Why Radiohead?

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In Rainbows was it for me. The (over)hyped release of Radiohead’s latest masterpiece was so far beyond any other release I heard last year that I dubbed it #1 on the Top Ten I had to write for several publications. In fact, it wasn’t even close. It was numbers 2-9 that took me significant time to develop because Radiohead was such a no-brainer.

But really there’s a great question to be asked: Why? All Music Guide suggests there are between 500-700 releases per month and that doesn’t include all the little guys who will never be known outside of their mom enjoying the new EP. And in that sea of music, Radiohead was by far the most celebrated release of last year by most media outlets.

So again, the question is “Why?” Thom Yorke and company create music that definitely isn’t radio friendly, with hooks just out of reach and complexities that baffle at times. Yorke’s lyrics are hardly the stuff of love and life, so it’s not that everyone is relating to some great line. The guys really aren’t press hounds either, so it’s not as if they are thrust into the limelight all the time, reminding everyone of their greatness (although their freelease certainly had the lion’s share of music publicity for months).

So it’s not lyrics. Not accessibility. Not radio overload. And not likeable, press-friendly personalities. What is it about this collection of songs that made everyone drop what they were doing and turn up the music? I’m not even going to attempt to answer at this point without some comments because I’m legitimately interested in hearing straight answers to the questions.

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Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


18 Comments

  1. deryk

    the level of emotion generated by this band every time they record anything is phenomenal.
    i suspect they achieve this by accomplishing what other bands/artists find virtually impossible: the juxtaposition between complex but beautiful music and lyrics that speak to our inner-most insecurities. it can take a long time to get below the skin of their songs as it can be quite unsettling for some people to not have anything “safe & known” to hang on to; no wonder many people find them scary and depressing.
    the pay-off one gets when investing time in radiohead is so huge that it’s very hard to put them down; their songs become beauty personified and will become part of you.

    and the message that then comes through loud and clear is… love is all.

  2. Chris Slaten

    (Just wanted to preface this comment by saying that by posting the really long comments I have been posting lately I am really really not trying to dominate the conversation. I am really trying to censor myself and be more brief, but a lot of the conversations that have been started here are things that I have been stewing on for years and this is the first time where I have actually found a consistent outlet to bat around these ideas with other people who are interested in the same questions I am. I have loved reading all of the different ways people react to these prompts.)

    To me they sing in the language of lament more eloquently, relevantly and intelligently than any rock band that I know. While “Fitter, Happier” is probably one of the most skipped over tracks on OK Computer I think that it openly lays out one of their most consistent themes throughout all of their records, and I think it is this theme that may the resounding undertone in their laments. For anyone who hasn’t heard the song I’ve posted the lyrics below. It is not a really song, but a robot (almost like HAL from space odyssey) speaking pleasant phrases cut straight out a of a self-help book with dissonant music and sounds playing in the background. I think it pretty clearly states what they think of a stagnant life of modern comfort in the last line in the song, “Fitter, healthier and more productive, a pig in a cage on antibiotics.”
    In other words, we are not free, we are not productive, but we sure have found ways to make ourselves feel that way.
    Radiohead’s music often implies that there is something that has gone very wrong. What seems to keep their work from being a whiney middle school journal, melodramatic, or “emo,” is that the dischord that they portray isn’t just because someone broke up with them or that there has been a tragic death, it is that everything about the way we live seems to be very broken: spiritual death.
    There is a ride at Disneyworld called the Carousel of Progress that uses animatronic theater to convey all of the ways we have “progressed” with modern living within the past century. It is basically a showcase of the evolution of appliances and our “increased quality of living”; making life easier, more efficient and productive with modern conveniences and better homes. At each transitional point the the robots on stage, that are made to look like they could be your grandparents, sing “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow shining a the end of every day!” The stage rotates and you then see the same robots a decade later singing the same song even happier with an even more effective refrigerator! In contrast I think Radiohead points out that modernity looks a lot more like when the computer system takes over in 2001 Space Odyssey and starts running the ship. Modernity can be terrifying, isolating, and deceptive and Radiohead seems to have taken the megaphone on this issue. In the words of Subterranean Homesick Alien, if an alien were to look down on us they would now see creatures who, “drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets.”

    While I think that their excellent musical and lyrical articulation of deep, spiritual discontent, which is rarely if ever brought forth in a pop/rock music, is something that resonates; I’m sure that there are billions of other reasons/lucky breaks/social phenomena/good timing/a good mentor (Michael Stipe)/Brilliant Marketing, etc. why they really have become so huge and iconic. Incidentally my take on In Rainbows and its success is that it had not only had to do with the brilliant marketing, but that this CD seems to be the most accessible, indie pop influenced one since Pablo Honey. There are so many independent and major artists who have been influenced by them now that they now seem to fit right in rather than really stand out.

    I also agree with Deryk that the great thing about them is that the music gets better with each listen as opposed to older and more annoying with each listen, which is what can happen with music that is instantly assessable and catchy. When I got OK Computer in middle school it took about three months for it to become my favorite album. Incidentally during that same three month time period I had the same experience with Graceland.

    Here are the lyrics to Fitter, Happier:

    Fitter, happier, more productive,
    comfortable,
    not drinking too much,
    regular exercise at the gym
    (3 days a week),
    getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries ,
    at ease,
    eating well
    (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats),
    a patient better driver,
    a safer car
    (baby smiling in back seat),
    sleeping well
    (no bad dreams),
    no paranoia,
    careful to all animals
    (never washing spiders down the plughole),
    keep in contact with old friends
    (enjoy a drink now and then),
    will frequently check credit at
    (moral) bank (hole in the wall),
    favors for favors,
    fond but not in love,
    charity standing orders,
    on Sundays ring road supermarket
    (no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants),
    car wash
    (also on Sundays),
    no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows
    nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate,
    nothing so childish – at a better pace,
    slower and more calculated,
    no chance of escape,
    now self-employed,
    concerned (but powerless),
    an empowered and informed member of society
    (pragmatism not idealism),
    will not cry in public,
    less chance of illness,
    tires that grip in the wet
    (shot of baby strapped in back seat),
    a good memory,
    still cries at a good film,
    still kisses with saliva,
    no longer empty and frantic
    like a cat
    tied to a stick,
    that’s driven into
    frozen winter sh$@
    (the ability to laugh at weakness),
    calm,
    fitter,
    healthier and more productive
    a pig
    in a cage
    on antibiotics.
    Sample looping in background:
    [This is the Panic Office, section nine-seventeen may have been hit. Activate the following procedure.]

  3. Tom Bubb

    I don’t claim to “get” Radiohead since I’m still fairly green when it comes to listening to them (I’ve heard The Bends, Ok Computer and In Rainbows) but what really stuck out to me about In Rainbows was the unique beautiful melodies. Fifteen steps has this jangly groove to it and a melody that is both pretty and yet (in Radiohead traditon) mildly unsettling. The hauntingly pretty melody phenomenon is also true in Weird Fishes, Nude, and Jigsaw falling into place. This album was more about intangibles for me- something about it appeals to me in a different way than the other Radiohead stuff I’ve heard. Plus Bodysnatchers just flat out rocks. 🙂

  4. Joshua Keel

    Chris, I could not agree with you more. You articulated exactly what I feel about Radiohead’s themes. I also identify with your experience with OK Computer. It was the first Radiohead record I heard, and I hated it at first. Now, there is no record I own that I love more, except for maybe Neon Bible from The Arcade Fire.

  5. Joshua Keel

    Arthur, you’re certainly not the only one. I think there’s at least one more. 😉

    Seriously, how much have you listened to them? Like I said above, I hated them at first, but kept on listening because my friends thought they were amazing. Gradually, the beautiful sadness and isolation of their music started melting me, and I began to understand what they were saying and a little of how they were doing it so well through beautiful melodies, interesting instruments, complex arrangements, etc.

    They’re not exactly “easy listening” music.

  6. Jacob Tilton

    I am somewhat of a late comer when it comes to Radiohead. I’ve been into them for the past 3-4 years or so. It definitely takes time but well worth the investment. Here are some quotes from Reggie Kidd’s book on worship “With One Voice” (p.137-138) that I think can be applied to Radiohead’s value.

    “Because we know we are forgiven, we can be candid, vulnerable, and reflective. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t seem to work the way it should. We think we need to deny our fallenness. We fear the shame of failing to be perfect. When that happens, we live on the surface of life, cutting ourselves off from true sorrow or true joy. Alternatively, we often keep ourselves busy with “spiritual” busyness to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by the wretchedness we think we shouldn’t experience any longer. Here’s where the children of Jubal [unbelievers from the line of cain who have been given gifts in music] come to our aid. Unbeliever, unhindered by our fear of admitting there’s a gap between the “is” and the “ought,” probe depths we sometimes pretend are not there.
    Because we know the answer, it’s easy for us to forget the questions.

    Sometimes the wanting is done better by those outside the faith, because they haven’t forgotten what it is to be hungry.”

    On a musical note, the chord progression(s) in “Paranoid Android” from OK Computer are some of the most disturbing/beautiful things I think I’ve ever heard.

  7. Arthur Alligood

    For some reason Joshua I have not allowed myself to really dive into any record by Radiohead. I guess I have the typical problem of writing stuff off just because it is popular. I guess I need to move past my pride and really give them a chance. U2 should probably get another shot from me as well. I have never heard a whole record from Radiohead or U2! No, I don’t live in a cave. I don’t know why I haven’t. The thought puzzles even me. Have I committed music blasphemy by not exposing myself to such bands fully?

  8. Joshua Keel

    Arthur, I think what you listen to is up to you. In the end, if the music doesn’t move you, you haven’t committed any musical crimes. I like to introduce people to Radiohead, though, because they amaze me, and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on something I find fascinating.

    Another thing, Radiohead is popular, but in a strange way. They’re popular among the intelligent, the cultured… Just kidding. Really, though, I have a hard time with popular music sometimes. That’s why I don’t listen to Coldplay much. I like to go where people haven’t been much, so I try to find gems in obscurity and bring them out into the light where everyone can see them. The thing with Radiohead is that they’re so amazingly good it just doesn’t matter whether they’re popular. I just need to get over that holier-than-thou indie attitude. If a band is good, they’re just good. Enjoy their music.

  9. Jacob Tilton

    Another cool thing is the lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood did the score to “There Will Be Blood.” I haven’t seen that yet but I look forward to the film and the music.

    Can anyone comment on the music in “There Will Be Blood”?

  10. Joel Bassett

    Thom Yorke’s voice is a huge key to their success, in my opinion. He can sing at times with bell-like purity, but then can channel an intensity, can lunge into a frenzy without losing his melodic sound. Radiohead musically has mastered the art of the crescendo – that gradual buildup, and decrescendo, gradual decrease, and have found ways to do it again and again, with beauty, intensity, ingenuity, and precision. Their song, “Nude,” ends with a lyric-less melody from Yorke that reminds me of Ariel singing “Part of Your World,” and somehow that ends up being believable. Yorke has a lot to do with that.

    I’m not wild about Radiohead. I’m not wild about Wilco either. I find the two of them similar in that they are both touted as the best songwriters/bands around today. I can’t deny that there is something there, though. They have created their own sound and they can manage to sound like themselves yet not like they are recycling the same formula over and over. They stay true to their sound, even when they are pushing themselves into new terrain musically. And they can write some great melodies here and there. Anyway, there’s about a cent and a half for you.

  11. Chris Slaten

    What Joel said about the little mermaid is hilarious, because when my wife and I first listened to that song she said, “It’s Ariel!”
    Arthur, I have the same aversion to popularity. I am wired the same way which is why I haven’t given In Rainbows nearly as much time as their other records; to me it sounds a lot more like a lot of other stuff that’s out there in the indie, pitchforkmedia realm, rather than sounding groundbreaking like their other records, though it is still really good. When I first got into Radiohead I was very young and it took about a year before I found anyone else even remotely interested in them, which is what made it mine all the more and I think a lot of other people have had similar experiences. Also I think the idea of them being “popular among the intelligent, the cultured” is actually one of the biggest reasons for their success. People that finally “get it” seem to have an air of being ushered into an elite club that really knows what terrible and beautiful things are going on in the world. At the first show I went to of theirs I remember being shocked by the fact that not everyone there was super-intelligent and cool, like I thought that I was for listening to them. Many of the people I met were jerks, annoying, heedless, arrogant and “uncultured” just like the crowd at any other hard rock concert (and just like myself). However, I got the distinct impression that none of us wanted to actually think of ourselves that way. By going to see Radiohead this meant we had to have something truly different and set apart, right?
    (Beware this next part I think is where I started talking/thinking out of my rear, but I think it is still a Radiohead relevant worth subject to talk about) It seems like the more commercial a society becomes the more we identify and appraise ourselves with our tastes in things. We have “social networking tools” like myspace and facebook where often the first thing we make sure people know about us is what movies we like, artists, books, etc. In one sense there is nothing wrong with that, but for me as a follower of Jesus, I am His, He is my identity, I want to be a part of what He is doing and I am already set apart in Him. Thus, I often feel some serious cognitive dissonance, guilt when I first meet some one and the conversation moves quickly to and settles on tastes in entertainment. If you look at various artists myspace pages, Radiohead as a favorite artist or influence seems to be one of the staples of people, like myself who are trying to show that they are set apart somehow from mainstream thought. I think the same might go for Wes Anderson movie fans as well and a handful of other Indie Icons (Of course on the other side of the coin, which is probably a much bigger side if that makes any sense, Indie icons can also be huge because their work is refreshingly original, creative and meaningful). As a child of God He has already set me and my spiritual family, His bride, apart, so why do I keep running to my tastes to do the job and to tell people, “This is who I am! I listen to Radiohead!”

    On a side note: PR in the form of critical acclaim also often seems to a have an overbearing influence on the success of less instantly accessible artist who are now very successful.

    Disagreements?

  12. rachel

    chris —

    “As a child of God He has already set me and my spiritual family, His bride, apart, so why do I keep running to my tastes to do the job and to tell people, “This is who I am! I listen to Radiohead!””

    my thoughts exactly. every so often, i find myself jolted back to the reality that jesus is super-cultural. i like to be counter-cultural, so sometimes i settle for that. and there’s a lot of gray area and overlap between super-cultural and counter-cultural. jesus’ point wasn’t so much to do the opposite of the mainstream, but rather to establish a new, holy, god-centered culture. so if jesus has given me a new identity (HIS) and a new security in my identity (HIM), then what do i ‘need’ for security and significance from the american culture of my past life? nothing … and yet it seems that i am all to quick to slip back in there. it’s practically pavlovian … thank you, jesus, for re-training me.

    so if i like radiohead,

    maybe i don’t need to let the whole world know.

    or maybe i do.

    but i guess it depends on my heart.

  13. Chris R

    I dont like Radiohead.
    Maybe that is an overstatement. But I felt it was important to come out strong amidst this love affair (not just Rabbit Room, whom I respect and respect its contributers). It is not so much that I dont like the band as I am sick of hearing about their “brilliance.” Maybe I have had all the right/wrong friends but I have been hearing about Radiohead since my buddy Dave put up a printout of Fitter, Happier all over the walls of my high school. I just dont get it. OK, the music is creative (not my bag, but creative/innovative), they are passionate about their music and I respect the way they go about business, but I am sick of their being hailed as the second coming of Christ. I think the biggest hangup for me is that their “genius” is in not being accessible. Music as art, ok I understand that, but I guess it frustrates me that art that is inaccessible is hailed as great than art that is beautiful in its simplicity. More power to those who want to make art like Radiohead, but part of me wishes others who “get” Radiohead should quit acting like they have found the secret or are more sophisticated than the average Joe and just chalk it up like any other interest. OK, I will quit my angry rant, but I felt compelled to offer up something contrary 🙂

  14. Joshua Keel

    Chris R, I am equally frustrated with the indie, Pitchfork Media type of snobbery so prevalent today among music lovers. I love Radiohead, and I love The Innocence Mission and Waterdeep and Matthew Perryman Jones and others. I don’t always look at them equally, though. I think of some as having reached a greater height of artistic achievement. I love hearing something new and engaging and mind-blowing. The first time I heard Tree63 (a Christian pop/rock band, if there was any doubt) I had that kind of experience. The next time I felt that way was when I listened to The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible for the first time, and after that I had the same experience with Radiohead’s OK Computer. Those songs, for me, embody ideas that have had a huge emotional and intellectual impact on me. I certainly don’t see Radiohead as anything remotely like the “second coming of Christ,” although I know I need to guard against that kind of attitude, as Chris Slaten and rachel have pointed out. For me, talking about the music I love is such a complex and difficult thing, since I really can’t get away from being impacted by my friends’ tastes and indie ideals. I can only keep examining my motives, trying to understand myself, and making sure that I respect other people’s tastes and viewpoints. The last thing I want to do is become an indie snob, where I am defined entirely by the “superiority” of my musical (or other) tastes.

    rachel and Chris S, I appreciate the points you made about identifying ourselves with our entertainment choices, but I wonder exactly how we go about fixing our problems with this. I think we all have a desperate need to belong and to be different, to have unique identity, and even superiority. We can continue to let ourselves be transformed by the renewing of our minds through God’s words, but I constantly seem to fall into the same trap of identifying others and myself by media choices. How does our being created in God’s image relate to our uniqueness and our identity in Christ, if at all? We are unique in Christ, but how would you think this should play out in our conversations? If we don’t start talking to someone and ask about their entertainment choices, what do we ask? How do we practically assume the identity we have in Christ?

    Thoughts, anyone?

  15. Chris Slaten

    The sickening, funny and weird thing about the indie-icon phenomena is that fan bases seem to spread similarly to wild fires. For example if someone is adamantly opposed to something I find engrossing then it just makes me feel that much more adamant to defend it and think that is it is that important for someone to be opposed to it, then it must be that much more important for me to spread the word. The stronger the wind the wider the wildfire. If people who weren’t into Radiohead said, “Yeah, their alright, whatever,” then I don’t think their fans would freak out as much; kind of similar to evangelism under harsh persecution (though I know that is a completely unworthy parallel).

    Chris R: I know a lot of people got into Radiohead and the Indie world as an alternative to another particularly idolized band in the 90’s. They all had frustrations similar to the ones that you just posted, except replace the phrase “Radiohead fans” with “Dave Matthews fans.” Obnoxious fans of one mega-band beget more obnoxious fans of another.

    Pitchfork (a website which basically worships radiohead) snobbery reminds me of the time a few years back when someone hacked into the website on April fools day and turned it into “Richdork media.” It was a pretty hilarious, dead-on satire.

    Joshua, I am going to have to chew on those questions for a little bit. Also, just wanted to let you know that I got your e-mail and will respond soon.

    Matt, I really want to hear more about what you think about this stuff.

  16. jeremy

    i think the main reason I love radiohead is that they have done more to push the boundries of form in rock music than most anyone else. all the experimenting and creative genius of their arrangements and jonny greenwood’s relentless instrumental parts just blow my mind. thom’s voice is amazing but to me it’s the whole package.

    i never got them at all until osenga had me go back and start with “the bends” and then move onto “OK Computer” etc. After that, I was hooked.

    I love the new record. It was my fav of last year too.

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