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Authors: Marvin Lin

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This potential for multiple interpretations is precisely what enables
Kid A
’s lyrics to be interpreted as timely political statements, regardless of Radiohead’s intentions. Sure, knowing zilch about global warming or genetically modified foods doesn’t change our visceral reactions to the blaring horns on “The National Anthem” or the suffocated beats of “Kid A” — not only can we more fully immerse ourselves in its aesthetics when we’re not constantly searching for “political meaning,” but some of the tracks, like “Treefingers” and “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” have no discernible, or at least apparent, political undertone. On the other hand, the more context we have for the songs and
Radiohead in general, the less exaggerated and outrageous both the apocalyptic artwork and music appear.

Despite Thom’s insistence to ignore the words, despite his decision to not print the lyrics, despite his attempts to obscure meaning through the Dadaist poem technique,
Kid A
’s lyrics were indeed political to a lot of fans, spitting forth the kind of core-shaking convictions that aggressively dislodge us from our comfort zones. Here, Thom wasn’t critiquing the machinations of the capitalist industry as an outsider looking in: he hurled himself
within
the machine. He
became
the subjugated: “Where’d you park the car? Where’d you park the car!?” screams the narrator of “Morning Bell,” as if such banality marked the end of the world. This approach positioned all of us as capitalism’s ultimate subject: We’re the ones who are “living in a fantasy” (“In Limbo”); we’re the ones who have “got the fear” (“The National Anthem”); we’re the ones too invested in consumerism and individualism, too distracted and alienated to feel undermined and disenfranchised.

The political timeliness is expressed even more convincingly on “Optimistic” and “Idioteque.” While the former can be read as a critique of global capitalism, it also served as a comment on the First World’s rampant fend-for-yourself individualism: Yes, “Big fish eat the little ones,” but it’s “not my problem, give me some.” Thom also referenced George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian, dystopian classic
Animal Farm
in the second verse:

This one’s optimistic / This one went to market / This one just came out of the swamp / This one dropped a payload / Fodder for the animals / Living on ‘Animal Farm.’

Meanwhile, “Idioteque” sublimated anxiety over global warming into five minutes of encapsulated paranoia exploding over propulsive beats. Here, the narrator screamed:

Ice age coming! / Ice age coming! […] We’re not scaremongering! / This is really happening! Mobiles skwrking / Mobiles chirping / Take the money and run / Take the money and run / Take the money.

Sure, Radiohead didn’t intend for
Kid A
to be a “political album,” especially with all the baggage the label entails, but Thom’s insistence that the band is not political “at all” is clearly exaggerated. In fact, he even admitted to
The Wire
that politics was “all so part of the fabric of everything, even the artwork. I couldn’t really say it directly so much, but it’s there — the feeling of being a spectator and not being able to take part.” While the songs on
Kid A
may not be as politically cut and dried as tracks like “Gimme Shelter” or “California Über Alles,” Thom’s lyrics tap into the fuel, the burn, the desire for political engagement; he
just didn’t want to use a “sledgehammer to bang people over the head with it.” In so doing, Radiohead avoid the trappings of the “political artist” while still performing music of political value. As Curtis White argued in his essay, “Kid Adorno,” “[Radiohead] refuses the error of politically correct art that seeks to make its artistic effect dependent on the virtue of its political message.”

In other words, Radiohead were veering between timeliness and timelessness. But while it’d be difficult to assert, even in retrospect, that
Kid A
’s lyrics are timely to the degree that, say, Rage Against the Machine’s were, it’s also impossible to hear Thom shouting “Ice age coming! This is really happening!” without getting chills at its time-dependent urgency. Even more chilling is how
Kid A
’s targets — economic globalization, genetically modified foods, global warming — are as relevant today as they were at the turn of the millennium, making its politics effectively “of its time”
and
“of our time.”

What’s interesting, then, isn’t whether or not Radiohead were deliberately being political or even whether or not
Kid A
should be interpreted politically. Rather, what do
Kid A
’s politics tell us about the status quo? How might its political messages shape our current worldview or our future? Besides, even if Radiohead
were
deliberately being political, this clearly isn’t a case where the lyrics could be rendered irrelevant in a “snap.” Time may catch up to anything and everything, but Radiohead’s political concerns have thus far nimbly avoided its clutches, assuming
a sort of pseudo-permanence that, without serious intervention, could very well last until Radiohead’s envisioned apocalypse.

Kid Agency

File-sharing by peer-to-peer should be legalized. The sharing of music where it is not for profit is a great thing for culture and music.

Brian Message, Radiohead’s manager

On October 1, 2007, Jonny posted an unexpected message on Radiohead’s official website: “Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days; […] We’ve called it In Rainbows.” The album title was linked to a pre-order page, where
In Rainbows
, the band’s seventh album, could be pre-ordered as either a special box set for £40 (roughly $80) or, more significantly, as a digital download for
any price fans desired
. Indeed, fans would input an amount of their choosing into a little text field and would receive, on the day of its digital release, an email with 160 kbps-encoded MP3s in a ZIP file.

In one dramatic yet understated gesture, Radiohead revealed the existence of a new album set for release in just ten days, implied the end of their longtime
relationship with EMI by self-releasing the album, and formulated a release method that had the entire music community suddenly reassessing the relationships among music, value, and consumption. As the
New York Times
reported, “For the beleaguered recording business Radiohead has put in motion the most audacious experiment in years.”

The experiment paid off wonderfully, too. According to Warner/Chappell (the band’s publishing company), the sales generated from the three months between the announcement of
In Rainbows
and the traditional CD release — via independent labels TBD and XL Recordings — surpassed the
total
amount the band received from their final major label release,
Hail to the Thief
. And this was true, despite the fact that the majority of fans paid nothing for the download. Of course, the pay-what-you-want model, while profitable for Radiohead, was never intended to act as the future of music distribution — only a band of its stature could possibly pull off something that crazy, not to mention one with the know-how and staff. However, the release method of
In Rainbows
resulted in something quite interesting nonetheless: the music community started blabbering more about the medium than the music itself.

While
In Rainbows
will forever symbolize Radiohead’s break from traditional distribution methods, their interest in the medium actually had its roots in
Kid A
. In fact, even before
Kid A
was released, the band had already discussed various alternatives for distributing their music, including unveiling songs
in EP-like batches or through an online subscription model. In an interview with
Q
, Ed practically dribbled all over himself theorizing about the possibilities of the latter:

Subscription, mate. Subscription. Things are going to change. I think there’s an analogy between what’s happened with football [soccer], and what’s happened with music. I’m not having a go — you make a good living doing this — but basically bands get screwed by record companies. That’s a fact. And that’s all going to change: with the onset of online distribution, the whole way that music is made will change.

First, 78s dictated the way music was made, then 45s, then 33s, then CDs — it’s all changed. Now, wouldn’t it be great to do a track a month, and do it on subscription, and people could download it? And two years down the line, you could do a compilation for those who wanted one.

For a musician who has benefited so greatly from the physical music paradigm, Ed seemed unusually excited to speculate about the uncharted waters of the digital medium. But what was he trying to get at? While already rarely entertained in 2000, his theoretical approach — to use the medium to make predictions about the future — was even rarer in the 1960s, but it formed the basis of writings by Marshall McLuhan,
whose theories can in fact help us understand not only why the mediums through which Radiohead’s music is delivered is as important as the music itself but also how these mediums alter our perception of — yep, you guessed it — time.

* * *

McLuhan’s primary theory is encapsulated in his famous maxim, “the medium is the message.” For him, history isn’t driven by Platonic idealism or Marxist class struggle; it’s our interactions with media — which he described as any “extension” of ourselves, from clothing to computers — that truly drives humanity. More significantly, he argued that it’s not the content of media (a news report about a serial killer) that shapes our social structures and cultural values; it’s our experience with media themselves (watching a 22-minute news program broadcast from a multinational conglomerate into the privacy of our homes). He took particular note of the perceptual effects resulting from the electronic revolution, which he saw as a significant departure from the centuries-old dominance of the printed word that, with semantically meaningless letters corresponding with semantically meaningless sounds, had oriented our minds toward a fragmented, linear way of thinking. As he explained in a
Playboy
interview, “It is necessary to recognize literacy as typographic technology, shaping not only production and marketing procedures but all other areas of life, from education to city planning.”

But while movable type printing encouraged Western society to think in terms of the visual, McLuhan believed that the late-nineteenth-century advent of the electric light bulb shows a reversion back to a pre-literate tactile, oral, and acoustic culture. Rather than print culture’s virtues of sequence, classification, and continuity, McLuhan saw the new electronic world embracing simultaneity, pattern recognition, and discontinuity: commodities turn into information, in which the name (Coca-Cola) is more important than the thing (soda); the book becomes the blurb, the letter a tweet; a chronological modernism leads to a non-sequitur postmodernism; Italy becomes a travel brochure; the Industrial Age moves to the Information Age; and spatial concerns like highways and railroads give way to temporal ones like speed and duration. McLuhan wasn’t arguing that electronic media were destroying the printed word or that literacy has or will come to an end, but simply that history can be seen as a battle between competing media for sensory dominance, and with our electronic media environment of computers, phones, and TVs, there arises a host of new thoughts and feelings that were repressed by the dominance of the printing age.

But like Ed’s theoretical approach to the future of music, McLuhan’s probe “the medium is the message” is ultimately intended to encourage foresight into the future. This is why he asserted that “Politics offer yesterday’s answers to today’s questions,” and that “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.”
Through these and many other aphorisms, McLuhan was trying to shake us out of our hang-ups with
concepts
and to start emphasizing
percepts
. He was suggesting avenues for human agency, encouraging expression and interaction, performance and communication in the context of technological change. If content is “yesterday” and media is “today,” then he believed that, rather than focusing on content and using hindsight to
construct
a future, we should look to our media for perceptual insights
into
the future.

“If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them,” said McLuhan. “But if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.”

* * *

Radiohead make a great case study for McLuhan’s theories. Not because Radiohead endeavored to alter our perceptions for insights into the future, but because the ways in which they’ve promoted and distributed their music have become equally relevant as the music itself.
Kid A
, in particular, was released at the precipice of a dramatic shift in how we experience music, the point at which a clear distinction was being made between our popular conceptions of “digital” and “physical” music. While Apple’s iTunes store was unveiled roughly three months after
Kid A
, it was the notorious peer-to-peer file-sharing Napster software that most controversially outlined the stakes of digital music. To music fans,
Napster was a dream come true, a digital world in which virtually all the music they desired was only a string of mouse clicks and keystrokes away. To the music industry, however, Napster was an imminent threat to its for-a-lot-of-profit model. Turns out, free was a tough model to compete with.

But while Metallica and Dr. Dre couldn’t wait to file lawsuits against Napster, Radiohead didn’t hesitate to embrace the new technology. In the summer of 2000, the band had embarked on a short Mediterranean stint to premiere new material that would eventually be released on
Kid A
. Literally overnight, shows were bootlegged and shared online. “We played in Barcelona and the next day the entire performance was up on Napster,” said Colin to BBC’s
Newsnight
. “Three weeks later when we got to play in Israel the audience knew the words to all the new songs and it was wonderful.”

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