catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 14 :: 2003.07.04 — 2003.07.17


Fighting for a lost cause

When the Apostle Paul explained the radical hope offered by Christ?s resurrection in 1 Corinthians, he was not preaching specifically to the most influential rock?n?roll artists of our time. But Paul?s words could easily be applied to such artists today. The bitter-sweet futility of The Flaming Lips, the defeatism of Beck?s newest album and Radiohead?s gloomy view of the future certainly suggests Paul?s words of hope are still as foreign to our culture as they were to that of the early Corinthian church.

The Flaming Lips? celebrated 2002 release, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

, is a sad continuation of 1999?s slightly more comical The Soft Bulletin. The tragic sense of both albums is evident, though, in a lyrical stress on the insurmountable obstacles human beings face and the heavy burden of living with the constant threat of death. For The Flaming Lips, life seems to be about persisting in a constant battle even though there doesn?t seem to be much hope of victory in the end.

In The Soft Bulletin, the race for the prize is undermined by man?s mortality. In the end, we?re left only with multiple question marks (as many as four in a row in the printed lyrics of ?Waitin? for a Superman?). All that?s left is to keep on keeping on. This is the message of ?The Gash?:

Is that gash in your leg really why you have stopped? Cause I?ve noticed all the others, though they?re gashed, they?re still going. Cause I feel like the real reason that you?re quitting is that you?re admitting that you?ve lost all the will to battle on. Will the fight for our sanity be the fight of our lives now that we?ve lost all the reasons that we thought that we had. Still the battle that we?re in rages on ?til the end. With explosions wounds are open, sights and smells, eyes and noses, but the thought that went unspoken was understanding that you?re broken. Still the last volunteer battles on, battles on, battles on?

For the Flaming Lips, ?life without death is just impossible? (?Feeling Yourself Disintegrate?). Therefore, it?s of utmost importance to realize that life is ending, that we?re disintegrating, but to maintain the will to live.

This bleak view of life as a futile battle continues in Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. The album begins with a call to fight the evil robots and a hopeful attitude that Yoshimi is up to the challenge. The battle, accompanied by cheering spectators, gets played out explicitly in the musical squeaks, screams and heavy drums of ?Yoshimi Battles the Robots pt. 2.? Following this battle, however, the questions begin, culminating in a sentimentalizing of the entire struggle in ?Do You Realize???

do you realize?that everyone you know someday will die?
instead of saying all of your goodbyes?let them know you realize that life goes fast it?s hard to make the good things last you realize the sun doesn?t go down it?s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ?round

From this strange counsel we are led into ?All We Have is Now,? the final song featuring an illogical meeting with a man from the future who pronounces the over-all futility of the fight.

he was me from a dimension torn free of the future ?we?re not gonna make it? he explained how the end will come?you and me were never meant to be part of the future?all we have is now?all we?ve ever had was now?

Following this heavy thought, The Flaming Lips end the album with ?Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon (Utopia Planitia),? an end credits-type instrumental piece that closes the album on a note of detachment.

This detachment from the sincere sadness of the rest of the album seems to be characteristic of the Flaming Lips, as Beck found out on a recent combined tour with the band. Beck asked the Flaming Lips to be his backing band because he thought their musical vision and strange sincerity/humor mix would give his new sad songs an interesting twist. Throughout the tour, Beck would finish a particularly sincere song only to be harangued by members of the band with ?Good one, Beck? through a megaphone or various other jokes to break up the heavy mood.

During this most recent leg of the tour without the Lips, Beck has clearly been influenced by his experience with the band. During a June, 2003 show in Chicago, Beck covered ?Do You Realize,? which fit perfectly with Beck?s other songs of abandonment and loss from the Sea Change album. The perspective of Beck?s newest album seems consistent in many ways with that of the Flaming Lips in their most recent work. On ?Golden Age,? Beck says:

Put your hands on the wheel/Let the golden age begin/Let the window down/Feel the moonlight on your skin/Let the desert wind/Cool your aching head/Let the weight of the world/Drift away instead

These days I barely get by/I don?t even try

It?s a treacherous road/With a desolated view/There?s distant lights/But here they?re far and few/And the sun don?t shine/Even when its day/You gotta drive all night/Just to feel like you?re ok

These days I barely get by/I don?t even try

Beck?s confession of defeat against overwhelming forces and his desire to let the sadness wash over him speak to the feelings of one who sees no light at the end of the tunnel. If there?s any light at all, Beck observes, it?s a very dim one.

The light seems dim to Radiohead as well, judging from their newest album which is the band?s best work since 1995?s the bends. Hail to the Thief has more of a political edge than previous albums, as the title indicates, but Radiohead?s newest is an extension of familiar themes. The album opens promisingly with a rousing rebuke of an apathetic audience before collapsing into a prolonged description of the daunting nature of the beast they want to avoid?but can?t.

For Radiohead, battling the evil forces of the world requires a certain kind of passive aggression. When Thom Yorke sings ?Someone?s son or someone?s daughter ?Over my dead body on ?Go To Sleep,? he is not defiant. He?s matter of fact. What will be done will be done over his dead body. If there?s no chance in Hell of beating the enemy, what?s left to do but ?go to sleep let this wash over me.? Yorke?s will to escape the violence set upon him is clear in ?I Will? when he says:

I will lay me down in a bunker underground. I won?t let this happen to my children. Meet the real world coming out of my shell with white elephants sitting ducks. I will rise up. Little babies? eyes.

Yorke?s uprising against the devil?s way is not itself a violent one. Yorke wants to fight fire with little babies? eyes, to counter force with passivity. He?s no hero in the usual sense. He?s a sitting duck, a ?moving target in a firing range? (?Scatterbrain?).

Any words of violence, strength or conviction that are seen throughout Hail to the Thief can reasonably be attributed to the bad guys. In keeping with the disturbing passivity of Radiohead?s O.K. Computer, the violent voices and angry guitars are words put into the mouth of the enemy. The enemy says things like ?off with his head? (?Paranoid Android?), ?you will be first against the wall? (?Karma Police?), ?don?t question my authority or put me in the dock?(?2+2=5?), ?Sit down. Stand up?We can wipe you out anytime? (?Sit Down. Stand Up.?). Radiohead won?t be caught dead with these fighting words put in their mouths. Instead, Radiohead chooses a different kind of vengeance. What you get when you mess with Radiohead is a strange mockery of your own quest for dominance. And your ambition makes you look pretty ugly when Radiohead gets done with you.

But what picture do we get of Radiohead in the end? Well, Radiohead comes off looking like the flimsiest of ragdolls, stepped on, trampled, pummeled by ?a force ten gale? (?Scatterbrain?), their wives and children are always in danger, and squealing to the cops only gets them into more trouble (?A Wolf at the Door?). Radiohead?s description of the present state of the world is gloomy, but their suggestion at the end of the album to ?get up go over get up go over & turn this tape off?(?A Wolf at the Door?) ought to be taken very seriously. In fact, where Hail to the Thief stops is where we must begin.

Taking action, though, is made easier with the hope that if one fights, one does not fight in vain. Unfortunately, this hope is not found in the music of The Flaming Lips, Beck or Radiohead?though Radiohead does offer some glimpses of a way out. Such a radical message of hope is present, however, in Paul?s message of resurrection to the Corinthians. These words offer a sharp contrast to the defeatist lyrics of our times by presenting a ?new every morning? zeal that is fueled by the hope of certain victory.

I die every day?I mean that, brothers?just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ?Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed?in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ?Death has been swallowed up in victory.? ?Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:31-32, 51-57)

Paul?s message is a proclamation of the inevitable coming of a different kind of king than the supposed rulers of this day and age. This king is not death itself, but rules over death, and will come like a thief to reclaim what always belonged to Him in the first place. In light of that certain victory, I hope to see Christian artists coming out in response to the despair evident in the work of these musical artists today. The recent work of artists like Beck, bands like The Flaming Lips and Radiohead only remind us of the need for good news in great rock?n?roll both today and for the generations to come.

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