Authors: Marvin Lin
Perhaps a little context could prove as such.
* * *
, the band’s debut album, unmistakably arose from a rock lineage. It was released in February 1993, a couple of years after Nirvana’s unexpected success gave capitalism a nudge in the ribs to market the alternative to the mainstream, presenting consumers with both pop idols and the cretins who sought to subvert them. The marketing savvy indelibly penetrated consumer consciousness when the word “alternative” itself was co-opted as a style of music. (Commodify your dissent, indeed.) Awkwardly but perhaps appropriately, Radiohead were swept into this narrative
with “Creep,” a track that became an anthem for the disenchanted Gen Xers, whose only solace seemed to be found in unified alienation and the purchasing power that came with it. Radiohead were even touted as the “British Nirvana.”
For a band whose relevance has since grown beyond calculation, it’s interesting to reflect on just how derivative
is. All of their influences at the time — R.E.M., The Smiths, The Pixies (who Thom at one point called “the greatest band ever”) — can clearly be found in the notes, the structures, the singing. The influence wasn’t just vaguely felt; it was downright palpable: even “Creep,” dubbed “The Scott Walker song” by the band, now shares songwriting credits and royalties with 1960s band The Hollies, after settling out of court the claim that it was a rip-off of “The Air That I Breathe.” At the time, Radiohead’s appropriations were about as slick as sandpaper, and their inability to fully subsume their idols attributed in part to the lackluster response to the album as a whole.
dropped in 1995, no one knew quite what to do with it. By then, the “alternative” construction had saturated mainstream media: the market was flooded with packaged simulations (Silverchair, Bush, etc.), and the Gen X sensibility began deflating under the strain of the pop-punk sensibility (Green Day, Blink-182) that was promptly ushered in, a sort of alternative to the alternative.
’ influences were harder to identify, though the band cited Jeff
Buckley, Magazine, Morrissey, R.E.M., and The Pixies as being primary muses around this period. The album tended to be mawkish at times — “Fake Plastic Trees,” “High and Dry” — but songs like “Planet Telex” and “My Iron Lung” not only rendered the Britpop tag useless, but also hinted at Radiohead’s proclivity toward experimentation.
Their influences didn’t have a profound effect until
. Here, Radiohead absorbed the music of Miles Davis, Ennio Morricone, Krzysztof Penderecki, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, DJ Shadow, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Phil Spector, Marvin Gaye, and Louis Armstrong without particularly sounding like any one of them. All music may be hybrid, but
seemed a clear turning point for Radiohead’s brand of hybridization: this time, it was as much about the sounds as the approach. And in addition to consciously moving away from
’ introspection, two other crucial shifts fostered this change: Radiohead were not working under a deadline, and they were able to record on their own terms. These points alone mark a seamless transition from
, an album that also depended on unlimited studio time, high expectations, creative autonomy, and the degree to which Radiohead could successfully hybridize their influences.
It’s not surprising, then, that Thom, two years before the release of
, would similarly downplay
’s supposed “experimentation” and echo his sentiments about hybridization:
We write pop songs. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten more into pushing our material as far as it can go. But there was no intention of it being ‘art.’ It’s a reflection of all the disparate things we were listening to when we recorded it.
Or, as Jonny dramatized it, “We don’t sit down and say, ‘Let’s break barriers.’ We just copy our favorite records.”
* * *
Despite Radiohead’s insistence that
was more like their
Remain in Light
(Talking Heads) than their
Metal Machine Music
(Lou Reed’s 64-minute noise exhibition of guitar feedback played at different speeds), not everyone bought it.
Writing for the
, Nick Hornby argued that
was “morbid proof that this sort of self-indulgence results in a weird kind of anonymity, rather than something distinctive and original” and that “there is very little on
that is remotely memorable.”
, a magazine significant for its ubiquity in chain stores across the US, missed “the inspired, alternative rock band of the past” and felt “a bit lost with the slightly lifeless homage to artistic abstraction”; while
was more dickish, saying
Kid A “
might’ve been amazing if the band had only bothered to write some actual songs.”
Things got personal in Radiohead’s neck of the woods.
said, “in a desire to quash the rampant air of significance suffusing their every movement and utterance, [Radiohead] rather sold short the essence of their art” and were “scared to commit [themselves] emotionally.”
admitted that “
is intriguing, eccentric, obviously a grower, but by Radiohead’s standards it can’t help but disappoint” (an earlier
reviewer said it was “just awful”).
asked “What do you want for sounding like Aphex Twin circa 1993? A medal?” However, it was
that took the critique to yellow journalism levels: “[
] is the sound of Thom ramming his head firmly up his own arse, hearing the rumblings of his intestinal wind and deciding to share it with the world” (written by Mark Beaumont, who incidentally made headlines in 2007 for publishing an interview in which Keith Richards admits to snorting his father’s cremated ashes).
And then, like an angel descending from the heavens, there was Courtney Love:
I spent three hours on the phone with a radio station program director, banging his head until he finally admitted that he fucking hated Limp Bizkit, but that it was Radiohead’s fault, not his. Okay, I’m going to say it, and all of Britain will hate my guts, but Radiohead! Fuck ’em for not bailing us out of this bullshit. Okay, Thom, yes, yes, we admit it. We wrote off “Creep” as a pretty good song in the wake of Nirvana, yes we did it, we did
it — we all did it. We didn’t rate you for the genius you are. We are at fault! We didn’t recognize your genius until it was too late, but do you have to make us feel your pain? Can I show you the shit people say about me every day? Why? Why promise me salvation with
? Why promise me salvation with
and then leave me? Leave me and my entire generation and, even worse, the generation underneath me with a fucking single-note Moog?
was number one in this country ’cause a bunch of little kids heard their older brothers and sisters saying “Bizkit’s wack, Radiohead rules” and so they ran out and bought
and now they will never trust us again. How could you take one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock’n’roll and not let him play? Fine, you satisfied yourself and you left us with Fred [Durst of Limp Bizkit]. Thanks. Thanks, buddy. I know those nice musty rooms in Oxford have really cool 16th-century books that American trash like me couldn’t dream of understanding but could you write a fucking rock song that slays me? Yorke, you must come through for us, I’m begging you, I’m on my knees, please, please, please!
But Love, who was pleading for the very mythologies that Thom despised, was in the minority when it came to other high-profile musicians and actors/actresses. Even Fred Durst, Love’s personal punching bag, enjoyed
. Hell, Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland reportedly left the band in part because of his Radiohead obsession. From Tom Cruise to Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Aniston
to Brad Pitt (who called Radiohead “the Kafka and Samuel Beckett of our generation”),
attracted an unprecedented amount of attention. But none more so than from the music community: Pearl Jam, Pulp, Chuck D, Natalie Imbruglia, Beck, Matthew Good Band, Incubus, David Gray, Trent Reznor, and DJ Shadow all publicly lauded
. While some of Radiohead’s inspirations weren’t quite as impressed (Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James, called it “really obvious and cheesy”), John Cale (The Velvet Underground) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths) both spoke favorably of it. Even the heavy hitters were on board: Tom Petty said he liked it; Bono said he loved it; and both Michael Jackson and Madonna, the King and Queen of Pop, cited
album of the year.
In fact, as 2000 crawled to a close, critics almost unanimously praised
. The album appeared on countless year-end lists, including
Rolling Stone, The Times
Village Voice, CMJ, Magnet, NME, Uncut
. It reached #2 on
Los Angeles Times
; and #1 on
Pitchfork, Addicted to Noise, Eye Weekly
Lost at Sea
. And not that media outlets function as monolithic entities, but it’s telling that
even placed on the year-end lists of its most vocal naysayers:
placed it at #3,
at #6, and even
, who called it “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish,” nestled it in at #5. It was all capped off at the 43rd Annual
Grammy Awards with nominations for Album of the Year and Best Engineered Album (beat out both times by Steely Dan), and with a win for Best Alternative Album (which
also won). Did I mention it charted at #1 in the US, UK, France, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand?
Even more significantly,
’s popularity has only increased over time. In fact, it’s already being regarded as one of the most influential albums of the new millennium, topping decade lists by
Tiny Mix Tapes
(the webzine I co-founded), and landing in various spots in publications such as
Gorilla Vs. Bear
on its list of 100 “greatest and most influential” albums of all time, while the
named Radiohead the “band of the decade.” Sure,
might not have had the critical majority on its side in the beginning, but the continual reinforcement through lists and articles and dissertations and message board posts will surely canonize the album indefinitely, ensuring that the album indeed remains a “big deal,” regardless of your opinion of critics, regardless of your personal assessment of the album, regardless of Radiohead’s insistence that it wasn’t a “big leap forward.”
Don’t believe me? In mid-January 2010, nearly a decade after its release, the cultural reinforcement was so great, so ideologically convincing, so culturally invasive that
re-entered the Billboard 200 at #100.
If people don’t like it now, they will.
had a lot working against it: the music was relatively inaccessible to the mainstream, critics were confused and fighting over its “authenticity,” and it was released without official singles or videos. So how, then, did
become one of the defining albums of the new millennium?
Maybe it just took time.
The more time I invest in music, the more I get out of it: contradictions are revealed, pleasures become guilty, patterns start forming, tastes begin expanding. Prevailing values play a prominent role in guiding our tastes, but if values change over time, who’s to say that our tastes don’t also? According to neurologist Daniel Levitin, “most people have formed their tastes by the age of eighteen or twenty.” We might assume this has to do with getting older, that supposed “real-world”
concerns eventually take precedence — the implication being that music is for the young and idealistic. But adulthood, in and of itself, isn’t the cause; perhaps it’s our valuation of music listening as a leisure activity that instigates this general decline. Perhaps we make less time for music as we get older because the “cultural work” involved is not conventionally considered “real” work in the first place.
But developing our tastes is much more than a flat statement of musical preference: it’s also a reflection of our willingness to adapt. This explains in part why I didn’t like
when I first heard it, why I no longer like “High and Dry,” and why I now love songs like “Pulk/Pull Revolving Door” and “Treefingers.” It’s not because I suddenly “get it.” It’s because my values have changed, and my tastes have adapted accordingly; how I listen to
now is dramatically different from how I listened in 2000. Sure, not everyone follows the same path of taste, but adopting adaptive strategies to inform our tastes can nudge us up that social ladder, help us forge more intimate relationships, create for us a sense of social cohesion, or even hook us up with that cute boy/girl that maybe sorta kinda winked at us in passing (“I like Joy Division. Come hither!”). Yet while today’s “coolest” musical adapters attempt to transcend time (revisionists) and space (“world music” fans) — that is, devouring new sounds both from the past and across geographical borders — musical adaptation involves more than keeping up with the Joneses, being “with it,” or frolicking with the in-crowd. And
it’s more than about redefining what’s cool, in all its multiple, contradictory definitions. It’s also about how we spend our time.