Let's have a talk about the Flaming Lips. The Oklahoma City band made their name in the '90s alt-rock scene with "She Don't Use Jelly," but they were nothing like their contemporaries. Their history was checkered with intense experimentation, and that song was an outlier in their catalog.
This sort of teeter-totter balance between accessible, mainstream rock music and vast sonic experimentation has continued unabated as the Lips have become one of the most successful bands in modern music. But as they've gotten more famous and more financially stable, the whole thing might be growing stale.
Here's the problem. When the Flaming Lips started, they were polarizing to be sure, but were also such great songwriters that any indulgences were able to be overlooked, or even appreciated as the genius of a band of mad scientists. Putting out a record like Zaireeka, which was virtually impossible to appreciate unless you owned four CD players, was just proof of their avant garde credentials.
In its own way, this was how the Flaming Lips even got away with releasing a record like The Soft Bulletin. So much of music appreciation comes down to aesthetics. It's unfortunately true that many would not have been able to overlook the sappy, syrupy sound of that album had the Flaming Lips not already proved themselves to be anything but Disney-aping schlock-meisters. Instead, it was the next step of evolution for a band that had all the street cred and "cool" they could possibly need.
This has more or less continued to be the game plan for the band. For every time they put out a challenging album like Embryonic, there's a companion piece like their full-album cover of Dark Side of the Moon to make sure their casual fans are still paying attention.
But these days the game plan is trite. The blueprint is ringing hollow. The indulgences have gone far beyond excessive, and the actions of the band seem either coldly calculated or desperate than the work of artists with a foot in both worlds. What happened?
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First, they started pissing people off. Again, aesthetics matter in music, whether we like it or not. Charles Manson was a great songwriter, but it's hard to like his music because he's a rotten person. The Lips started losing all that goodwill they built up with the underground artists that bolstered them for so long by marring their public image in controversy.
It might have begun with Lips front man Wayne Coyne insulting Arcade Fire, which was surely not a cool thing to do, but that seemed like a relatively isolated incident. Unfortunately, in the past year, things have only gotten worse for the band.
From firing Kilph Scurlock in a haze of gossip to supporting Christina Fallin's affronts to the Native American community of Oklahoma, the band, with Coyne at the forefront of it all, have come off less like artsy weirdos who are all about peace and love and more like, for lack of a better term, a group of assholes.
Secondly, their experimentation has just gotten more and more and more indulgent to the point where it's hard to tell if they're sincere or just being weird for the sake of being weird. It's passed the point of interesting and become trying. Things like 24-hour songs, ridiculous collaborations with much maligned pop stars like Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, and stupidly rare and expensive collector's gummy skulls have pushed the band into territory where it almost seems like they are testing their fans' patience, or at least have just started fucking with them for the hell of it.
The most egregious example of this is the newest one, the full-album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, now titled With a Little Help from My Fwends. It just came out this week, and while it's an enjoyable listen, it is as if the Flaming Lips never now stop to ask themselves if something is necessary, needed or even wanted.
While some might admire this kind of self-serving attitude, their obnoxious personalities and over-the-top pomposity have made it utterly tiring. They're bordering on being the musical equivalent of director Kevin Smith, with their heads so far up their own asses that they can no longer tell a worthwhile idea from a completely and utterly stupid one.
The one thing that saves them is that every now and then they still drop a gem. The Terror was a truly brilliant album, as was Embryonic. Even when they have a bad idea, it still seems to turn out mostly decently musically. Heady Fwends certainly wasn't their finest moment, but it had some decent tracks. Even With a Little Help from My Fwends, while it could never match up to the original, is worth a listen in places.
Still, it's becoming hard to be a Flaming Lips fan among all the real-world drama and the musical grandiosity. It's almost embarrassing to admit to liking some of these recent projects, and what little good will the band has left is slowly slipping away from them as they inundate the public with mediocrity.
There is hope though, and all it really requires is that the band stop. Not forever, not for a long time, but just to give us all a break. Coyne's overbearing personality may be grating on most of us at this point, but if he would just hide it for a while, we'd surely miss it. The band's schtick may be running aground, its bag of tricks starting to run out, but if they just give it a rest for a few years, we'll all be dying to hear the next piece of brilliance from them.
Until they do decide to take some time off, though, their overexposure is only going to continue to weigh down on those of us who used to be their most ardent supporters, and it's going to make it difficult to give the Lips enough of a chance to shock us with something great next time around. After all, it's tough to win over a crowd that got sick of you two years ago.
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