I spent the past few days on a mini-vacation involving a lot of time in the car listening to music, and I got to listen to TMBG’s “Particle Man” for the first time in many years. It’s a cute song, but after a few repeats and the general boredom of a long ride, I started wondering what it meant. Being a good liberal-arts alum, I was of course able to come up with a semi-plausible interpretation wherein Particle Man, as the fundamental unit of matter, clearly represents the physical world and Triangle Man alludes to Christianity’s trinity and refers to God. This explains why Triangle Man always wins when up against Particle Man or Person Man (obviously representing humanity). To understand Universe Man, it is necessary to look at the lyrics a little more closely. It is striking that Triangle Man hates Particle Man and Person Man – we are reminded of the often vindictive and destructive nature of Christianity’s old testament diety. In contrast, we are told that Universe Man is “usually kind to a smaller man” but does not appear to interfere in his existence, and is timeless with his watch with an eon hand. Universe Man is the true underlying power, not God.
Once I got back, a quick surf of the internet indicated what I feared, that the song was never meant to be taken so seriously. This interview with They Might Be Giants says:
We’ll be trying to write a real direct song, and people will think that there must be some hidden meaning, because the obvious meaning doesn’t make enough sense. […] I think “Particle Man” is probably the song that people talk about the most, and yet has the least to offer. Basically it’s just a song about characters in the most obvious sense. They’re not real people; it’s not Animal Farm. It’s not like they represent other people.
Not that that stops anyone, as evidenced by this brilliant interpretation of “Particle Man” as a retelling of Flatland.