Your brains and your eyes

RE: “RE: Your Brains” by Jonathan Coulton: The English teacher in me cannot leave this song alone. I think I’ve identified why this song works so well for me.

First, watch this video, one of the most enjoyable interpretations, for me, of this soundtrack. It’s legit and not a copyright infringement, because Coulton uses a Creative Commons license in order to encourage people to do creative stuff like this with his songs. Here are the lyrics if you want to consult them.

“RE: Your Brains” by Jonathan Coulton, Creative Commons by-nc
Video by Mike Spiff Booth — info about his videos at

I believe this song’s ironic power, and a clue to its real theme, lie in Coulton’s choice of narrative voice and a single puzzling line.

The best creative works have a deeper dimension, an underlying theme other than the obvious. The key to the door of that dimension — in this case, demention — is usually a fairly obvious feature of the surface meaning. To me, the most obvious feature of this song is the narrative voice. To personify a zombie, the very soul of soullessness, a bloodless, rapacious monster, Coulton uses the vocabulary and tone of a corporate shill: singleminded pursuit of a selfish end at the expense of others, barely masked by a veneer of courtesy. The speaker in this song could be in the marketing department for Microsoft, Monsanto, or R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Nothing, in fact, disturbs this veneer most of the time. The speaker seems sympathetic, sincerely desirous of maintaining office protocol and respecting everyone’s personal domain of authority.

Only seven times does the speaker blurt out his real intentions. One instance occurs in the last line of each verse, with a pairing a standard phrase of corporatespeak with a hideous image of cruel slaughter:

  • Corporatespeak: But here’s an FYI (interoffice memo heading)
  • Hideous image: …you’re all gonna die screaming.
  • Corporatespeak: But Tom, that’s what I do (domain clarification)
  • Hideous image: …and I plan on eating you slowly.
  • Corporatespeak: And we’ll put this thing to bed (project completion phrase borrowed from journalism)
  • Hideous image: …when I bash your head open

An additional three bursts of momentary sincerity occur in each chorus (which I suppose is a total of nine instances). All three are the phrase “eat your brains.” The rest of the chorus language attempts to establish an appearance of reasonability and willingness to meet “Tom” halfway. (The “compromise” offered is another nice touch of corporate character.)

The seventh (thirteenth?) instance of the speaker’s real feelings breaking through is the gentle admission in the bridge: “I’m not a monster, Tom; well, technically I am. I guess I am.” The rest of the bridge is standard corporatespeak intended to lull the listener into a dangerous trust and confidence.

The puzzling line I mentioned earlier is in the chorus: “We’re not unreasonable; I mean, no one’s going to eat your eyes.” Is this just intended to be gross, and trigger an ironic laugh (“Oh, well, no problem then”)? Could be, but I think the choice of organs is significant: brains and eyes. What are they, really?

Eyes are the first organs most of us think of when we identify the “senses.” Our senses guide us, help us make our decisions about which way to go. We know that the brain may not be involved in this decision. A smell of rotting meat and a peripheral glimpse of a carcass covered with flies (sensory impressions) once made me jump away at a 180-degree angle, though I didn’t even know (brain involvement) why I had jumped until I crept back to the bed of irises and saw the dead cat. My nervous system didn’t bother with consulting my brain; too time-consuming. It went straight to my leg muscles and got me the heck away from a scenario that on the African savannahs, where my ancestors came from, would indicate the likely presence of a dangerous predator or scavenger.

This is exactly what corporate marketing departments would like to do: bypass our critical faculties and motivate us directly through our senses. Does anyone wish to dispute this? Of course not. I may say without fear of contradiction that a for-profit corporation’s job is to pursue profit at the expense of whatever. Despite the Supreme Court’s recognition of a corporation as a legal person, we all know that a corporation cannot die, has no blood, no soul, and no conscience. Its officers may, at their own peril, but the most effective shill serves the will of the master and reflects that master’s “personality.” What is a good metaphor for a soulless, pitiless, undead monster that eats the brains of its victims and enlists their senses and limbs to collect further victims and servants?

You can hardly tell which monster I’m referring to, can you? Zombies are hot these days. There has to be a reason.

Artists like Jonathan Coulton sell their stuff online, and also accept contributions from people who have found their work enjoyable or helpful merely in its online setting. Coulton has CDs and other work available here. Buying a downloadable MP3 doesn’t involve manufacturing a plastic CD.

© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
This entry was posted in essays, literary criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Your brains and your eyes

  1. bryon says:

    My poor little computer doesn’t do video well at all, so I’m going on what I read here. The message does seem awfully clear, and no, no one will dispute the corporation/zombie duality.

    Zombies and vampires might be considered cyclical. They were last huge in the 1950s. Back then, we had the Cold War and itchy fingers on nuclear triggers and soulless commies enslaved by their Kremlin masters who wanted to eat our brains. The commies have been (perhaps ironically) replaced by the ubercapitalists who make our purchasing decisions for us and also (not insignificantly) own all three branches of the federal government.

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