In an attempt to top his never-ending parlor tricks, The Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne dressed in drag—an outfit that matched Stephen King’s Carrie, to be specific—in an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly. It was a rerun of a 11/12/13 episode, and the Carrie costume was a Halloween costume that Coyne wore at a “Halloween Blood Bath” Flaming Lips tour stop at The Greek Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, in Los Angeles. Some may call it a “tour-de-force” and “revolutionary” performance, but I ended up yawning a lot, and I eventually shut the performance off halfway through. I’ve seen my share of “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” performances, from The Lips, and others, and this was just another one.
“What did you expect from a group that has the word flaming in their name?” those that may think that I was turned off by the shock of a drag performance might ask. I didn’t expect anything different, I answer. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s the point that our performance artists have so deluged us with shocking performances that we’re no longer shocked by them, and we’re all coming back to the point where we want the material back, and the shock and awe performances cause us all to yawn a little.
It may have something to do with the fact that I’m old, and I’ve witnessed “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” moments from David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Madonna, and Prince, and I now demand that “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” material accompany “revolutionary” and “tour-de-force” performances. It may have something to do with the fact that The Lips, Of Montreal, Lady Ga Ga, Miley Cyrus, and Britney Spears aren’t trying to shock me, because I’ve already been shocked so often that my brains are scrambled, and I’m desensitized to it all, but one would think that the demographic they seek, the characteristically nonplussed young ones, aren’t easily shocked anymore either. They’ve grown up in an era of every artist playing king of the mountain in this shocking shell game, and they’re yawning and changing the channel on these performances as often as I am.
Those that have already found their formula for success in music, usually advise up and comers that the path to success has no pamphlet or road map. You simply have to carve a niche for yourself, they say. This doesn’t appear to be true in music. While there may not be a pamphlet, or road map, to success, there are advisers that have studied other paths to the top, and they advise those artists, of which they usually have a vested interest, to shock. If you don’t have the material —and most of those that make today’s headlines don’t— play with a snake on stage, wear a meat dress, insult America, tongue and twerk, or tell people that you hate America, Republicans, or you’re mom, and you will want to carve out sometime in your life for a stint in rehab … whether you actually need it or not. Unfortunate for most upcoming musical artists, this has all culminated in what most semi-talented artists should fear, the idea that something shocking will no longer be shocking to the yawners that are now turning their performance off halfway through.
The less flamboyant, creative peak of the Flaming Lips occurred somewhere around the Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and The Soft Bulletin era. There were some bright spots in the albums before and after these two albums, but few Lips’ aficionados would argue the fact that we are now on the downside of their creative peak. If that’s true, then Coyne and company appear to be doing whatever they have to do to remain viable. This isn’t to say that they’re making bad music, but those of us that were fans of the Lips prior to Transmissions, have such huge expectations. Each album appeared to be leading to that one great album, and The Lips delivered, giving us two seminal albums: one crunchy, weird, glam rock, and the other bleak and blissful. Each of them captured the range, that Lips’ aficionados saw glimpses of in all of the prior albums, but there’s something about being an aficionado that leads one to believe that these upward arcs will continue ad infinitum. They rarely do, and they didn’t in the case of The Flaming Lips.
Hard-core fans also don’t see an official end to that peak. Hard-core fans don’t read one book, watch one movie, or listen to one album and officially declare that it’s all over. They give that artist a chance in the future based on what they’ve done in the past, and they keep on doing this, until they begin to notice a trend with that artist. That trend is not immediately apparent either. It usually takes about three to four lackluster productions for their hope to begin to wane. Even hard-core fans know that these things end, but they’re not prepared to make it official, until they’ve exhausted all belief.
The “He’s dressed like Carrie!” introduction to the taped concert performance of The Flaming Lips brought an official end to the brilliantly creative era of The Flaiming Lips to my mind. Having never been introduced by a major talk show host, I don’t know it to be factually true that an artist has a hand in how they’re introduced, but I have to imagine that Carson Daily’s people went to The Lips people and asked them how they’d like to be introduced. If that’s true, it’s a sad statement that they didn’t want the brunt of their intro to call attention to the single they would be playing, or the album from which that single sprang. It’s a sad statement that they asked that the greater attention be paid to something superficial like Wayne Coyne’s outfit, regardless what that outfit was.
Anyone that has attended a Flaming Lips show knows that they are almost peerless in their presentation. The group goes balls out to provide their fans one of the best concerts currently available on the market. After three songs, at a music fair in Wisconsin, one guy turned to me and said, “This is the greatest show I’ve ever seen in my life.” I wasn’t sure if I was as deliriously impressed as he was, or if I was simply delirious from the contact high I received from other concert goers, but that Lips show elicited a sense of euphoria that this long-time concert goer had never experienced.
This concert combined shocking your sensibilities, and overturning conventions, with all of the great Flaming Lips material I have grown to love. The “He’s dressed like Carrie,” intro signaled to me that The Flaming Lips concentration is no longer focused on the material but shocking your sensibilities and overturning your conventions.
Kiss’ act, in the 70’s, was full of parlor tricks, as was Queen’s, David Bowie’s, and Marc Bolan’s, but for the most part these groups shocked sensibilities, and overturned conventions, at the peak of their career. The Flaming Lips appear to be reaching a peak in their shock, with their creative peak long since passed. You can still attend an incredible concert from the Flaming Lips, as it will contain all their greatest hits to remind you of the diverse and impressive catalog they have, and you’ll get their unconventionally shocking moments, but you’ll probably be taking breaks from your delirious euphoria when they start playing their new stuff.