Authors: Marvin Lin
While it’s easiest to see this temporal embodiment of sound in works that depend wholly on audience participation/interaction (see: The Flaming Lips’
, Francisco López’s
Buildings [New York]
, or John Cage’s
the album” can also be reoriented as a musicking process the moment we conceive of it, not as a “perfect” ten-track set of sacred music that shall never
be violated, but as both a documentation of Radiohead’s dynamic songwriting methodology and something that can and will be reprocessed, remixed, and recontextualized in a perpetual, ever-changing cultural dialogue. This is exemplified not only in the many commissioned remixes of their music, but also in Radiohead cover bands (The Karma Police, Rodeohead, The Vitamin String Quartet), in the musicking efforts of so-called prosumers (Jaydiohead, YouTube remixers), even when we sing, say, “Morning Bell” in the shower.
Here, music starts looking more like a script, rather than a text. As Cook observes, “Thinking of music as ‘script’ rather than ‘text’ implies a reorientation of the relationship between notation and performance.” Indeed, it’s easier to envision Radiohead “musicking” when the very foundation of the music — the so-called “text” — becomes “a series of real-time, social interactions between players: a series of mutual acts of listening and communal gestures that enact a particular vision of human society.” Just compare the studio versions of
songs with their live interpretations: how “Everything in Its Right Place” transforms into an extended “jam,” how the second verse of “Morning Bell” becomes more dramatic and performative, how the title track’s lyrics are sung rather than processed, how “Idioteque” hinges on Thom’s frantic dancing for its heightened spectacle. Can you even imagine what a text might look like for “Treefingers”? The script, then, serves to remind us not only that change is of music’s nature, but also that change
Small’s concept of musicking captures this inevitability of change, taking music away from the reductive reification efforts of the media and music industries and places it back into the realm of time. Music doesn’t sit stoically, frozen in time, as if it were simply a product to be foisted upon the masses, as if consumption were an end unto itself. Music brings us
time, forcing us to accept that our tastes will eventually change, to accept that technological and ideological shifts will define how we listen to and react to music in a temporal fashion. As Cook wrote, “It is only when you have started thinking of music as performance that the peculiarly time-resisting properties of works in the Western ‘art’ tradition come fully into relief.” And if listening to music from the last century has proven anything, it’s that the “time-resisting” concepts of the “original” and the “authentic” are leftovers from a bygone era, vestigial remains from the proto-capitalist idolization of the individual, replaced instead by versions and scripts, fleeting performances and transient moments of cultural change.
What we are listening to, then, is not just the change that music engenders, but also that which allows us to experience this change: time itself.
* * *
Revisiting the primary question from the previous chapter (what is
supposed to “be”?) under this new conceit, the desire to classify
predicated on the reification of music. But by toppling this rigidity, not only is the concept “music is just music” doubly exposed, but so too are the futile attempts to define it as “rock” or “electronica.” Our very motivation to rationalize music, to rank and file, to shrink-wrap and sell, becomes suspicious, revealing more about our economic and ideological slant on aesthetics than the latent possibility of invoking aesthetics as critical insight. (For example, while taste could be just as easily repositioned as an outgrowth of critical thought — that is, taste as discernibility — it is instead considered a form of class or hierarchical distinction: the more discerning you are, the more “pretentious” you are.) It’s the difference between describing what
Kid A does
in the socio-political sense and simply proclaiming what it
for reasons a, b, and c.
But it’s not worth getting into ontological debates or semantic arguments. Even though Small argues that music does not “exist,” we still treat and talk about music as if it indeed existed. In fact, this is precisely the point. Like the construction of race, music “exists” because of its inextricability from our attitudes toward it. But just because race is considered a social construction, it doesn’t mean we should pretend that we live in a color-blind society. And with our musicking displaced into tangible objects (CDs, LPs, etc.), controlled and regulated by multinational conglomerates, music exists in a very “real” sense, one that can be quantified, measured, and mass-produced.
Rather than advocating the elimination of the word
“music,” the idea of “musicking” — whether practicing, composing, performing, dancing, or listening — simply situates music back into a proper temporal context, reminding us of the processes that inform our conception of it and counteracting the notion that music, like time, is universal and static, as if it could somehow exist outside of change. “Musicking” is, in other words, a step toward awareness. Sure, it’s easy to think of
as a product that made its mark in 2000 — a “been there, done that, next please” sort of thing — but this ignores all the relationships that have since been enacted through the album over time. And while we were pinning attributes onto
and trying to figure out what it “is,” we were actually alienating ourselves from the dynamic relationships that produced its significance in the first place, the very processes that continue to shape our reactions to it temporally.
Observes Cook: “To call music a performing art, then, is not just to say that we perform it; it is to say that through it we perform social meaning.” And now, after recognizing the pitfalls of trying to define
, perhaps we can start to see what kind of social meaning has been performed through it over time.
You can’t eat critical acclaim.
Needless to say, I didn’t always think of my relationship with
as an activity. Growing up, I believed, like most people, that music was immutable, static, something to be bought and listened to, something that
. It’s the same way I felt about all that other silly constructed stuff — gender, race, love. When I was filling my formative ears with songs like “Exit Music (for a film)” and “My Iron Lung,” I didn’t care whether or not I was engaging in a cultural process or, as I argued in the previous chapter, that music is an activity, rather than a thing — I was simply identifying, I thought, the musical elements that made the songs “work.” Context didn’t matter because it was “about the music.” I almost had it down to a science: Oh, they should’ve exaggerated the tension with an augmented fourth. Oh, the chorus could’ve benefited
from a ride cymbal rather than a hi-hat. Oh, this track should’ve been swapped with the second for maximum flow.
Why don’t these artists get that?
A similar essentialist attitude was peppered throughout the media’s reactions to
. When more defined reifications get exhausted, the easiest route is to throw shit on the wall and see what sticks, to grasp onto ambiguity as if there was anything there to actually grasp. Many critics, therefore, chose to articulate the album’s negotiations with pop. The
New York Times
“as musically vast and hard to navigate as mainstream pop gets.”
asked, “This is pop?” and proclaimed it as “a kind of virtual rock in which the roots have been cut away.” Others were left head-scratching:
was “thrilling” but “confusing”;
will leave you “dazed, bemused, and musing over [its] motives”; and
argued that it’s “the most coherent, yet confusing album in their history.”
I could relate to the confusion. At the time, I was more familiar with
Charles in Charge
and Oliver Twist than Charles Mingus and Olivier Messiaen, so listening to
had quite a dislodging affect on me. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I was listening to Top 40 at the time — I had a fairly solid awareness of independent/punk music, and I had just started delving deeper into modern classical, jazz, and more “experimental” musics — but to hear a band so well established, so acclaimed, take such a dramatic artistic risk shook my belief in the idea that sounds alone, removed from context, could
impart the information needed to inform my tastes.
’s experimentation might’ve been seamless, but it was no less jarring for a naïve college student.
I’m not saying experience and education were prerequisites to “enjoying”
. Yet the degree to which it was deemed “weird” hinged on the twin luxuries of
. In fact, the more I listened to
, the more confused I became. I even started questioning my aesthetic preferences: if the supposed function of music is to “entertain,” then why was I so unsure of whether or not I was being entertained? What did I “like” about
, and why did I like it more with repeated listens? What does it even mean to “like” something? Is it about enjoyment? Entertainment? Intellectual or cognitive stimulation? Did I really like
, or was I just a blind Radiohead devotee?
Perhaps my insecurities were due to my inability to synthesize what the hell was going on, a failure on my part to reconcile my aesthetic biases with the political and social subtexts floating around like Casper the Friendly Musicologist. While
didn’t have me running for the hills, it did take a while for me to formulate a firm opinion on it. Visceral music provokes visceral reactions, but for a band whose sound up to that point could be defined on sonority alone, the initial shock of
smeared attempts at intuitive response, de-emphasizing my sensory triggers in favor of a more distanced, calculated reaction. And because
uncomfortably dipped into the esoteric,
ping-ponging itself from one style to another, it ended up exaggerating their particular qualities, accentuating the very curves where they met and coalesced.
really that big of a deal?
* * *
The cliché is that rock musicians, over time, stop rocking. For a lot of artists, this usually means picking up an acoustic guitar and ramping up the sentimentality. For Radiohead, this meant avoiding both. So what was the alternative? Rather than recycling previous efforts, a viable route to “going acoustic” was to update the aesthetic. Around this time, artists often tried to communicate renewal by adding surfacy elements like a pre-programmed drum beat, perhaps the most digestible, transparent signifier of an artist embracing “digital music.” It was certainly in vogue around the time of
’s release. But while some embraced the beats out of necessity (The Flaming Lips) and others in fear of irrelevance (Ben Folds), Radiohead’s adoption was a no-looking-back, full-on experiment in hybridization — indeed, the inescapable foundation of the twenty-first-century artist. In fact, this hybridization is precisely what would allow Radiohead to revamp their musicking approach.
But in the minds of rockists who clung so tightly to the rhetoric of individuality and authenticity — to be sure, symptoms of the free market — Radiohead’s hybridization served to undermine rock’s preoccupation
with identity, emotional resonance, and “organic instrumentation.” How does a fan idolize a band whose lead singer strives to subvert the very notion of idolization? It was especially risky that Radiohead were synthesizing some of the vanguards of electronic music (Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada), and because they also took influence from other relatively outré artists — Krzysztof Penderecki and Olivier Messiaen, Faust and Can, Charles Mingus and Alice Coltrane, Kraftwerk and Talking Heads, Blackalicious and DJ Krush — critics could more easily wield accusations that
was emotionally removed, self-indulgent, and difficult to “get.”
But as far as Radiohead were concerned, there was nothing to “get.” Just as Radiohead did with the “concept album” label slapped on
like a 50-percent-off sticker at Wal-Mart, the band continually downplayed the experimental tag. “When the
reviews came out accusing us of being willfully difficult, I was like, ‘If that was true, we’d have done a much better job of it,’” said Jonny. “It’s not that challenging — everything’s still four minutes long, it’s melodic.” As Phil blithely said in a
interview: “We don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff. What we do is pure escapism.”
Thom encapsulated their entire approach in an interview with
, insisting that
was, indeed, less about confounding expectations and more about hybridizing influences, striking a blow to the idealistic stupor that produces wide-eyed glorification and grounding the album in more materialist terms:
What I worry about is people saying, “It’s a big transformation, a big leap forward.” To me, it’s not really about that. It’s about simply representing what you’re hearing: what you hear when you go to sleep at night, what you wake up with, what you hear when you’re driving, what you hear when you’re walking. Then it’s just a long, incredibly infuriating, frustrating battle to try and get it down to give to other people to hear.
If Radiohead were simply representing what they were listening to, perhaps
really isn’t quite the “big deal” that many purported it to be. Perhaps reactions were fueled by cultural misunderstanding. Perhaps the brouhaha was a reflection of historical ignorance.