OK, so I like the Flaming Lips, right?
I know what you're thinking. "Oh boy, another blogger talking about the Flaming Lips."
Yeah, I am.
"Oh, Mike hates everything, he's probably going to slam something about the Flaming Lips..."
Not really, no.
See, I have a long history with the Lips. I discovered them around 1995. I remembered seeing them around a few years prior (I was only in middle school at the time), and while I loved the colorful madness of "She Don't Use Jelly", I'd heard the Transmissions From The Satellite Heart album, from which their hit was spawned, and thought (wisely for a 7th grader, if I can pat myself on the back) "I don't get this yet. I like the catchy parts, but there's more to this than I understand..." "She Don't Use Jelly" and "Turn It On" were great pop songs, that little kid Mike could bop around to, but there was some serious freakadelica going on under there that was beyond where my little head could go. When I was 16 1/2 (I remember, because it was just after I'd gotten my license officially), I was at a hip coffee shop in the collegiate area of Cincinnati, and above the (completely "90s") coffee bar, there was a used CD store. I was an emerging record nerd, but like every 16 year old, I had very little money to speak of, so I had to choose carefully. I ended up with the Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic, which completely scrambled my little brain. To steal a critical buzzphrase, it was perfect "acid bubblegum." Pop songs wrapped up in weird production, static noise, strange psychedelia, and druggy atmosphere. Psych music was supposed to be boring and jammy, right? This was amazing! It was a favorite of mine over the next couple of years, a bit of a secret pleasure (punks don't like hippes, right?), since it was a follow up to an "alternative one-hit wonder" who'd been on 90210, but a wonderful headphone treat for late-night bedroom listening. I'd hear bits and pieces about the band, like they had a vast back catalog, that they had a 4-disc set meant to be played simultaneously, their guitarist had almost died from a spiderbite, etc.
It came at a weird time in my life as well. I was just emerging from the other end of high school, ready to go out into the world, and I remember it was all I could listen to in summer of 2000. I'd heard about their new album The Soft Bulletin, but heard that it was heavy on the pianos and strings, so i'll stick with my whacked-out electric bubblegum psych, thank you very much. I'd been in love for a couple of months, the weather was beautiful, but there was a change in the air. In fact, I can't even think about Clouds Taste Metallic without remembering the fact that that's all I listened to driving from Cincinnati to Bloomington, IN to go to college. I was distraught. The girl I loved and I had decided to stick together and see what happens, despite the distance. I listened to that CD over and over on headphones as I drove away on a rainy day, leaving behind the best thing that I'd ever had, not knowing what would happen next. I just can't divorce this album from that memory.
Once I was at school, I kept seeing people in Lips shirts, hearing murmurs about them, and I thought "College is awesome! People here are into this weirdo obscuro band that nobody cares about!" Of course, I didn't realize just how popular The Soft Bulletin was among certain indie channels, many of which I had yet to discover. Luckily college would ruin me as far as that goes. Some of the first CDs I bought at my favorite record store in Bloomington (which I later ended up working at) were the early Lips albums, with their fourth full-length, In A Priest Driven Ambulance just blowing me away. But whenever I'd run into someone in a Lips shirt, they'd be almost unaware of anything prior to The Soft Bulletin. A couple years later, I got a handmade (!) promo of their follow-up, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and loved it's futuristic prog-hop, as did everyone else, and the rest, as they say, is history. I've recently warmed to the songs themselves, but I fail to believe that The Soft Bulletin is REALLY as good as people say it is, and I don't trust anyone who claims to be a "big fan" but doesn't know a note prior to that album. Surely I'm not the only person in my age bracket who remembers that seven-year period where you could find Transmissions in every cutout CD bin because they were jsut a one-hit wonder band of weirdos. Clouds Taste Metallic was even more derided because it didn't even have the hit on it!
So what's my point? It's that this is a band with dual identities, and rarely shall the twain meet. The funny thing is, the fulcrum of this see-saw that they balance on is their most ambitious, mysterious project, Zaireeka, the 4-disc set, meant with all four discs meant to be played simultaneously. If you think of it as the dividing line, you can divide the Lips' catalog into the pre-Zaireeka "acid underground" music and the "grand progressive" era that follows. Each have their merits, and I generally prefer the earlier period, but the older I get, the more I'm digging on the later stuff. If you want to be glib about it, you can divide it into "guitar" and "synth" phases, but it's more than that. The outlook changed.
I spent most of last night listening to the post-Zaireeka albums and enjoying them. While I don't think they have the same brilliant spark that the earlier stuff had, it's more a case of people who have passed that stage experimenting with different forms. The fact that this music, poppy as it may be, has become some of the most popular rock music of this century so far is flabbergasting. Not to say it's not good, I'm commenting on the bad taste of the general public. But then I thought about it...
For years, I've been calling Radiohead "our generation's Pink Floyd". They fit the bill. Flirting with avant-garde textures, serious, each album a major musical "event". A band with very little in the way of public image (although with similarities to Public Image), making "serious music" that is both critically and popularly loved. But here's the fault with that. I run in nerd circles, where nerdsd flip out over Radiohead. If you step back, they're popular, but they're too self-consciously intellectual for the masses to really dig into without feeling stupid. Their fanbase is fantatical, and does whatever they can to dig deeper down the rabbit hole. Radiohead is the Yes of our generation. That's not a criticism (what with my previously noted distaste for Yes and their ilk), nor is it a comparision of the actual note-for-note music. However, as a handy critical shorthand for their place in the market, it fits.
What do dorm rats put on when they put towels under their door and smoke pot between classes? Who sells out festivals for the masses to get sufficiently freaky to? The music and the attitude is different, but the Flaming Lips are our Pink Floyd. Seriously. They're way more fun. But they're like "prog lite" for my generation. And that's cool. They do it well. They're infinitely more interesting on a personal level, and they strive to let people have FUN in ways that Floyd would never have considered. But is the spectacle of Wayne Coyne in a bubble on the crowd, or wearing 5 foot foam hands, or covered in fake blood that different from having a real plane crash into a 50 foot wall on stage? Nerds can examine the winding narratives of Coyne's lyrics while bro-dudes can mellow out to their squelchy, loping synth explorations, and rocker dudes can marvel at the interplay between Coyne and Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd.
Is this sacriliege? Is calling a band that started as (basically) a Butthole Surfers knockoff the new kings of prog-pop? Maybe. But I ask you to find me a band that better exemplifies the sort of mass appeal based on completely fearless freakery than the Flaming Lips do. Radiohead fans? Flaming Lips fans? C'mon... call me out. Let's hear what you think.