Interpretations:The Shadow Government

From This Might Be A Wiki

On the surface, this song seems to be about wanting a more right-wing government who doesn't breathe down your neck and snoop around. I'm sure there are some more complex elements to it, but that's just what stood out to me. —Gena 19:52, 12 May 2007 (UTC)

A shadow government is a "government-in-waiting", ready to take power at any time. In some parliamentary states, the (largest) opposition party forms a shadow government, basically high-ranking officials who would be the cabinet ministers if said party had won control in the election. They overtly criticize the current government, state how they'd do things differently, and try to win support so that they may move out of the "shadow" of the majority's government and take control themselves when the opportunity arises.

In America, "shadow government" tends to denote a secretive group conspiring to overthrow or challenge the constitutional order, but parallels do exist with the parliamentary model. Minority parties in Congress organize leadership that mirrors the actual leadership of their houses. Minority leaders act very much like shadow governments, and usually just step into the place of their opposition counterparts upon obtaining a majority in the election.

That said, I think that in this song, the narrator is unhappy with his world ("It's a bad, bad world") and desperately want someone to swoop in and fix it. "Where's the shadow government when you need it?" seems to imply, "Where are the people responsible for making sure those in power aren't screwing everything up?" From that I infer two things: a)that the world is bad due to improper leadership (Bush, Republicans, whoever), and b)that those responsible for keeping them in line (Democrats, voters, etc.) aren't doing their job. To take a real-life example, we elected a Democratic Congress to oppose our Republican President and not much has changed yet. We thought we were empowering the shadow government and it's still a "bad world." -makebase 18:45, 15 May 2007 (UTC)

I think this song is a metaphorical poke in the eye to the current Republican government. Republicans are supposed to be known for their idea of a minimalistic government, one that does not interfere with the people very much. Yet here we are, subject to arbitrary airport searches, wire-tapping, and various other invasions of privacy. It's a commentary on the Republicans completely going against everything for which they claim to stand. -FlinnsyFan 22:53, 15 May 2007 (UTC)

I still think that it's more than a jab at the Republicans. Nowhere does it suggest that the "somebody sitting on his somebody throne" believes in not doing what it is that he's doing. Besides, I think the idea of "Who's watching the guy who's watching me?" is far more interesting than "So-and-so is a hypocrite." -makebase 22:29, 16 May 2007 (UTC)

Even though I know that They Might Be Giants has been more willing to go political of late, I really don't see any serious commentary in this. It's obviously an unreliable narrator thing. Except for the last verse, all the complaints that inspire the narrator to ask "where's the shadow government?" are really paranoid and stupid. Where is the shadow government to protect him from his delusions? I can see how you could interpret them metaphorically but... it's funnier if you don't. -- Anonymous

I tend to agree with the poster above. Flansburgh appears to have started writing a direct protest songs and them smothered it with obscure imagery so that its deliberately vague. This decision robs the song of an emotional impact and compared to the chill that the more direct (although still oblique because its the Giants) Kiss me Son of God from Lincoln the song seems a little weak. A bit of a filler song. (Mr Tuck)

It's about the cruelty of those guys in the X-Files, and how they don't care what happens as long as Mulder doesn't find out "The Truth". Mr. 77, an apparent X-Files fan

The "somebody sitting on their somebody throne" inside the cracked phone likely represents phone line surveillance. - ElbridgeGerry 23:17, 12 July 2007 (UTC)

I agree with anonymous above that this song definitely has a humorous air. Although makebase has posted the technical definition, ripped straight from Wikipedia, the more colloquial meaning of 'Shadow Government', and one which could definitely apply to the Johns' sense of humor, is a secret conspiracy government hiding within the government, like the Illuminati(fnord). The fact that the singer is trying to call on the shadow government to help him is amusing by itself.

I think, in essence, this song is about a paranoid person trying to blame everything on the government. In the first verse the singer is clearly completely out of his mind. He sees the moon 'chasing him' and exclaims that the shadow government should be there to save him from his own delusions. In the next verse he thinks he finds a wire tap on the inside of his phone and someone is listening to him from their 'throne', a term which implicates conspiracy. Finally he thinks the mayor is stealing his stuff, when in actuality, the mayor doesn't need his stuff, after all, the singer said he just came from a flophouse. For those unfamiliar with the term, a flophouse is a very cheap motel with generally only a bed and very cramped quarters(hence 'crawling'. It could also be a reference to taxes and how he feels that the government is always trapping him. He doesn't really try to stop it because he fears that the secret police will get him. He is simply a conspiracy nut waiting for the current regime to be overthrown. this seems to me most likely because it has the timeless quality that most TMBG songs have. - Hitako47

I'll admit my literal definition of the term "shadow government" is a bit dry like it came from Wikipedia, I assure you it is my own dry composition. (More about Wikipedia in a moment....)

That said, I certainly have not found the connotation of the government-within-the-government that you have. If there is humor or irony to be found in this song, it's that the narrator calls calls upon the Shadow Government to protect him from Big Brother when he is engaged in activities that would seem to justify the scrutiny of, to quote another TMBG song, "criminal government agent who oppresses [him]." (He is running a meth lab, after all.)

I think the use of the term "shadow government" can be interpreted in its literal sense. In any circumstance, I think the more common colloquial connotation of the term is an extra-governmental group conspiring to take power, not an internal one. While I certainly find amusing the idea of calling upon one's oppressors to protect one from oppression, I don't hear it here.

Upon checking the Wikipedia "Shadow Government" article to see just how stolen my previous definition had sounded, I noticed someone added a mention to the song, commenting that the narrator is ultimately murdered, giving the line "Now my body's in his trunk" as support. I had actually never considered whether he is living or dead in the trunk (which I'm assuming is a car trunk and not luggage), but upon one of my first listenings I had imagined him rolled up in the trunk of an elephant, symbol of the Republican Party. I know it's a stretch and an unlikely play on words, but I suppose it could fit in with the song somehow. -makebase 07:57, 13 September 2007 (UTC)

Every time I have listened to this song I think of it as a story about someone who is breaking the law (Driving home from my meth lab)and knowing he is doing so. When he says "the room was following me" I think of it as the government had been watching him this entire time and is tracing him so he runs. That's also what "up the library steps" is, the narrator running from the government. As for the chorus it actually sounds like Flansburgh speaking instead of a fictional narrator, Flans is basically saying the Democrats are the shadow government and the Republicans are the government now. If the shadow government is the one that takes over then Flans wants the Democrats to take over. This also sounds better when I explain it rather then typing it. User:Mr_knucklehead

What I hear is a narrator who is vaguely aware his delusions may not be accurate and wishes them to be. He wants there to be a shadow government so that he'll be justified in his actions. The whole thing seems very Dead Milkmen-esque, particularly their song "Peter Bazooka".

It seems to me that the song as directly discusses the growing government incursions on Constitutional protections against warrantless search and seizure, and perhaps contains an implied protest against other civil liberties erosions as well. Such incursions tend to initially take the form of a seemingly reasonable way of giving law enforcement more powers to deal with criminals, for example allowing warrantless surveillance of terrorists or, in this song, people who run meth labs. Initially many people are complacent about the civil liberties erosion because they feel that bad guys don't deserve civil liberties, but the song points out that allowing the government to violate anybody's civil liberties tends to open the door to violation of the civil liberties even of people who obviously haven't done anything wrong -- tapping the phones of ordinary people for spurious reasons, sifting through library borrowing records and putting librarians under gag orders, and so forth. Of course the song carries this to a somewhat silly extreme of a mayor stealing the protagonist's "junk" for no obvious reason and having him murdered when he protests. But the progression of government abuse is pretty clear.

I tend to agree with the above comments that the refrain, "Where's the shadow government when you need it?" is a call for a genuine opposition party which would present a strong alternate narrative on these issues and make a concerted attempt to protect our civil rights. (This would be instead of the feeble half-hearted nonsense we get these days from the Democrats and a few so-called "maverick" Republicans.)

Or, you know, it's just a pile of silly nonsense lyrics that They strung together because it struck them as funny.  :-)

-Anne Nonymous

Has anyone noticed that the moon in this music video looks like the moon from the silent film "Le Voyage dan la Lune" by Georges Méliès? -User:Nerdy4ever95

I don't think the song is necessarily political just because it uses the word "government." I see it as poking fun at the narrator a la Can't Keep Johnny Down. From the lyrics it sounds like the narrator is kind of a scuzzball since he spends his time running a meth lab and assaulting the mayor, but he's lamenting the fact that there isn't an all powerful shadow government to take care of the things he wants dealt with. The song is pointing out the hypocrisy of wanting someone else to fix all your problems while simultaneously causing problems for others.


The impression I got from this was it was a social satire on conspiracy theorists. The narrator feels like his life is horrible and there is something wrong with the world around him (hence the "It's a bad, bad world" line). However, he cannot accept this random chance. As such, the narrator actually wants there to be some evil conspiracy to oppose ("Where's the shadow government when you need it?"). The weird lines ("The moon was following me" and the part of about the mayor) show how detached from reality he is.

Mac's ideas[edit]

I'm fairly certain that this song is more about how both sides of the USA's government system are total crap than bashing on one side or the other.

And yes, the government being allocated extra powers to violate anybody's rights is a bad, bad thing, to paraphrase the song.

- The Macronomicon

The growing tendency for conspiracy theorists to support authoritarian governments and policy[edit]

I can't say for sure if this was the intended meaning behind the song when it was written, given it's definitely a reaction to the weakening of civil liberties during the Bush administration, but I think it's become an increasingly relevant commentary on the way that hardline conspiracy theorists and their worldview are used to usher in authoritarian regimes.

The narrator, as presented in the first verse, is not the most reliable or grounded of people: He's a drug dealer suffering from obviously paranoid delusions that the moon is stalking him. He very concretely seems to believe there's a shadowy government cabal controlling society, but his problem with this seems to be less an opposition to shadowy government cabals and more him taking issue with the fact that the "shadow government" isn't working in favor of his, specific interests. He's totally in favor of a shadow government, so long as they're doing something to oppose the nebulous enemies of his paranoid delusions (Like that damned moon that's always following him!)

The second verse, about "sifting through the confetti" seems to suggest some form of celebration like, say, the inauguration of a new regime: The shadow government the narrator wanted has come to power, but things still aren't hunky dory when the narrator sees somebody "Just sitting on their somebody throne" through a crack in a broken phone. While this is a really weird event that seems along the same lines about the narrator's earlier delusions involving the moon, it could also be our unreliable and paranoid narrator's reaction to his phones being tapped. That's maybe something he should talk to his new shadow government overlords about, I'm sure they'll take care of this phenomenon completely unrelated to their rise to power!

Our final verse sees the narrator being directly victimized by a representative of the new shadow government: The mayor stealing the narrator's junk. When the narrator actually speaks up to oppose what the regime he helped elect is doing, the shadow government does exactly what shadow governments do best: Ignores his civil liberties and bags him up in the mayor's trunk, probably with the intention of making him and other dissenters "disappear". Maybe giving an authoritarian political entity full authority to do whatever the hell they want in the hope that they'll get the moon to stop spying on you wasn't the best idea?

I don't think its hard to see the parallels within this story of a deeply paranoid man whose connection to reality is tenuous at best demanding a shadowy, all-powerful government regime step in to oppose or silence his imaginary enemies, and how the proliferation of extremist conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, QAnon or the general ramblings of folks like Alex Jones have played in bringing an increasingly authoritarian Republic regime into power over the past decade