By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The Fat of the Land
TECHNO/RAVE MUSIC has always needed a Monkees. Kids and other unsophisticated listeners (and this would seem to include most critics when it comes to electronic dance music) require something sweet and simple to introduce them to a complex new musical style, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Maybe someone starts out listening to the Prodigy's hit single "Firestarter" and ends up searching out the more challenging Aphex Twin, Orb, or Headrillaz. Bubblegum music is almost noble when it accomplishes such a mission, and the Prodigy certainly makes stickier bubblegum than Hanson, which accomplishes nothing more than a yuppified soft sell of classic Jackson 5.
In lashing out at this generation's Pre-Fab Four, techno aficionados and critics alike have been resorting to the same old tired arguments about authenticity, and that's particularly disappointing for folks who are supposed to be so darn postmodern. There's no point in hating the Prodigy because they aren't "real." We all know that the group is a front for one man, Liam Howlett, a talented programming wizard with a knack for punching out high-octane drum grooves, pecking out extremely memorable synth riffs, and sneaking in the niftiest of samples.
The rest of the cast includes that lovable nutter Keith Flint, the slightly menacing MC Maxim Reality, and bassist Leeroy Thornhill. They jump around a lot, pose for pictures, and give the kids something to look at. The bottom line is that they're entertaining, and no one really cares if they don't contribute significantly to Howlett's music or all live together in a nifty pad with a fire pole in the living room.
Nor do we necessarily care about the amount of rock in the Prodigy's mix. Like the Chemical Brothers and Trent Reznor, Howlett knows that Americans get nervous if they don't hear something that's vaguely guitar-rock in a track. So he includes plenty of it, sampling from Skunk Anansie and the Breeders, quoting the synth line from the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" in "Climbatize," and covering L7's "Fuel My Fire." Tunes such as "Breathe" and "Funky Shit" are by no means the most inventive electronic dance music that you'll ever hear, but they're catchy, accessible, and hard to resist, even for folks who swear that they hate the stuff.
The problem with the balance of the Prodigy's humongously hyped new album is how thoroughly it perverts the most important qualities at the heart of all great techno. Not so much the "no stars" ideal; that's never really been true, since plenty of people have always stared at the DJ the same way they would stare at a band on stage. But rave music has always resisted the taint of sexism. The sexual predators prowling the dance floor at most discos have never been welcome at raves, and while the music has often been sexual, it has almost never been threatening. Hence "Smack My Bitch Up," the opening track on The Fat of the Land, stands out as a new low.
Howlett has done some backpedaling in interviews, insisting that the song is intentionally ironic. But he's the only one who hears it, because the tune consists primarily of a percolating rhythm track and Maxim Reality's frequently repeated boast, "Change my pitch up/Smack my bitch up," conflating music-making and misogyny. The track breaks down in the middle for a weird, wordless Eastern vocal part sung by Shahin Bada, and then the beating starts again. I read the whole thing as a sick male fantasy of a woman reveling in a bout of rough and ruthless sex, and I find it as revolting as the worst gangsta rap shtick, or anything Mötley Crüe ever recorded. (Further weakening Howlett's protests that he's sexually enlightened is that cute little photo of a piece of industrial machinery marked "blow-off cock, pull to open" included in the CD booklet.)
"Smack My Bitch Up" isn't the only violent and boneheaded moment on The Fat of the Land. The rave scene has always been essentially pacifist, presenting a much healthier, smarter, and less dippy version of the same basic smile-on-your-brother ethos you'd find in the parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert. But the Prodigy seems determined to bust heads, and not just with the power of its grooves.
"Serial Thrilla" finds Flint in the role of a serial killer, exhorting a victim to "succumb to me." The hook in "Mindfields" is the proud exclamation, "This is dangerous," and while it might not have struck you before, "Firestarter" is a song about an arsonist who really loves his work. And what are we to make of the slogan prominent in the album artwork: "We have no butter, but I ask you, would you rather have butter or guns? Let me tell you preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat."
First, those damn Thatcherite Spice Girls set out to corrupt postfeminist, sex-positive "girl power" by reducing the scope of women's roles to five stereotypes in different designer duds. Now we have the Prodigy with a troubling subtext of right-wing pig-headedness that almost no one seems to be picking up on.