Behind the Mountain Goats’ ‘No Children,’ the Bitter, Fun, Feel-Bad TikTok Hit of the Fall

·14-min read

“I hope you die” is a line that Mountain Goats fans have been singing at the band’s shows for about 20 years. But suddenly, the song that contains it, “No Children,” has turned from a fans-only cult hit to a favorite among millions of new listeners. Or 15 seconds’ worth of it has, anyway, thanks to the tune taking off and becoming 2021’s unlikeliest TikTok sensation.

In most of the viral videos made with the song as soundtrack, users do a brief bit of choreography that illustrates the divorcing couple in the song drowning. Or, in many cases, they use their cats to simulate the narrator sinking into the ocean. Something about the sheer, extreme bitterness of the sentiments therein has grabbed younger generations who are clinging to its only partially tongue-in-cheek anger and despair as if it were their own.

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Fortunately, despite the passage of time, the Mountain Goats are still around to enjoy the fruits of this wholly unsolicited virality. Frontman John Darnielle checked in with Variety from a tour stop in Brooklyn to celebrate the song’s crossover to a weirdly embracing mass audience, even as he says that, at 54, he’s personally too long-in-the-tooth for TikTok. He also discussed the three (!) albums the band has released in the last year and a half.

Variety: It’s fun in the music business when an older song breaks through via what seems to be a completely random set of circumstances, right?

Darnielle: That was the fun of it. Why is “No Children” just creeping up on this year? It was wild. It was always our No. 2 song. It’s one of my better songs. But the force of it moving up was really pretty fun to watch. As you might imagine, the past two weeks and the last couple of days especially, you have a lot of thoughts as you go, “Wow, 137,000 new people listened to ‘No Children’ today.”

It must be weird to think about millions of people suddenly hearing you… but only 15 seconds of you. And you didn’t get to choose which 15 seconds.

They’re hearing a brief portion of a song that already has a specific meaning in our catalog and to our fan base and among a lot of people. And I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and our existence suddenly is being gazed upon by a whole bunch of new people through this very narrow lens. But at the same time, you have to admit that they sort of get it. They latched onto a 15 seconds that’s a key moment in both the song and the catalog and sort of identified it as that. It tells you a lot about how good the critical eye of the public can be — that people are good at reading stuff, if get a chance to hear it.

“No Children” had just been sitting there since 2002. When I say it’s just been sitting there… it’s been one of our most popular songs in our catalog. But the Mountain Goats are, I always say, sort of a boutique concern. We’re not for everybody. My voice can be a deal breaker. We’re never reaching for the brass ring. We made literary rock. [Laughs.] But when people do find it, it affirms for those of us who make indie music that when the broader public is exposed to it, there’s more people who would like it if they get a chance to hear it. The consolidation of radio and the diffuse nature of the media landscape means that there’s lots of good stuff that people don’t generally hear unless it gets a viral moment.

Some artists might be worried that people are enjoying something like this for the wrong reasons… that they’re taking the piss out of this bitter divorce song by making it into a dance craze. But they seem to be laughing with it and its gallows humor.

Yeah, the song is a gallows humor song. Obviously if I have some songs that are especially personal to me, I hope they get taken in the spirit in which they were written. But the artist does not dictate the terms in which his art is understood. I’m not here to tell you how to enjoy it. I have songs where you’re not supposed to like the narrator, and then people do like the narrator, and that can be frustrating to me a little bit. But there’s almost always a thread of humor running through the songs. It’s more fun for us if you can both laugh and be horrified at the same time.

Have you seen any of the subgenre of cat choreography “No Children” TikTok videos?

I did hear something about one of those. I trust that people are treating their cats well. But no, I haven’t. Are there any farm animal ones? That would be for me as a great lover of farm animals, I feel like some pigs and cows, that would be exciting for me.

Their arms would be harder to manipulate than cats’.

Well, you have to reason with the pigs. You have to talk the pigs into it. They’re very smart animals. I don’t think you can teach a cow to do anything.

@butterfly_and_poppy

The tops of our heads peeking out is the cherry on top of this production quality 💀😭 #catsoftiktok #cat

♬ original sound – bleu

With the song being 20 years old, do you even remember the germ of it?

This is one way which I’m really lucky with this song, because I do know exactly how it happened. I was writing this album “Tallahassee,” which is about a divorcing couple. When you’re writing a novel or an album around the same characters, you live with them and you wake up every day going, “What else can they do? What do or don’t they do?” You sort of soak in it.

I was driving to the Des Moines airport, and there was a song on the charts called “I Hope You Dance” (by Lee Ann Womack). And I hated this song, a lot. I really try not to be as big a hater as I used to be, but I just hated everything about this song. So I was driving, and I let it play. Often when there’s a song I don’t like, I will listen to it to pick apart my response. Because it could be just that it makes me uncomfortable or that I’m resisting the emotion. I remember that happening with a 10,000 Maniacs song called “What’s the Matter Here?,” and I thought it was all saccharine — but no, it was, in fact, reaching me at a place I was uncomfortable with, so I stuck with it until I got there. That wasn’t the case with this song —I just thought it was a bunch of platitudes.

And so I’m driving to Des Moines and I ad-libbed “I hope you die” over “I hope you dance.” I thought, that’s funny — I should have my alpha couple say that to each other. And then I patterned the whole composition of it after that, because “I Hope You Dance” is a bunch of “I hopes,” and that’s the whole song. Well, that’s what “No Children” is, too, but from a spiteful perspective. But nobody wrote about it at the time, because we didn’t put it in the press kit, and if you don’t say something like that in the press kit, nobody even notices, which is very depressing. But it seemed so obvious to me at the time! It’s essentially an answer record. People don’t even make that many answer records any more, but this one kind of is.

Some of your fans are unhappy that the 15-second clip most people are using on TikTok ends with the line “I hope you die,” and it cuts off before the final line, “I hope we both die,” which they feel is important because it’s more magnanimous of the narrator, or something.

“I hope we both die” was kind of an afterthought in the writing. I thought, oh, if you’re not just cursing the person over there, but you’re making sure that everybody gets swallowed up by the curse, then that’s even funnier. But there’s a sense in which the big punch moment is to say “I hope you die,” because that’s such a harsh thing to say.

For anybody who might still have only heard these 15 seconds, we should probably get the message across that your entire catalog is not all about unbridled rage.

No, there’s also jokes about turkeys. [Laughs.] No, I’ve never bothered to actually break down, but I assume you could break down my songs into maybe 10 types or so, over time. Because prior to ‘99, I was much more interested in unrequited love or relationship passion. After 2002, I get a lot more interested in how people reckon with their former selves. That becomes a big theme for me. After this record (that “No Children” was on), which was sort of me putting this collapsing-marriage couple to bed, I got a lot more interested in — there’s a phrase in AA — “the wreckage of our past.” And I started writing about how former selves tend to rattle around inside us, and how we deal with maybe ugly former selves and grow away from them and how we regard them. I think that’s universal stuff. I did that, and I also wrote a lot about wrestling.

For anyone who does want to dive into your catalog now, you’ve given them a lot to explore even just within the last year and a half.

That was a quality segueway, my man. I saw you working there! It was good. [Laughs.]

[The segue is to the Mountain Goats having prolifically recorded no fewer than three new albums in March 2020: “Songs for Pierre Chuvin,” released in April 2020; “Getting Into Knives” released in October 2020, and “Dark in Here, released in June of this year.]

Right before lockdown, when it was not yet clear what was gonna happen in the world, I had two albums’ worth of material written. And we went into two studios over the course of two weeks, one in Memphis and one in Muscle Shoals, and recorded two different albums. The plan was to release them both in the fall of 2020, but obviously 2020 had its own ideas about what people would be doing and not doing. So when I got home from the second of those albums, then it was clear that stuff was happening. So I wrote a third record on my old boombox (“Songs for Pierre Chuvin”), because I thought I should try and make some money for my band and maybe get something out in the market fast. And I had this idea that I would have otherwise taken a year and a half to write it, and instead I wrote it in 10 days, working in my old-school fast style, and it was really fun to do.

The newest one, “Dark in Here,” the second of those, the way it actually came out was perfect because its mood is a pretty, somewhat claustrophobic, walled-in, post-calamitous mood. It’s got this feeling of a catastrophe having just passed. Which I was just writing about out of curiosity, but then a big catastrophe came and hit us, so it was accidentally timely.

The Mountain Goats - Credit: Courtesy Merge Records
The Mountain Goats - Credit: Courtesy Merge Records

Courtesy Merge Records

Have you noticed a difference at your shows since “No Children” took off?

They went on sale early in the year, and some of the were already sold out, like last night’s. I will say when we played “No Children” last night, there was a visible surge of excitement. Now, that’s usually the case anyway, because people like “No Children.” But it was pretty clear some people were like, this was the moment they had been waiting for. Which is fine. Because the thing is, there’s a song called “This Year” that, until a week ago, was still crushing “No Children.” When this moment crests and begins to ebb, “This Year” is still the song that most people are going to remember the Mountain Goats for. That’s the one that my obituary will mention.

I like to joke about the most obscure songs being the ones that are in the chamber next. Like, “You think this ‘No Children’ craze is big? Wait until ‘Noche del Guajolote’ goes wild!” It’s “night of the turkey” – a song about seeing a turkey in a backyard. And I’m trying to diligently to drop that into every interview I do about this, so “Noche del Guajolote” will get trending. Most (journalists) are like [peevishly], “You made me spell guajolote.” But it’s one of my favorite words in Spanish.

You could hire a TikTok marketing specialist now, to find a way to get that one going on TikTok, too.

How do people sleep at night doing something like that? I know if it makes them money, it makes them happy, so whatever. But I can’t imagine hiring somebody to help make yourself go viral. That sort of destroys the fun of virality. I wish all sentient beings happiness and success in this world. At the same time, I hope that somebody doing work like that occasionally has moments of reflection as to what good that work is doing in the world. [Laughs] It just seems so crass.

That’s what’s fun about this: nobody on my side tried to do this at all. Because the internet could be fun. We know it’s kind of a train wreck because of algorithmic recommendations and a number of other things that have made it pretty problematic, but the fun of something like this is really when listeners show you that they’re engaged, that they have another way of listening, and will tell you what your song did for them, even if it’s a 15-second piece of the song. That’s fun and cool. And what makes that unfun and uncool is when you go, “Oh, this thing is fun and popular.” “No it’s not. Somebody spent $750,000 to make it look popular.”

Our childish dreams of how these things work have value. So when something like this happens in my life, well, that’s a dream come true. We did not tell people, “Check out ‘No Children,’ you’re gonna love it.” No. they took it and they ran with it, and it’s beautiful. If there was more stuff like that in the world, the world’s a better place. Not just for me, but for whoever, because there’s a million fun songs out there for people to find that people do not need to be told by the influencer factory which one to listen to.

Despite all this, you’re still not on TikTok yourself?

I’m super active on Twitter, but I think there’s a sense in which I’m a middle-aged father of two, so I’m not about to jump on TikTok and go, “Hey… check me out!” I don’t think you have to stay in your lane all the time, but I think you should know what your lane is. And I think when businesses and entertainers go, “Well, here’s this new tech, and I get to eat up the bandwidth of it,” I always consider that crass. I look at TikTok and I go: That actually belongs to the young people who are making an anarchic space for creativity.

I do know enough about it to know the biggest TikTok people are people who are getting very rich off it. So it’s more complex than that, but I’m kind of an idealist and a romantic. It’s like when Vine was around – the people who were making great Vines were not influencers who were parlaying it into big deals and stuff; they were just teens turning backflips in Krispy Kreme. And I think the right attitude for a guy who is successful enough in music to make a living at it is not to go, “Well, now, I get to come and eat up this space, too.” So I look at the funny ones that I see, but I’m trying not to overexpose myself, just out of respect for the people who are doing really cool stuff.

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