Authors: Marvin Lin
Is it any wonder, then, that
, confusing to many upon release, has since become a cultural institution? I’m not saying that
is an inherently “great album” that merely took time for people to “understand,” but if conceiving of
as an activity helps to emphasize its inherent temporal quality, its investment in movement, its ever-looming pulse otherwise silenced by the din of mass production, then the fluidity should also help to explain why critical reactions changed so suddenly and why the album has since been “normalized” from a weird “experimental” album to one of the defining musical statements of our time.
stretched our ears, shaped our brains, and structured our subjectivities. And in the process, our reactions to
showed not only how we’re continually adapting to and learning from music as time passes, but also how both music and time are
static and universal, and how the pleasures we feel from the former are wholly dependent on the ticking of the latter.
I started getting hundreds of letters from teenage Radiohead fans all over the world, asking how they could get involved in globalization activism.
One of the oddest moments in Radiohead’s storied history occurred during a nationally televised poolside performance in, of all places, the Hamptons.
It’s 1993, and because MTV is redesigning its New York studio, its summer programming locale is shifted to a beach house in the so-called “playground for the rich.” Radiohead nail their scheduled performance of “Creep” on their second take and, at the request of several production assistants, launch into a surprise performance of “Anyone Can Play Guitar.” During the song’s final moments, Thom — dressed in a black-and-white-striped shirt and fashioning a bleach-blonde ponytail blowing ever so gently in the wind — mutters the song’s final lyrics before diving headfirst into the pool.
He almost drowns. While the rest of the band finishes the song with the energetic showmanship expected of “grunge” rockers at the time, Thom struggles to pull himself out of the pool, his shin-high Doc Martens weighing him down like anchors. He is choking and grabbing for a mic cord when two MTV staff members pull him out of the water. As MTV production assistant Adam Freeman recounted, “Thom managed to make it to the lip of the stage but couldn’t climb up. His boots were filled and he was choking. Tim [an MTV staff member] and I rushed on to the stage just as Thom had grabbed the only thing he could — the live microphone cord. Having a basic understanding of rudimentary science, Tim and I slapped the sparking mic out of his hand and pulled this wet cat of a singer back onto the stage.”
“We swore that would be the last time we’d do that fucking thing,” the wet cat of a singer would later say.
While the episode has largely been forgotten, I can’t help but see it as a portent of Radiohead’s bizarre relationship with the music industry, a relationship that could be described as both symbiotic and contradictory. Sure, Radiohead could practically get away with murder nowadays, but they didn’t always coast on such a privileged status. To name a few examples (from
1 When the band started out, EMI gave them a £300 clothes budget for a makeover, suggesting Primal Scream as an example of a group that has both a “look” and a “manifesto” (which led to Radiohead ditching
their original band name, On A Friday).
2 During the writing and recording of
, it was rumored that UK label Parlophone gave Radiohead “a six-month ultimatum,” while US label Capitol “were withholding their second-album option until they heard promising new material.”
3 When Capitol heard
for the first time, the label “downgraded sales forecasts from two million to 500,000.”
But everything changed once
proved both critically and financially successful. After seeing how horrifying the industry could be during the
tours, Radiohead realized they no longer had to be at the whim of the music and media industries; on the contrary, they were in the prime position to
these industries, to
them from within. But how exactly does a band so knowledgeable and impassioned voice their gripes within an industry that controls the means and modes of communication? How do Radiohead engage with the industry without getting swallowed whole?
* * *
One way is to fight for more cultural space.
’s release, Radiohead’s views on the mainstream music industry seemed at its most tumultuous. While the industry thrives on pearly-toothed celebrities regurgitating an established aesthetic, the
problem Radiohead had was one of appropriation, in which the industry would focus on Thom’s “tortured” personality while presenting facsimiles of
-era Radiohead through their distribution channels. But because Radiohead had learned from the media tornado of
, they were at that point better able to see through the industry mechanizations that threatened to co-opt anything and everything it found beneficial. And given Radiohead’s inability to assert their own context throughout most of their career — from the fridge-buzz of “Creep” to the unexpected success of
— it’s not surprising that they’d use their cultural potency to finally try to regain control over both their identity and their artistic direction. Radiohead had been face-to-face with co-option many times, and
was an opportunity to create their own cultural spaces in which to artistically and politically express themselves.
From July 1999 to June 2000, Ed maintained an online diary on Radiohead’s official website. The primary purpose was to update fans on the recording process for
. Alternately tense (“what a fucking week. sometimes i feel like the nature of this band is that we have to do things the hard way.”), celebratory (“[it’s] great to be in our band.”), and boring (“nigel got what seems like a good mix of ‘dollars and cents’. more work on t+j’s drum thing.”), Ed’s posts attempted to, as he put it, “de-mythologise this whole process of making a new record.” Most entries detailed songs we hadn’t heard before and therefore didn’t affect
us in any immediate way, but occasionally an interesting over-the-shoulder moment would come through, offering a taste of the pressure the band was working under. As Ed wrote in one entry, “[It’s] taken us seven years to get this sort of freedom, and [it’s] what we always wanted, but it could be so easy to fuck it all up.”
Of course, this being Radiohead and all, Ed would also occasionally veer into politics. On February 25 — seven months before
hit the streets — he posted an update on the frequently mentioned track “Cuttooth” (which eventually became an
B-side). He concluded with a short but pointed request: “please read ‘NO LOGO’ by Naomi Klein.” Given the abruptness and unexpectedness of the recommendation, it was hard not to take note.
is an anti-corporate treatise that arrived in stores in early 2000, roughly a month after the pivotal WTO (World Trade Organization) Ministerial Conference protests in Seattle, where a massive amount of activists, workers, and youth took to the streets to publicly voice their opposition to economic globalization. The book is divided into four chapters: “No Space,” “No Choice,” “No Jobs,” and “No Logo.” The first three detail the implications of our brand-oriented culture, with particular focus on the consequences of switching the primary mode of businesses from “hawking products” to “selling lifestyles” with little regard for the cultural, social, and environmental consequences of their actions. The book intimates a time in which corporations are accountable to shareholders, not the
public; an environment in which stained corporations like AIG, Philip Morris, Enron, and WorldCom can rebrand themselves to evade unfavorable perception; a marketplace in which you’re buying cool, not a shoe. Klein argues that companies like McDonald’s, Nike, Coca-Cola, Gap, Starbucks, and Microsoft target increasingly younger audiences by occupying cultural space (highways, living rooms, schools), push out competition through tactics like mergers and “predatory franchising,” and foster labor markets reliant on part-time “McJobs” and outsourcing.
But it’s not all gloom and doom. Against this backdrop, Klein finishes the book with a passionate chapter entitled “No Logo,” which documents the burgeoning underground movements that have stood in firm opposition to this branding of the globe. Here, Klein gives voice to the anti-corporate activists who she believes are “sowing the seeds of a genuine alternative to corporate rule,” exemplified by McUnion organizers and internet corporate watchdogs, ‘culture jamming’ and
magazine. Klein concludes: “[The demand] is to build a resistance — both high-tech and grassroots, both focused and fragmented — that is as global, and as capable of coordinated action, as the multinational corporations it seeks to subvert.”
The book struck a deep chord with Ed, so deep in fact that
was at one point rumored to be titled
. As he commented in an interview with
gave one real hope. It certainly made me feel less alone. I must admit I’m deeply pessimistic about
humanity, and she was writing everything that I was trying to make sense of in my head. It was very uplifting.”
* * *
The ideas expressed in
segue perfectly into Radiohead’s attempt to create their own cultural spaces during
. Because Radiohead and their management wanted to avoid the publicity-by-numbers promotional machine, they decided not to release any official singles during the marketing of
. This meant no promo cycles, no B-sides, no videos, no exhausting world tours. In place of conventional videos, the band disseminated throughout the internet a slew of promotional “blips” — 10- to 40-second animated shorts created by visual artists The Vapour Brothers and Shynola. Intended explicitly as “throwaway” advertisements, the blips spread like a virus, and fans soon internalized the imagery and started slapping “genetically modified bear” stickers on binders and hanging
posters in college dorms to ensure their tastes were thoroughly broadcast.
Part of defining new cultural spaces is to avoid those that are most susceptible to spin, so it’s not surprising that the band limited interviews to only a handful of publications. In fact, it would have been less had Jonny not convinced Thom of their responsibility to the fans. But even when they did agree to an interview, Radiohead didn’t just let the press call the shots. For example, instead of doing a routine photo shoot for
Radiohead submitted distorted, computer-manipulated images of each band member, where facial features were embellished and elongated, and eye colors changed. Why these images? According to Thom, “I’m fed up of seeing my face everywhere. It got to the point where it didn’t feel like I owned it. We’re not interested in being celebrities, and others seemed to have different plans for us. I’d like to see them try to put these pictures on a poster [giggles].” Radiohead also submitted a composite image of the band dubbed “Kid A Mutant Specimen.” Explained Thom, “That’s Phil’s head, obviously, Jonny’s eyebrows, my nose and mouth. It’s like a human mutation, not a comment on the GM [genetically modified] thing as such, though you can’t really ignore the GM issue. It’s everywhere, innit?”
Radiohead’s subversion reached a national television audience on October 14 with an appearance on
Saturday Night Live
). Even if you caught Radiohead on their
tour, it probably wouldn’t have prepared you for this performance (which, unless you scored tickets to one of the three
shows in North America, was the only chance Americans had to see them live). Needless to say, the frenzied performances of “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque” sideswiped many of us. Here we had a guitar-less Thom, dancing so bizarrely during the songs that I’d be surprised if anyone, Radiohead fan or not, could flip the channel; and then there was Jonny, who spent most of his time kneeling on the floor, manipulating Thom’s voice in
real time and playing with beat-makers to create violent rhythmic textures rarely, if ever, heard on national television. As if the music wasn’t “weird” enough for a mainstream audience, Radiohead also used this opportunity to get political: during the show’s end credits, when the
cast groups with the guests to wave goodbye, Thom held up a “Let Ralph Debate” placard, in reference to the exclusion of then Green Party candidate Ralph Nader from the 2000 US presidential election debates. (One can only wonder what guest host Kate Hudson and the
cast were thinking as this weird little British guy politicized a moment that couldn’t be edited out.)
Outside of the off-the-cuff commentary in Ed’s diary, other areas of Radiohead’s website clued us in to some of their more obvious political passions. Their website, self-created and controlled by the band since 1996, is considered by Radiohead to be an extension of their music, a place where they can speak directly to their fans without fearing appropriation or misquotes. Featuring links to organizations like Free Tibet, the World Development Movement, People & Planet, Fair, and Corporate Watch, the website served as an ideal medium for Radiohead to communicate their political concerns directly to fans, unmediated by a transnational conglomerate. While many artists have no clue how to act when they’ve stumbled onto such a large platform, Radiohead used their visibility to raise the profiles of underground political movements as if it was second nature.
The unabashed politics on their website expanded outward too: ask Thom about
’s songwriting process and you might get a terse answer; ask him about the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), WTO, or Tony Blair, and you’d get a thoughtful, engaged response. And not all of it was roped into a marketing campaign: Ed marched in protest against the WTO in April 2000, while Thom, alongside Bono and Youssou N’Dour, made an appearance at the G8 Summit with the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel Third World debt.