Pitchfork has this thing that they love to do on Sundays. Most of us utilize this day of freedom to get some errands done, have a nice brunch, go for a walk, catch up on that Hulu backlog…a whole litany of delights at our fingertips. But Pitchfork? The thing that they love to do on Sundays is to dredge up a record from the ’90s, preferably one that was massively popular, highly praised at the time, and still influential today, and hold it up under their withering, puritanical present worldview until it shrivels down to nothing and dies. Yes, Pitchfork is your “one strange friend” or that cousin you never talk about, the one who sits on Reddit all day in their parents basement even though they’re 27. Soon they’re going to have to put a new banner on their site showing dozens of smashed jewel case CDs they found in a box from when they were teenagers, because this is getting to be one of their main kicks; re-thinking the heroes of the past as horrendous, irredeemable villains. And much like those heroes, it’s getting really old and tired.
Which leads us to this past Sunday’s Jesse Dorris hit piece on The Prodigy. Man, we get a whole litany of revisionist villains in this one! To wit:
Seinfield: “Lionized developmentally arrested males who chafed at the inconveniences of their white and almost entirely heterosexual world” (What about Elaine, Jesse? WHAT ABOUT ELAINE?)
Friends: See above, only insert “Phoebe, Rachel and Monica “ in place of “Elaine”
Madonna: Shameless enabler of a song called “Smack My Bitch Up”
Kool Keith: “Scatological” (Since when does being “scatological” prime one for a witch burning? Sheesh)
Rage Against The Machine: We actually agree with this one. They are villains and always have been. Good find, Jesse.
90s UK Acid House: “Carefree hedonism” (Jesse really is no fun, huh?)
Chuck Palahniuk: Breeder of “proto incels”
Dance Music (as a whole): “Male enough to make it in America” (???)
Rock Music (as a whole): “Straight white men with guitars” (Thank you, Jesse. I had no idea. I will never listen to this “rock music” ever again)
Noel Gallagher: Soggy Beatles copycat (easy target there, Jesse. Try punching up a little)
Jonas Åkerland: It seems as if Jesse is actually on MTV’s side when he writes about their banning a Jonas-directed Prodigy vid from daytime rotation. Pitchfork as PMRC? They really are getting close, huh?
The Ramones: They sang of beating on brats with baseball bats!
The Beastie Boys: They only went woke when one of them started dating Kathleen Hanna! Shall we classify this as “No woke, no play tonight”?
And then, of course, there’s The Prodigy. Look, we’re no fans of this band or anything but the only thing separating this review from full-on The Onion satire is that Jesse Dorris doesn’t call out the record’s title, The Fat Of The Land, for fat shaming the Earth. The whole Prodigy story could be summed up as this: Clever young DJ takes the disparate elements of a techno culture that never quite caught on in America and tactfully dumbs them down to a level where they could be understood by people in backward baseball caps, invites some friends with pierced tongues to prance around for visual effect, and momentarily takes over Midwestern stadiums. End of story. But of course this isn’t the end of the tale for Jesse Dorris. The Prodigy must pay. In Dorris’ fevered mind, The Prodigy aren’t just harmless raver kidz out to pop Es and rock a whole bunch of festivals. They’re full-scale oppressors who are finally being drawn and quartered for their litany of evil deeds. And just what deeds are they being bled for, exactly? Well, Jesse takes us on a relentless, 2,000 world inquisition run to find out.
First on J Man’s scroll seems to be the Prodigy track “Smack My Bitch Up”. Look, we get it. It’s offensive. It was offensive when Kool Keith first rapped it, and it was offensive when sampled by these spiky-haired warehouse rave hooligans, too. But, Jesse, did you stop dreaming of viral clicks long enough to consider that being offensive was the whole point? You see, this was the type of thing that sold at the time. From Dr. Dre to Marilyn Manson, shock is what shifted units. The entire point of The Prodigy, after all, was to be massively popular, to transition techno from the dregs of clubland to the Bizkit masses, and with a song like “Smack My Bitch Up” they damn well did it. Plus, in the days when the term “cultural appropriation” didn’t even exist, you can give The Prodigy some credit in shining a spotlight on the more dangerous and demented side of hip hop at a time when Method Man was trading verses with Fred Durst and Ice Cube willingly hopped on a Korn track. This whole “Smack My Bitch Up” thing keeps coming up over the course of his review, as if he just can’t stop being so offended by it, and with every mention Jesse keeps missing the point by wider margins. In one instance he tells the tale of the “newly woke” Beastie Boys demanding The Prods not to perform “SMBU” when they opened for them at some ‘90s festival, and tsk tsk tsks them for playing it anyway in defiance of Ad Rock and Crew. As usual, Jesse has misread this scene as The Prodigy simply acting like juvenile brats throwing middle fingers up at The Beasties. What he doesn’t mention is that during the performance of the song that night The Prodigy spliced in snippets of the pre-woke Beasties rapping lines like, “Her father had AIDS so I shot him in the head” to point out the inherent contradictions at play in their demand. It all goes much deeper than just an offensive song title. But nuance and depth aren’t really what Jesse Dorris is all about. This is a man who deals in stark black and white, claiming that listeners must choose whether this innocuous rave rock ditty was “revolutionary or revolting” while missing the point that a work of art can be BOTH.
Jesse Dorris is also really, really pissed off about something The Prodigy guy once said in a 20-plus year old interview about Public Enemy. Here’s what Mr. Prodigy said. While reading this, keep in mind that this quote has obviously kept Jesse Doris awake for at least 48 hours before typing up his review:
“I’m not into what Chuck D was talking about. I liked it on a dumb level—the beats, the way his voice sounded. I wanted to hear Flavor Flave going, “Yea boyee!” I wanted to hear the dumb aspects of his music, that’s what I was into. I have a philosophy that our music works on a really dumb level, which is the level that most people understand.”
A questionable statement, sure, but overall a valuable one. Public Enemy was genius enough to know that they needed to inject a little fun into their militancy in order for it to be more popular. All it took was a couple “yea boyee”s and a Flave clock chain to smuggle their message into the minds of the masses. The Prodigy were smart enough to isolate this line of thought and utilize it for their own mission, dumbing themselves down in order to take rave culture to the mainstream. Thick Americans and their “market capitalism”, as Jesse puts it, were never going to get into EDM as it then stood. There was too much effeteness, too many flowers painted on faces, too much utopian splendor, and too many anonymous anti-star DJs for American kids to get into it. But they DID get into The Prodigy, by the millions, and the Firestarters pulled this off utilizing what they learned from Chuck D. In mistaking this old quote as nothing more than “the timeless male privilege of faux idiocy”, Jesse Dorris has signaled a death knell for his own review, losing out on depth and insight in his all-consuming desire to be offended.
Since Dorris spends an inordinate amount of the review going hard at “Smack My Bitch Up”, he misses out on some great opportunities to misread the real breakthrough hit on the album, “Firestarter”. If there’s any Prodigy song that deserves ridicule, it’s this limp “punk” charger, but Jesse can’t come up with anything other than woke clichés like, “The Prodigy abandoned the U.S. rave kids who thought they were poseurs and injected the poison of toxic masculinity.” Yawn, dude. Again, The Prodigy gets the best of Dorris here since their whole point was to “inject” some (admittedly lame) punk aggression into the mix in order to score a massive hit. Which they did. So they won’t be offended by this revisionist review if they ever bother to read it, which they won’t, because they’re probably headlining a festival in Ukraine as we speak, the Firestarter guy sporting a grey Mohawk and leering at the crowd supported by a walker. Now, you see what I did there, Jesse? I made fun of the cheesy lead Prodigy guy. If you’re going to go at The Prodigy, illustrate how non-threatening and fake punk the lead dude is. That’s where it hurts with these people. But no, Jesse Doris swings and misses once again by pointing out, “If men couldn’t be kings, court jesters still got the mic.” Sigh.
Jesse Dorris definitely had a game plan going into this review, and that plan was to paint The Prodigy as nothing more than piggish jocks involved in a conspiracy to smuggle illicit sexism and male toxicity through the back door at the rave. But the problem is that the album in question proved to be too slippery a beast to stay within his staunchly defined target areas. He just keeps shooting and shooting and shooting, and missing and missing and missing. For example, how’s this for a major face plant:
“Fat was an attempt to make rave butch again, even though it never really had been in the first place.”
Or how about this one:
“In his rave history Generation Ecstasy, Simon Reynolds described with admiration their ‘apolitical update of punk offering post-grunge kids an aerobic workout for their frustration and aggression.’ But Prodigy were political, and not only because there’s no such thing as apolitical.”
See, the thing is, Jesse uses this Generation Ecstasy book as a source throughout the review, holding it up as a tome to be quoted, revered, and believed. So here we have his main source praising The Prodigy and their apolitical post-grunge aggression right in the face of his own piece trying to criticize these same aspects. It makes no sense at all to use this quote. But hey, this is Jesse’s world, ladies and gentlemen. We’re just along for the ride.
At one point he resorts to dismissing Prodigy mastermind Liam Howlett as a “troll” without stopping to think of that definition. If anything Howlett is the ultimate anti-troll. The man has purposefully dumbed down his music and image in order to appeal to the masses on a primal level, which has been the main pathway to fame for everyone from Little Richard to Diplo. It’s far too easy to simply dismiss anyone who doesn’t conform to your worldview as a “troll”, and Jesse fails to sell this accusation over the duration of his hit piece.
By the end of the review Jesse Dorris seems to know this one has run away on him. He’s been trying to harpoon the Prodigy wale for many paragraphs and has failed each time. It was supposed to be such an easy target! It’s The Prodigy, for chrissakes! But he still hasn’t nailed them, and he resorts to calling on Kim Deal, whose guitar riff was sampled on “Firestarter”, for a lifeline. But this doesn’t work out for him either:
“Since I own, like, a quarter of “Firestarter”, I root for them since they used a song of mine.”
Kim roots for The Prodigy. The Prodigy makes Kim money. She doesn’t have your back on this, my friend. She tossed your lifeline back into the sea, and now you’re set adrift to close out your review with a flailing, anti-climatic final dis about The Prodigy “packing stadiums”, which is yet another fail because the whole point of The Prodigy was to pack stadiums, which they did.
You’re giving us a headache, Jesse.
By far the most interesting part of the review is the very small section devoted to the music itself, which is overall complimentary. The beat on “Climbatize” is described as “thrilling” and it’s pointed out that “Prodigy respected their dance music forefathers” despite their “rebellious posturing”. Which is a good point. Then there’s the respectful summation of “Mindfields” as “a Jenga of drums that threatens to topple but instead just gets bigger and stronger and heavier. The kind of wobble that would return as dubstep just tenses and flexes at this moment in time, never quite dropping; the arrangement is a master class in dynamics, ready to explode.” It’s obvious Jesse Dorris knows his dance music, and if the review would have stayed in its lane and been an actual breakdown of the music on the record, it would have been an entirely different story.
At one point Jesse Dorris allows himself a brief glimmer of sunshine in pointing out that one of the tracks is “kind of fun” before pulling back from that base sensory ickiness with yet another dose of pseudo moralist posturing. But it’s a revealing moment that points to both the appeal of The Prodigy and the failure of his revisionist review. The Prodigy succeeded because they were fun. And Jesse’s review fails because it’s not fun at all. It is entirely possible, after all, to pen a negative review without coming off as a handwringing parent out to ground the artist for coming home past curfew. But when you get to the part in this review where he references President Bush calling The Simpsons a “threat to the nation” or addresses the UK government’s equally ridiculous assertion that “Firestarter” advocated arson, you wonder for a moment if Jesse Dorris is criticizing Bush and the UK Gov or fully with them.