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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Upsetter: The Perils of Liking the Flaming Lips

Posted By on Tue, Jun 12, 2012 at 8:34 AM


[Editor's note: The Upsetter is a new weekly column exploring music news and pop history from a perspective that is both bewitched and bothered. Here, Andrew Stout will explode the old clichés of rock journalism to make room for some new ones.]

My wife, who three years into our marriage fell in love with another man, has a favorite band. And that band is the Flaming Lips.

Now, you might be tempted to make a few connections here and think I hate the Flaming Lips for non-musical reasons. And, yes, I admit this personal misfortune does mean the Okie band's enduring popularity haunts me with each new album and tour. Every public move they make reopens the same old wounds, and reminds me there will be a day when we'll have to tell the kids and her mother, now a widow, the bogus nature of our marriage. But, to be perfectly frank, I hated the Flaming Lips even before my wife went astray. I hated them when she would put them on the playlists she sent me and I hated them when we danced to "She Don't Use Jelly" at our wedding.

And I hate them still. I hate them because of how they parade a faux-weirdness that debases the imagination as it presumes to celebrate it. No matter how many times I stumble into the Flaming Lips' campy world of sci-fi-rock, I always exit feeling unlucky I didn't crash into planet Styx instead.

Then there are the overblown production values, the loud sweeps and glossy swirls they've preferred in recent years, which I take as more evidence this is a band with no gift for nuance or intuition. Obviously, they want to make 21st Century "head music." But it never occurred to them that our minds might not be as easily blown as theirs.

So by now my first point should be clear: I don't consider the Flaming Lips very good at music. Which means I can move on to my second, more timely, point: Why on Earth was Erykah Badu working with the Flaming Lips?

Badu appears on the band's latest album, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, singing a cover of the classic Ewan MacColl tune "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." You might know about this because of the tete-a-tete the video sparked between its participants.

Last week, a rough cut of the video premiered at Pitchfork. It featured footage of a nude (but obscured) Badu. In the clip, her sister Nayrock was also nude and oozing substances that appeared to many observers to be fake blood and semen. The video caused an instant stir. And then -- just like that -- disappeared.

In a statement posted at Pitchfork, Coyne apologized for the video's general shittiness. Only he didn't, of course. Instead, he wrote, "This is a Flaming Lips video which features Erykah Badu and her sister Nayrok and is not meant to be considered an Erykah Badu or Nayrok statement, creation, or approved version."

Badu cried foul, taking to Twitter to state her side of things, accusing Coyne of not showing her the final cut before the video posted at Pitchfork. But what interested me more was this part of Badu's account:

"When asked what the concept meant after u explained it, u replied, 'it doesn't mean anything, I just want to make a great video that everyone is going to watch.' I understood, because as an artist we all desire that. But we don't all do it at another artist's expense, I attempted to resolve this respectfully by having conversations with u after the release but that too proved to be a poor excuse for art."

And how did Coyne respond? With sarcasm and a series of issue-dodging tweets making the not-too-astute point that Badu performed in the video without "a gun to her head," so by publicly criticizing it, she was speaking out of line.

Okay, let's take a step back for some perspective: here are two artists who create on two completely different planes of relevance. Badu is the neo-soul Athena, the goddess of courage, artistry, and very excellent jams. She has made five albums, all of them strikingly different from one another, all of them arguable masterpieces. When critics write about Badu, they're moved to mention the likes of Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye and John Lennon.

As for Coyne, well: Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

As angry as I'd like to be at Coyne for his treacherous publicity grab, I can't quite bring myself to it. My frustration is curbed by the fact he's a lesser light and, judging by his response to Badu, apparently a dim bulb, too. I imagine such clashes of professionalism and intelligence happen all the time in the entertainment business, only this time it was angled for maximum exposure by a cynical alternative rock star who never had a prime to pass in the first place.

The sadness bound up in this fallout is massive, but it's by no means profound. It begins with one mistake, and I'm afraid that error was Badu's: she had no business being a fan of a band as lame as the Flaming Lips in the first place.

By the way, my wife couldn't be reached for comment for this column. That's because I made her up. To better sympathize with my subject, I thought I should investigate what it feels like to exploit a woman who put her trust in me. But I couldn't bring myself to do it merely for the sake of attracting a few more readers. It just seemed, I dunno, wrong.

Styx, anyone?

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