The Undertow of Radiohead
Throughout my incalculable hours and hours of music listening and discerning, my thirsty ears and I have come to an agreement: never again will we forego a band just because they have achieved outrageous popularity.
As a sucker for anything remotely electronic sounding (a synth line here or a drum machine there), I rarely allow myself to float even a few feet above the genre, yet Radiohead had me feverishly swimming towards the surface.
This fascination surrounding Radiohead runs deeper than just good music, music that ripples through genres and audiences.
The band makes waves with critics and musicians alike who eagerly wait to dissect Radiohead’s sonic conglomerations that have been described as anywhere from “postmodern” to “hyped-up tosh” (Green).
Most of the reviews and essays floating around cyberspace reject the myth that Spin magazine’s writer Chris Norris conjured: “Radiohead can do no wrong”(Norris).
Yet, indeed Radiohead are not superhuman (though their music has been likened to otherworldly).
They just do not give off that Brit-rockstar air, and “if you ask Radiohead themselves, they’ll tell you they aren’t music saviours” which is one of the reasons why they are so well respected for the most part: they remain humble and unphased by fame (Adler).
This very fame is made possible by the group’s sonic experimentation that blasts rock music into the future, though Radiohead would never claim their music “is the solution to a mainstream that’s become a sensationalistic slaughterhouse of taste” (Adler).
Nor would they liken their own music to postmodern, yet many critics out there believe just that, that the vocals of lead singer Thom York, “a tortured poet with a dystopian, world-weary view”, is making commentary on the “white noise” of our lost, perfunctory, de-humanizing, and postmodern society (du Lac).
A select few critics and naysayers believe that Radiohead are not truly humble about their success and music, drawing on the concrete fact that their high album sales don’t lie.
The group has built such a strong fan base throughout their seventeen albums, as is reflected with “In Rainbows”, their latest album, where “1.2 million digital downloads were sold by the day of the album’s release”, that they can afford to take stylistic and economic risks such as releasing the album with a pay-what-you-think-its-worth method (Stevenson).
If some fans wished to pay zilch, they could still have the entire album in their iTunes library in a matter of seconds.
Radiohead denies any connection with a “one-off marketing scheme” with the digital download concept (Stevenson). Bassist Colin Greenwood is the only articulate member of the group.
Front man Thom Yorke never even hints at the band’s success or album sales numbers; he stays quiet and flicks the music industry off by leaving the record label that started it all and choosing to release “In Rainbows” digitally.
I disagree with critics that claim Radiohead are not the low-key musicians I’ve come to know.
For such a popular and successful group, I think Radiohead remains humble, true to their fans and true to themselves.
The band would never place themselves so high on the musical totem pole, even though so many critics have done just that. Even with the overflow of praises, Radiohead do not consider themselves progressive rock gods or connoisseurs of chart-topping hits.
They simply do their own thing and hope for the best. For instance, the band’s revolutionary pay-what-you-think-this-is-worth method with their newest album “In Rainbows”, released in October of 2007, shows that the group is not concerned with money.
Fans were able to name their own price (as little or as much as they wanted) for the digital download, which raised the question: What is music really worth?
The bassist for Radiohead, Colin Greenwood, believes that “If it’s worth something to people musically and emotionally, then the value the people put on it [the music] will reflect that” (Adler).
With this “honesty box” idea in mind, Radiohead is leaving the dollar signs behind and forging an intimate trust within their audience.
This artist-fan bond guided the group’s other decisions. At the time of the album’s mp3 format release, Radiohead had just emancipated themselves from a record label contract with EMI, a decision that Greenwood says “kept [the band] alive creatively and made sure [they] could still be connected to people who would like [their] music” (Stevenson).
This decision to pass up the big record companies marked a risk that Radiohead fans could appreciate, but could be taken as a slap-in-the-face to the big music industry leaders.
Greenwood denies that the band would “be so rude as to do something for a negative reason” like biting the hand that feeds them (Adler).
Some critics are sickened by the notion that Radiohead could be called the future of music. For example, Fiery Furnace’s front man Matt Friedberger calls them an “exceptionally well-dressed jam band…that you can’t even dance to” (Berman).
He thinks their use of a multi-section song structure, specifically in “OK Computer”, makes for non-genius noise.
The album’s sweeping melodies call for a serious tone in the music, a tone that some say does not allow for playfulness or “conjure up images of sunshine” and therefore limits the mood in which one must be in to appreciate Radiohead’s music (du Lac).
If the future is a bright place, then there is no room for Radiohead’s sullen songs. Others, like Spin magazine’s Chris Norris believe the band’s “experimentation in electronica-based songwriting alienated some fans who found the album [OK Computer] a bit formless and switched to Coldplay” (Norris).
Others agree that by incorporating electronica into Radiohead’s songs, the band was betraying its original fans, who then split off into more mainstream artists.
Yet, as a conglomeration of sound, I strongly believe that Radiohead could very well be the future of music.
For instance, “OK Computer”, Radiohead’s 1997 album, has been held as “the future of rock, prais[ed] [for] its orchestration…and its adventurous time signatures” (Green).
The album merges eclectic electronica with guitar riffs and intervals of melody that cause the listener to uplift and reflect at the same time; “Radiohead borrowed tricks from electronic music where other acts were bogged down in the dull retro template of Britpop” (Green).
The CD’s track “Climbing up the Walls” contains distorted drums and ambient sounds, not to mention an orchestral string section.
”OK Computer” is an emotional mix of man and machine, where Yorke “ben[ds] and otherwise distort[s] his own soaring, swooping vocal notes, as if his voice [comes] with an effects pedal” (du Lac).
People do not care if Radiohead’s music contains bits and pieces of electronica; it is all about the sounds produced; so I don’t think the use of electronica-based songwriting ever split the band’s audience.
In addition, Radiohead’s futurism bounds and leaps across media, landing into the world of video. For instance, “the band decided to create images entirely with data” for their new single “House of Cards” (Turnbull).
Everything in the video was produced with computer software and lasers: “The lasers bounced off singer Thom Yorke’s face, and off landscapes and other people, and the returned signals were turned into images” (Turnbull). Radiohead has never shied away from technology and experimentation with medium.
Furthermore, Radiohead never claims to be postmodern; they never reveal any sort of agenda, political or not.
Yet, critics seem to notice a certain vibe of postmodernism in the band’s songs that hovers but fails to reach anyone, especially the self-proclaimed indie hipsters who don’t truly dive deep enough into Radiohead’s lyrics or compositions, let alone can define postmodernism.
Critics believe Radiohead do not offer any kind of solution to the paralyzing, frightful state of a postmodern society, which only makes society more lost.
The more the listener wants to drown out the white noise of today with Radiohead’s music, the further they get trapped into such a world via the spillage of sound seeping from their ear buds.
Critics also think Radiohead “betray[s] their mission through artsy-fartsy accomplishment…[where] the menacing and mindless repetitions of our culture are recycled and performed…not as music, but as noisy representation” (Murphet).
If Radiohead is attempting to create postmodern music, they are only coating the image of postmodernism with more and more noise, burying any hope for the future in a confusing collage of sound.
On the other hand, I think Radiohead successfully analyzes today’s postmodern society through their music. “OK Computer” contains songs that hint at “feelings and commentary…[such] as social fright, political disillusionment, digital paranoia, and post-modern schizophrenia” (Brower).
In “Fitter Happier”, vocals are sampled and filtered through a vocoder so that they mimic an emotionless computer that is spewing out the routine of the day, like robot-talk nonsense.
The tune “No Surprises” possesses a sarcastic tone that snarks at the banality of life and the mediocrity that humans have settled for.
The album continues on, magnifying the feeling of alienation and the numbing down of feelings “within a reality over saturated with media”, a paralyzing sensation that hovers over the listener like the white noise of a bustling, mechanical world (Murphet).
Radiohead mirrors the postmodern universe with layers of noise that buzz in and out of heavily textured layers of riffs and droning vocals.
Thus, Radiohead’s music, though controversial, is a phenomenon you can’t ignore. I am certain the band’s expansive sound will continue to evolve while still “popping up in music polls and on friend’s home stereos” across the seas and anywhere in between (Green).
Quite possibly, the thoughtful music makers are ahead of their time because they are so incredibly humble, or are at least gifted at concealing any shimmer of rockstar behavior.
Maybe the future has its face turned towards humility, instead of towards a dehumanized capitalist conglomeration.
Also, I think Radiohead does contribute to our postmodern world (through composition), but then again, I can argue that you can find something postmodern in most any music if you listen close enough.
All in all, Radiohead could definitely show a thing or two to many of today’s shallow, mass-produced, and pre-packaged Pop stars.