Interpretations:Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal

From This Might Be A Wiki


This song is about this song, which is a song that the radio DJ said he'd play, but didn't.

That last interp wasn't very fleshed out at all, so I figured I'd elaborate. This song is about a man who wrote a crummy song, but pays the DJ money to play it anyway. (The DJ then flees town.) It is interesting to note that the DJ says this is how the music industry is run. - Mr. Nuclear

Wait a minute, Mr. Nuclear. This my very favorite TMBG song, so it can't be about a man who wrote a crummy song, if the song is about this very song.

I believe this song is taking a poke at payola. Payola is a key part of major record label marketing. Strictly speaking, it's illegal to buy radio time without making it clear that the radio time has been purchased. But radio listeners must be given the illusion that their own choice determines what songs get air time. Radio stations have to pretend to play songs because of listener demand and not because it's the song being pushed by the label that week. The answer is record promoters, whose sole purpose is to pay off the radio stations on behalf of the record labels. To make it all legal, the promoter invoices the record label for services rendered, then gives the money to radio stations for "promotional purposes" -- prize money, actual advertising purchases, what have you. The money finds its way from the record labels to the radio stations and the radio stations advertise for the record labels by playing whatever new hit single the label is pushing.

At least for the most part it's impossible to push music that completely sucks on the populace, so bands picked up by the big labels tend to not completely suck. But, for a small band without major label backing, payola makes it practically impossible to get quality radio air time, no matter how good your music is. It should be understandable how a young They Might Be Giants might want to rail against payola.

Ok, I admit that's a real tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theory take on payola. Google it. Or better yet, look it up on

See, if you ask me, I don't think this song is about payola per se. It seems like a straight-forward account. The specific mention of Chess Piece Face and Rabid Child - and their "impatience" - suggests to me that this was a first-person experience of the Johns in trying to get their music on the air, and it is a jab at both the DJ for being a swindler, and at themselves for being so naive as to trust this nobody and give him money. The whole payola operation was much more devious and complicated than this song's narrative suggests. This song seems more likely to be saying "What a jerk he is, and what a bonehead I am." - Havisham

If it is a straightforward account, I'd say it pretty much proves the Johns are crazy. Anyone who thinks an 80s DJ could get a song like "Chess Piece Face" played on the radio in between songs by Madonna and Def Leppard should have their head examined. Nah, this song is a comical, fictional account of payola in the music business. The Johns are having a jab at corporate pop/rock in the late 80s. --Kris Wright 07:00, 7 June 2007 (UTC)

About the above, relating to Chess Peice Face and Rabid Child. I don't really think that is meant to mean the public, but simply John and John themselves. Since they are the ones who wrote the song "Chess Peice Face" and "Rabid Child."

Mabey the rabid child and chess piece face reference is actually depicting how the songs feel. For instance: If the narator knew, the songs point of view - Michael Edward Willenzik III

Taken completely straightforwardly, a singer takes a song to a DJ to try and get some air time. The DJ asks the singer how much he has in the bank; the singer assumes he's being asked for a bribe and is about to get what he wants. However, the DJ is actually giving the singer investment advice, stating basically if he's well invested it won't matter how much time he spends as an unsuccessful musician. But the singer misses this completely, thinks he has successfully bribed the DJ, and is upset when he doesn't hear his song on the air.

I highly doubt this song is a an account of John and John themselves. Johns bribing? Johns desperate to get air time? Does this sound like the TMBG we know? I think not. TMBG is known for it's not-so-literal songs, and I don't think this is an exception.

Well, not exactly. Like some songs you think that they might not have a literal meaning, but it turns out that they do. TMBG is tricky that way ~Ruth

I think this goes deeper than Payola. It's criticizing the artificiality of TMBG's contemporaries in the music industry and how they're willing to make "a colossal mess" out of their lives for success and airtime. It's about people who sell out and how it sucks and that one day it will come back to hurt them. ^_^ -- cookiecaper

I think it's about selling out to make it in the music business, specifically to make lots of money. The line about the record's success depending on something else the singer "has got" brings to mind people who use their bodies to sell their music because they have no talent. Also, a lot of people who get amazingly famous end up with huge problems, hence "the collossal mess they made of their lives".

And, of course, the DJ in this song turns out to be a ripoff artist in any case...

~ Sam

Has nobody else noticed that all the songs mentioned are sung by Flansy?--tehbagel ( o ) 18:44, 7 July 2006 (MDT)

It's a pretty literal song, in my opinion. Basically, the guy makes a deal with a DJ, and the DJ promises to play the guy's song on the radio--for a fee, of course. The guy is apparently somewhat naive, so he accepts the offer and pays the DJ in advance, like he was told to. But the DJ skips town before the song is played. In short, the DJ conned the singer out of his money, leaving the singer not only penniless, but just as obscure as ever. ~Anna Ng hears your words.

Yes, by naming those 3 songs, Linnell is making fun of Flansy's songs and how un-radio friendly and grotesque they can be. It's a cute ribbing.

Anyway, I always just see the song as an alternate universe where TMBG tried to sell out.

Linnell did sing on the original demo for The World's Address, though, so it might just be Linnell's song. -CapitalQtalk ♪ 19:31, 24 April 2007 (UTC)

This song is a parody of how songs hit the charts. Nowadays, listeners don't buy singles anymore, so "being number 1" is sort of arbitrary because a record company can get radio stations to buy millions of sales of the single and thus inflate their stats and reach number 1. So basically, John Linnell is making a deal with the radio stations, asking them to make his song number 1. Of course, the radio station begins to talk in the same manner as the record company, saying, "long-term investment." He wants Linnell to sell his soul to the music industry, so that they can control him. In return, the radio stations will rocket Linnell's music to number 1. Of course, the DJ has to explain the plight of pop stars and their ultimate misery (Michael Jackson at that point, now Britney and people like that), explaining that their messy lives don't matter since so much money is made. The DJ doesn't care about Linnell's happiness, just sales. This is a Floydian treatment of the music industry, although more upbeat. Next, the DJ begins to explain that the record can be complete crap, ("the record didn't have to be hot, nobody ever seemed to care if it's not"), because its quality doesn't matter, people will listen anyway. This is easily seen in all the total crap on pop stations nowadays, like "Suck my joystick" or whatever it is that's number one. It's dirty, stupid, tuneless, and annoying, but gets airplay. Why? Because the artists and producers make deals with the radio stations to get to number one. This makes fun of the quality of songs at Number 1, while also making fun of TMBG's songs themselves. Then he begins to name a bunch of TMBG's songs, which of course are Flansburgh's songs, thus exonerating Linnell individually, but I believe that Linnell is implying that the DJ heard some of their songs and was scared off, and he fled the city and was never seen again, realizing that his dirty dealings had to end somewhere, and that TMBG's completely un-pop sound was too much for him to handle. Song ends with a despairing Linnell.

Linnell's "alarm clock" is his conscience. --Nehushtan 19:15, 30 November 2009 (UTC)

When he say's "I could never sleep my way to the top" it could be talking about prostituting creativity, but I also think that being woken up by the alarm clock means that his dreams of fame are always interrupted by having to go work a menial job.

That's what I always thought it was. -- DidgeGuy (आ ज) 12:59, 24 September 2010 (UTC)

It's about young TMBG's conflicting desires to have people hear their music while maintaining their creativity/integrity.

'I could never sleep my way to the top/'Cause my alarm clock always wakes me right up' - A person who "sleeps their way to the top" has sex with their superiors in order to get to the top of whatever hierarchy they're in. Obviously this is used in a metaphorical sense - to "sell out". The secondary meaning, though, is that selling out requires you to be "asleep" to your consciousness, morals etc., and the "my alarm clock always wakes me right up" line is about an inability to do that.

'And since my options had been whittled away/I struck a bargain with my radio DJ' - The narrator has tried to promote his work honestly (Dial-A-Song, maybe) but in the end, he has to succumb to the way the system works (music promotion, advertising etc).

'And then I knew that I would have him to thank/Because he asked me how much I had in the bank' - The idea that the system is based on money rather than quality.

'He said to think long term investment and/That all the others had forgiven themselves/He said the net reward would justify/The colossal mess they'd made of their lives' - Hammering the point home that "selling out" is undignified, whether it gets where you wanted or not.

'He said the record wouldn't have to be hot/And no one ever seemed to care if it's not' - Again, the idea that quality doesn't matter very much in the music industry. 'It would depend on something else that I've got' = money.

'And that the other ones who'd given it a shot/Had seen a modest sum grow geometrically' - Might be referring to the illusion that everyone else who's sold out has turned a profit because they're the ones in the spotlight. Or it might simply be the DJ in question emptily reassuring the narrator with no other subtext.

'Hey Mr. DJ, I thought you said we had a deal/I thought you said you scratch my back and I'll scratch your record/And I thought you said we had a deal' - The narrator's dismay that he "sold out" by allowing his music to be promoted the traditional way (radio promotions etc) but the chart-toppers never came

'Well, I told you about the world (its address)/I wonder when they're gonna clean up the mess/You know the rabid child is still tuning in/Chess piece face's patience must be wearing thin' - The cynicism that led TMBG to write some of their earlier songs hasn't gone anywhere (continuing the theme of having not been rewarded for selling out)

'Because they haven't played this song on the air/Not that anyone but me even cared' - This could be a literal recounting of something that happened to TMBG, or it could be hyperbole.

'And the disc jockey has moved out of town/The district courthouse says he's nowhere to be found' - Again, could be literally something that happened or it could be continuing the metaphor. That is, the idea that "the deal's already been made" as it were, so even if selling out didn't earn them major success, there's nobody to shake a fist at and cry foul play because that's just how it works.

Again, this entire song falls somewhere on the continuum between speculative fiction and historical record. I'd guess that it's mostly metaphor. Either way, it's a really fun song. As a side note, I think that the way the music gets more discordant/fast towards the end might reflect the narrator's indignation a bit.

~ PB, August 2013

I always thought Linnell was imitating Morrissey on this song, both with the lyrics ("He said the net reward would justify/The colossal mess they'd made of their lives" and "I could never sleep my way to the top/'Cause my alarm clock always wakes me right up" both have a very Morrissey-esque wit) and the way he sings (the chorus melody kind of flows outside the meter like a Smiths melody, especially with the way he falls off the note on "had a deal"). As for subject, I'm pretty sure it's a parody of 50s songs about calling up a DJ to ask him to play your favorite song, but altered to be about what actually happened with DJs back then, that is, payola.