On Alt-Rock, Privilege, and Separating the Art fro...

On Alt-Rock, Privilege, and Separating the Art from the Artist

The Flaming Lips are perhaps one of alt-rock’s most important groups of the ’90s. Few examples come to mind of popular rock bands of their time that were so well suited to sonically adapt to the 21st century. Yet, as the planet becomes more connected, certain conversations are happening, certain displays of privilege are being brought to light that may have not been discussed so widely in the past, and, in his interaction with this changing atmosphere, Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s desire to engage in any such conversations that might impede on his own privilege is seriously questionable.

I first came to this conclusion when I read about an incident reported by former Lips drummer Kliph Spurlock in the wake of Spurlock’s release from the band after twelve years of service. Spurlock had confronted a friend of Coyne’s (a white woman) about posting a picture of herself on Instagram wearing a Native American head-dress; when said friend relayed this information back to Coyne, this was his response: “You lost your mind dude…. that is some petty, sad, hater bullshit. You love to talk shit…. Like a punk coward…” Lovely. If this is not enough to convince you that he is a total asshole, he even has beef with the queen of all humans, Erykah Badu. In both cases, the initial offenses would not necessarily have been a huge deal if he was open to learning why they were wrong, but his reaction when confronted begins to paint a picture of a person who tends to respond to criticism with either aggression or derision.

The Instagram photo in question

So, where does this leave his music? For this writer personally, this information has coincided with a sharp reduction in being able to vibe with the Flaming Lips oft-repeated themes of love and a certain disconnection with reality. It is still hard not to feel a sense of tenderness and sadness in Wayne Coyne’s music, but intention is not everything. Without a solid commitment to the struggle against oppression in all forms, a straight, cis white man speaking about peace and love comes across as empty. Let’s get into the record itself and look at an example of this by way of a comparison.

Literally me in high school…we’ve come a long way

The Oczy Mlody track “There Should be Unicorns” and the recently released Gorillaz single “Hallelujah Money” have remarkably similar subject matter. Both present the point of view of someone who really really loves money, and is used to it giving them power over other people. Yet, where the Gorillaz track caused in me a distinct emotional reaction, the Lips offering left me with a feeling that is much harder to define. Coyne uses more striking imagery, listing all the things he wants at a party, starting with unicorns and including “day glow strippers/Ones from the Amazon” and “Some edible butterflies/We put ketchup on.”

This song does not resonate with me nearly as much as “Hallelujah Money.” That song, released on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, feels solidly like a condemnation of greed and power, striking just the right balance between wry humor and mourning. “There Should be Unicorns,” on the other hand, while almost identical in terms of lyrical content, and logically having the same or similar intent, doesn’t come off humorous at all, despite its considerably more absurd depiction of greed. This leaves lyrics such as the request for “naked slaves,” and the claim that “if the police show up/ We’ll bribe them into helping us steal the light of love/ From the rainbow sluts that live next door,” feeling awfully sinister and weird.

Seems like you’re being weird just for the sake of being weird my dude

All that being said, the sounds on Oczy Mlody are modern, catchy, and downright beautiful. The lyrics, while not as impactful or focused as those of the ‘90s-to-early-2000s Flaming Lips records, retain their characteristic odd factor. All in all, I have to say I did enjoy this album, although Coyne’s lack of consideration for the feelings of others leads to a drop-off of the  art’s potency for me as I get better at practicing such consideration. In any case, I’m certain that if you play “Transmissions from Satellite Heart”, “The Soft Bulletin”, or “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” to me right now I will sing along to every word.

I will leave you with the words of Coyne himself, from an interview in Rolling Stone:

“All music is never just about the music. It’s personality driven and it’s about the way they make news and what they say when they’re in the news. All that stuff plays into whether you like it or dislike it. I’d say it’s fun. I’d much rather have someone up there smoking pot and really living it and not worry about the consequences.”