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Old 11-05-2007, 03:54 PM   #1
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My paper about The Flaming Lips

I'm currently taking a music class, where we listen to rock and pop music, and write about it. For my first paper, I chose to write about the topic of life, death, and love in The Flaming Lips' music. I'm fairly proud of it, and I wanted to put it out there for people to read if they so choose. Be forewarned, it is very, very long; it was over 14 pages double spaced when I turned it in.

Lessons in Life, Death, and Love with The Flaming Lips

In their nearly twenty-five year career, The Flaming Lips have evolved from a loud, punk, and overall weird group into a band known for their lush, expansive, layered arrangements and philosophical lyrics (and they are still weird). Until the 1999 release The Soft Bulletin, The Flaming Lips’ lyrics were essentially nonsense. However, between Zaireeka, released in 1997, and The Soft Bulletin, several key events occurred in the Lips’ lives that affected Coyne’s approach to songwriting (all of which were recounted in “The Spiderbite Song” from The Soft Bulletin): lead singer Wayne Coyne’s father passed away after a long battle with cancer, guitarist/drummer Steven Drozd’s arm was nearly amputated due to what he claimed was a spider bite, but more likely was due to his heroin use, and bassist Michael Ivins was nearly killed in a freak car accident in which the wheel from another vehicle spun off and crashed through Ivins’ windshield. Wayne Coyne described his change in songwriting and music-making, stating:

I’m gonna sing songs that can do something for people. [...] Everybody needs something in the deep, dark, horrible moments in their life, you know, to say, you’re not alone. [...] I wanted to sing songs not just for myself anymore. I wanted to sing songs that people could come up to me and say, ‘Man, your song really got me through that.’

And so, beginning with The Soft Bulletin and continuing through their most recent release, At War With The Mystics, The Flaming Lips have set off on a completely new journey, both musically and lyrically.

The Soft Bulletin marks a severe change in The Flaming Lips’ musical style, especially coming from an experimental album like Zaireeka, which was a four disc set meant to be played simultaneously on separate stereo systems. Instead of loud, guitar rock like previous albums, the album is characterized by its lack of guitars, replaced by crashing drums and beautiful keyboards used to create new, refreshing sound textures. Previously described events heavily influenced Coyne to have a more serious tone in his songwriting, resulting in The Soft Bulletin’s sorrowful, yet triumphant songs about life, death, and love.

Musically, “The Spiderbite Song” has all the elements of later Flaming Lips songs. It opens with Drozd’s thundering drums; his bass drum continues through the song, acting as the heartbeat. A piano part contains the entire melody and gives the song a sad, yet still optimistic, feel to it. The remainder of the layers are made up of various electronic sounds, which come to their peak during the verse about falling in love. During this verse, the background has high pitched “ah’s” that almost seem like a noise that would be heard in a fairytale. Coyne’s vocals throughout the song are strained, stressing how happy he is that these incidents did not ruin each of the members. The first verse is about the near amputation of Drozd’s arm. Coyne states, “I thought we would have to break up the band” and “the poison then could reach your heart from a vein,” obviously speaking about Drozd’s heroin addiction. The final verse is about love, and simply says, “Love is the greatest thing our heart can know/But the hole it leaves in its absence can make you feel so low.” However, the chorus is the song’s most telling and most touching moment. It explains that if something happened to destroy any of them, it would destroy Coyne, but he is glad that each event did not do this. Really, the entire song is about love, both the friendship and romantic types.

“Waitin’ For A Superman” is once again driven by Drozd’s drum crashes, but the song is also moved along by the piano melody. It keeps the song hopeful in the face of fairly sad, depressing lyrics. After the last chorus, a horn comes in and casts a somber mood over the song, which seems to fit the general feeling. The contradicting hope and despair in the piano and horn reflect the lyrics as well. Even though the lyrics are not optimistic, they are not pessimistic either. The pessimistic side is shown when Coyne asks, “Is it getting heavy?” and answers himself, “Well, I thought it was already as heavy as can be.” He thinks that nothing can be worse than what he is currently experiencing. But then, as soon as he states this, he says, “Tell everybody waiting for Superman/That they should try to hold on best they can/He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything/It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.” Even the strongest individuals, like Superman, who is the epitome of strength, have situations that they cannot deal with on their own, so as bad as the current situation might be, you have to hold on and maintain hope that relief will come. Because this song was written about Wayne’s father passing away, it can be deduced that the song is also about wanting to help loved ones through their pain and suffering, but not being able to because you are suffering along with them; it is letting them know to hang on, at some point you will be able to help, but right now, it is too much for even you to deal with either.

Beginning with a beatboxing vocal taking the place of conventional drums, and a simple acoustic guitar, “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” is painfully straightforward with its music and lyrics. The only true lyrics are sung during this beginning section. In his strained vocal fashion, Coyne stresses, “Love in our life is just too valuable/Oh, to feel for even a second without it/But life without death is just impossible/Oh, to realize something is ending within us.” When “to realize something is ending” is sung, angelic voices come up, adding to the feeling that he has just experienced an epiphany. After the lone verse, the music changes, replacing the beatboxing with a drum set, adding some bass, and putting an electric guitar in instead of the acoustic. Coyne repeats “feeling yourself disintegrate” over and over for the remainder of the song. Both the simplicity and repetitiveness of the song give the feeling that the listener is evaporating and going to a better place. In addition, the background music is airy, light, and overall, heavenly. In just four lines, Coyne expresses a realization that is nothing short of profound. He shows that love is so essential in life, and because it is out of the question for life to have any ending other than death, everyone should take advantage of life and love instead of focusing on death; live every moment as if it is your last.

Written and recorded after finding out a friend of The Flaming Lips had passed away suddenly of a heart condition, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots wrestles with many of the same issues as The Soft Bulletin, but in a far more upbeat, celebratory way. Yoshimi also finds The Flaming Lips building electronic sounds upon each other to create catchier, more rhythmic songs. However, unlike The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi brings the guitar back into a prominent position again in many of the songs, but the heavy use of electronic beats and noises to create a wall of sound is the most notable development in The Flaming Lips’ music up to this point.

“Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” is musically interesting because it uses a bass line as the melody. It is not nearly as drum heavy as previous songs either; there is mainly a symbol and some kind of shaking, similar to a maraca. Consisting mainly of muted electric guitar strumming, the guitar part sometimes breaks through with one unmuted chord, and there is also an acoustic guitar strumming along in the background. Occasionally, a keyboard can be heard as well, mainly at the end as the song fades out. Yet another sound is added to the layers when a flute part comes in during a few sections. This is a testament to The Flaming Lips’ love of layered arrangements that tend to push the boundaries of acceptable amounts of sound on a record; their chosen sound is particularly interesting because although many of their songs have a complex and thick arrangement, similar to a brick wall of sound, listeners are still able to pick out and focus on individual instruments and sounds. Also, because of this richness in arrangement, each time a song is listened to, the listener can discover a new sound. The lyrics describe a person’s thoughts after death, reflecting on their life. Coyne sings, “I was waiting on a moment/But the moment never came/All the billion other moments/We’re just slipping all away.” This person was so focused on specific bits of his life that he missed out on the rest of the great times that could have been experienced. Many people do this on a regular basis by concentrating on work or school and forgetting that the rest of the world exists, which is unfortunate because there is too much to experience in a lifetime for people to choose to hone in on one aspect of their lives. The chorus is simple: “I must have been tripping/Just ego tripping.” The person realizes that he was too absorbed in himself to see the beauty going on around him. In the final verse, Wayne sings, “I was wanting you to love me/But your love, it never came/All the other love around me/Was just wasting all away.” Again, by being focused on one love interest, this person did not notice everyone else’s love for him. This song is yet another reminder to absorb every bit of life. Wayne Coyne has spoken about his own view on living: “When the spark of life is gone, we’re just a sack of flesh and chemicals with no ignition. That’s why I live life with such enthusiasm.” Wayne pushes The Flaming Lips’ listeners to realize this is their only shot, and to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself, so they do not end up like the person in “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” regretting that he missed out on so much during his life.

“It’s Summertime” begins with an echoing bass, which then leads to two guitar parts, one acoustic and one finger picking electric guitar. A bird is also chirping at sporadic times throughout the song, giving the visual of a beautiful, sunny summer day. After the vocal is finished, a string section is added as well; at the end of the song, all the sound breaks down to end with the same echoing bass and drums. The music adds a great deal to the lyrics, making the listener feel as if there is something good that can come out of a tragedy, and there is still beauty in the world. Coyne abandons his usual high, strained vocal style, instead opting for a vocal quality that feels like he is speaking to a friend, convincing him or her of the opportunities outside. The second verse is most moving: “When you look inside/All you’ll see/When you look inside/All you’ll see/Is a self-reflected inner sadness.” If the person continues to dwell on this event, he or she will only get misery out of it, but Coyne stresses, “Look outside/I know that you’ll recognize/It’s summertime.” If this person looks beyond his or her own sadness, he or she will be able to see enjoyment in the rest of life. On, Coyne wrote of “It’s Summertime”:

There is no answer - just a change...but better to express sorrow and experience sadness than to let inner emotions inflate to the point of despair - despair only leads to more death. For it's bad enough that something wonderful in your life has left you - but to fall into despair - despair does not allow you to even enjoy what is still living.

Opening with a rattling drum coupled with a keyboard, “Assassination of the Sun”, a song found on the Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell EP, has a “beautifully sad” theme. After the first chorus, the music fades back to allow for a solemn guitar solo to enter, and the listener can feel the pain emitting from the speakers. Coyne alternates between his typical vocal style in the chorus and a lower, more somber tone during the verses. The song’s lyrics and music work together to express a tale of immense sadness and loss after the death of someone. The second verse begins to proclaim this loss: “As you died in the night/A million stars formed into one/And became another sun/And everything was orange/And now this horrible machine/Churns out pain instead of love/And looks just like the sun/And everything was orange.” When the person died, it is as if a circle of life happened, making another sun, but the aftermath of the death is overwhelming to everyone still living. Usually the sun would represent happiness, but now it is both good and bad. In the chorus Coyne shows the breakdown of happiness with the phrase: “They have begun to assassinate the sun.” The “they” in this line is unknown, but whoever they are, they have taken away what was good by killing the sun. The way he sings this part is so unbelievably bleak, very unlike most of The Flaming Lips’ songs about death, which have some optimism in them; “Assassination of the Sun” seems as though it does not; however, when listening closer, taking in the full effect of the lyrics and music, the song truly does have a hint of optimism in it. Using the color orange to describe the aftermath of this person’s death would indicate the world has changed, which it obviously would after a death, as orange conjures feelings of changing seasons, but although he or she is gone, there is still warmth in the world.

At War with the Mystics brings yet another set of changes to The Flaming Lips’ music and lyrics; based more heavily on rock music with lots of crunchy guitar riffs, but still retaining elements from previous albums, such as the use of keyboards and electronic beats, At War with the Mystics also sees a slight change in Coyne’s songwriting, who chooses to take some of his lyrical attention to political issues in songs like “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song (With All Your Power)” and “The W.A.N.D. (The Will Always Negates Defeat).” But, there are still plenty of introspective songs about life and death to satisfy the Lips’ fanbase.

An eerie siren begins “Mr. Ambulance Driver,” giving the listener a vision and feeling of the gravity of the situation about to be described. The simple, slow guitar and drum part work at the beginning to give a peaceful feeling to the man sitting beside the woman injured in the car accident. The lyrics, combined with the siren, are able to give the impression that the listener is at the scene, watching the event. This man does not pray to a God, instead he chooses to plead to the ambulance driver to get there faster to save the woman. He looks down at the woman and says, “Hold on, help is on the way,” not only for her comfort, but for his own piece of mind. Judging from the lyrics and the tone in Coyne’s voice, this man is the one who caused the accident, and he feels responsible for the woman’s life. To make himself feel better, he has to believe the ambulance will arrive and save the woman. Going into the chorus, the woman has died, the music picks up, and lyrically turns into a bargain, the man wishing he were the dead one instead. He says, “Mr. Ambulance Driver/I’m right here beside her/Though I’ll live somehow I’ve found/Mr. Ambulance Driver/I’m not a real survivor/Wishing that I was the one/That wasn’t going to be here anymore,” expressing a kind of contempt for himself because he is “not a real survivor” for wishing he were dead, but because he caused the accident, he feels like he does not deserve to live, and he should be able to trade places with the deceased woman. Then, the man decides to look for solace and comfort, pleading for the driver to “tell me for everyone that dies/Someone new is born.” He wants some good to come out of this; if nothing else, it is his way of coping with death and his actions that caused this specific death, just to hope that there is a positive angle to the situation.

Like “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell,” “Pompeii AM Götterdämmerung” uses the bass as an integral component. The speed of the bass line gives the impression the couple in the song are racing towards the deaths they chose for themselves. An opening flute both foreshadows and mimics the melody sung in the vocal part. The song describes the couple’s plans to commit suicide: “Running to the station holding hands/Now the volcano is flowing red/Something there will change us into sand/Now we’ll be forever holding hands/Lava and tephra will form our bed/Now the royal flames of Pompeii bless/All our senses.” According to Wayne Coyne,

The triumphant quality of the arrangement suggests that, just before they obliterate themselves, they realize that to make such a decision, to destroy yourself, is really just a point of internal motivation leading to outward action. And, if they could do something as extreme as jumping into a volcano and annihilating themselves, why couldn’t they just try to change the circumstances that have limited them?

Now, even though Coyne claims the couple decides against suicide, the use of “götterdämmerung” in the title suggests otherwise. Literally translated from German, götterdämmerung means “twilight of the gods.” In Germanic mythology, it means “the downfall of the gods,” again suggesting the couple does, in fact, jump into the volcano and die. The song title and content also alludes to Wagner’s play, Götterdämmerung, in which the final scene entails Brünnhilde riding her horse into the fire, committing suicide by immolation. The Flaming Lips also released a new version of “Pompeii AM Götterdämmerung” on their iTunes Originals album; however, it does not have anything like the same effect as the original. This is mainly because the amazingly strong bass line is abandoned in favor of an orchestral string part. But, the strings do succeed in portraying the song in a much sadder, depressing way, which is an interesting angle for The Flaming Lips because even their most somber songs still have a hint of optimism that this version of “Pompeii AM Götterdämmerung” does not. This new version’s sadness also points toward my impression that the couple does indeed commit suicide.

“It Overtakes Me” is a fun, poppy, electronic tune about how insane the idea of the universe truly is. The first section is the upbeat portion, then at the 3:10 mark, it fades into a beautiful section describing the vulnerability of looking up at the stars and the galaxy, but in a comforting way. This final section has angelic voices singing in the background, adding to the mystique of the song. The verse perfectly describes those quiet moments when people ponder the universe and their existence. Coyne’s voice portrays the defenselessness of these moments when he sings, “And I’m there/Looking up at the sky/And I’m scared/Thinking about the way that I/I don’t understand/Anything at all/And how it overtakes me/And I’m just so small/Do I stand a chance?” Coyne describes his thoughts on his insignificance and singing about it:

You understand how insignificant and how meaningless and how just what a speck of existence our whole life really is. And, I think I sing about that a lot, I think I sing about discovering how insignificant I really am. And, I think when I sing with some fear in my voice about how insignificant I am, I think it’s the only time we sound significant. Isn’t that weird?

Coyne is right; it is the fear in his voice that makes songs like “It Overtakes Me” work. That fear is what listeners connect with because they recognize they have also felt that way, which is why it makes sense for Coyne to believe these songs are the only time the band is notable. At some point or another, everyone has thought about his or her place on earth and whether it is meaningful or not, and this song depicts those thoughts flawlessly through Coyne’s vocal qualities.

“I’m Afraid of Dying...Aren’t You??” is a B-side to “It Overtakes Me” and continues along the same train of thought, but goes about the idea in a much different way. Interestingly, “I’m Afraid of Dying...Aren’t You??” uses the same guitar riff first seen in the first section of “It Overtakes Me.” The vocal is cold and robotic, which along with the closing organ and synthesizer, gives the song a desolate, bare feel instead of the comfort gained from the ending of “It Overtakes Me.” However, there are twinges of hope in the song when Coyne sings, “I walked alone, thinking of death/A thousand doomed galaxies exploded over my head/The thought of all/The things I’d done/A thousand new galaxies had only just begun.” Even though a thousand galaxies had just ended, the circle begins again because a thousand new galaxies took their place. Then the robotic vocal asks, “Why am I?,” bringing us back to pondering the meaning of our lives.

A beautiful keyboard and organ part constructs the melody of “Goin’ On.” The song, by The Flaming Lips’ standards, is simple, and without many electronic elements. The lyrics express a kind of resilience, but also surrendering to anguish. Coyne explains the song: “I think this song hints at that sort of acceptance that we talked about earlier. Those elements that we’re not trying to fight our way through the despair anymore, it’s just this element of darkness, some element of anxiety that you just accept and hopefully just sort of move on from there.” The verses and chorus describe the resilient nature of people: “We hold our breath ‘till the morning comes/And at last the sun shines through/But the night’s so hard that it seems impossible/But what else can we do,” which describes the submission to despair and anguish. Then, “Listen, you’ll hear it/We’re gettin’ near it/It’s comin’, I can feel it/Cause I know we’re gonna win/Listen, you’ll hear it/We’re gettin’ near it/I know I really fear it/But we pretend it’s just another day,” and finally, “We tell ourselves it’s all just normal/Till the worst of it is gone/And you give up/And you give up/And you just can’t take it/How we keep goin’ on.” Steven Drozd talks about the subtleties of the positive nature of the song as well: “It’s supposed to be this downer record, then you get this uplifting that actually happens at the end of the song because it’s all minor key and the last chord is a bit of a lifting. [...] The very last chord goes up to a D major.” “Goin’ On” has a hopeful message about not forgetting, but moving ahead in life after struggling with some kind of tragedy.

Taken from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “Do You Realize??” encompasses the issues of life, death, and love, all in a three minute song. Right from the opening notes, “Do You Realize??” has a happy, optimistic tone, but also has hints of melancholy moments. The song is comprised mainly of strumming from an acoustic guitar, with a few thumps from a bass drum, and a wonderfully played bass line at the end. Coyne’s vocal has a childlike quality to it, as if he is seeing all of this from a new perspective and noticing it for the first time, with the innocence of a child. The first line, “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face,” speaks towards love for someone, whether it’s for a lover, child, or friend. “Do you realize that happiness makes you cry” points out the odd contradictions that are present in life; both happiness and sadness, complete opposites, cause the same human reaction. These contradictions are also prevalent in The Flaming Lips’ music, even their saddest songs somehow have optimism and happiness in them. Coyne has also noticed this phenomenon:

There’s a constant flow of people sending us either letters or people coming up to me at shows that we play talking about the impact of the song “Do You Realize??” and the many uses I’ve seen for it being a part of these significant moments in people’s lives. There is something about it being used in a, it’s a very sad song, but it’s also a very happy song. I’ve had people use it at weddings. This is supposed to be the happiest moment of your life, and I think it works perfectly for that. There’s a lot of these great, poignant things that are sort of mentioned in the song. [...] But, there’s also a lot of people who have come up and said at their father’s funeral or their son’s funeral, this was the song that they used as the theme. And, again, I think it works perfectly in that context too, ‘cause it reminds you that life is short and the good times, it’s hard to make them last.

The most potent line in the song is, “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die.” Death of all your loved ones is not often thought about, but the way the idea is presented in “Do You Realize??” is not distressing; it is actually touching because the message of the song is to take advantage of life. This tone is continued with the next lines, “And instead of saying all of your goodbyes/Let them know/You realize that life goes fast/It’s hard to make the good times last.” Coyne also stresses that is the message he is trying to get across in this song, “And, especially to embrace the moment, to be like, ‘Remember the thing that we’re doing right now counts and this is all going away.’” The song emphasizes that you should not wait until the last minute to express your love for people, instead, do it every day, at every chance you get because you never know when it could be your last.

The direction The Flaming Lips have chosen to take musically and lyrically has been a great choice for them, both in terms of record sales and in terms of how their songs relate to people now. Coyne has also noted this, stating, “When it comes to music, the most powerful thing is to be honest. I realized that I had nothing to lose by telling the truth. I stopped caring so much about what people might think if I sung about love and humanity. I thought, fuck it - I think those are my strongest songs, too. And it's the best thing that ever happened to me.” Like Coyne’s realization that the fear in his voice makes songs such as “It Overtakes Me” work, he is also correct in his observation that the songs in which he writes about life, death, and love are his and the band’s best.

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Old 11-06-2007, 08:38 AM   #2
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good on you for posting- looks like you put lots of thought and energy into it.

in my experience it helps to give people here a little more access into what specifically you wish to discuss. most people here are going to be a bit overwhelmed by such a long post, probably even on a Flaming Lips board...

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Old 11-06-2007, 02:38 PM   #3
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Originally posted by dr. zooeuss
good on you for posting- looks like you put lots of thought and energy into it.

in my experience it helps to give people here a little more access into what specifically you wish to discuss. most people here are going to be a bit overwhelmed by such a long post, probably even on a Flaming Lips board...
You're probably right; I'm not expecting much of anything in the way of responses. But, I am curious about what people think of my writing in general, what you like, what you don't, what could be improved on, things of that nature.
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Old 11-06-2007, 10:26 PM   #4
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I'll reply to this more in depth later, I gotta go to sleep now.

Can't beat the F'Lips.
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