...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Radiohead

By dean

     Okay, Kid A. We've all got it by now, right?

     Kinda perplexing, isn't it. Kinda frustrating. Kinda unreal.

     It's fascinating to watch as the mainstream public on both sides of the Atlantic flock to the album in droves. It's even more fascinating to realize just how much of an Emperor's New Clothes situation we have here. While we all have our various degrees of Radiohead Appreciation (Tm.) -- "maudlin hacks" to "impassioned geniuses" -- I think a reasonable person can see that the band has dropped the proverbial ball down the proverbial storm-drain and made themselves looked like the proverbial ass.

     Well, maybe only one of those is proverbial, but still -- there's a limit to how much we can accept contrived career moves by bands that should know better. Surely Radiohead's discography has continually risen with the quality tide in each successive album (besides the criminally under-appreciated "Stop Whispering," Pablo Honey was indie slush compared to the angst-ridden chorus flexing of The Bends which itself was complaint-rock-by-numbers compared to the cinematic paranoia of O.K. Computer). And since the critical and public perception of the band rose to such increasingly dizzying heights in this span, it did not leave much hope that Radiohead would fare all that well. As anybody who already owns Kid A or has just seen the near-breakdown scenes in Grant Gee's wonderfully indulgent Meeting People Is Easy documentary knows -- it's clear that the band has indeed fared quite badly.

     It's unclear what else a band in their position could do: make O.K. Here's Another Computer There It Is, No Honest, Listen...Bleep Bleep Bleep? Show off a new U.K. garage direction? No, they wisely chose to avoid such traps and instead crawled into their little studio hole, devoured every Warp or Fat Cat record they could find, and vomit out bits of what they learned. It's unfortunate that they puked out the least interesting bits. From the, well...that first track to the, erm...eighth track (which is the one where Thom Yorke mumbles? All of them? What about the deliberately weird one? All of them? Well then...how about the one that has little twinkles of melody that sound like they got beat up a lot when they were in elementary school? Ah...yeah, that one), Kid A parades itself as a seemingly intelligent foray into rock/electronic experimentation when it has about as much sonic ingenuity as pop harlots using that wobbly vocoder effect on their overly-coached, surgically-enhanced throats. It wouldn't be so bad if a legion of people didn't seem to be swallowing these pre-digested stomach contents without even once wondering if they've been cheated out of something special or not.

     It's still too early to tell what the long-lasting effects of Kid A will be on Radiohead's career, but the reactions so far have been awfully amusing. The average fan or journalist hack seem terrified to say a word against the album -- because, heck, Radiohead is an "institution," worthy of "best albums of all-time." They're glad the band is ostensibly moving forward so they clap like trained seals thinking they're part of something important (other than the infamous Everett True claiming that the album is "dreadful" and "exactly the sort of pretentious crap you'd expect Radiohead to come out with," the critical consensus seems to be one of a collective frothing at the mouth or worse, many odd Pink Floyd comparisons). The fact that the album seems to be going gangbusters in the charts is even more comical (anybody get the feeling Kid A will be one of the most heavily bought and never-listened to albums of the year?). Or, as a good friend tells me, "There's either going to be a lot of disappointed kiddies out there or a lot of derelicts using the words 'revolutionary' and 'groundbreaking.'"

     I think most of it comes down to a rather interesting article written by Tom Ewing at the start of the year. In it, Ewing goes into sardonic detail how fans and critics tend to retreat to "states" of music, rather than "genres." As in, how "real" is Band A compared to Band B? And is it really fair to only focus on whether some boy band is "fake" compared to some "real" indie band...all the while forgetting to find out if the music is good or not? Being troubled by such an instinct, he proposes an amusing solution by thrusting every kind of music into four basic categories: Real-Real, Fake-Real, Real-Fake, and Fake-Fake. Here they are defined, in brief...

    • Real-Real: records "which mean it for purposes other than making money off people who want their records to mean it" (in his world, Nirvana, Jo).
    • Fake-Real: records that even while they "start life with the noblest of intentions, there's a crucial gap between their desire to say or be something uncompromised, and the abilities of the people involved to pull it off (The Manic Street Preachers, Natalie Imbruglia).
    • Real-Fake: these records include "commodity pop and little else" (The Spice Girls).
    • Fake-Fake: this is "what happens when pop steps out of its context and into history...the power-pop perfectionists...who get called ironists when they're really only know-it-alls" (the Elephant 6 bands, St. Etienne).

     So why bring this up? Because no matter what Radiohead used to be, no matter the fact that Ewing doesn't even believe what he just wrote, Kid A indicates a band precariously in the clutches of Fake-Real. And every over-produced bloop or unintentionally silly vocal burble -- that is every attempt at "commercial suicide" (including the "no promotion" tactic of in-store playbacks, huge full-page ads, IMAX screenings, countless "exclusive" interviews, an appearance on "Saturday Night Live," etc.) -- the band are only confessing...in a very Radiohead sort of way...that they are desperate to escape their predicament at all costs.

     Frankly, we're smart enough to not lap it all up (Radiohead probably wouldn't want us to anyway). We don't have to buy this purposefully formless move to keep their lauded status in check. No matter the band's indisputable gifts. Because a puddle of vomit from Radiohead's record collection is still a puddle of vomit. Is it really "suicide" to give us exactly what we expect from an overrated and over-glorified band? It's just a clinical regurgitation of electronic pseudo-experimentation. At the end of the day, there's no emotion or insight to a record like Kid A -- except for what it represents for a band nearly destroyed by too many ephemeral yes-men.

     In any case, the sooner the band move away from this stage in their career, the better. It's not a healthy sign that the sawdust sprinkled on top of this mess is more interesting than the album we were actually given. No matter how fascinating it might be to hear Radiohead sound simultaneously both confident and terrified of their own creative status.