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Musical Space: The Flaming Lips

Bella Union Records

Market forces have made it hard for musical innovators to succeed. And then there are The Flaming Lips, who have been able to thrive in the post-digital landscape while creating and delivering music completely on their own terms.

And their success is probably because of the epic scope and sheer goofiness of their artistic vision. How epic? How goofy? Here is some substantiating evidence:

Exhibit A is The Flaming Lips’ stage show. Lead singer Wayne Coyne makes his entrance by crowd-surfing inside a human-sized hamster ball. Fans are invited to dance on the stage wearing animal costumes. Or sometimes Santa Claus costumes. Or sometimes naked. And instead of the usual, bellicose pyrotechnics that most bands use, there is confetti-- lots and lots of confetti.

Exhibit B is The Flaming Lips' marketing strategy, which seems to have become an artistic endeavor in itself. Some of my favorite items from their online store include a limited edition edible gummy skull with an embedded usb drive containing their songs, and a commemorative pillowcase celebrating their breaking the Guinness World Record for most concerts in a 24-hour period, July 28, 2012.

The item which makes the most personal connection to their fans is probably the limited edition transparent vinyl version of the 2012 release Heady Fwends, which contains a visible infusion of the blood of the musicians.

Exhibit C is their musical experiments. The band is continually breaking out of the rock band template into what would have to called conceptual art. The parking lot experiments, for example, used up to 40 cassette recordings to be played simultaneously on car stereos. These experiments culminated in 1997’s album Zaireeka-- four disks meant to be played on four CD players at the same time. In 2011 they released a six-hour-long song, and Halloween of that year saw the release of a 24-hour-long song, for which they created a special website.

The Flaming Lips have become icons of vanguard thinking; Coyne is now featured in Virgin Mobile’s “retrain your brain” ad campaign. And that makes me think that the radical might still have a place in popular music.

This commentary originally ran June 11, 2013

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.