"Smack My Bitch Up"
By Jeff Pizek
At a central Illinois truck stop I recently picked up a tape by a man named Larry Pierce. Over slick, bland modern-country stylings, Pierce sings lines like "Corn was made to shuck / And girls were made to fuck" and "If you want me back, we'll get back in the sack / Roll over and I'll fuck you in the rear." The album, Songs for Studs, is on Laughing Hyena, a small Kansas label whose biggest claim to fame is having distributed the first recordings of comedian Jeff "You might be a redneck if..." Foxworthy. Given that context, I suppose it's possible that Pierce considers himself not a misogynist bumpkin but a brilliant parodist of misogynist bumpkins. But since the tape comes to us quietly, without driving Sinead O'Connor off Saturday Night Live or raising Andrea Dworkin's hackles, we'll probably never know.
But no matter which message Pierce is trying to get out, he could take a few PR lessons from a group whose latest "controversial" work is actually far less offensive than his: the Prodigy. Last year the Prodigy was signed to a much-publicized megabuck contract with Maverick, the vanity label Madonna runs under the Warner Brothers umbrella. The group was supposed to be a Trojan horse for bringing electronic dance music into the mainstream, and indeed, its brightly colored freak show has distracted plenty of folks from its hollow center. Perhaps the most extreme example is the third video from the Prodigy's The Fat of the Land, "Smack My Bitch Up," which debuted on MTV in December. Within the week the National Organization for Women protested, criticizing what it characterized as a glamorization of violence against women, and shortly thereafter the clip was yanked off the air.
The video is shot so that we see a night's events through the eyes of the main character. Our protagonist takes a shower, does some blow, goes to a bar, gets piss drunk, starts groping and hitting women, vomits, attacks a man on the toilet, watches some topless dancers, goes home with a stripper, has sex with her--and then looks in the mirror, revealing that we have been following the exploits of a woman all along. Meanwhile, over a droning onslaught of rock-derived blips and mechanized whirs, a robotic voice repeatedly intones, "Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up," a line sampled from a nine-year-old Ultramagnetic MC's album. According to the Prodigy's programming master-mind, Liam Howlett, the song is about "doing anything intensely, like being onstage--going for extreme manic energy." In an interview with Addicted to Noise, he claimed the song was a tribute to hip-hop. "I was into hip-hop and I was into the fact that MC's could rap about anything. They could rap about smacking women up and it'd be just more comical than anything else," he said. "To be honest, people, if they think that song is about smacking girlfriends up, then they're pretty brainless."
"Smack My Bitch Up" is a pretty good video, a jerky, speedy, rainbow-hued blur resembling a commercial for Sony PlayStation. I don't even like the band and yet I felt elated as the clip whizzed by on MTV. It looks like someone getting away with murder: a flashed middle finger goes unscrambled; unclad mammary glands jounce freely. It's clever, off-color, equally offensive to the right and the left. If only for a few seconds, I believed Howlett really was the Firestarter.
But elevating all this naughty fun to the level of social commentary is the oldest, lamest trick in the book. (Remember Jill Sobule's prolesbian anthem, "I Kissed a Girl"? Yeah, me neither.) The Prodigy's benefactor Madonna is intimately familiar with the technique, having made a bundle of cash in the late 80s and early 90s with videos that were too hot for MTV.
MTV has gained extensive experience with spinning controversy since then, and was ready to steer the certain hoopla the Prodigy clip would bring. While touting every airing as a full-scale media event, the network simultaneously distanced itself from the content, running a series of "candid" interviews with people like born-again Christian disco godfather Moby, professional critic masturbators Cornershop, and anarchist frat-party heroes Chumbawamba, whose very denouncements of the video imbued it with a Genuine Sense of Importance. Even Kurt Loder recorded a disclaimer, which he issued menacingly from in front of the trademark MTV News globe, looking for all the world like some dwarfish intergalactic overlord.
"Smack My Bitch Up" is the ultimate embodiment of the stereotype folks like Tipper Gore have long perpetuated about rock videos: vapid, ugly noise accompanied by images of wanton fornication and destruction. But the true pornography here is in the sinuous dance performed by the entertainment establishment, which profited even as it pointed fingers, knowing full well that in ten years, when Chelsea Clinton hosts the 14th "MTV Remembers the 90s" special, "Smack My Bitch Up" will whoosh and sputter alongside "Justify My Love" between ads for zit cream, and no one will bat an eyelash.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.