"Smack My Bitch Up" has been around for nearly six months, because it is on their phenomenally successful Fat of the Land album. By releasing it as a single, another mini-controversy has been ignited.
Do these words incite violence against women? Are they even meant to? Well, according to the group, they are not even about women, but refer to an intense experience. This, even in the irony-laden Nineties, is somewhat disingenuous. If the lyrics are meaningless, then they might as well have been "saw your head off". No one seems to quite know what to do about all this. Anyone who says they don't actually want to see posters saying Smack My Bitch Up is an uptight moralist who fails to get the hippest jokes - or even, someone who takes this latest Prodigy wind-up seriously.
I have to say I don't particularly want to see these posters, and I wish that the group could have found other ways to shock that were not so inherently lazy. The confusion over how to react to all this shows that on the whole we would rather accept a certain level of misogyny than be labelled old- fashioned.
The Prodigy manage, then, to have it both ways. They can be outrageous, while at the same time denying that what they are up to actually means anything. They pull the same trick off in their video, which is shot from the point of view of someone on a night out. It is packed with images of drugs, drink, vomit and big breasted strippers. Full of the self-loathing and excesses of the night out in Gary Oldman's film Nil By Mouth, we end up realising that what seems like a gross male fantasy has actually been experienced by a woman.
Makes you think doesn't it? Not really, because the whole point is to make you feel, to make you identify with this long trawl for instant gratification. As Suzie Orbach commented after seeing the video, on Will Self's chat show Something of the Night, it is all about sensation. She found that disturbing sensation is what the music of The Prodigy is all about. That is why they are a far more interesting and musically significant band than Oasis.
As Oasis have degenerated into Dadrock they look more and more daft. Their "come and have a go if you think you are hard enough" stance has been totally blown since they stormed off stage because a plastic bottle was thrown at the knee of the guitarist. This is hardly the stuff of rock 'n' roll legend. The Prodigy meanwhile will do nicely as a band your parents won't understand. The music critics rave over their amphetamine intensity, while at the same time celebrating their glorious pantomime of twisted masculinity. Never mind the lyrics, just feel the beat in which "the dodgy politics [are] flambeed to a crisp". Anyway they are really cuddly chaps, not violent wife beaters.
The ultra-sophisticated have always been able to excuse the misogyny of many music lyrics. From the "hos" and "bitches" of gansta rap to the vile cliches of much rock, what we are hearing, we are told, is a pose, a parody of masculinity, a warped fantasy of power from men whose own sense of themselves is in crisis. To which one can only reply, it's not funny, it's not clever and it's not even particularly new.
There is also, of course, downright prejudice against certain types of music. While it was "classic rock" when Hendrix used to sing about shooting his "old lady", contemporary rappers, we feel, are something far more sinister. To reduce all this to a question of censorship - should this song be banned? - not only misses the point, but increases interest and sales.
Nor do I think it is possible for a mere poster to incite violence. What we have to ask ourselves is a far more complicated question. What level of misogyny is acceptable in the public domain? For while most of us won't care what The Prodigy do at their concerts, we do not want to be confronted with a "Smack My Bitch Up" poster at the bus stop.
The laddification of popular culture which has prevailed for the past five years means that many of our children have grown up in an environment in which it is perfectly normal to see pictures of naked women everywhere, to hear lewd comments about them, to laugh at the more tedious escapades of Chris Evans and generally see men behaving badly.
Laddishness was always more than just a reaction against political correctness, which was always misunderstood, but a flight into a regressive and infantile version of sexual difference at precisely the time when these roles were being challenged.
The elevation of hedonism, the beer and birds, and football and raves, that much laddishness invoked, obscured the reality that in fact an innately reactionary lifestyle was being propagated. It is not surprising, then, that The Prodigy, who brilliantly provide a soundtrack for such hedonism, declare themselves anarchists, but end up resorting to tired-out shock tactics in order to shake things up. There is nothing radical or ground- breaking about flirting with notions of violence against women. Just listen to some blues to hear how it's done in all its gory details.
In many ways the reign of the lad appears to be coming to its own inevitable dead-end. There is no way of moving on; the boorishness has become just boring. Even confused young men realise that they are more complex creatures than such a culture allows.
While Keith and Maxim, Leeroy and Liam strut their stuff chanting "smack my bitch up" until the phrase is just a jumble of syllables devoid of meaning, they may well feel the rush of freedom that the best music creates. But they still have to come down, go home and live in a world where women will not accept being called bitches, or being smacked up, or being told that these boys don't really mean what they say.
If The Prodigy really wanted to shock us they could try saying what they really mean. But that, of course, would be a risk too far.Reuse content