Don't Let Those Robots Eat Me
Twenty years ago today, The Flaming Lips released Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. This sweeping concept-but-not-really-concept album took their neo-psych sensibilities in a more electronic direction and onto some cruddy 128MB MP3 player in my school bag. It’s an album that means a lot to me since it both served as an effective gateway into more experimental music and a shot of much-needed psychedelic positivity for a gloomy teenager. Ah, but is it a positive album? The title track is undoubtedly energetic, telling the story of Yoshimi, “a black belt in karate,” who is training for her fight against robots that threaten to destroy humanity. At least, that’s according to Wayne Coyne’s character in the song, the chorus pleading for Yoshimi to not “let those robots eat me”. Perhaps that doesn’t sound that positive, but if the peppy instrumentals and Yoshimi’s karate prowess are to be believed, there’s hope for the robots to be vanquished.
On the album proper, it’s immediately followed by a Part 2, a kaleidoscope of fight sounds, pounding synths and Yoshimi P-We’s screaming. P-We is the drummer for Japanese noise rock band Boredoms, but it seems to be her vocal performances in her band OOIOO that inspired both the album and her eventual inclusion as backing vocals. Considering the cheering samples at the end of the track, I always took it that she won in her battle, though how important that is in the grand scheme of the album’s world is up for debate. The band insist it isn’t a concept album, but it still has enough of a narrative that it would later be adapted into a Broadway musical. The album’s final vocal track, “All We Have is Now”, ends us (spoilers?) with a man returning from the future to tell the people of the present how everything will end. Whether the robot uprising described in the first part of the album is that future or the present is unclear, but it leaves things on a melancholic note- “You and me were never meant to be part of the future/All we have is now/All we’ve ever had is now”. This comes directly after my favourite song on the album “Do You Realize???” an on-the-surface collection of new age aphorisms (“Do you realise/That happiness makes you cry”) that is both accepting and defiant in the face of death- a hopeful counterpoint to the apocalypse. Yoshimi the character and Yoshimi the singer are long gone by the album’s end, another point in favour of it not being a concept album. Her fate is unclear, but I like to think that apocalypse or not, her actions weren’t meaningless, just rendered smaller by time and space, like what’ll happen to all of us- “It’s hard to make the good times last/You realise the sun doesn’t go down/It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.”
Well. Maybe. But there’s the elephant in the room. You don’t need to look far to find another interpretation shared with the confidence of a “TIL” or “well, actually”. The robots are metaphors for cancer. The “vitamins” Yoshimi takes are medication for chemotherapy. A perfectly valid interpretation and one that the musical goes with to give some additional weight to the story. It’s hard to tell if this theory existed before the show or if it’s something any of the bandmates had discussed publicly before, but it’s now part of the album’s myth. A Japanese girl travelling to see the band but having died of cancer or heart disease is often cited as inspiring “Do You Realize???”, the title song or the whole album depending on the required narrative. It’s something I find puzzling and troubling- why does there have to be one “true meaning” presented as some kind of annoying trivia, and why should it be supported by the death of a girl who might not even exist? This isn’t even really “death of the author”, more just a collective acceptance of one particular theory (that may or may not be based on a musical rather than the album) that is now decided as True, despite it varying and mutating as its copy pasted across the internet. Considering I first heard the title song in AMV Hell, layered over Asuka’s fight in End of Evangelion, I’ve always taken it literally. I’ve had enough to do with cancer in my real life without associating with the song about karate chopping robots. Perhaps this is just the same resistance I have to metaphor in horror movies- I’ve always disliked when the monster is revealed to be an embodiment of illness or trauma. Partly because things are scary as they are, and don’t need some kind of noodle creature to one-up them, but also in being one set thing, they resist being interpreted any other way. Is The Shape of Halloween representative of the paranoia of peak capitalist atomisation, or something more primal? Well, it doesn’t even have to be one of those two, although sequels certainly try to answer the question one way or the other. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots might not be a concept album because it has so many concepts- the limits of pacifism, reflections on death and personal failure, and yes, karate fighting pink robots. Treating this theory as some magic key to unlocking the one truth of the record feels… well, very lame and very internet. It has a very (X) ENDING EXPLAINED energy to it, for that particular strain of modern media consumer that must “solve” each bit of pop culture they roll over, another tick on a never-ending checklist.
I guess that’s a long way to say that “meaning in music is personal”, but it is a bit more complicated than that. Since coming out as trans to my peers on and offline, I’ve felt like I’m operating on a different wavelength, with peaks of euphoric confidence and troughs of nauseating terror. I’m sure things will stabilise, but when it gets to the latter, I no longer seek the same oblivion in noise I used to; instead, a more soothing harmony. A playlist of music that either speaks to my anxieties or tells them to fuck off, through music and lyrics, sure, but more importantly, what they mean to me. Yoshimi’s on there, of course, because all these years later, with all the baggage from the time it imprinted on me, it’s still as bombastic and surreal and affirming as ever. At least, to me. Black Dress and Ada Rook’s solo work have helped a lot too, but they do raise questions regarding how much someone owns their interpretation of a work. Ada in particular, has expressed some regret in how much of her personal life and trauma she’s expressed online. While our similarities have helped this music feel personal to me, I can imagine it’s frustrating to see your output constantly scrutinised through the same lenses.
“FUCK IT/I’M NOT SICK/I’M NOT GAY/I’M NOT TRANS/I’M NOT TRAUMATIZED” she yells at the beginning of “I’m Cis” on the amazingly titled “Ugly Death No Redemption Angel Curse I Love You”, a plea to just let her “party while (she) still can”. With her new band with Ash, Angel Electronics, it seems like she’ll get her wish. I’ve listened to UDNRACILU and the similarly cathartic 2,020 Knives over and over. They’re abrasive and noisy, but they’re in step with my heart—a strange kind of harmony for a strange kind of time. But there’s still a boundary. Music isn’t really personal. We just make it that way. I’m sure the cancer interpretation does genuinely speak to people, but the insistence it being capital-T Truth and the possibly imaginary dead woman make me bristle. Likewise, I don’t want to divine anything about Ada’s life from her words. Those words mean something more to me than any one true meaning. And though I’m certainly not known enough to warrant this kind of declaration, I’ll hope you’ll do me the same courtesy. Meat_Space and Faith in Persona are about as personal as I’m comfortable with, and they’re not going to be the same as whatever comes next. These metaphors are evil-natured robots. Please don’t let them eat me.
Oh, and give the album a listen if you still haven’t. I don’t know the chances that you’ll dig it, but hey, you made it to the end here, so I don’t think you have much to lose. Take your vitamins and fight the robots.
Whatever they are.