Tuesday, June 03, 2003
Radiohead Dissected

Shasha Frere-Jones and Gerald Marzorati are engaged in one of those Slate e-discussions. Their topic is Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief" due to be released next week -- although it sounds like it's almost completely available on the net already. The discussion can be found here. It started yesterday, and they usually run two or three days and sometimes a week.

I like Radiohead. I took to them at least a year after OK Computer had already been released to much acclaim and success. And it is a wonderful album. My nephew turned me onto Kid A and Amnesiac on a road trip two years ago (see, this does relate to my being on the road starting tomorrow), and they're wonderful. I don't have much of a clue what they're about, but they're wonderful listening in their form, their use of themes, their use of fragments, their use of gestures and hints instead of entire full-blown instantiations of ideas. The full-blownness is in the totality, the way the whole fits together with almost symphonic totality.

So today's winning paragraphs, by Marzorati, follows, and I think he's right:
Which is to say that here in the States, and not only in the States, Radiohead's reputation resides less with critics than with musicians, musicians of all kinds -- classical pianists and composers; jazz players; countless other bands. It's the music, of course, but I don't want to get your blood pressure up again about that. So let me offer a second reason -- one that will address, I hope, your seeming irritation that when it comes to the marketplace, Radiohead doesn't return the checks from sales of their CDs. They want it both ways, the swinish hypocrites: The money and the modernist freedom. Well ... Yes! That is the point. That has been the point for the past 150 years in every aspect of adventurous Western (read capitalist) culture. And that Radiohead has pulled it off is a subject of much discussion and admiration (and not a little envy) among pop musicians all over the world. The members of Radiohead have been extremely clever at marketing; they have surrounded themselves with good people on the management side; and they have not fallen into the pathetically useless dead-end alt-music trap of thinking that the meaning of their music -- its ''authenticity'' -- resides in its marginality. This kind of thinking was killing Nirvana before Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. I think that's what Thom Yorke learned from him, Yorke's anti-capitalist mutterings notwithstanding.

To me, Radiohead's ''protest,'' never actually voiced by the band, has really been this: That the ''system'' can be bent to your purposes. It's not easy. It's not fun. It takes will and work and ingenuity. But without a single or a video or the cover of Rolling Stone, Kid A -- that, you know, mid-brow thing that failed to take into account anything that has really happened in the past 30 years -- debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Does that mean that Radiohead is a sign of hope and a better life? I'm not sure. But it is a reminder that getting something done depends on deciding first to get something done. There are going to be hassles, and the end product or event surely won't happen without direction towards that end, even if that end itself is never reached.