CPYU Fall 1997 Newsletter
If there were medical monitors hooked into the world of popular music, doctors would be racking their brains in an effort to uncover signs of life. Stagnant sales figures and disappointing concert tours indicate that popular music is longing to break out of it's coma. Analysts know it will take a sound that's new, different, and exciting to resurrect popular music as we move into the new millennium.
As they've continued to wonder just what "shape" that new music will take, new signs of life have begun to pulsate rapidly out of the monitors. While these signs increase in volume, a quick look at the screen displays evidence that this new music is fast, loud, and danceable.
The music is known as "techno" or "electronica" and perhaps no band has done more to break it into the mainstream than The Prodigy. The title of their second album, 1994's, Music For The Jilted Generation, hints at why The Prodigy has the ability to connect with a generation plagued by relational breakdown and hopelessness. The July 1997 release of their third album The Fat of the Land (Maverick, 1997), has put this quartet from the U.K. at the forefront of today's popular music scene. With their popularity running high through youth culture, it's worth taking a deeper look at the group, their history, music, and appeal.
The story of The Prodigy begins with Liam Howlett, a 26-year-old native of Braintree, Essex and the group's main musical force. A classically trained pianist, Howlett fell in love with rap music and in 1986 began his musical career with a stint as a DJ with "Cut to Kill", a rap group popular on the London scene. After a close encounter with a knife-wielder at a London hip-hop club and a falling out with the other members of "Cut to Kill", Howlett became disillusioned with the rap scene. He soon discovered London's rave culture and purchased his first synthesizer, a Moog Prodigy (the source of the group's name), so that he could begin to experiment with creating his own techno music. His music gained him enough attention that he began playing live techno sets in area dance clubs.
While appearing at The Barn (a dance club in Rayne) during 1991, two dancers named Leeroy and Keith approached Howlett about allowing them to dance on stage while he played his keyboards. Also from Braintree, Essex, 27 year-old Keith Flint had been a rave fan since 1988. He had hooked up with the 6'7" Leery Thornhill, a 27 year-old James Brown fanatic, to form a dance duo. Howlett agreed to let the two dance on stage along with a female dancer named "Sharky", and The Prodigy was formed. Leeroy says that they were so mesmerized by Howlett's music that "We were buzzing our t___ off!"
It wasn't long before Howlett thought the band was incomplete without an MC (hip-hop for "master of ceremonies"). Maxim Reality (real name Keeti Palmer) was recruited to fill those shoes and actually joined the band to perform the first night he met them. The 31 year-old had started MC'ing on the London reggae circuit when he was only 14. "I just remember being put on this stage in the middle of a dance scene with four people I had just met, and I just stood at the back with a mic chatting a couple of times, " says Reality. "Meanwhile, the rest of the band were doing their s___ and everybody was going wild. . . it just went off!"
While Sharky eventually left the group, the other three remained. The Prodigy line-up featured Howlett writing and producing the music, Flint dancing and singing, Thornhill dancing, and Reality as MC.
The group released 7,000 copies of a 4-track demo EP in 1991. Titled What Evil Lurks, the EP became a hit on the rave scene and led to a club tour across the UK and abroad. One of the cuts, "Everybody in the Place", eventually hit #2 on the UK charts in 1992. Before that, their 1991 single release"Charly" went to #1 on the UK dance charts. After the song's video appeared on Britain's "Top of the Pops" and "The Chart Show", 30,000 new fans showed up to hear the group perform at their next rave appearance. Now on the musical map, The Prodigy were signed by Electra records.
Today, The Prodigy show is a high energy event. Unlike most techno shows in which spectator attention is placed away from the performer onto the sound and dancing. The Prodigy show is more akin to a Rock and Roll stage concert. All eyes are focused on stage where the band is constantly moving and dancing.
Visually, Flint is a bizarre-looking bundle of energy with his shaved head (except for dyed hair horns), pierced septum, tattooed midsection, and exotic wardrobe. Maxim's cat-eye contact lenses, tattoos, and kilts combine in an eery nether worldly appearance. Veteran concert goers often remark that it's the"best live show" they've ever seen. In fact, they are one of the few techno acts to incorporate a live guitar in concert through frequent guest appearances by punk guitarist Gizz Butt.
Like most techno music, The Prodigy's songs are not composed of lyrical verse and chorus combinations. Rather, where there are lyrics, they are usually short phrases repeated over and over again. It is not an insignificant coincidence that Biblical poets used the same approach to emphasize a point. Of course, some might say that Howlett's lack of lyrical creativity is at the root of his repetitiveness. Coupled with the relentless thumping power of his music, Howlett's lyrical echoes powerfully drive home musical themes reflecting the relentless thumping that he believes his "jilted generation" has taken.
Their first album, The Prodigy Experience (1992), was hailed at the time as the best album to ever come out of the growing rave movement, evidenced by the fact that it hit #12 on the U.K. charts, went Gold, and remained in the Top 40 for six months. The lyrics of the first two cuts define the essence of what the techno rave phenomena is all about for those young people who live to find relationship by gathering to dance with peers. On "Jericho" the line"Feel the bass come down on me baby/keep on dancing/keep on dancing" is repeated over and over. On "Music Reach", the rave belief that music brings release is echoed in the songs only phrase: "The music reach. . . make me wanna shout!"
The essence of rave escapism is repeated over and over on "Everybody in the Place": "Everybody's in the place! Let's go!" The same theme is addressed on the song "Out of Space" where listeners learn that the DJ wants to "take your brain to another dimension" through his music.
The futility and sadness of an empty relationship is the theme of "Your Love": "Your love/You never ever want me/You never ever phone call. "
Hints of The Prodigy's role as a spokesband for disenfranchised young adults can be heard in "Wind It Up", a single release off The Prodigy Experience that repeats the lines, "wind it up" and "We would like some justice in this time. "
Described by critics and listeners as dark, dynamic, and tense, the group's second album release, Music for the Jilted Generation, is a package of lengthy electronica music peppered with short lyrical sound bytes focusing on pain, aggression, and anti-social themes. With a debut at #1 on the charts, total sales over 1 million worldwide, and four single releases that went top 15, the album eventually led to a "Best Dance Act" prize at the 1994 MTV Awards.
The album's cover art is intended as a powerful visual representation of the pain of the jilted generation. An agonized screaming face strains to break through a wall of metal. The Prodigy places at least part of the blame on government. The liner notes ask, "How can the government stop young people having a good time?" A painting inside depicts a deep crevice with two opposing groups on either side. On one side stand fully armed riot police on a background of a barren and decayed post-apocalyptic industrial skyline. On the other side stand a group of young people gathered at a rave set in a plush green meadow. A rope suspension bridge connects both sides. In the foreground, a young raver makes an obscene gesture to the police with one hand, while slicing the rope bridge with a machete placed in the other.
"Their Law" is angry 6-1/2 minute Metallica-sounding protest song directed against the U.K.'s police crackdown on rave parties. "What we're dealing with here is a total lack of respect for the law," begins the song. "F___ the law!/But you can't push the law/F___ 'em and their law!" The relentless pounding of the song leaves the strong impression that these are marching orders for the jilted.
The first time the group features Maxim's vocals are on the single release"Poison". The power of techno and the rave scene as an emotional anesthetic is the theme: "I got the poison/I got the remedy/I got the pulsating rhythmical remedy".
The Prodigy's popularity increased through MTV exposure of cuts from Music For The Jilted Generation. The single release"Voodoo People" hit #11 on the charts and was in heavy rotation on MTV. "No Good (Start The Dance)" is a 150 beat per minute song whose video featured a seedy underground rave party.
The steady growth of the band's popularity accelerated during 1996 and 1997 after the band was signed to a $5 million album deal on Madonna's Maverick record label. In a publicity move engineered to generate interest in the summer '97 release of Fat of the Land, The Prodigy pre-released two singles off the album. Both singles reflect the anger, hopelessness, and rebellious spirit so often characteristic of disenfranchised kids.
"Firestarter" was released in March 1996, went to #1, and sold over 750,000 copies in the U.K. in just 6 weeks. The #1 single became an MTV video staple and features a hard-core industrial sound with Flint's screaming vocals. The lyrics come across as an angry "In your face" chant of destruction: "I'm the trouble starter, punkin' instigator/I'm the fear addicted, danger illustrated/I'm the firestarter, twisted firestarter. . . I'm the bitch you hated/filth infatuated/Yeah, I'm the pain you tasted, well intoxicated. . . I'm the self inflicted, live detonator/Yeah, I'm the one infected, twisted animator. "
The second single release, "Breathe", went to #1 on the UK charts, landed in the Top 20 in 20 different countries, and has sold over 2 million copies worldwide. In heavy rotation on MTV, the video features a surrealistic visual background of several rooms that are dark, filthy, and rotting. Obviously not a place where you'd want to live, the video leaves the impression that this is where the group and their following exist. Flint and Reality dance and move with a madness that seems trance like and demon-possessed. All the while, intermittent images of rats, worms, insects, roaches, and alligators under and on the bed flash on screen. The images of bathroom drains regurgitating liquid scum combine with lyrics that ooze anger and hopelessness to make this video a powerful representation of the cycle of postmodern hopelessness: "Breathe the pressure/Come play my game I'll test ya/Psycho-somatic addict insane. . . inhale, inhale/you're the victim. "
The remainder of The Fat of the Land (which debuted at #1 in the U.S. and 20 other countries with sales of 3 million albums during the first week of release), is a high-energy collection of tunes that's more than just repetitive dance music. There's a message here from an angry young generation that feels it's been squashed by a repressive society. The following sarcastic text appears in the CD liner: "We have no butter, but I ask you, would you rather have butter or guns? Shall we import lard or steel? Let me tell you. . . preparedness makes us powerful. Butter merely makes us fat. Steel? Lard?"
Although Howlett says the song's title isn't literal, the first cut on the album, "Smack My Bitch Up", contains obvious directives on how to treat females. Other interesting song titles are"Funky S___" and "Serial Thrilla".
The hip-hop flavored "Diesel Power" contains spiritual references characteristic of the syncretistic spiritual nature of rave culture: "You're armed with an energy source. . . the cosmic force. . . different astrology. "
The haunting and eerily monotonous beat of "Mindfields" accentuates a message that could be about how too many kids experience the journey of life: "I want you to walk tha mindfields for me. . . open up your head to the shell shock!/This is dangerous. . . open up your head, feel the shell shock!/This is dangerous . . .Walk the mindfields and watch your head rock!/This is dangerous. . . walk the mindfields and watch your head rock!" Parents and youth workers could use this track as a catalyst for discussion on the hopelessness of life without experiencing the joy of living under the vicarious death of The Incarnate One who has walked "tha mindfields for me. "
"Fuel My Fire", the album's final song, is a thrash metal remake of an L7 song. The song's message is a wake-up call to those parents and authority figures whose hypocrisy has led to a sarcastic bitterness among young people who've experienced a disappointing string of unfulfilled promises. The song begins with the sarcastic "I've got a word of thanks. . . for the rage that I feel. . . you lied to my face. Yeah, that knife in my back. . . people like you just fuel my fire. . . people like you just burn. "
As with most popular music, many adults will be tempted to accuse techno and The Prodigy of being fast, loud, "garbage" made by youngsters who need to "grow up and get a real job. " Don't give in to the temptation. This is music that clearly reflects the life-circumstances and reality of many teenagers and young adults. We ought to listen and learn from The Prodigy and their increasingly popular techno counterparts. What are the lessons we can learn from analyzing The Prodigy's attraction and appeal?
First, this is music that is extremely attractive to relationally disconnected kids longing to be connected. Liam Howlett and the boys have issued a rallying cry. Around the world, ravers are dancing to music that brings them together. Listen to them talk and you'll rarely hear them say that they've experienced positive relational connections initiated by others at home or in the church. With nowhere else to go, they've found what they're looking for in techno. Is it possible that we need to aggressively pursue them on their terms rather than wait for them to come to us?
Second, now that techno has gone mainstream, increased radio play along with free peer publicity will draw lots of kids just because"everyone else is listening to it". As a result, parents should be diligent about discussing the lyrical and lifestyle messages of The Prodigy with their kids so that they are able to make wise musical choices.
Third, this is music that truly serves to temporarily sooth wounded souls. Popular music artist Beck relates how he witnessed 50,000 kids going insane over The Prodigy's music. "The spirit of their music isn't self-glorifying," he says. "It's a release thing for people, catharsis without the cliche. " (Entertainment Weekly, 3/14/97, p. 40) Of course, the music is only a band-aid. The church should be diligent about diagnosing and directing attention to the real cuts, bruises, and disease underneath. Perhaps we should think seriously about t Charles Colson's advice: "In order to evangelize today, we must address the human condition at its point of felt need - conscience, guilt, dealing with others, finding a purpose for staying alive. Talking about the abundant life or life everlasting often just won't do it. "
Finally, angry music is always attractive to "pressure-cooker" kids."Fuel the Fire" could become an anthem for kids who visualize their parents, teachers, and other adults while singing along. It's easy to turn off their music. It's hard to take hints from the music that something more must be done in order to turn off their anger.
Like the great majority of other bands that have come and gone, The Prodigy's popularity, fueled by a new album and Summer '97 appearance on the Lollapalooza Tour, will some day fade. But the legacy of their music is certain to live on in young lives. . . unless a diligent army of caring adults loves each member of the jilted generation one at a time. Then the message of the music will change from a sarcastic "thanks" for lies and rejection, to a sincere expression of gratitude for truth and redemption.