Saturday, May 3, 2014

The magic is gone: I can no longer listen to the Flaming Lips the same way

These are my reflections in response to recent news about The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne's decision to fire their drummer over allegations of anti-Native American racism, as well as Mr. Coyne's other actions, including the decision to post a picture of a dog wearing a Native American headdress.

Dear Mr. Coyne,

When I was in my first year of law school, I visited my friend Mike who was working at a recording studio in Scarborough. He had just finished setting up what he described "the perfect sound system". "You've got to listen to try it out," he urged me, and sat me down in the most acoustically perfect spot in the room. He leaned over to press play on the computer and the most wonderful music flowed out of the speaker. I had never heard music presented in such a manner before. I closed my eyes and let the music caress the space between my ears the way a lover would. It was one of the most memorable music experiences I've ever had, where the moment was defined and made special by absolutely nothing other than the music itself.

That song was "The Spark That Bled" by your band, the Flaming Lips. Mike explained to me that he liked using that song to test out his sound system, because he liked it so much.

I stood up and I said yeah: A fan video of "The Spark That Bled"

I'd been listening to your band long before that perfect music moment. One of my best friends in high school at the time, Bill, was really into the Flaming Lips and he urged me to listen to this "really weird, really awesome" band he discovered. His music taste was pretty good, and I liked what I heard. But I never got fell in love until I listened to those words, "the softest bullet ever shot". After that, I was a convert. I was excited to see you play at Ottawa's Bluesfest, where you arose like a god and seemed to float above the crowd in a giant bubble. Your show was a party, an escape into my childhood's fantasy worlds. Everything was magical. Your music was magical. The experience of listening to you and seeing you in concert was magical. I've now since started my own band and have been trying to re-create that sort of perfect magical musical moment myself.

But with you, that magic is gone now, and I miss it.

I was so sad to read about the latest events. How your friend Christina Fallin posed in a Native American headdress, and astounded by the anger that the photo produced, responded to the people protesting her concert by performing a fake war dance and flipping them off from the stage. And that you were seen pointing and laughing at the protesters. And that you had also responded to the criticism of racism by posting more photos of people and a dog in a headdress. And that you fired your drummer over this issue. I hoped that it wasn't true, and that the journalists had gotten it wrong somehow.

There's an Ontario campaign that asks people where they would draw the line for a political issue. "Your favourite singer assaulted his singer," the campaign asks. "Do you download his latest single?" To be honest, all this time I always thought that it would depend. I thought maybe there would be a way to acknowledge that you disagree with an admired celebrity's personal life while still enjoying their art. But when asked the question: "Your favourite artist disrespects indigenous people. Do you still feel the magic in his music?" the truth is, Mr. Coyne, the magic that I used to feel from your music is now gone, and it has been replaced by a bitter taste in my mouth and a lot of sadness. 

From Draw The Line: 
we have to ask ourselves where we draw the line when it comes to our favourite artists' actions.

I am not Aboriginal, and I do not pretend to speak for indigenous people. I don't pretend that I will ever completely understand their experiences, because their history of oppression is unique and different from mine. But as a woman of Asian descent, I know a thing or two about cultural appropriation, when people show up to Halloween parties labelling your culture as a costume, reducing a rich and beautiful world that you grew up in to a ridiculous stereotype. When they say something stupid like, "Your people are very beautiful, and you are very good at math" and are astounded that you aren't falling over flattered. I have experienced being laughed at by people when I tried to stick up for myself against racism. I have had my outrage dismissed as hyper-sensitivity. Do you know what those people were? They were bullies.

Now when I listen to your music, no matter how much I close my eyes and try to conjure up that perfect first moment, all I see are the faces of all those people that laughed at me for being a weird Asian kid, and for some reason - perhaps irrationally, I know - I see your face there too.

Do you at any point take a step back, look at where you are and what you are doing, and wonder, "How did I get to be here, on the side of things where I am laughing at people that have been historically oppressed for centuries? Supporting people who flip them off? How did I get to be that guy?" I hope you are reflecting on this rather than just reacting. I would have liked to have thought that you'd be an ally rather than a bully, but there's nothing that can be done now to bring that magic back. I can no longer listen to your music with the same wonder.