Who’s Afraid of The Prodigy?

The Earthbound records went on to form part of The Prodigy’s second album, Music for the Jilted Generation, but it was only with Fat of the Land that the band truly became huge. By that time Flint had gotten a makeover, shaving off part of his hair and generally acting like a bit of a psychopath. But the real change was the way that The Prodigy was received in America.

The real life “party scene,” as Flint told Spin, was about “breaking into warehouses, setting up a sound system, cars parked across everything, riot police showing up with dogs, armor, surrounding the building, waiting for their warrant.” In late 1990s America, however, The Prodigy was a cultural touchstone for a weird obsession with an Armageddon-type event that had something to do with the internet. You saw it on MTV2 and read about it in Chuck Palahniuk novels. You can read about it in a 1998 New York Times review of a Prodigy show, in which Howlett is described as a leader of “folk devils” and the band’s sound as “the dark side of the machine-fueled utopia embraced by electronic music: its violence, its connections to crime and war.”

Yes, The Prodigy was pretty dark. The lyrics to “Firestarter” go: “I’m the bitch you hated, filth infatuated, yeahhhh.” But the American vision of The Prodigy as DJs of darkness was basically born of a culture that had no idea what darkness was actually coming.

The Times was describing the vibe in the “Firestarter” video—an apocalyptic, sexy griminess. Critics were connecting The Prodigy to the dark vision of the future also apparent in ’90s movies like The Matrix, Hackers, and XistenZ. The common denominator between apocalypse-fears and electronic music is, perhaps, the vague idea of a nerd behind a computer, subverting a helplessly analogue society with his alienated disco tunes. Electronic music seemed to contain seeds of destruction, a sense that once the machines take over for good, the only culture left will be at the blood raves.

Awash with fears about the end of the millennium, 90s American culture cast “edgy” musical acts as harbingers of end times. Like Marilyn Manson and “gangsta rap,” The Prodigy came to symbolize a kind of civilizational threat. With songs like “Smack My Bitch Up,” The Prodigy seemed to be evangelizing for misogynistic violence and heroin at the same time. (The line is a sample from an old Ultramagnetic MCs song.) Was The Prodigy a genuine menace? Or were Flint and Co. just trying to get people’s attention?

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