Banned! ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by The Prodigy

In the second installment of this series we look at a music video that became notorious for its brutally exhilarating hedonism and sampled lyrical hook which caused immediate controversy and turned this Essex dance act in to the bad boys of the 90’s music scene.

Even before they released this video The Prodigy had been slowly building a reputation as a dance act with an anarchic punk edge. This was perfectly crystalised on their third lp The Fat Of The Land which saw Keith Flint stop being just a dancer and become the frontman of the band.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZKLSmHqXhzA

The album’s first single ‘Firestarter’ had been the first to showcase Flint’s ‘double mohican’ hairstyle and raspy, attitude-laden vocals and with it’s video being not only a big smash but also the subject of watersheds on some networks some were already drawing comparisons with bands like the Sex Pistols of whom Prodigy main-man Liam Howlett was a huge fan.

However, whereas the the ‘Firestarter’ video had merely featured Flint dancing around and and generally looking scary in an underground tunnel the video for the third single from the album would be their most controversial yet.

keith flint of dance nad the prodigy in the video for the single firestarter

It was directed by Swede and former drummer for death metal band Bathory Jonas Åkerlund who up until then had been making a string of videos with the band Roxette. He had been contacted by Howlett on the strength of his growing reputation and was hired to make the video but then quit claiming he didn’t have any good ideas, something which changed after he then went on a crazy drunken night out in Copenhagen with his friend Hans. He told Vice last year “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. I called the guys from the band the next day and said I had an idea if they wanted to give me the job back.”

However even after getting the green light things didn’t go smoothly with Akerlund being fired again after sending the band the first rushes. Undeterred he went on to finish what he had started before re-sending them the finished article. This time the band and label XL loved it, undoubtedly realising that its highly controversial content would cause ripples and face censorship.

Swedish music video director Jonas Akerlund
Jonas Akerlund

Shot entirely from a first-person perspective, the video propels us in to the eyes of the protagonist as we are taken on a hedonistic drug, drink, and lust-fuelled adventure involving puking, fighting, lots of groping of women, and eventually a strip-club before a wild sex scene brings us almost to a close. Only right at the end, as the female conquest for the night is leaving the protagonist in the room where we began does the video cut to a mirror to reveal a woman, not a man. It’s a neat twist which flips the gender expectations of the viewer and it was this that really got people talking about it.

Controversy centered on the misogynistic content of both the song and the video. The main sample is taken from a track by classic old school hip-hop group Ultramagnetic MC’s and is performed by Kool Keith who also featured on Fat Of The Land track ‘Diesel Power’. To ‘smack my bitch up’ is American slang for sorting things out or getting things organised, none of which mitigates the highly sexist tone of the comment but does at least give context to how such phrases can have multiple meanings beyond the obvious. And then there’s the sex scene featuring naked breasts and the general attitude towards women the protagonist displays throughout.

Even for the 90’s, when boundaries for music video content were being pushed all the time this was pretty shocking stuff and affirmed the Prodigy’s reputation for being the bad boys of British dance music. Upon release it was instantly banned on TV networks in both the UK and the US. After massive demand MTV finally relented although they would only show the video after midnight and following a specially created MTV warning. Despite this it was nominated for various awards at that years MTV ceremony winning Best Dance Video and Breakthrough Video.

Even now the track and video combine to create a heady vicarious rush of excitement, and whilst complaints surrounding it have some justification in all truth there’s plenty in popular culture past and present that is just as guilty but escaped this kind of censure. Maybe the Prodigy were just the wrong band in the wrong place at the wrong time, although fans of the video and probably the band themselves would argue differently. What’s undeniable is the sheer energy it has and the impact it creates. It sucks you in and then spits you out just like any wild night out should, and to that end it’s a resounding success.

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