A few reactions to Prodigy's controversial song, "Smack My Bitch Up":
"It doesn't mean anything."
"It's just hype. This is exactly what they want."
"It's offensive, rude."
"It's saying that violence against women is okay."
"It's no different than [Meredith Brooks'] song 'Bitch.'"
"To them it means to get excited, to get psyched up. It's a totally different thing."
"It means hit your dog or your woman, at least according to everyone
I've ever spoken to. Nothing else."
All week I've been soliciting comments about Prodigy's
"Smack My Bitch Up." I've heard the song so many times now, the
bass-burp thudding beat, the space echo loops, the electronically manipulated lyric -- "Change my pitch up/ Smack my bitch up" -- that I feel like Malcolm McDowell's character in "A Clockwork Orange," forced to watch/hear the same numbing scene over and over until the very sight and sound of it should make me nauseous.
The only thing is, the cure hasn't worked. You see, I like the song. On the one hand, it's a masterful, propulsive techno track whose lyrics are just a yammering, mindless addition to the relentless sonic wash, rendered meaningless by sheer repetition. (Say the phrase "drop my pencil" fifty times.)
On the other hand, although I feel confident that I'm smart enough to know this song is not a license to abuse women, I'm reminded every day that there are plenty of losers out there who might not know better.
The song, which uses an eight-word sample from the
underground hip-hop group the Ultramagnetic MC's 1988 track "Give the Drummer Some," laid over a frenetic, driving electronic beat, is not new. It has always been on the English quartet's breakthrough album, The Fat Of The Land, which was released six months ago.
The album, with "Smack My Bitch Up" as the lead off track, was available at any Wal-Mart or Kmart until the controversy broke the week before last. Spokespeople at those stores now claim that they thought they were only carrying versions of the album with the word "bitch" censored from the cover art (though even if that had been the case, they still would have been selling albums that contained the offending song).
The literal interpretation of the lyric, which, despite the band's protestations, I do think can
be taken as encouraging violence towards women,
unfortunately is not new either. In fact, much stronger anti-woman statements have been a part of popular (and not so popular) music for centuries. Jimi Hendrix sang that he "shot his
woman down," after finding her "messin' with another man" in his remake of the garage rock classic, "Hey Joe."
"Down by the river," Neil Young sang on a late '60s album, "I shot my baby." And before Hendrix or Young, the songs of country, folk and blues artists contained such sentiments. "I'm gonna leave you woman/ Before I commit a crime," sang the great blues man Howlin' Wolf in a song, "Commit A Crime," in which he claimed his woman was trying to poison him.
During this decade, rappers N.W.A. ran afoul of women's groups with songs like "Findum,
Fuckem & Flee" and "She Swallowed It," from their 1991 album
Efil4zaggin. Rapper Ced Gee (Cedric
Miller), told me this week that his Ultramagnetic MC's partner Kool Keith (Keith Thornton), who originally improvised the lyrics to "Give the Drummer Some" during a recording session a decade ago, "wasn't trying to say anything."
In the UMC's version of the song, which never reached even a
fraction of the more than a million and a half mainstream record buyers who've
bought Prodigy's album in the U.S., Keith raps "Smack my bitch up/ Like a pimp," the meaning of which seems irrefutable.
"The band [Prodigy] are trying to say it means something else," a veteran daily newspaper journalist who covers the music beat told me Friday. "That's like saying red means blue.
I don't know one kid out there who thinks it means 'to get excited,' or
any of the explanations [Prodigy] have given. It means hit your dog
or your woman, that's what it means in America. Maybe it means
something different in England, but I have yet to hear that from
In an interview conducted this past summer, Liam Howlett, Prodigy's
leader, told Addicted To Noise, "...if they think that song is
about smacking girlfriends up, then they're pretty brainless." Right,
in the same way that anybody who saw "Pulp Fiction" and snorted
a line of heroin big enough to stop their heart is brainless. Or
anybody who saw a story on racist skinheads
on the news magazine "20/20" last week and went out to get a
swastika tattoo is brainless.
What if Howlett had produced a song that said "smack my kike up," or
"smack my black up?" Would that have been as easy for him to dismiss? Of
course he didn't, and the UMC's didn't rap those lines either, although "Give the Drummer Some" contains plenty of even more explicitly
misogynist and homophobic sentiments.
Howlett lifted the phrase and placed it amidst his frenzied beats to speak for itself. He argues that anyone with half a brain knows it's
not a call to violence. But what of those who are "brainless?"
Kurt Cobain complained that Nirvana's "Rape Me," (censored to "Waif Me"
at many of the same major chain stores that pulled Prodigy's album) was misunderstood by hooligans who saw his searing anti-rape tune as a call to woman-violating arms. Sublime's "Date Rape" had the same effect on knuckleheads who were too thick to understand that its an anti-rape song. But the Prodigy's song doesn't use an attention-grabbing title to deliver a message that hitting women is wrong. The entire lyric is simply "Change my pitch up/ Smack my bitch up." Not much there to work with.
Other artists just as mainstream (or even more mainstream) than Prodigy have been censored. Michael Jackson was pressured to remove the phrase "kick me, kike me" and the phrase "Jew me, sue me" from "They Don't Care About Us," which appeared on a recent greatet hits album.
A hip-hop insider I spoke with this past week, who asked to remain anonymous, cited "dozens" of instances when rappers were told to remove anti-Semitic or racist language from their albums. Some years back, Time-Warner, the same company that owns a 50 per cent stake in Maverick, Prodigy's U.S. label, was pressured to remove Ice-T's "Cop Killer" from the Body Count album, and later to drop their stake in Death Row Records distributor Interscope after numerous complaints about Death Row rappers' violent and misogynist lyrics. Thus far Time-Warner has not publicly asked Prodigy to create a a version of the song without the offending lyric. Is there a double standard then when it comes to misogyny vs. racism?
A colleague of mine suggested three ways to look at the situation: 1) the song
is meant to create hype, something the Prodigy are experts at, nothing more;
2) It is a cleverly-coded anti domestic violence message,
driven home by the sheer mindless repetition and absurdity of
knowingly releasing such an incendiary song; or 3) It promotes violence
towards women, period.
I think it's all three, but something else as well: a great recording.
My fiancee and I have been quoting the lyric in a joking, sing-song way on and off for months now, belting it out on the way to the car, while cleaning the house, etc., and not once have we been incited to violence against each other or anyone else.
And while my girlfriend doesn't care for the lyric, her way to deal with it has been to mock it. I, on the other hand, hadn't ever taken the time to actually think about what the words were until the controversy hit.
I agree that the song is offensive to women. I understand that. And I certainly don't condone violence of any sort. But I still like "Smack My Bitch Up." Such are the ambiguities of life. [Sun., Dec. 14, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]