I’ve decided to post the reason why I have been unable to blog for the past couple weeks. In addition to finals, I foolishly took on a MASSIVE topic for my final paper in Music Journalism: the relationship between technological innovation in the late 90s and 00s and Radiohead’s entire discography. For the sake of full disclosure (actually, the opposite), I’m posting the unfinished, unpolished, unrevised version of the 6-page-turned-12-page-turned-9-page essay for anyone who is interested.
I’m planning to rework, restructure, and finish it, probably in a series of posts accompanied by pictures, quotes, audio, and video to back up my thesis (and so you don’t start foaming at the mouth from reading 9 pages worth of shit at a time). But for now, here’s “Gravity Always Wins, v.1.0”. I welcome any criticism or suggestions and will take any of them into serious consideration as I work on finishing it in the (hopefully) near future. Keep checking back, too, because I have lots of cool ideas for the end of the year.
Gravity Always Wins
Art fills its role in society when it relays the concerns of its contemporaries to the generations that succeed it. Some artists deliberately identify with these concerns and mean to influence their audiences on one side of the issue or the other. Others project disenchantment with the present and defer to influences from the past. But art reflects its audience best when the artist makes no effort to reflect. An artist who observes his subject from a pedestal merely symbolizes his audience’s concerns, but one who makes art for the sake of art embodies them unknowingly.
For all Radiohead’s commercial success, the band draws capacious dividing lines between its music and the collective taste buds of the mainstream. By tugging the boundaries of society’s tolerance for cacophony, Radiohead exposes what Joe Mainstream fears of the 21s century but never speaks of: that the Western world’s reliance on technology puts the intangible intricacies of human nature, the millenniums-old foundation of civilization, in danger of extinction. And they do so without ever singing words or arranging notes in a way that would explicitly elicit that idea.
Radiohead grew into its ambitiously disenchanted shell as the Internet juggernauted its way into our daily routines and lodged itself into virtually every niche of society. Both matured and gained momentum gradually at first, and skyrocketed to the forefront of their respective forums (pop music for Radiohead, civilization for the Internet) around the same time. Nothing in Radiohead’s catalogue, save for a few titular references (OK Computer, “Idioteque,” etc.), suggests that vocalist and principle songwriter Thom Yorke intended to mirror the chaos of human minds vs. hard drives with his deliberately confused style of electro-rock. But lack of intention does not devalue the analysis of this coincidence; in fact, it justifies it.
The public got its first glimpse of Radiohead in the 1994 from an unexpectedly colossal radio hit off of the band’s debut LP, Pablo Honey. “Creep” introduced a theme that pervaded early Radiohead and nearly typecast the young British alt-rockers: misery and self-loathing via overwhelming feelings of purposelessness. “What the hell am I doing here?” Yorke asks the tyrannical wall of power chords, “I don’t belong here.” Radiohead’s early output leaned on a bottomless rhythm section, yanked to the surface by sweeping drums, and a massive three-part, textured guitar platoon that owed more to arena rock than to punk or grunge.
Yorke’s lyrics dealt with the somewhat existential feeling of displacement that Radiohead shared with many of their grunge counterparts; they belonged to a culture that often looked to the sixties for inspiration but lacked a cause to support or a civil injustice to march against. In the title track of the band’s second LP, The Bends, Yorke sings, “I’m just lying in a bar with my drip feed on / Talking to my girlfriend, waiting for something to happen / I wish it was the sixties, I wish we could be happy / I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen.” The Bends, released in 1995, showcased a more refined version of Pablo Honey’s anthemic, guitar-centric sound. But Yorke unconsciously began hinting at the motif that would evolve into the inexplicit essence of the rest of Radiohead’s output: the struggle to keep technology from dictating humanity, and not the other way around.
“Fake Plastic Trees” doubts the longevity of artificial extensions of human existence as Yorke sings in tender falsetto, “She lives with a broken man / A fake, polystyrene man / Who just crumbles and burns / He used to do surgery / For girls in the eighties / But gravity always wins.” The instrumentation is fittingly unadorned: Yorke plays the first and chorus unaccompanied until the band stealthily joins in for the second verse. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood creates a roomy atmosphere that takes several listens to notice even though the song would sound naked without it. The song climaxes with a paroxysm of guitar noise and feedback set to drummer Phil Selway’s onslaught of open high-hat and trenching toms.
Radiohead placed one of the most straightforward and personal songs in its catalogue right in the heart of one of their most straightforward and personal albums. Just as Yorke did not intend for the “fake polystyrene man” to serve as a retrospective metaphor for online networking vs. personal connection, Radiohead did not predict the ubiquitous digitization of the civilized world, nor did they set out to create a time-appropriate concept album at its cusp. However, the very lack of intention only strengthens The Bends’s ties to the digital boom of the mid-nineties, as does the giant stylistic and ideological leap Radiohead takes with their next record, OK Computer, two years later.
By 1997, the Internet had made significant progress toward infiltrating virtually every household and business in the Western world. It had spent the previous decade gradually spilling into various slots of daily life and had gained nearly enough momentum and speed to uproot traditional means of commerce and communication—in turn, everyday human existence—forever. Yorke intended OK Computer to communicate his disillusionment with consumerism; songs like “No Surprises” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien” thrust this sentiment to the forefront while the rest lightly jar general theme and shift it to a range of subtopics. “Airbag” advocates simpler living with a near-death scenario while “Electioneering” blames Parliament, and the spoken-word interlude “Fitter Happier” outlines the anesthetized lifestyle that keeps the vindictive “Karma Police” from avenging frivolous self-indulgence.
The lyrics make few, if any, direct references to computers; the Internet still had not grown into the imagined skin of Yorke’s giant consumerist monster just yet. Reliance on that motif would have condescended Radiohead’s audience; they had no more or less instinct of the digital takeover that loomed than the rest of the general public. That knowledge would have prevented Radiohead from crafting an accurate snapshot of mid-nineties, pre-Y2K capitalist society.
Radiohead uses relatively few computerized effects throughout OK Computer, especially compared to the three albums they would release in the first half of the following decade. The scattered freckles of computer magic never play more than a complimentary role anywhere on the guitar-dominated third album, as it shares many of the same arena rock influences with the previous two. The song structures, however, far exceed the level of complexity containable in the classic rock arena. OK Computer stretches the conventional structure at its most humble and demeans it at its best. “Paranoid Android” features multiple movements in a manner that is more schizophrenic than theatrical; the chord progression employs chromatic scales that beg for Greenwood’s swindling lead.
Greenwood’s guitar tone throughout the album presents the fundamental conflict of Radiohead’s plight: it emerges to the surface of the band’s natural-toned rhythm section drenched in guitar effects, but Greenwood’s slapdash, deliberately imperfect technique applies human distinction to the otherwise unrecognizable sounds. Most notably in “Electioneering,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” and “The Tourist,” Greenwood’s style creates a tension that suggests Radiohead’s ambition had outgrown its rock’n’roll foundation.
As society began to outgrow its traditional, physical means of business and communication, the public swiftly embraced the Internet as a way to satisfy its growing lust for immediacy and alacrity. Meanwhile, Radiohead wondered along with its community what would result, and unconsciously expressed that anxiety by emphasizing the consequent deadness of leading a hectic, consumerist life. In OK Computer’s closing track, “The Tourist,” Yorke sings “Sometimes I get overcharged / That’s when you see sparks / They ask me where the hell I’m going / At a thousand feet per second / ‘Hey man, slow down’ / ‘Idiot, slow down’.” These final lyrics pin Yorke as just one of many member of his demographic who fear the direction technology compels them to take; he sings from his community, for his community, and despite his community that seeks to eschew a digital revolution but feels it may require one.
In 1999, that subtle, vexing fear manifested itself in boogieman stories of total informational annihilation—namely, the Y2K scare. Society put all its vital day-to-day records, and, subsequently, its future, in technology’s hands, despite not knowing whether or not the computers could withstand the shifting of digits as 1999 turned to 2000. While his bandmates advocated a more succinct approach to writing for their fourth full-length, Kid A, Yorke insisted on capsulizing the computer-induced paranoia of the new millennium.
After a laborious inter-band dispute over the track list, Radiohead decided to start the album with the baleful “Everything In Its Right Place.” The song builds on a disquieting progression of entirely synthetic chords while an almost inaudibly deep bass drum keeps the off-putting 10/8 time signature from falling apart. The title track follows with an eerily sanguine parade of programmed raindrop sounds against Yorke’s indecipherable, mechanized vocals. Seven of the ten tracks on Kid A feature little or no guitar tones, and only the acoustic ballad “How To Disappear Completely” allows the guitar to drive the song. Even so, the brilliant tension Greenwood created with his guitar-playing technique on OK Computer does not affect Kid A; the influence of technology completely absorbs his alluring, stylistic human error and captivates it in infallible, programmed tones. In fact, Greenwood trades his guitar for keyboards and other electronic instruments, such as the ondes Martenot, a theramin-organ hybrid, in almost every song.
When writing lyrics for Kid A, Yorke engaged a unique method to make the lyrics sound as impersonal as the instrumentation: he cut up one-liners, like “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon,” and pulled them from a hat to determine what to sing on a given song. He cited writer’s block as the inspiration for this seemingly primitive idea, but the accidental origin lends accuracy to Radiohead’s interpretation of Y2K apprehension; it reflects a society that no longer sympathizes with intangible human whims, but both fears and revels in the random yet methodical conjunction of disjointed ideas. “Idioteque,” Kid A’s eighth track, perhaps best illustrates this confused sentiment with its persistent electronic drum beat that starkly contrasts its meandering machine squeals. Yorke and Greenwood sampled these meandering tones from Paul Lansky’s 1970 experimental, computer-based composition, Mild und Leise. Kid A ends with another conflicting piece, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The track features Yorke playing a pedal organ and singing the only intensely personal lyrics on the album as chopped-up harp and choir samples dance haphazardly over the delicate vocals.
Radiohead’s next two releases, 2001’s Amnesiac and 2003’s Hail to the Theif, make no effort to resolve the confusion on Kid A; if anything, they see the band splinter off into every irrelevant direction imaginable. Amnesiac features unused songs from the Kid A sessions, many of which diminish the effectiveness of both the natural and electronic tones by using them in relatively equal parts. Hail to the Theif follows this model with even more oversaturated, seemingly deliberate strangeness. While the Internet quickly became a new vehicle for old forms of human vice—identity theft, child molestation, etc.—Radiohead rapidly became disenchanted with a computerized landscape they no longer knew how to operate without.
After an imperative four-year vacation from the studio, Radiohead emerged to the complete surprise of the rest of the world on October 10, 2007 with In Rainbows. The band, liberated from the shackles of a major label for the first time since the early nineties, released the album on its website as a digital download for which customers could name their own price—even “free” was fair game. The physical album hit stores on January 1, 2008 and, despite (or, more to-the-point, thanks to) the intentional leak, sold more than three million units in less than a year.
Where Kid A and its immediate successors drowned in computer programming (distastefully, but intentionally so), In Rainbows harnessed it to supplement the astounding natural tones, and not vice-versa. Album opener “15 Step” finds Greenwood’s bold guitar alone with a smacking 5/4 electronic drum beat and Yorke’s rhythmic croon. “Bodysnatchers” reaches more for classic rock influences as the gritty guitar takes an undeniable lead in the frantically gratifying lead single. An elegant ensemble of drums, cymbals, tambourines, and other auxiliary percussion on “Reckoner” proves that Radiohead can produce stylishly grandiose textures without an electronic crutch.
Radiohead reworked several songs from sessions dating as far back as OK Computer for In Rainbows. “Nude” debuted as an organ-driven ballad on the OK Computer world tour in 1997. In the ensuing decade between its original composition and its official release, “Nude” slimmed down to a bass-and-drum groove accompanied only by gossamer guitars and Yorke’s most majestic vocal performance to date. “Videotape,” one of Yorke’s most lyrically introspective and vocally intimate compositions also underwent nearly a decade of paring to finally earn its place on a studio album.
Conceptually, and perhaps, for the first time, consciously, Radiohead succeeded in balancing human and computerized influences. The sparse artificial sounds on In Rainbows enhance the multihued guitar, bass, drum, and piano tones that propel the album. With Kid A, Radiohead capitalized on a raw, unprecedented idea that ultimately distorted their outlook on music and consumed them for more than half a decade. In Rainbows showed the band how to wrangle their feral electronic impulses to complement their charmingly imperfect rock band persona. Meanwhile, they translated that ideology to a business scenario by using the Internet as form of promotion to enhance a physical product. Instead of fighting the inevitable widespread leak of In Rainbows, Radiohead used it to market the box set.
Radiohead’s commercial success with OK Computer and Kid A stupefied critics and music industry experts; how could something so sonically unpleasant and topically challenging crossover from a critical darling to a pop radio powerhouse? The leak of In Rainbows seven years later left critics, professionals, and consumers wondering what inclined millions of people to pay for something that the primary source offers for free. The mainstream is a funny thing; its sweet tooth throbs for half-baked dance anthems when the times don’t require guidance. But when some outside force, usually of society’s own creation, creates unanswerable questions, the mainstream reaches out for a voice that sounds confused and disillusioned in the same way—and their attraction to this voice is as unconscious—and, by virtue, as true—as the artist’s alluring message.