Song of the Day: Flaming Lips, "Race For The Prize"
I have two stories surrounding the above song, which is the opening track on the Flaming Lips' 1999 album The Soft Bulletin.
The first is from when that album was released back in the summer of '99. I was approaching my senior year of high school and preparing myself for the coming onslaught of applying to college. Because I wanted to get into a theater school, I not only had to fill out the usual applications and write essays, but I also had to audition. The audition process was different at each school (remind me to tell you about the time I came unprepared to dance when trying to get into Carnegie Mellon), but it generally involved performing a monologue plus a song or two. According to my voice teacher, song selection was paramount, as you had to be able to show off your various skills as a performer (range, personality, acting chops) without pushing yourself too hard, going too long, or lapsing into clichés. Like many of the decisions you have to make when you're 17 years old, it was very much expressed to me that the quality of the rest of my life hinged on picking the correct piece of music theater nonsense to present to a total stranger.
I was in the process of choosing songs when I wandered into the Music Box in Newport, RI that July. This was the rare time in my life when access, economic means, and sheer volume allowed me to spend roughly 60 percent of my waking life in record stores (I had money and a car, and they were still everywhere), and the Music Box was a regular stop on my family's annual summer trips to the shore. When I first found it in the late '90s, it was a great store, and I have a lot of vivid memories of shopping there (as with most of the music in my life, I can remember exactly what I bought in that place). That July night, after flipping through the same dozen Broadway albums every record store seemed to stock (Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Rent, Camelot, and usually a Sondheim or two, typically Into the Woods or Company), I flipped through the new indie releases and landed on the Flaming Lips.
The Flaming Lips were a big band for me at that point, not so much because they were one of my favorites, but because my adoration for their 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic had lent me what amounted to indie cred (or as much indie cred as one could have in middle school). Everybody had heard their surprise Buzz Bin hit "She Don't Use Jelly," and some of my friends enjoyed the deeper cuts on the album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart (shout out to "Turn It On"), but by the time they released their '95 follow-up, most everybody in the mainstream had moved on. But I tacked Clouds Taste Metallic onto a Columbia House order after liking "Bad Days," their entry on the Batman Forever soundtrack. I still love Clouds Taste Metallic, as it had just the right amount of noise-rock scuzz, rhythmic heft, and psychedelic playfulness.
I was not aware that the Lips had a new album coming out, so The Soft Bulletin was a completely blind purchase for me (though I did like that it had a song that was about Superman). When we exited, I popped it into the family car's CD player, and "Race For The Prize" unfolded. I was immediately enamored of its swirling strings and off-kilter melody, but my mother was not impressed.
"Who is this?" she asked.
"The Flaming Lips," I told her.
"This guy is a terrible singer," she noted. I did not offer protest, as I realized something astounding: In that moment, my mother realized that I could actually make a living as a performer. Like any concerned parent, she had her doubts about my life choices, but listening to Wayne Coyne warble nonsense about rival scientists gave her the confidence that if that guy could do it, certainly her well-trained and disciplined son could.
My other "Race For The Prize" story comes from 2006. I was on assignment at Lollapalooza in Chicago for Spin, which primarily kept me marooned in the press tent interviewing bands in between photo shoots for fashion spreads. One of those subjects was Coyne, whose publicist asked if I wanted to hang out on stage with the band later that afternoon when they played their set. I had a hole in my schedule, so I agreed.
At the time, the Lips were rolling with one of the great live shows on the planet: Coyne regularly walked over the crowd in a sort of hamster ball, sent giant balloons over the audience, shot confetti cannons, and stood flanked by an army of revelers dressed either aliens or Santa Claus (a reference to the then-unreleased but still cultishly-adored Lips film Christmas on Mars). I was drafted as a Santa, and my only instructions were to keep dancing. In a suit that did not breathe and in the oppressive Chicago heat, I was not ready to dance. But as soon as I got a look at the rapturous crowd, and the Lips laced into "Race for the Prize," I lost my damn mind. The opening drum slaps of that song still send me to that place.
As it happens, I had only been dating my now-wife a handful of weeks when I went to Lollapalooza in 2006, but though we hadn't been together that long, I missed her very badly. A few years later we would go to Lollapalooza together as a married couple, where I saw the Flaming Lips again—this time from the comfort of the audience, with my best friend by my side.