The Fruits of Irritation: Steve Vai’s “Little Green Men”

Steve Vai’s “Little Green Men” is one of the most gloriously annoying songs ever recorded. It revels in irritation, from the conspiracy theories it hurls with winking gusto, to the sped-up vocals that pile over each other. Its enthusiasm for aliens roars past obvious markers to a unique destination.

The song’s construction is fascinating: gimmickry inflated to transcendent excess. It’s a three-part suite built to match the subject. Vai starts with a repeated, staggered 7-note riff, conjuring the spin of a flying saucer; after a few seconds, it’s hard to tell just where it begins and ends. The instrumentation swells as the song builds to the chorus: a xylophone, computer keys, and something that resembling a living zipper join the guitar. Pitch-shifted, weedy vocals wonder and speculate about aliens’ appearance and what they could confirm about all of our most cherished and debated beliefs. These vocal performances are strangely phrased, punctuated with obtuse pauses: “those big … large heads.”

This is worlds away from the Steve Vai I feared and imagined (the one trained by legendary guitar onanist Joe Satriani). But Vai also played with Frank Zappa and was a hired gun for PiL, and his first album, Flex-Able, has a bit of Zappa’s weird posture. “Little Green Men” is the lead-off track on Flex-Able, but it seems to have been obscured by Vai’s later noodling.

The second part of the song begins with a arpeggiated solo that fills every inch of space. It clears the way for the Close Encounters theme on flute and xylophone. They form light background accompaniment for a spoken-word section in which Vai reveals the truth about aliens. The Close Encounters theme, now riding on top of the 7-note riff, is joined by the alien voices.

The monologue crosses over several times from cornball to disturbing. Vai sounds unnaturally chipper delivering his gospel: aliens are here, but they can only be seen by the pure at heart. The government has been priming us for them with “controlled media” like Close Encounters (and this very song). But the news is not all good, or at least a little ominous: their knowledge will only be revealed as our minds deteriorate, when aliens will help us prepare for the new age of “light without heat.”

In the third part of the song, we hear from different individuals on Earth speculating about aliens. Are they here to fight, make love, or are they seeking something else from us? After each bit of speculation, there’s an aural interpretation of the aliens doing these things, seeming to have fun with the fanciful notions attached to them. This part reminds me of children’s books like If the Dinosaurs Came Back, which showed dinosaurs helping out in the library, in construction, and at shops.

After listening to it a few times, the obvious oddities give way to more interesting ones. For instance, we might at first assume that these helium-drugged voices are the aliens themselves, but it seems more likely that they’re the humans. The song nudges us to look at humanity as an outsider and makes our thoughts sound quaint compared to the enormity of space and time, and the threat of being wiped out.