants’ fifteenth studio album, “Join Us”.

Can’t Keep Johnny Down

Despite the name, They Might Be Giants members John Linnell and John Flansburgh have stated that “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is not an autobiographical song. They did say, however, that the name was used intentionally to create a contrast between their personalities, and the Johnny in the song.

In an interview with the Baltimore Sun, John Linnell expounds on this. “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 assh— 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”.

The official music video for “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” was directed by Brad and Brian Palmer, and stars Rip Torn. Additionally, They Might Be Giants hosted a contest for fans to create an unofficial music video for the song. The music video above is one of those entries. It wasn’t the winning one, just my personal favorite.


“Can’t Keep Johnny Down” is a song about a guy who has some mixed feelings about the world, and tends to have an overall knee-jerk, negative attitude. The lyrics contrast well with the upbeat, poppy nature of the song. But pairing catchy melodies to dark lyrics has always been part of They Might Be Giants’ wheelhouse.

As always, let’s start with the first verse.

“Outnumbered a million to one
All of the dicks in this dick town
Can’t keep Johnny down
Men piled up in a towering mound
None of them once has found a way
To keep Johnny down”

Immediately, we get a sense that this guy Johnny is not the kind of guy you’d want to share a beer with. For all the boasting of his inability to be kept down, it really sounds like he’s just complaining.

In the pre-chorus, we get an even more sullen Johnny.

“Spending days by myself
Remembering slights
I’m not a monument to justice
Plus which, I don’t forget a face”

Here, we see that Johnny is most likely depressed, the kind of person who holds unnecessary grudges. If you’ve ever seen “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, you’ll notice that Johnny shares some qualities with Larry David.

In a later pre-chorus section, we get a very specific example of the kind of person Johnny is.

“Beneath my dignity
To flip off the guy
When he pulls up alongside
To say my gas cap is unscrewed”

Final Thoughts

Johnny is the guy who suffers from road rage without any reason other than his negative world view. We could all take a lesson from this fictional character’s rantings. He’s a reminder that being too selfish and inward-facing can have real negative consequences on the people around you. So don’t listen to “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” thinking that it’s cool to be Johnny. If he were real, he’d most likely be a troll.

That about does it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll be back with another song to help keep you moving through the week.




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