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Why I gave up on the Flaming Lips

Why I gave up on the Flaming Lips
Photo By Erik Hess

The majority of the music world was first introduced to the Flaming Lips in 1993. That year, their abstract anthem "She Don't Use Jelly" became an unlikely hit on MTV. Even the most distant observer could tell straight away that the Lips were weird. Really weird. These idiosyncratic sonic outlaws from Oklahoma City had been making unconventional, tripped-out music for years before they became eccentric poster boys for psych-rock in the middle of the grunge boom, and they played up that madcap outsider role to the hilt, reveling in the attention while freaking America the fuck out. Now, it's just time to get the fuck out.

See also: The rapid decline of Kings of Leon

The Flaming Lips' creative ambition and outlandish sensibilities coalesced perfectly on their 1999 magnum opus, The Soft Bulletin, an album where their songwriting talents and experimental sounds were praised, rather than their oddball behavior and many quirks. After a decade of being a casual fan, that's the record that caused me to completely fall for the band. Their series of celebratory shows in support of that album -- and its stellar follow-up, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- were some of the most joyous, inspired live performances that I've had the pleasure to witness.

But in the subsequent decade, the Flaming Lips have retread that same creative ground with live sets that never really change much -- Wayne Coyne crowd-surfing in a clear plastic ball, costumed dancers on stage, loads of confetti -- and albums that have grown progressively worse and sonically stale. Their live shows are spectacles, sure, but they've turned into soulless ones. And after years of giving them the benefit of the doubt, I was finally pushed over the edge by their recent pointless collaboration with Miley Cyrus. I've officially given up on the Flaming Lips.

Shtick can only take you so far, and at this point it seems like Coyne is fresh out of ideas and searching desperately for different ways to shock the music world instead of simply getting back to making groundbreaking music. Creating an aimless, NSFW short film with Miley Cyrus (and Moby) just seems to be a ploy to attach the Lips brand to the hot new pariah on the scene, making Coyne and company edgy by association. The insipid results prove that their creative hearts and minds weren't really all that invested in the project, it just seemed like a good idea when they were high.

The misguided Miley collaboration aside, the simple fact of the matter is that the last few Flaming Lips albums have flat-out sucked. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" just might be the most annoying song recorded in the past 10 years. (Tim McGraw has released five albums of dreck in that time, so that's saying something.) The Lips' music just isn't all that interesting or -- more crucially -- dangerous anymore. Coyne is starring in bland advertisements for companies that are just trying to make themselves seem cool by having the Flaming Lips involved. Meanwhile, these avant-garde outsider anthems have been replaced by safe, lifeless interpretations of revolutionary albums by other artists (Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon) and hackneyed regurgitations of their earlier sound.

  Wayne Coyne has become a cartoon character in an overlong movie that few are even watching anymore. It's sad, because he's clearly got a wildly inventive imagination and prodigious gifts as a songwriter. But he's grown content with merely being Wayne Coyne instead of directing his energy toward crafting another pioneering record, and the Lips' last few studio efforts reveal that the band's tank is empty. Add to that the fact that Coyne recently kicked longtime Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock out of the band over some petty disagreement and brandished him a "pathological liar," and you have the makings for a band who already played things loose coming apart even further at the seems.

For Record Store Day in 2012, the Lips released a collaborative album called The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, which featured joint efforts between the band and other illustrious artists like Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono, Jim James, Erykah Badu, Biz Markie, Prefuse 73, and other head-scratchers (Kesha?!), but the album ultimately looked better on paper than it sounded on wax. You never got the sense that the band and their prestigious guest stars had any real idea where they wanted these songs to go, and most of them are wayward throwaways that wasted their creative potential as well as the occasion.

Why I gave up on the Flaming Lips
Photo By Erik Hess

The bottom line is, I'm not sure it's possible for any band in the business for 30-plus years to shock their listeners after all that time, so this isn't a problem unique to the Flaming Lips. But their career was founded on a radical approach to sonic experimentalism that was raw, fresh, and thrilling, and those surprising sonic elements have long since disappeared from their sound. So what we're left with is Coyne and the Lips rehashing ideas that have worked well for them in the past but now have grown quite stale and tiresome.

In the future (perhaps even tonight at First Avenue), Wayne will once again roll over some rapturous crowd in his clear plastic hamster ball, but fail to connect with his hardcore fans in the visceral way that he once did. He'll be all the while looking like he's trapped in a theatrical prop of his own creation -- his band as well as the plastic bubble. I'm just not interested enough anymore to see if Coyne can find his own way out.

The Flaming Lips. With Morgan Delt. SOLD OUT, 18+, 8 p.m., Tuesday, July 15 at First Avenue. Info.

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