Published May 01, 2000We music critics thrive upon our sense of indignation. Despite individually contributing little more to popular culture than an isolated opinion of it, we consider it a personal affront whenever we perceive that popular culture has betrayed us.
My own indignation is a by-product of an intense moral obligation to the art form; pop music, if not having saved my life, at least gave it its purpose. I worry for it, fuss with it, pick it apart and bitch it out, because I love it. But my indignation is most important for providing contrast to my enthusiasms, for how else do any of us define what we love than against what we hate? They clarify and intensify each other, remind us why we bother to engage ourselves in anything, whether music, film, literature or the pursuit of another person’s affections.
Contrary to received wisdom, my engagement in popular music hasn’t diminished with the advancement of my adult life. Recently, I left a burgeoning and potentially lucrative career in the music industry because I couldn’t divorce myself from the emotional content of the “product” I felt I was lending a hand in betraying. I blamed no one, but my indignation burned while I drove cross-country to begin a new professional and personal life. Not coincidentally, the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin was my primary soundtrack.
Such is my sense of obligation for The Soft Bulletin that I can only write about it within the context of its importance in my life. To maintain critical distance would be the sort of betrayal that I meant to leave behind. Because, more than any album in my adult life, The Soft Bulletin awakened in me the feelings I had for music when I first discovered it: a sudden, overwhelming knowledge of a forum for ideas and emotions above those we experience in the everyday world. It stunned me when I first heard it, and it still does whenever I play it. Which is virtually every day.
I find no small pleasure, or surprise, in the fact that people are still talking about the one-year-old The Soft Bulletin as if it were new a remarkable achievement in this rapid-fire musical climate. That these conversations take place almost exclusively amongst committed music geeks is a shame; the album has sold little more than one-fortieth the amount that N’Sync’s newest sold in one week. And no, I don’t expect that a veteran alternative trio of 40-something Oklahomans will ever be direct competition to the mavens of the mainstream. But I can hope that sincere gestures of faith and defiance like The Soft Bulletin will project an influence that might eventually eclipse our culture’s current obsession with spectacle-for-its-own--sake, at the exclusion of the very music that is supposed to be its backbone.
By “faith” and “defiance” I mean that The Soft Bulletin is a wholly, unashamedly, peerlessly hopeful statement, at total odds with a pop landscape in which genuine expressions of vulnerability are either reduced to cliché (teen-pop, the only aspect of which I hate is its omnipresence), dismissed as weak (hip-hop), or dismissed as embarrassing (Beck). Its best and most immediate virtue is its enormous sonic beauty, but where The Soft Bulletin becomes an act of rebellion is in its gentle insistence that without love and devotion, in spite of our modern stance of ironic detachment, we are utterly fucked.
I don’t expect Lips leader Wayne Coyne, speaking while travelling toward a Nebraska tour stop, to be as obsessive or analytical about his, or any, music musicians rarely are. But he readily acknowledges that the album’s urgent themes didn’t evolve by coincidence. “The band [Coyne, Steven Drozd and Michael Ivins] had talked about the idea that when we’re singing some of these songs, we don’t want people to think that we’re being sarcastic or ironic any of these lackadaisical approaches to what we think are big, philosophical, important things like love and death and your place in the universe.
“Especially rock bands, coming from the sort of indie field that we do, will talk about these things but never mean it. We never were good at doing irony and we never really liked it, anyway. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with people expressing themselves in a real way in songs. What’s wrong with that? So we figured we’ll take our beating if we’ve got one coming, or we’ll reach people who like this sort of stuff. And to our surprise, I think a lot of people are glad that it’s real and it’s not a joke. It’s worked out wonderful.”
Irony does figure into The Soft Bulletin, however; at least insofar as my personal interpretations of it, against what the band intend it to be. Lips leader Wayne Coyne explains in his self-penned bio that the album’s two years of sessions produced an “accidental” result. “The more indulgent and sonically perverse we got, the more commercial we sounded,” he writes. “[It] is not a response to music that we love or a reaction against music that we hate. Finally, there are no more enemies, and there are no more heroes. Just sound.”
The Soft Bulletin’s sound is among the most authoritative, beautiful and downright big in years that, ostensibly, is still rock. I can only concede with a British magazine that recently said its truest modern company is Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and Lambchop’s Nixon: albums of awesome, epic grandeur that still retain the intimate tone of a conversation or private epiphany. The image of a stadium isn’t conjured once.
“We don’t want to just be commercial and we don’t want to just be experimental,” says Coyne. “I say it and it sounds absurd, but we really do try to experiment with commercial aspects of stuff all the time. We throw those two in together as much as we feel like it will work for us, because we want people to go out and buy our records who don’t have to know the whole history of punk rock. At the same time, we want people who do know the history of punk rock to be interested in what we’re doing, too. I think our audience would be people who are really just like us, that love music regardless of how it’s made, but are interested in how it’s made at the same time.”
Whether or not that audience grows to a size that the Lips surely deserve isn’t one of Coyne’s immediate concerns. Nor is the probability that, like almost everything the band has done in its 16-year career, The Soft Bulletin will remain a critical and cult concern.
“You know, Brian Wilson has that thing where he says ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.’ Well, if my quote could be anything, it would be, ‘I Was Made Perfectly For These Times,’” he tells me. “I mean, it fits in so great that there’s stuff like the internet and weirdoes like yourself who can be taken serious. It’s great that there’s all these opportunities.
“To have people like us that are allowed to make records like The Soft Bulletin, that we exist at all, proves that we live in wonderful times.” The critic, the weirdo, feels his indignation dissolve. If only a little. If only for awhile.