Passage Of Time Be Damned: The Flaming Lips’ Live Show Was A Cause For Genuine Celebration
The Flaming Lips cannot be denied.
Twenty years ago I was living in a dusty small town in Queensland that has recently been made headlines because the Australian government is trying to deport a Tamil family from there – Biloela.
The internet hadn’t reached us and music was whatever we heard on the local radio. Destiny’s Child had released ‘Jumpin’ Jumpin’’ and it was my jam. I too wanted to leave my man at home — even though I didn’t realise I was gay.
It was around this time — the dawn of the last millennium — when weird Oklahoma band The Flaming Lips released their ninth studio album, The Soft Bulletin. The work was a departure from their previous, heavy-riffed albums. It’s an album that — while timeless — makes most sense when considered of its time, the late ’90s. It’s an album that feels like a goodbye and a greeting. It is wonder and loss, science and art, humanity and machine.
I didn’t find the album until ten years after its release. I was nineteen, living in suburban Brisbane; depressed, unemployed and eating my step-dad’s Tramadols. It was in this, my year of rest and relaxation, that I stumbled across The Soft Bulletin.
The album caught me at the right time. Had I listened even a few months earlier, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. A few months later and I would have been on to something different. I had also stumbled across Kurt Vonnegut and Neil Young, and this weird band felt like a marriage of the two. That year they played Splendour in the Grass. I didn’t get to see them, but my friends told me they emerged out of huge plastic vaginas. I thought that was cool.
Last night they performed for the album’s 20th anniversary. My brother and I shoved our chips and burgers into our mouths before heading into the Arts Centre. I was already excited: I’m coming into an age where realising seated gigs are a thrilling prospect. Looking around, the other gig-goers were mostly older white men. I texted my boyfriend, “This crowd is not my people.”
Wayne Coyne emerged on stage wearing a white, tight suit with a black leather harness on top. His wild hair had streaks of white amongst the grey. He implored the crowd to be as “fucking crazy as you can be”, before telling us that we were going to “make something special happen.”
Despite the several calcified layers of cynicism I’ve grown since I was nineteen, Coyne and The Flaming Lips were right. Something special did happen. Part of that was due to the design and performance elements – the lighting was explosive. A giant balloon spelling out ‘Fuck Yeah Melbourne’ was walked on stage and thrown onto the crowd. Giant balloons and confetti shot into the audience. My favourite breakdowns were even more spectacular, brought to life by the two drum kits on stage. And Coyne’s voice is still beautiful, in a weird way.
I found myself drifting to existentialism. Looking around at the crowd, I wondered: where were they 20 years ago, when this album came out? What has changed? What has stayed the same? That feeling was only amplified by the fact that the band would never have performed at Hamer Hall 20 years ago.
The places they would have performed 20 years ago have all been shut down. More existentialism: where will I be in 20 years? Where the fuck did my last ten years go? What’s the point of it all? Just as I looked ready to plummet into the dread, Coyne’s delight would pull me back up, and I was swaying and closing my eyes, and shout-singing the words.
But this pendulum swing between joy and existential dread was itself the embodiement of Soft Bulletin. And despite my best efforts, cynicism made way for joy and whimsy. Don’t we all need that sometimes? The world, as Coyne pointed out, is full of suffering. Isn’t a moment of joy worth holding on to? For a brief window, I didn’t care who these white men voted for, I didn’t care the white dude two rows ahead was obnoxious; we were having a shared human experience. These were not my people. But thanks to one album, they were.
Nayuka Gorrie is a writer based in Naarm. They tweet at @nayukagorrie.