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Monday, May 31, 2010

"Turn It On"/"Cut Your Hair"



Imagine this: it's 1994. You're moderately fascinated by the whole idea of "indie rock," which is about to crest faster than the hair metal it was allegedly going to replace. Right now, though, it looks like it's about to take over the world; what you don't know is that in five years Pavement will be as dead as Kurt Cobain's about to be and a record contract will no longer be a matter of just seeming alternative cred-ish enough. As a dutiful, zeitgeisty representative of your generation, you're watching MTV. Beavis and Butthead are on, and they're mocking a guy with orange hair who's singing about jelly. That song will become a novelty single, and The Flaming Lips will, for a long time, seem like one-hit wonders.

But realize this: Beavis and Butthead are the audience college rock wants to evangelize, and they're the reason Stephen Malkmus never took over the world. They're aware that there's this thing going on called "college music," and they're appropriately dubious about it. This video's beyond brilliant; it's the final word on the subject. B&B sway along; 35 seconds in, Butthead stops swaying. "Uh-oh," he says, "I think this is 'college music.'" "Yeah," agrees Beavis; "you can tell because that dude has orange hair." Spot-fucking-on; plus you can also tell "because they're in a field." And Butthead comes in one more time for the kill: "How come he keeps singing about these people he knows? Who gives a rat's ass." Beavis starts mocking the song: "I know a guy! His hair is orange! He sucks!" It's about as succinct an attitude as you could have to the most self-righteous proponents of indie rock at the time: why are they singing nonsense? Why do they think their music is inherently special? Why are they on MTV, right next to Metallica?

"She Don't Use Jelly" is a totally decent song as far as it goes, which is to say it should be annoyingly "quirky" but is just crunchy and fun enough to get away with it. As it happened, Beavis and Butthead mocking it was the best thing that had happened to the Lips' career at that point, pushing the band to a new level of fame/temporary record label security. They ended up on "Beverly Hills 90210," and Warner Bros. kept trying to cross-platform them in the oddest places: it's safe to say "Bad Days" didn't belong in Batman Forever (not that anything deserved that fate), nor "Buggin'" in Austin Powers. But it's not the most obvious single on the album; that would be "Turn It On," a better song that's worth thinking about at length. [For the purposes of this argument, I'm basically going to have to ignore everything the Lips did before 1993 or after 2002. Deal with it.]

Generally speaking, Wayne Coyne is a weird but far from impenetrable lyricist; he's singing about superficially outre subjects (girls fighting robots, beestings), but he's always transparently thinking about maintaining mental optimism in a world of mortality and evil; it's Camus for indie rockers. He doesn't normally peddle satire or oblique lyrics. But "Turn It On" is sly mokcery, and thus kind of an anomaly in the catalogue; normally, Coyne is neither oblique nor mean-spirited. It's a kick-ass song, which doesn't hurt, but it's also a promo for the band.

"Turn It On" is the first song on Transmissions From The Satellite Heart. In the first verse, Wayne's just hanging: "Put your face up to the window," he tells his friend. "Tell me all about your gay folks." Fine (whatever that means). But in the second verse, it gets weird. "Put your face where we can see it/Put it on a show on cable/You can really show it all there/Turn it on when you are able." OK, so: there's an alternative music culture spreading on cable (this is before MTV went to hell) and the Lips want their cut of the money. So as a conscientious cultural consumer, right now the best thing you could do is watch TV; it will enrich you, and most specifically this (carefully unnamed) channel (which you watch "when you ain't got no relation to all those other stations") will push culture forward. This is kind of a horrible, cynical thing to say, and on one level Coyne's kidding (no band that had been playing the label game could've been that naive at that point), but he's also half serious: the band needs you to get them put into rotation. And that's exactly what happened: the song prophecies itself. (There's also the slight but real possibility that The Flaming Lips, like a shocking number of people, were generally optimistic about MTV as a force for cultural good in 1993. That didn't last.)

In retrospect, bands like Mudhoney (Mudhoney!) were supposed to be the beneficiaries and heirs of alt-rock, shaking up the record labels etc. In practice, The Flaming Lips — the last band you'd expect out of the post-Nirvana signings bonanza — toughed it out on a major label and eventually became stoner festival favorites and almost certainly one of the more profitable American touring acts. This is weird; no one in 1993 probably could've seen that one coming. And because of the peculiarly snarky nature of "Turn It On," it slots nicely alongside other meta-dispatches from the music wars. Most specifically: "Cut Your Hair."

I'd heard from someone a long time ago that when Beavis and Butthead watched "Cut Your Hair," they screamed "TRY HARDER"; regrettably, this turned out not to be true. Regardless: "Cut Your Hair" is generally considered the snarkiest meta-song about '90s music, what with all the talk about "special new bands" and the death of metal ("NO BIG HAIR"). But "Turn It On" is even more assaultive: Malkmus is being unusually direct (for him, anyway) but Coyne's pretending to invoke Timothy Leary and trippy alt-culture — in the name of cable airplay. This is a good joke, especially now that the Lips are the career band institution they are.

2 comments:

  1. This post made me glad that I decided to turn the internet on today.

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  2. If I follow, you're saying that part of the reason for the rejection of "college music" by the masses at the time is that it seemed too ordinary, that the stars weren't larger than life and that they're singing about what's familiar to the audience. Funny how that's turned around.

    What's also funny is that it was around this time that MTV started moving from music to lifestyle programming to reflect the audience. THE REAL WORLD began in 1992, and ROAD RULES followed in 1994. I remember reading in Billboard or somewhere at the time that MTV was making a big shift toward concentrating on showing the viewers. (Think WANNA BE A VJ and Jesse Camp.)

    You're right that getting cable airplay at the time was of enormous importance. Radio would follow MTV, and the cable network set aside places for this stuff to be heard (120 MINUTES, ALTERNATIVE NATION). Getting into rotation with the Buzz Bin tag was a huge boost for bands that otherwise wouldn't be touched by mainstream radio. Eventually the imitators started taking these slots, and MTV lessened its focus on playing music videos, but it was an exciting time when access to "alternative rock" was fairly limited beyond just buying stuff unheard.

    It's also amazing to think that along with Radiohead, Beck, and Green Day, The Flaming Lips are one of the most enduring/commercially successful bands from that time. Can't say I saw any of them having longevity when I was in college. None of them were necessarily one novelty hit wonders like Deadeye Dick, although Beck would have seemed close to it.

    Anyway, good, thoughtful piece.

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