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Authors: Marvin Lin

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One of the greatest things that time affords us is the ability to reassess. It’s unfair to say that critics were initially “wrong” about
Kid A
, because that assumes values transcend historical circumstance. After all,
what
constitutes a “right” taste, and
when
is it “right”? And even if critics were initially “wrong,” why should we trust newer critical opinions? Revisionism can be a good thing, but it’s no coincidence that some of the most startling 180s in taste come after the music’s codes are rendered irrelevant or forgotten. Likewise, it’s unfair to say that the eventual enjoyment of
Kid A
is exclusively shaped through social experience, because where our tastes head depends less on contextual exposure and more on which values we have chosen (sometimes subconsciously) to reinforce as we listen. Perched on branches rendered safe by time’s magic wand, it’s easy to say “Hey, people had it all wrong: that music
was
good,” because the assumed perspective is so distanced from the music’s original context that nearly any personal investment could trigger a cultural repositioning in their head. Yes, we can “enjoy” whatever form of music we want, especially after history has smoothed out its political or aesthetic edginess (or when social experience blinds us to them), but why aren’t revisionists reclaiming “hate music” when the music itself can be as compelling as its non-racist counterparts? Why do so many “world music” fans often overlook cultural
differences and make aesthetic judgments by Western standards? Where do we draw the lines?

What’s interesting to me is not when someone decides to “identify” with country or Tropicália, but how one goes about understanding musics whose traditions and signifiers either lack blatant ties to geography/social identity or function as intentional subversions of them. I’m talking about the avant-garde, that ever-nebulous term (and appropriately so). Of course,
all
musics, including the avant-garde, have geographical/social implications, but the semiotic ambiguity of its sonics (for instance, white noise and sine waves clearly lack the defined “meanings” of a major or minor triad) whittles down taste and value to questions with more temporal weight. For example: while there’s a lot to be said about who, what, when, and where we are listening, what about for how long are we listening? And how many times? I love knowing that a puzzling album might eventually be pieced together the more I listen to it, that critical consensus will always be in flux, that my future kids will eventually deride my old-man-with-a-cane tastes, that so-called “forward-thinking” artists will inevitably (hopefully) get their dues. I love knowing that, if given time, albums like
Kid A
could potentially convert even the most conservative listeners.

I’m not saying all music gets better over time — a lot of music gets worse, in my opinion — but listeners who stick it out for the more challenging hiccups can reap rewards and make connections that they otherwise
didn’t know were possible. This of course depends on your disposition. Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that sounds even remotely different — namely, because anything too difficult becomes work, not entertainment. They want music that conjures up feelings of nostalgia — a first kiss, an early-childhood road trip — or music that functions as a situational complement (Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” being the sexiest example). Other people like to be straight-up fucked with. It’s so rare to feel challenged nowadays that some listeners actively seek out musics that sound
new
and
weird
and
disorienting
, music that’s so foreign it needs to be more aggressively reconciled with their current value set for it to even begin to make sense. Listening to music one might call “challenging” — which can be anything from the strangeness of Tom Waits’ voice to a Karlheinz Stockhausen composition — provides the potential for growth, both aesthetically and socially.

While Radiohead didn’t necessarily intend to challenge our ears with
Kid A
, many of us were confronted with a dashing new musical vocabulary anyway, and in order to find appreciation in these sounds we had to either normalize its timbres or internalize the cultural values associated with them. That is, we had to spend time with the sounds. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in
The Gay Science
,

[One] has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a
separate life. Then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity.

In other words, we had to “get used to”
Kid A
, to make the album “ours.” We weren’t simply engaging in a static process of trying to “get it,” as if we could extract meaning whenever and however we pleased. We were adapting to its sonics and the surrounding cultural contexts, trying to hear the music through more tenable perspectives. We were adapting to Radiohead’s decision to utilize these particular songs through specific methodologies. We were adapting to sounds that didn’t exist solely to bolster the power structures that prop up music listening as a one-way process.

Sure,
Kid A
’s aesthetics are mild-mannered compared with, say, Caroliner Rainbow, Kaoru Abe, or Kevin Drumm — all of whom are so deliciously fringe they’re practically off the musical grid — but this isn’t an argument of “my experimentation is more experimental than your experimentation.” The avant-garde has never been about advancing a single idea, as if uniformly emanating from a center or point in time. It has always been much more dynamic, much more multi-pronged, much more complex due largely to the fact that anything labeled “experimental” is constantly under threat of assimilation. “What is noise to the old order is harmony to the new,” as political economist
Jacques Attali wrote. But unlike many current “experimental” artists, who dutifully avoid harmony and rhythm to be labeled as such, Radiohead experimented with both new sounds
and
approaches while remaining quintessentially “Radiohead” — which is to say,
Kid A
wasn’t that far off from Radiohead’s aesthetics to lose their fans, and it was fresh enough to garner new ones.

Radiohead may not have reached the extremes of drone or 1970s minimalism, but its experimentation fit their aims, resonating far beyond obtuse academics and niche aesthetics while introducing small packets of avant-garde sensibilities into the mainstream in a manner wildly different from but no less effective than artists like John Cale or Thurston Moore or Brian Eno or Frank Zappa. The key difference? Radiohead were working on an unprecedented mass scale. Using an enormous platform from which to disseminate new ideas, new sounds, and new approaches, Radiohead didn’t merely evince an already established aesthetic; they mandated a fresh composition built on dexterous hybridization, a cobbled-together approach that was, in retrospect, more culturally fitting than the styles they so blatantly appropriated.
Kid A
wasn’t about weirding out their fanbase;
Kid A
was about change.

“Change is a basic philosophy in life,” said Ed in an interview with
TIME
(UK). “Life is about continual learning. If you stop then that’s it. Change is your responsibility to yourself.”

In a time when we were busy playing PlayStation 2 and debating over the US presidential election,
Kid A
played like the soundtrack to mass cultural growth, setting into motion a notable aesthetic expansion to those of us subconsciously begging to be challenged. In context, the album may not be as “difficult” as many had claimed — ten years since its release,
Kid A
sounds so normal to me that I nearly forgot about the initial media shitstorm — but to those of us at the time more in touch with “alt” than “kraut,”
Kid A
was a fucking godsend, expanding our taste into aesthetics we didn’t even know existed.

* * *

Charles Ives, often labeled the first “great” American composer, said that “the human ear (not one but all) will learn to digest and handle sounds, the more they are heard and then understood.” He was talking about how music that listeners might initially find repelling has the potential to become a source of pleasure, a phenomenon resulting from a process he called “ear-stretching.”

Working primarily in the early twentieth century, Ives was a rebel of sorts, composing music with such rhythmic complexity and unrelenting dissonance that many musicians considered them impossible to perform. But his progressive sound wasn’t due to divine inspiration or a crystal ball. In his childhood, his dad would teach him “ear-stretching” exercises, like playing “Swanee River” in the key of C while singing in E-flat. As time went on, the ear-stretching exercises served a purpose beyond his own edification,
eventually resulting in compositions that anticipated many of the twentieth-century musical experiments in quarter-tones, aleatoric music, and tone clusters.

But Ives didn’t just foreshadow future musical developments. Despite coming off like a poetic device to critique the classical establishment that shunned his work, his ear-stretching concept would later find common ground with the neurological community, one that not only underscored the fluidity of taste but also proved how physical the process of music listening can be.

Here’s how music works: a sound is made, causing waves of vibrating air to float through space and time and penetrate our eardrums (a thin, cone-shaped piece of skin). The eardrum vibrates a few small bones, amplifying the sound on its way to the cochlea, which sits in inner-ear fluid. Here — through a complex interaction with coiled, reed-like tubes — the physical vibrations are pushed through the ear fluid, causing thousands of tiny hair cells to bend and subsequently burst with energy, sending electrical impulses through the cochlear nerve. The brain’s cerebral cortex then decodes the sound — at this point, “raw data” — based on the position of the cells that are sending the impulses, which then determines everything from pitch to dynamics. Only after our brains detect patterns from these impulses do we actually hear a sound.

So, how then do these impulses translate into a feeling? According to neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, if these impulses are transmitted to our brains in an even, regular meter, our minds will generally find pleasure
in it, rewarding our body with a squirt of dopamine (which is also released during sex, eating, and drug use). This even meter would be reflected in consonant harmonies and steady rhythmic patterns, ones that are conventionally known as “pleasing” to the ears — you know, songs like “Fake Plastic Trees.” However, if these impulses reach our brains in a stuttered, off-kilter pattern, we will generally feel uncomfortable, as exemplified by dissonant harmonies and complex poly-rhythms, the kind of music we generally call “noisy” or “weird,” songs like “The National Anthem.”

But it isn’t a black and white process. Apparently there is a group of neurons in the corticofugal network of the brain whose sole purpose is to figure out these more difficult, challenging patterns. And the neurons often succeed, resulting in even more dopamine production and, inevitably, more dopamine in the long run.

The kicker? Not only do these neurons learn from new sounds, but they, as Lehrer put it on a radio show called
Radiolab
, literally adjust “in the biochemical engineering sense” to these new sounds. “If you’re letting your corticofugal network do its job, it can actually resculpt your brain and let you hear the patterns better.” In other words, not only does the brain release more dopamine with every new connection, but its actual
physiology
is altered over time, too.

So, for those of us who found
Kid A
challenging at first but kept listening anyway, our brains were
literally
being reshaped by the music. This implies that taste is not just a psychological process, but a physical one too. And if it
takes time to listen, time for the patterns to be decoded, time for our brains to reshape, and time for our values to change accordingly, then the whole process is also inherently temporal, enabling us to more clearly see
Kid A
as a gateway to more challenging musics, to see repetition as a form of change, to put a scientific spin on T.S. Eliot’s observation that “You are the music while the music lasts.” Julian Johnson, professor of music at University of London, tackles this phenomenon cerebrally:

Time is the constitutive dimensions of the subject, and it is for this reason that music stands in a privileged relationship to the subject. […] It possesses the potential for this function because the defining activity of music is also that of the subject — the structuring of time. […] [This] suggests neither that music is “about” subjectivity nor that its processes are analogous to those of the subject, but rather that its processes are those of the subject, and its structuring of time is thereby a structuring of the subject.

If music’s structuring of time is a structuring of ourselves, and if our brains are literally being reshaped just by listening to “difficult” music, whether we liked
Kid A
is less interesting a question than whether we’d
eventually
like it. As Colin said in reference to what he called “a series of kickings” that
Kid A
received from the press, “I think we didn’t give people enough time to listen to it as a record when it first came out.” Some
of the press were in fact acutely aware of this temporal phenomenon: “
Kid A
may feel cold and ahuman at first, but stick with it for the full 50 minutes: Listen long enough, and a fragile, flickering glow becomes apparent amid the chill” (
L.A. Weekly
). “It’s going to take more than a single listen for the edges to harden into shapes” (the
Vancouver Sun
). “Art-rock nonsense is exactly how
Kid A
sounded to me but, slowly, after giving the disc another chance or two, the album grabbed me to the point that I now love it without reservation” (the
Edmonton Journal
).

BOOK: Radiohead's Kid A
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