2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
“That song is probably the most pointless song I’ve ever written.”
It was the summer of 1997, and Liam Howlett, the mastermind behind the Prodigy, was discussing the opening track of his band’s highly-anticipated new album The Fat of the Land. With a driving, menacing beat, “Smack My Bitch Up” was a fiendishly effective slab of big beat, the adrenalized dance-music style that was going mainstream at the time. “Smack My Bitch Up” was meant to make people go crazy both in the club and in the mosh pit, its lyrics a fiery, endless loop of “Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up.” It wasn’t the album’s first single — “Firestarter” and “Breathe” both went to radio prior to the album’s release — but the English producer and musician loved the song’s impact on audiences. “Sometimes things can be so fucking simple and you don’t need an explanation of the lyrics,” Howlett said. “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.”
The Prodigy had been a huge band in the U.K., but The Fat of the Land is where America caught up, sending the record to No. 1. Led by wild-haired singer Keith Flint and sporting Sex Pistols-like punk energy, the group made dance tracks that swaggered and strutted, boasting hip-hop attitude and an air of danger. “Smack My Bitch Up” wasn’t the album’s biggest hit, but it certainly created the biggest controversy — not just the song but also the video. Like you, I get tired of cultural commentators loudly declaring that such-and-such divisive old movie/television show/song “could never be made today.” But with “Smack My Bitch Up,” that whinge might be accurate.
When the Prodigy were preparing to make The Fat of the Land, they were riding high after the critical and commercial success of 1994’s Music for the Jilted Generation, which was their first album to top the U.K. charts and was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize. But Howlett had his eyes on the U.S. market, signing with Madonna’s label Maverick for American distribution of the Prodigy’s follow-up. That didn’t mean he was going to soften his band’s edge, though. “I told Madonna I wanted to change the name of the album, just for America, you know,” Howlett told Q in 1997. “I said I wanted to call it The Land of the Fat. She wasn’t too happy about that.”
However, she no doubt was pleased with the fact that The Fat of the Land, which dropped in June 1997, went double-platinum, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance. “Smack My Bitch Up” was released as a single that fall, echoing the antagonistic spirit of “Firestarter,” which had reached the Top 40 in the States. The song had been something of a joke to Howlett, but also a nod to his love of rap.
“I was into hip hop and I was into the fact that MCs could rap about anything,” he said back then. “They could rap about smacking women up, and it’d just be more comical than anything else. You wouldn’t actually take it serious. You wouldn’t think the Prodigy are about beating their girlfriends up and shit like that. It has a certain amount of b-boy style in the actual song.”
“Smack My Bitch Up” sampled 1988’s “Give the Drummer Some” by Ultramagnetic MCs, which featured rapper Kool Keith, who was friends with Howlett. (Kool Keith provides the vocals on another Fat of the Land cut, “Diesel Power.”) In “Give the Drummer Some,” he rhymes, “I’m ready / And now it’s my turn to build / Uplift, get swift, then drift / Off, and do my own thing / Switch up / Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up, like a pimp.”
“[H]e was tossing a violently misogynist line into his verse in a manner that was not unusual in hip hop at this (or any) time,” Richard Russell, who founded the Prodigy’s U.K. label XL Recordings, wrote in his memoir Liberation Through Hearing. “It was not characteristic of Kool Keith, but neither was it the type of thing that anyone would have remarked on at the time.”
Howlett swiped “Change my pitch up / Smack my bitch up” and built an entire track around it. “I laid the vocal on top purely as a rhythm,” he told Q. “And to add some b-boy flavor. The original lyric is quite humorous, you know, ‘Smack my bitch up like a pimp’ — it’s fucking silly. In our track it’s almost worse ‘cause it focuses just on that line, but I want it out as a single because the tune captures what the band is about right now. It is quite a dangerous track for us to put out, and I like the confusion and the danger of it. I get off on it. But I don’t laugh about the idea of people smacking women up, obviously, but I know the track is nothing to do with that at all. The people love it, they’re fucking lapping it up.”
Not everybody, though: On December 4, 1997, just a few weeks after “Smack My Bitch Up” arrived on radio, the National Organization for Women (NOW) condemned the song. “This teaches violence against women is a form of entertainment,” Janice Rocco, NOW’s Los Angeles chapter president, said. “This message is damaging in general, but particularly to children.” Two weeks later, the organization picketed outside the offices of the band’s U.S. label, and around the same time different retailers were debating how to handle the controversy. Target put parental-advisory stickers on The Fat of the Land, while Walmart and Kmart removed the album from its stores, with Rocco supporting the move, saying, “It sends a message to women and men who shop at their stores that these companies do not want to be part of the problem in our culture that perpetuates violence against women.”
Maverick’s parent company Warner Bros. Records pushed back, with Bob Merlis, the label’s senior vice president of worldwide corporate communications, telling the Los Angeles Times, “In the past five months, we have not received a single complaint about this recording from anybody. In fact, the album was critically acclaimed around the country. … In my opinion, the L.A. Times seized on an opportunity and in essence created the news — and then covered it.”
In the same article, Howlett defended himself as well: “‘Smack My Bitch Up’ is a phrase [that means] doing anything intensely, like being on stage — going for extreme manic energy,” he explained. But other musicians, like Tori Amos, didn’t buy it. “I don’t find anything cutting-edge about ‘Smack My Bitch Up,’” Amos said in 1998. “The thing that bugged me is that if you’re going to say something, you stand by what you say. Or you just be honest and say, ‘Look, I hit my girlfriend and that’s my statement, love me or hate me.’ I think it’s honest that all sorts of feelings come up, but you have to stand by your work as a writer. You can’t say stuff that’s gonna stir people up and then not be willing to stand by it.”
The video only further fanned the flames. Swedish filmmaker Jonas Åkerlund, who’d been the drummer in the metal band Bathory, had pivoted to directing music videos, first gaining attention working with the pop-rock group Roxette. That’s when Howlett came calling. “[H]e invited me to his house in Essex to talk to me about making a video for their new single, ‘Smack My Bitch Up,’” Åkerlund told Vice. “I was pretty excited, because these guys were really cool and here I am, this longhaired metal dude, totally out of my element.” But although he liked the song, he passed on making the video, unconvinced he could think of a way to bring the song to life.
Cut to that night in Copenhagen as Åkerlund was out with a friend, where things got a little wild. “[W]e were out, you know really out, and I woke up in a hotel room and all I could really remember was my foot kicking a door in of a toilet cubicle and there was a guy taking a shit,” he said. “So my friend filled me in and told me that we’d done all this crazy stuff and gone to this strip club, so I decided to do the video of a party night inspired by that night.”
Åkerlund hit upon the idea of filming the clip from a first-person perspective, as if you, the viewer, are the main character engaging in a ton of belligerent and destructive behavior, including shooting heroin in a bathroom stall. “We shot the whole thing in one day in London,” Åkerlund told Vice, “and we didn’t have GoPro or anything back then so we had to tape a gigantic old 35mm film camera onto Henrik [Halvarsson], the director of photography, and the poor guy had to wear it all day.”
By the late 1990s, first-person shooters such as Doom had helped popularize this immersive visual approach, but it was novel for a music video, and indeed Åkerlund’s clip had a drug-fueled intensity that was unnerving, throwing us into one fraught situation after another. Whoever this main character was, he seemed like a hedonistic jerk, roughly grabbing women at the club, snorting cocaine with impunity, violently vomiting in the toilet. With its shaky POV, whiplash-inducing editing and occasionally distorted images, the “Smack My Bitch Up” clip felt uncensored and unwholesome, the finale involving the camera lingering on a naked, gyrating woman that the main character brings home that night. But then the video revealed one last shock: It’s actually a woman whose perspective we’ve been following this whole time.
“I literally didn’t think much about it, other than it would be an unexpected twist if this crazy party person was a woman and not a man,” Åkerlund said in that Vice interview. “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.”
On the one hand, you could claim that the video was secretly subversive, questioning why viewers naturally assumed that this violent, ravenous individual must be a man. And some have argued that the clip is, in fact, a feminist statement advocating for a broader appreciation of women’s desire to pursue sex and pleasure in the same way that their male counterparts do. But much like the song, the “Smack My Bitch Up” video was both brutally efficient in creating a mood and willfully intended to get a rise out of people predisposed to be offended. “It’s obvious that ‘Firestarter’ is not about starting fires,” Howlett declared in 1997. “It’s about [Keith Flint’s] personality. I thought, ‘Well, if people are going to kick up a fuss about this, then they’re really gonna kick up a fuss about “Smack My Bitch Up.”’ It was kind of a joke on the English press in a way, as well.”
Initially, MTV would only program the video late at night, in a slightly censored version, with Kurt Loder appearing on screen and announcing, “MTV is about to air a video that some people are not gonna want to see. It depicts a violent and chaotic night world fueled 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.” But it wasn’t long before the channel stopped showing “Smack My Bitch Up,” with a company spokesperson saying, “We thought Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ was groundbreaking and newsworthy. It aired only between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. over the course of one week and is no longer on-air.” (There’s no official video anywhere to be found on YouTube.) MTV always insisted that NOW had not played a part in its decision, although that didn’t stop the organization from declaring the news an “early Christmas gift to young women and girls.”
Of course, “bitch” was a word freely thrown around at the time in pop music, especially in hip hop. (“When I was a party DJ, I’d play Schoolly D and he’d be talking about laying some ‘bitch’ while he’s drunk,” Howlett said. “It’s just attitude.”) Indeed, it has long become culturally accepted, if never entirely condoned, that the word can be derogatory (insulting someone’s lack of toughness) or affectionate (praising one’s girlfriend).
But the idea of singing about hitting a woman — even in an intentionally exaggerated or metaphorical fashion — was something else entirely. The passion and fury in the way “Smack my bitch up” is repeated throughout “Smack My Bitch Up” — almost as if it’s a slogan shouted at a rally — felt taboo, ugly, unseemly. The song’s so propulsive and cathartic that, in the late 1990s, it was very easy to rock along with it on the dance floor, singing along without necessarily thinking what the words meant, the chanted lyric so seductive and glib that it felt mindless but also cruel. Musically, “Smack My Bitch Up” was an undeniable banger, and part of its power was the darkness of that line. Howlett was right: “Smack my bitch up” did seem to summon up an extreme manic energy, but it always felt a little sordid enjoying that song.
Howlett’s label tried to sidestep the controversy, putting out a statement that said, “While the lyric in question was never intended to be harmful or disrespectful to women or any other group and we sincerely regret that it may have been misinterpreted, the possibility that some will be offended or disturbed by any creative work is a risk inherent in any artistic endeavor.” But as the Prodigy’s popularity exploded in the wake of The Fat of the Land, they consistently had to confront those who detested “Smack My Bitch Up.”
Perhaps most memorably, the group got into it with Beastie Boys around the time of the 1998 Reading Festival. Both bands were set to perform — with the New York trio slated to take the stage after the Prodigy — and Beastie Boys called them to talk about “Smack My Bitch Up.” In a later email to NME, Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch explained, “We felt uncomfortable with the meaning of the lyrics and felt that if they were going to play the song then we would be obligated to comment on it from the stage. However, we decided that rather than make a media event out of it, we’d prefer to call them and tell them privately how we felt, in the hope that they would strike it from their set. When we called, we asked them if they’d consider not playing the song, and told them that if they did play it, we would feel obliged to say something from the stage.”
Some context is important: When Beastie Boys started out on 1986’s Licensed to Ill, they prided themselves on being rude and crude, treating women like playthings and parading their tastelessness. But by 1994’s Ill Communication, the trio had grown up, calling out their past misogyny. (On that album’s opening cut, “Sure Shot,” Yauch famously rapped, “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect to the end.”)
In his email, Yauch (who died in 2012) wrote, “We explained [to the Prodigy] that although this may sound hypocritical, we recently have been trying to be more careful in choosing what songs we do play. We are in the process of learning from our mistakes, and feel that some of the things we did in the past that we thought were a joke ended up having lasting negative effects. They responded by telling us that the meaning of ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ was not what it appeared to be. They felt that they were, in effect, subverting the meaning of the title. We felt that the meaning of the song comes across clearly and that it promotes violence towards women.”
Howlett was a Beastie Boys fan. (The Fat of the Land track “Funky Shit” samples Ill Communication’s “Root Down.”) But the Prodigy didn’t take kindly to being told to pull “Smack My Bitch Up” from their set, and during the Reading performance band member Maxim brashly informed the crowd that Beastie Boys “didn’t want us to play this fucking tune. And the way things go, I do what the fuck I want.” And then they defiantly launched into “Smack My Bitch Up.” “This shit here is fucking real,” Maxim told the cheering audience. “This is me, this is you, this is everybody.”
“I still respect their music,” Howlett later told NME, “but I think they should respect other people’s freedom to express themselves. As far as I’m concerned, the Beasties have got completely the wrong idea about what ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ means — if they watched the way that the crowd responded to it on Saturday night, maybe they’d have understood better.”
After The Fat of the Land, the Prodigy failed to build on that album’s success in the States, although they remain popular in the U.K. “Smack My Bitch Up” continues to be one of the group’s biggest songs on Spotify, but both the Prodigy and big beat watched their cultural moment fade as the new century took hold. Then, in 2019, tragedy struck when Keith Flint was found dead in his home, prompting the group to take a hiatus. Recently, though, Howlett wrote the score for the Netflix horror movie Choose or Die, and the band announced they’d be reforming to do a series of summer shows celebrating The Fat of the Land’s 25th anniversary. “THIS ONE’S FOR FLINTY,” the band said in a statement earlier this year. “NOW LETS FUKIN GO!!”
The Prodigy will certainly be playing “Smack My Bitch Up” at those upcoming concerts. It’s hard to imagine there will be the same protests as there were in the late 1990s. Back then, the song (and the band) seemed threatening. But ironically, even though domestic abuse is now treated with a seriousness it wasn’t shown during the group’s heyday, the track now seems so antiquated — and its musical style so dated — that its impact has been properly dulled. It’s just a great dance song with a calculatedly incendiary chorus.
The culture has a funny way of absorbing controversial things and defanging them, twisting their meaning and upending the power dynamics at play. Look no further than the inclusion of “Smack My Bitch Up” in an action sequence in 2001’s Charlie’s Angels, in which Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu team up to kick Crispin Glover’s ass. As Susan J. Douglas pointed out in her book The Rise of Enlightened Sexism, the cheeky scene “[seemed] to say, ‘Hey, guys’ who’s smacking who? Who’s the bitch now?’”
And despite Åkerlund’s video remaining disturbing after all these years, it too has been subsumed. Provocative filmmaker Gaspar Noé boldly incorporated first-person perspective into his hallucinatory 2009 drama Enter the Void, which is as button-pushing as the “Smack My Bitch Up” clip, while Ilya Naishuller’s 2015 thriller Hardcore Henry was constructed entirely around the conceit of the main character being the unseen “eye” of the film. Hardcore Henry had been inspired by Naishuller using the same technique in a couple music videos, deciding to expand the idea to a feature-length story, strapping a GoPro to his cinematographer to record all the action. “It was made with the cinema-goer in mind,” Naishuller said upon Hardcore Henry’s release, “and if that cinema-goer happens to play video games, they’ll get an extra kick out of that.”
When you listen to “Smack My Bitch Now,” especially if you were alive and clubbing back when it came out, it definitely feels like a product of the fashionable 1990s techno trend that seemed destined to be the sound of the future. That didn’t really happen, and in some ways the video has proved to be more influential than the song that inspired it. And yet, there’s something that still feels a little unholy about “Smack My Bitch Up,” whether it’s the exoticism of using Shahin Badar’s haunting chant during the bridge or the sinister keyboards that dart in and out of the mix. The song resists easy nostalgia, still sounding like it wants to start a fight. And then comes that lyric again, snarling and repugnant and bracing all at once.
Howlett may have insisted that he was merely expressing himself — that he never advocated abuse — but others who worked closely with the Prodigy at the time came to have second thoughts about “Smack My Bitch Up.” In his 2020 memoir, Richard Russell, who’d put out The Fat of the Land through XL Recordings, revisited the controversy.
“I never considered its questionable nature,” he writes about “Smack My Bitch Up.” “The Sex Pistols had their swastika armbands. The Prodigy had this sample. Did anyone ever become a Nazi because of Sid Vicious? No. But were people entitled to be offended by the use of the armband or the sample? Yes. Is it insensitive to victims of abuse? Yes. Were we thinking about that? No. Was that thoughtless? Yes. Should the Prodigy have been censored in any way? I don’t think so. Is it pleasant? No. But is it art? Yes, just about and a great deal of art is not pleasant. Was any woman ever abused because of the Prodigy? My instinct is no. But how can I be sure? So, do I regret releasing a single on XL with the title ‘Smack My Bitch Up’? No. But I doubt that I would do it again.”