So I hope it’s okay with everyone that I’m taking a little organizational flexibility in my column this month, because I JUST RECENTLY SAW RADIOHEAD AND I’M NOT OVER IT AND I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT MORE.
It’s 2017, and though everyone’s favorite band had a spectacular return last year with A Moon Shaped Pool, it’s been 20 long years since the release of OK Computer. Pitchfork, the ultimate Radiohead fan boy, has dedicated a weirdly large amount of content to commemorating this album’s anniversary, announcing these big statements about the album’s extraordinary influence, including that it not only managed to “suspend time at the speed of sound,” but also “predicted the future.” Clearly, the biggest voice in music criticism has a little crush. Although the height of Radiohead’s output was 20 years ago, now with the almost upsettingly beautiful trio of The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A, their undeniable influence is clearly still accepted as the underlying agreement of the musical world.
While their reputation is generally more across the board than most, I would say some are more intense and vocal than others. It will never cease to amaze me how skillfully and efficiently a music boy can slip Radiohead into conversation. After careful consideration, it seems to be with a few key motivations: to a) prove the beauty and truth in his own musical taste, b) to carefully gauge reaction in his audience of who is an authentic, fellow listener, and c) to imply that his own musicality has been influenced by the genius of Radiohead.
I don’t want to pick on the music boy too much (better save some for other articles) because this appreciation and influence is extremely widespread. When I went home for winter break, my younger brother’s high school band played an adapted version of “Idioteque.” (Their director introduced it as “Idiotic.” I was the only one who laughed.) But it’s not just high school band directors and music boys who have found room in their hearts for the band; it’s also fellow artists. Back in 2015, Stereogum put out a list of 33 musicians’ favorite Radiohead song, with accompanying commentary of why it’s their favorite. Here’s a couple, for your interest:
Ed Droste (Grizzly Bear): “Let Down”
Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie): “All I Need”
Kip Berman (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart): “Fake Plastic Trees”
Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips): “There, There”
Jana Hunter (Lower Dens): “Like Spinning Plates”
Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes): “Codex”
Mark Smith (Explosions in the Sky/Inventions): “Idioteque”
The music boy is not alone in desiring to be influenced by their artistry. Often the explanation of their reasoning behind the chosen favorite involves very sweet, very descriptive memories of the song’s presence in their youth. Kip Berman is quite blunt about this. He says:
“The best Radiohead album is the one that came out when you were 14, the one that you put on repeat while staring into a void of computer solitaire; the one you made a tape of so you could listen to it on the bus, and the one you learned every song of on your stepdad’s acoustic guitar. Remember your AOL screen name? Was it some bizarre, purposeful misspelling of a Radiohead song title because 126 other people had the same idea first? Mine was. PLASTYCK.”
“PLASTYCK” and other such enthusiasms speak to the power of influence at a young age. It’s kind of like learning a language from a young age, in that it gets inside of you and inspires you as a role model for your own success. Lydia Ainsworth says her favorite, “Exit Music (For A Film),” still motivates her to “to conjure that same feeling when writing my own music.” There’s just something about the age 14 that physically embodies the line, “If I could be who you wanted.” Marissa Nadler says lines like this one “have the weight of the scripture. The song [‘Fake Plastic Trees,’] whether intentional or not, became a sort of anthem of the lonely, at least for me.” “Anthem of the lonely” seems like a contradiction in itself, but listening to a line like that when you’re 14 is incredibly necessary for an understanding that your own bulky, bottomless angst has solidarity in others; it’s just that no one will admit it.
Many of these artists speak to the uncertainty in whether their appreciation or understanding of the song is the intended response. Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes writes an adorable consideration of intent behind the song “Codex:”
“I bet they wrote the music first, and then someone in the band (or their producer) said, ‘You know, this music sort of evokes the very mild but bonding danger of swimming at night with friends,’ and then they wrote the lyrics. But if you put this song on on a Bluetooth speaker while you were swimming at night, I think that would feel too much like trying to construct a moment. A little on the nose. Maybe the next day driving back to the city at sunset you could put it on, though. Swimming at night; nice and intentional.”
It’s honestly really comforting to learn that even other musicians have this worry about bands they’ve been influenced by, but it begs the question further of who is to decide the “nice and intentional” meaning. There are definitely those who continue to analyze and praise Radiohead’s stunning, sometimes even gut-wrenching lyrics, but I’ll be the first to admit that Yorke’s moaning goes right over my head a good amount of the time. Maybe lyrics have limitations when it comes to portraying intended meaning. “I don’t know what the f*** he’s talking about in it,” says Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips of “There, There.” Jana Hunter of Lower Dens says that she had always misheard the title lyric of her favorite song, “Like Spinning Plates,” as “Spinning in Place.” Barry Walters, who reviewed OK Computer before the lyric sheet was was even released, said he “couldn’t comprehend most of the album’s words … but I felt their sadness and longing for connection nevertheless. It was my own.” I’m confused. Is that blasphemy?
When you’re a band like Radiohead, and thousands of other people also cite a particular song as meaningful to them for a particular reason, how can we reconcile the differences in meaning? Should we even try? Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste says, “It’s impossible for me to say what the band or Thom was thinking when he wrote the lyrics or what exactly he meant, but I will say it’s probably my favorite for indulgent sentimental reasons… haha.” If ‘indulgent sentimental reasons’ are good enough for Ed Droste, then they’re good enough for me. Indulgence, just like nostalgia, implies selfishness. I believe there’s something really beautifully self-centered about liking big bands like Radiohead. But I don’t think anyone will admit it, because we’re often taught that liking music should be about some well-thought-out, intellectual analysis that you (Pitchfork) did… haha.
I think the discussion of Radiohead’s fan base quickly enters into the balancing act of not liking popular art because it’s popular, versus giving popular art its due, because it’s probably popular for a reason. “Whenever I’m discussing somebody who has a seminal work, whether it’s a musician or a filmmaker, I often find that you need throw [a certain] one out,” says Ben Gibbard. “Like, if you’re talking about the Beatles, you need to just throw out Sgt. Pepper’s. If you’re talking about Radiohead, throw out OK Computer. Those works are on a certain plane.” How do we discuss works “on a certain plane,” then? Why is it that, when you admit your favorite band is Radiohead and the guy next to you scoffs and rolls his eye a bit – why is it that you feel just a little less musically intelligent?
There’s also a subtle sense that I think often goes ignored, so I want to make this brief but important point: the Radiohead fan base is largely male-oriented. Rosie Blair of Ballet School articulates this feeling in an interesting way:
“Sometimes Radiohead were so earnest that I would get bored of having the feels triggered every time I listened to them. I kind rebelled against that classicist, masculine vibe for a while. You have to when you are young. I think a lot of girls at that time did. Radiohead were just so revered. That can be oppressive. But I’m not a miser. I know when to defer. And ‘Pyramid Song’ is one of those moments.”
We have to remember that earnest and sincere works that exist “on a certain plane,” if I can keep using Ben Gibbard terminology, are not exclusive to men. Because if they are, then disliking them just to make a point becomes an act of feminism, when it really shouldn’t be. Men don’t own reverence. In order for their admiration not to be oppressive, men need to make room for female reverence for bands like Radiohead. I think that will allow all of us to share space and solidarity for true genuine appreciation of music.
Kip Berman’s favorite Radiohead album is The Bends, but he says he won’t insist it’s the best Radiohead album because “some people do say that, but I think those people want to make a point about electric guitars and real-ness. In 2015, even making a point against that point seems beside the point.” Well. It’s 2017 now, I’m writing yet another think piece about Radiohead, and I have completely lost my point.
I kid, I’m on top of my s***. Why is Radiohead so influential? “Perhaps everyone’s love of Radiohead is born out of adolescence,” says Berman, “but they seem the rare band that you hold onto—not for reasons of nostalgia, i.e. your favorite emo band—but with continued appreciation and relevance. As you get older you (hopefully) lose the sense that you’re the sole inhabitant of the real.” Kip is @-ing me big time. I have a strong desire to tweet, “I gotta stop tryna be the Sole Inhabitant of The Real.”
I’m really trying to correctly record the first time I ever listened to a Radiohead song (I may be just making this up for dramatic effect) but I think it was after a cross country meet when I heard the cooler older kids talking about them, and I went home and listened to “No Surprises” because it was the first one that came up on YouTube. All I remember, honestly, is feeling pretty shook.
Mark Smith from Explosions in the Sky says he tries to revisit Kid A in order to recapture his original emotional response. “It’s not possible—now I just hear the combination of experimentation and songwriting and depth that is somehow beautiful and scary and human and alien and illusory and random and planned all at once. But back then, my first listen was just confusing, my second was confounding, my third was love, and my fourth was infatuation.” Mark and I are way past four listens by now. It’s 2017. There’s this huge, Pitchfork-induced yearning, championed by music boys, to make wildly grand claims about the magnificence of Radiohead’s artistry and their impressively extensive notoriety. But, I think it’s important to remember the nostalgic, puzzling, indulgent, and incredibly self-centered first reaction of our inner 14-year-old self, because to me, that’s the self who lives out Radiohead’s undeniable influence at its most earnest and sincere.
ADRIENNE HOHENSEE | A Weird Fish | KXSU Music Reporter