Honouring the Firestarter
'I'm a firestarter, twisted firestarter
You're a firestarter, twisted firestarter.'
This article is prompted by the recent passing of Prodigy singer Keith Flint, and the sadness that yet another musical and cultural touchstone has succumbed to unknown internal or external pressures, and chosen to take his own life.
It would be inappropriate to speculate on the personal reasons behind this act, yet Flint reflects something beyond the personal, which is worth reflecting on. He represented something significant for me, in my own life, and in countless others. That much is clear, from the way that Prodigy springboarded from being a left-field rave act into one of the world's pre-eminent bands – with Keith being a huge catalyst for Prodigy's success. Although not the primary creative or musical force behind the Prodigy, Flint emerged as the frontman and focal point for the band, and played a large part in the transformation of The Prodigy from a little known band into a global phenomenon.
A glimpse of the underworld
For me (like many others) Flint first emerged, and burned himself into my consciousness, through his appearance in the video of the Prodigy's Firestarter single, which was released in March 1996.
It's a video that made an immediate impression, and one that still retains its power.
In the opening to the video an ominous, imposing riff plays and Keith and his bandmates appear, emerging from the gloom of an Underground tunnel. It is Keith that immediately catches the eye – stalking and pacing like a subterranean Minotaur, all coiled energy and menace. As the song builds, Keith becomes the focal point, not just by virtue of being the lead singer, but by the nature of his overall performance.
That the video is in Black and White matters not – It is visceral and potent, and has a technicolour quality, primarily generated by Keith. His heavy kohl eyeliner makeup and devil horns/mohican haircut establish a demonic look. The contrast between his 'homespun' stars and stripes jumper and his severe haircut, eyeliner and multiple piercings gives him a slightly deranged quality –reinforced by his manic movement and frenetic dancing. The energy he emanates throughout evokes menace, threat, unpredictability.
And then there's his singing, the song, and the message it conveys. The lyrics are uttered in a coarse, rasping manner. He issues a stream of statements, warnings, about his disruptive, destructive behaviour:
'I'm the trouble starter, punkin' instigator;
I'm the fear addicted, a danger illustrated'
…which are interspersed with the repeated refrain:
'I'm a firestarter, twisted firestarter
You're a firestarter, twisted firestarter'
The message is clear. In one breath, we're being warned. He's our worst nightmare, personified. In the next breath, he lets us know he's not just talking about himself. He's talking about us, too.
Impact of Firestarter
Firestarter caused quite a stir at the time of its release, reaching No. 1 in the UK singles charts, and becoming a worldwide hit. It had significant impact in the wider culture too – the single heralded The Prodigy's emergence as a form of electronic-infused 'proto-punk' strand of rave culture in the 90s – a step beyond the anonymous, day-glo teenage rave aesthetic into something else altogether, something darker, edgier, more confrontational.
In age old rock'n'roll fashion, the song and video was perceived as being reckless, irresponsible, calling forth or glorifying a demonic spirit, encouraging irresponsible or destructive behaviour, anarchy and rebellion. It was seen as being indicative of a decline in youth morality and responsibility.
Not surprisingly, Flint became something of a lightening rod for this criticism, and, through his performance in Firestarter, synonymous with this demonic, disruptive energy – to the point that the man, Keith Flint, was indistinguishable from the Firestarter character he created, and the energy it embodied.
Embodying the Firestarter
Keith Flint completely embodied the Firestarter energy – to the extent that it was became difficult to separate Keith from the character he played. He may well have suffered from being identified solely with this entity, one which clung to him throughout his life, and has become a key part of his legacy, at the time of his death.
Quite clearly, there was more to Keith than the Firestarter character he created.
This was vividly articulated in the tribute paid by James Blunt in a tweet after the news of his passing. In his tweet, Blunt recounts how Keith was one of few contemporaries who offered congratulations for his success at a Q Awards event, when Flint was probably seen as one of the least likely musicians to reach out across the musical 'credibility' divide:
“Keith, I only met you once, but I shed a tear at the news of your death. In our business, there are no prizes for being kind, but if there was, that Grammy would be yours.”
Not just a disruptive force
There's more to the firestarter energy than meets the eye, too. This energy, so vividly represented by Keith, can certainly be seen as a destructive force, but it represents something else too – a creative, disruptive force: a force for expression and personal freedom, a force for change.
It could be seen as tapping into a powerful archetypal energy – the energy that is required to shake things up, to usher in new things, inspire and foster creativity, change and revolution. It's an energy which lies in all of us, which the song lyric explicitly acknowledges. Keith had direct access to this firestarter energy, but so do we all.
It's true, the song evokes a wild, malevolent energy – but in doing so, the song also acknowledges and connects with the 'shadow' aspect of ourselves. The base, primal instincts which lie beneath our polished, civilised veneers. The darker, wilder instincts that are often suppressed in everyday life, but which also happen to be the source and wellspring of our power and creativity.
It's a wildness we are fearful of, in ourselves, and in others. It is an energy frowned upon by society, by authority, and the one we often suppress. It is an energy that is often misunderstood, particularly when witnessed in men. It occurs as a threat, sometimes characterised as an aspect of toxic masculinity, an expression of aggression, and harbinger of destruction and violence.
Embracing the shadow
In the transformational work I have been involved over many years, there has been considerable space and opportunity to explore the 'shadow'. Acknowledging, accepting and making peace with our shadow side is a key component of transformation and healing. Processes which enable connection with the shadow in a healthy, safe way, often leads to a sense of release, and allows a redistribution or integration of this energy. It is an integral part of Mens Work, and is often a key aspect of processes which take place within Mens Groups and workshops.
As an illustration of the type of process that takes place, I can draw from a recent experience in facilitating a Mens Circle, in partnership with Rebel Wisdom facilitators David Fuller and Alexander Beiner. This Circle has been set up as a resource for men who have completed a Rebel Wisdom 'New Masculinity' Weekend workshop, but also offers an opportunity for men to get a taste of what they are can expect during the workshops, or gain insight and experience of Mens work.
In this circle, we understand the importance of creating spaces for this energy to be explored and released, and incorporate practices or processes which allow this to occur. In a recent session, attendees took part in a group enquiry around the theme of 'Direction.' Essentially, this was an exploration of where each man was heading in their lives, or wishes to head – followed by admission of what was holding them back from fulfilling this, or heading in this direction. After the dialogue phase was completed, the men were then led through a movement related exercise, accompanied by music.
Channelling the firestarter
The men were encouraged to dance freely, unself-consciously, connecting with the areas where they/we personally felt held back – allowing their bodies to release and express whatever it needed to do. Appropriately, Firestarter was chosen as part of the accompanying soundtrack, and consequently we were invited to connect with our own firestarter energy, in the expression of our feelings.
Taking part in this exercise, I was transported back to the moshpit I was part of many years ago, dancing to Firestarter during the Prodigy performance at the 1995 Big Day Out concert in Auckland. I recalled the wild, unbridled energy that Keith Flint embodied, and called forth from its audience – myself included.
I was immediately in touch with the wild, primal energy which burns in me, which is linked with a desire for expression, purpose, freedom. It provided an opportunity to connect with emotion and energy trapped within my body, to free up this energy, and connect with my heart, spirit and vitality.
It was an invitation which was taken up by all men in the circle during the session – one which always seems to resonate strongly for men, possibly tapping into power of music and dance to connect with their bodies, their physicality. In doing so, they are releasing pent up energy, and connecting with their spirit, their vitality, their creativity.
I acknowledge Keith Flint, for what he brought to the world. In his embodiment and celebration of the Firestarter spirit, he spoke to a quality in all of us: the desire to be free, wild, unconstrained. To not be shackled by society's call for conformity, to adhere to social rules and expectations.
He spoke to something within me, and within many of us, which is wild and untamed. In his freedom, his celebration of life, of vitality, and his courage to explore the outer limits of his creative expression, he encouraged and supported ours.
May he Rest in Peace.
Kevin is co-facilitator of the Rebel Wisdom Open Circle, a monthly Mens Group held at the Skylight Centre in HIghbury Islington, for past participants of the Rebel Wisdom New Masculinity Weekend workshops, but also for men who are interested in attending future workshops, or to get an experience of what Mens Groups have to offer. If you would like to find out more, contact Kevin or buy tickets here.
Rebel Wisdom is a media platform run by David Fuller and Alexander Beiner which features interviews with leading academics and cultural observers exploring a range of issues including gender dynamics. Alongside this, Rebel Wisdom offer a powerful experiential programme, running weekend intensive workshops for men and women, in support of the embodiment of their true masculine and feminine essence. rebelwisdom.co.uk