Released in November 1997 as the third single from The Fat Of The Land, The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up was arguably the group’s most controversial to date, with its openly suggestive title and a video that left nothing to the imagination.
Taking its vocal cue from the Ultramagnetic MCs track Give The Drummer Some – rapper Kool Keith had previously been sampled on Out Of Space – the track’s provocative sentiment quickly drew a response from broadcasters and businesses alike, with BBC and ITV among those to censor the track, and major retailers such as Walmart in the US pulling the album from circulation.
It would also go on to be voted the ‘most controversial pop song of all time’ in a poll by PRS for Music, pipping the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen and Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood to the top spot.
“That song is probably the most pointless song I’ve ever written,” Prodigy leader Liam Howlett told Addicted To Noise during the summer of 1997. “But live, it works. It works well. Sometimes things can be so fucking simple and you don’t need an explanation of the lyrics. Why explain the lyrics? It either works or it doesn’t. And for us, it works well live. It’s a really exciting track and it’s just a good hard track.”
Many didn’t agree, however.
“This teaches violence against women is a form of entertainment,” Janice Rocco of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women said at the time of its release, going on to tell the LA Timesthat it was “deplorable for Madonna’s record company to be putting this kind of message out into the mainstream music market.” [In the US, The Prodigy’s label, XL Recordings, was distributed by Maverick, home to the Like A Virgin star].
Elsewhere, Labour Party MP Barry Gardiner, noted ”I am not a prude, and I think the Prodigy are a very good group, but they should think about the message they are putting out. … [the single is] particularly offensive and particularly in the sense of violence against women.”
In response, the band issued a statement to note that the offending lyric in question – and song title – was a sample taken from the aforementioned Ultramagnetic MCs track and was not actually penned by The Prodigy [Howlett would go on to underline this point by including Give The Drummer Some on the following year’s Dirtchamber Sessions Volume 1]. In addition, As the band noted, arson numbers didn’t exactly rise considerably after Firestarter.
“To be honest, we’re ready for whatever is thrown at us,”Howlett told MTV as the firestorm took hold “You can’t not be ready and use a lyric like that. To be honest, people, if they think that song is about smacking girlfriends up, then they’re pretty brainless.
“I was mocking the English press. In fact, I knew, when I wrote that track — it wasn’t the main reason — but it became apparent to me afterwards, after I’d written the track, that it would be a real piss-take on the English press, the fact that they will pick up on it and create something out of it. If you can create that much trouble in one vocal then let’s create some trouble. For us, it’s just about doing what we want, doing it our way, having fun. That’s our way of just having fun. But it’s serious in other ways. It’s not a joke. This song isn’t meant to be taken like a joke.
“When I was young and I was listening to Ultramagnetic MCs, Public Enemy, Schooly D about guns, drugs and women, it just had a good vibe. I just liked the vibe it had and tried to pick some of that up in that song, really.”
The accompanying video – which over the course of just four and a half minutes shows the protagonist snorting cocaine, engaging in a hit and run, shooting heroin, puking multiple times and molesting countless women – was another story altogether. You can view it here.
As MTV’s Kurt Loder intoned, introducing the video for the first time, “MTV is about to air a video that some people are not gonna want to see. It depicts a violent and chaotic night world fuelled by drugs and alcohol and sexual aggression. It is relentlessly lurid and contains full frontal nudity. If this sounds like something you’d rather miss, please tune out now.”
In the US, MTV did play the video quite regularly at first, albeit after midnight, and minus the heroin and hit-and-run scenes. But it too opted to pull the video a few weeks later, with the National Organization for Women thanking the channel for its “early Christmas gift to women.”
MTV Europe would continue to play the video sporadically, however, often late at night, and usually back-to-back with Aphex Twin’s Come To Daddy, if memory serves.
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund – who would go on to direct videos for Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Britney Spears, David Guetta, U2, Beyoncé and Coldplay, to name but a few – it was the most-talked about short film (a more apt way to describe it) of 1997, and may or may not have been inspired by a night out in Copenhagen, as Åkerlund told Vice a few years back.
” I don’t remember much of it, but what I do remember is at the end of the night Hans and I were at a strip club around the corner from the hotel,” he explained. “We were totally wasted and I kept losing him, so I remember at some point going into the bathroom and finding a locked stall and thinking Hans was stuck in there and something went wrong, so I kicked open the door and it was just some poor random dude taking a dump. That image in my head of kicking down the door and finding a random guy taking a dump is what gave me the whole idea for the video.”
And as for the ‘twist’ at the end? According to Åkerlund, “Some feminists loved it and some hated it. It was supposed to be outrageous and over the top, and we considered it comedy when we watched it later.”
In a separate interview with Louder Sound, he confessed that Smack My Bitch Up changed his career.“[It] changed my life basically. And I remember thinking ‘if this was all that was need to change my career then I should have done it a long time ago!’ you know? A little tits and ass? That’s easy!”
To some, the video has been hailed as something of a feminist masterpiece – in a lengthy essay for Drunk Monkeys, Ph.D. scholar Miniature Malekpour wrote, “The video subverts radical feminist expressions and ideologies by allowing the protagonist to engage in sex, not cater to the male gaze, participate in pornography, and, in a humorous aside, shave. Essential feminism is personified by the heterosexual white female who does not like to shave. Perhaps there is a hint of truth in this satirical depiction of the hairy leg (or any other part of the female body).
“Whatever it is, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ exploits this essential feminism by transforming the female journey into a collective experience, a human journey.”
Whatever your opinion of the track, it still slams, more than a quarter century on from its release. Or should that be ‘smacks’? 🙂