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While Beck played it cool, the Flaming Lips were hot.

Lips Service

Rock critics can't help themselves when it comes to groups like the Flaming Lips

By Gina Arnold

IT IS A CURIOUS thing about public transport, but whether you're on the Paris Metro, the San Jose Light Rail or BART, you can always tell who's headed to that night's big rock concert and who is merely going home from work. The men in business suits with laptops and glasses are probably not on their way to riotous revels. The thickset guys with baseball caps and polo-neck jerseys are probably not about to rock. The chatty Hispanic mothers and the young women with the giant backpacks are not going to dance their asses off.

Last Wednesday night, however, the people on BART who were wearing fuzzy bunny ears were very likely on their way to see the Flaming Lips and Beck at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. I'd have laid money on it. And if I had been really on the ball--had seen the first night of the tour stop or otherwise been in touch with the situation--I too would have worn a fake fur bonnet, a head band with tiger stripes or possibly even a tail.

You see, the Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands. And apparently the Lips--who are known for cheap but effective stage décor--had invited 50 or so of their fans to dress up in animals suits and cavort around onstage waving tiny spotlights at the audience. People who knew this in advance had worn their bunny ears so as to be in solidarity with the theme--and talk about a festive atmosphere! Between the costumes and the giant balloons that wafted throughout the Paramount, the show gave forth the aura of a birthday party for a fairy queen, a pinky-green friend-fest that blended band and audience into one holistic love ball.

It was lovely, I thought--a really wonderful moment in rock. And yet the part of me that is a critic also felt that there are probably people who wouldn't have appreciated the festivities, who would have found the fuzzy bunny suits frivolous or worse, and who wouldn't have been able to understand the Lips' inherently nice artistic and musical vision.

The only people who become rock critics are a certain class of people who love music that is made in their own mental image. Thus, although not all rock critics look like Elvis Costello--I certainly don't--they do all love him, just as they all love the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Wilco, Beck and the Flaming Lips. Other jobs might attract a consensus, but none as much as rock criticism: there simply isn't a group of working critics that will willingly embrace the work of Britney Spears or Bon Jovi. There's no cabal of movers and shakers behind the careers of Linkin Park and Creed. There's no one defending the antics of Sum 41. And yet these acts sell millions, while the Becks and the Lips of the world sell, well, thousands.

It's curious and perplexing. Are critics "right" in their assessment, then, or is the marketplace more correct? Essentially, this question cuts to the heart of American thought. It's almost--not quite, but almost--not going too far to say that one's stance on the topic will determine one's political and musical preferences. Republicans, who believe that the marketplace is paramount, like bands like Brit and Bon, while Democrats, who believe that critics have some credence, like the Velvets and the Flaming Lips.

I have no solid data on the topic, but I very much doubt there were any Republicans in attendance at the Lips/Beck concert at the Paramount last Wednesday night. There were, however, lots of people wearing fuzzy animal headgear and jumping up and down like maniacs to "She Don't Use Jelly" and "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots." In reality, the Lips' set was a little bit muddy and confusing, thanks to the melee of "manimals" onstage and the general Lipsy mayhem (both sonically and visually, the band is the angelic first cousin to the evil Butthole Surfers). And yet, speaking philosophically, the crowding of the stage was the first really democratic event I have ever experienced in such a venue. Beck, by comparison, was pretentious and pensive, a lone, chilly presence on the vast darkened stage. There's no question he's talented, and his wonderful solo rendition of the Lips' own "Do You Realize" was a generous gesture, since it merely highlighted what a great songwriter Wayne Coyne is. But beyond that, I found him cold and portentous.

The Flaming Lips may not sell millions or speak to the inner fuzzy bunnies of most people, but what they do speak of is, in its own gentle way, as deep as anything you'll ever hear.


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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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