From the Hip | The Flaming Lips: Defenders of Enlightenment

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The Flaming Lips are the last great defenders of the Enlightenment.

I believe this seemingly preposterous premise can be defended if you indulge me in looking at the music and culture of the Age of Enlightenment through a comparison to the brilliant 1984 movie Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman. It was almost certainly the last broadly accessible film to make “higher culture” attractive, and more importantly, triumphant.

For my purposes, the Flaming Lips shall stand in for Mozart; Pink Floyd shall stand in for Salieri. Mozart was a brilliant, “vulgar child.” And Salieri was a very competent composer, although a scheming, political and duplicitous ladder climber as court composer to the Austrian Emperor.

Pink Floyd’s albums Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals were all wonderful spacey, prog rock, orchestral albums that were anthems to their times—or more precisely, my hazy, trippy teenage years. But everything since, including The Wall, have been pretentious, pedantic commercial tripe for my aging generation’s endless nostalgia-fueled feedback loop.

Pink Floyd best represents the decline of today’s Western culture into repackaging and marketing as substitute for actual creative growth. We are now witnessing the war between the culture of self-congratulating, sentimental fantasy (one of the many tools in the arsenal of the loony, theocratic, sanctimonious, neo-fascist right) and the messy, unfocused, creative, and mostly secular left.

For me, as my premise states, the Lips are the symbol of my side of the culture wars—the side which represents an America that does not continue the slow motion evolution into a perverted Christian version of Iran. Unfortunately, both the Lips and I are not the type of people who could be conventionally viewed as leaders or even acceptable adults in modern America. So, I am left with the dubious comparison to Mozart, who, through the genius of his music, became immortal.

The Flaming Lips, although a group that formed in early ’80s, is one of the bands that best typifies the indie rock cultural renaissance of the ’90s—a period of both optimistic indulgence and paranoid anxiety, depending on your perspective.

Of the many peculiarities of the Lips, the fact that they are the progeny of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is revealing. Some of the bands who fly their “freak flag” the highest—the Butthole Surfers, the B-52s, and Devo, for example—came from environments known as virtually medieval corners of the Bible Belt. Great creativity sometimes sprouts from the poorest soil because the distractions of the conventional are so unattractive to the talented freaks, whose music I so enjoy, allowing their art to flourish undiluted by “cracker conservatism.”

In the new millennium, the Flaming Lips have transcended mere psychadelic space rock grooviness and have become more “sacred” than “profane.” The 2008 release of the band’s film Christmas on Mars—an arty, B-movie trip into Lips weirdness—invokes Jim Jarmush, Roger Corman, and Felliniesque symbolism with Wayne Coyne as a benevolent green Martian space being. The movie can be dystopian and innocent at the same time which to me embodies the “mystery” of the Lips.

Another beautifully simple lyric from a song in the album Embryonic states that, “people are evil, it’s true… but they can be gentle too.” What words could better measure the existential fault line of our age?  The Lips’ crude, clumsy, yet often child-like beauty, innocence, and vulgarity all mixed into their unique gumbo of oddity make me more able to believe our terrible species may yet be redeemed.

These are grandiose musings for a rant about a band, but my theology is of a stranger plane; as are my saints and demigods. We now must bring our saviors down to earth, as they are also mysterious and brilliant on the field of mere mortal commerce as well.  The Lips official website and the many vulgarities they hawk, in addition to the usual T-shirts, albums, and such, are gleefully unacceptable in the prim and proper world—allowing we shoppers to abet in the “cultural decay” they are so shamelessly promoting.

Admittedly, I still have an infantile desire to purchase their vibrating fetus Christmas tree ornament, but have not been in the mental space yet to throw away cash on such a reckless whim.

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I have said too much to not have mentioned the band’s album and concert show with their version of Dark Side of the Moon. So, I’ll merely mention that Henry Rollins is the voice in background and the stage show is as vulgar and trippy as one would expect from the Lips. How we have managed to create a world where such supreme and benevolent freaks are not genuflected to more universality is truly a tragedy.

Join the Lips congregants today. The end times are here, my poor suffering readers. I, myself, have felt the aisle call as Wayne Coyne has floated overhead t in his holy plastic orb, blessing his supplicants and calling forth in the holy Oklahoman tongue. Begin your conversion with The Soft Bulletin and listen then to Embryonic—the psych rock album that is, in my view, the album that could be seen as the musical equivalent of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.”

Embryonic is the most unique album and the Flaming Lips are  in the top five of bands which must be experienced live to save your soul from the dark algorithm that suffocates us all.

Phil photo by Tony Frantz

Flaming Lips photo provided by Wikipedia