Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Getting Radiohead Wrong

I'm currently spending a lot of time waiting around; classes have begun and I'm on a strange, frenetic schedule that leaves me in limbo several hours a day. Thankfully, this allows me to plow through the lion's share of my reading before I get home, but it also leaves me plenty of time alone with my headphones, which is why I'm taking a break from writing about movies to write about music instead. And when I'm spending my early mornings and late afternoons sitting in dingy computer labs, surrounded by alienating architecture and people hurrying frantically with distressed looks on their faces, my thoughts (and iPod wheel) turn naturally to Radiohead's OK Computer, as the album seems to be set in exactly such surroundings.

Yet I wouldn't say that these songs are necessarily about these places. It's precisely those themes constantly ascribed to the band--technology, modernism, the innate alienation of our present/future/present-day futurism--that seem to me rather overblown and actually a more background aspect of the band's music than a central obsession. It's fair to say at this point that Radiohead is, if not the most popular band in the world, probably the most respected; they were supposed to be the next U2, and then briefly the next Talking Heads (from whom Thom Yorke & Co. ripped their band's name), but have now ended up being something more like my generation's Beatles. (See here.) A lot of the adulation they receive from critical and music-obsessive circles revolve around the band's seemingly epochal, modern-apocalypse qualities, and never more so than when it comes to OK Computer:

" 'Fitter Happier' encapsulates everything that Thom Yorke is raging against on this album: computers, conformity, fascism, emotional emptiness, pragmatism over idealism, and the cruelty of modern life." (cokemachineglow, here)

" 'Paranoid Android' told the future. When the song came out as the most unlikely of lead singles, the Internet consisted largely of AOL mailers and chatrooms, but Thom Yorke saw where things were heading. Now, 'unborn chicken voices' is a pretty solid descriptor of the daily web discourse, and 'the yuppies networking,' well, that speaks for itself. The voice software in the background haltingly pleading 'I may be paranoid, but no android' becomes a little less true and more desperate with each passing year. Please, could you stop the noise?" (Pitchfork, here)

"We used to let it roll over us, used to go back down to roll it up, and then we used to let it roll over us again: used to? Industrialization and departmentalization has alienated man from the basis of life in the form of Evian water bottles, but we want 'no alarms and no surprises,' so we remind ourselves that there's nothing we can do but to fall into a deep sleep, a deep hole that separates us more from the people around us. Our own identities are products that we buy at clothing and record stores, completely estranged from us, but apparently, there's nothing we can do, so we lull ourselves to sleep to cut us off from the very senses that keep us awake, hoping for 'no alarms,' and 'no surprises.' " (Treblezine, here)

Frankly, this is all pretty much bullshit. Yes, it's difficult to listen to Radiohead for long without noticing modern technological life as a motif, but that's all: it's a signifier, a mood-context, not the central character. Listening to OK Computer makes it perfectly clear that the band is both more and less ambitious than Brent DiCrescenzo would have it: "OK Computer simply is the anxious, self-important, uncertain, technologically overwhelmed 1990s." That's absurd; the basic sentiments of "Electioneering," "Karma Police," "Climbing Up the Walls," and especially "Exit Music (For A Film)" could have sprung from any decade of the 20th century, and the music is an amalgam of prog, glam, and pop ballad stylings rooted as much in the '70s as the '90s. The "film" in question in that last song is Baz Luhrmann's Leo vehicle Romeo + Juliet, a movie to which I'd prescribe Ritalin if I could: it's spazzy and hyperactive, and difficult to watch for any length of time without wishing it could just calm the fuck down for a second. Luhrmann's update of Shakespeare is insanely giddy in its adoption of modern-day textures, but again, that's all--textures, gauze filters, a brave-new-world layer on top of some very old problems. With OK Computer, Radiohead essentially pulled the same trick, only while R+J's inane delirium undercuts the hopeless tragedy of the story, Radiohead's tech-savvy wallpaper serves as a reminder to take futurism less seriously, not more. For all that the band's lyrics and (even more so) music evoke overloaded planes crashing, gleaming monorails zooming past decaying cities, and toxic chemicals leeching into our homes and brains, the emotions that these images signify are timeless, just as the band's music is at once otherworldly and instantly familiar.

OK Computer isn't really about paranoid androids and the dreadful dawn of the Internet; it's about anxiety, alienation, delusion, rage, and despair, and we'd be as blind as any of the album's weary protagonists to think that the late '90s had any sort of monopoly on these feelings. Modernism can make for a powerful language to express these sentiments, but as context, metaphor, and (at worst) symptom, never as the cause of all this confusion and heartache. Technology isn't the enemy, but nor is it a reliable ally: if I had to come up with a thesis statement for OK Computer, it wouldn't be "The future is killing us" so much as "The future can't save us." It's not that everything is changed, it's that nothing has changed, at least as far as the individual psyche and soul is concerned.

"Fitter Happier" is not aging well, but it would be outright unlistenable if Radiohead were using that iMac voice to sulkily rage against the machine. Listening to it again, what strikes me is how politely neutral, how horrifyingly nonjudgmental that robo-voice sounds as it rattles through a laundry list of cubicle-ready mantras. After all, the titular Computer isn't coming up with these words--the band is feeding the beast, and all it can do is obediently repeat. So much science fiction is geared around the horror of our machines adopting our sentience, but Radiohead seems more afraid of the opposite outcome: that our machines are simply a stainless-steel mirror, serving efficiently to expose our own ugliness and weakness. Again, they're context, architecture, style, setting: the "eyes in the cupboard" in "Climbing Up the Walls" may well refer to intrusive cameras, but the horror is that those eyes are being "shut," not opened. See no evil. For all its decidedly secular material, OK Computer is a thoroughly religious work--the end of nearly every song finds the band straining upward and outward for some sort of redemption, but finding only vapor trails, a series of beeps, a cheerfully empty chime. We are the future, and the enemy is us.

Two more curmudgeonly assertions, to hammer the point home. One: for all their lofty conceptual posturing, oddly unsettling arrangements, and artistically restless skin-shedding, Radiohead is pop, goddamnit. They may have become the darling of indie kids worldwide, but again, the Beatles made strange noises in the studio and released albums with obtuse concepts and confounding instrumentation, and were never any the less pop for it. OK Computer and Kid A were released on a major label that made a lot of money off this supposedly anti-cash cash cow, and Yorke never felt the need to punish himself for this the way fellow '90s prodigy Kurt Cobain did. OK Computer is overflowing with gigantic choruses ("Airbag," "Subterranean Homesick Alien"), catchy riffs ("Karma Police," "Lucky"), big sticky percussion ("Paranoid Android," "Climbing Up the Walls"), and spindly little melodies that refuse to leave your head ("Let Down," "The Tourist"). This is rock music, and big, self-important rock music to boot, but it is pop music too, and the Boomer rockists that embraced Radiohead as the Last Hope Of Our Rock And Roll (What With The Kids And Their Hippity-Hop And Keyboard Music) need to continue their decade-long, post-Kid A process of sitting the fuck down and shutting the fuck up. (Sorry, this is a thing of mine, about the Boomers, and their musical tastes, and how much they suck and need to die and take the '60s with them. Ask Bob Dylan, he will almost certainly agree.)

The reason I'm relentless about Radiohead's pop status is that pop music, as a rule, tends to be a uniting force, articulating universal feelings in an ear-catching language and shooting for that sweet spot between timeliness and timelessness. Rockism, on the other hand, is more often a dividing force: mod against rocker, punk against dinosaur, Nirvana against the world, Blur against Oasis, guitar against turntable, and always, always, young against old. For all rock n' roll history is full of proud statement-making, devoted and devotional pop always seemed to me to have the broader perspective. That Radiohead has been embraced as the flagship band of the digital age, while simultaneously praised for going after That Evil Technology (see the pattern here?), should be indication enough that the fervent emotions they arouse in listeners involve something more than generational recognition. The strange but accessible sounds they traffic in are experimental music gone pop, and so Radiohead actually ends up sounding less of its era than, say, Boards of Canada. (Whom I adore.)

Two: OK Computer's protagonists are hideously unreliable, and so little they say should be trusted, or taken literally. Thom Yorke has insisted for years that "I wish it was the sixties/I wish I could be happy" in "The Bends" is a joke, and one aimed squarely at the song's protagonist and by extension Yorke himself. Yorke's twisted sarcasm, irony, and (especially) self-deprecation are in abundant evidence throughout OK Computer, and sharp asides like "Don't get sentimental, it always ends up drivel" and "This is my final fit, my final bellyache" bounce back not onto society, maaaan, but onto the speaker, and the ghosts and delusions climbing up the walls of his skull. For all its reputation as a grand societal lament, OK Computer is a profoundly subjective work. How could anyone listen to "Lucky" or "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and trust what these guys have to say about anything?

Ultimately, the album seems to me to be more about personal insanity than global malady, and the images of modernism and technology that flit by are just leaves caught in a stream of sickness. The lines everyone remembers from "Paranoid Android" are "kicking squealing Gucci little piggy" and "the yuppies networking," but it's worth noting that the song only kicks into crazed metal overdrive when somebody commits the ultimate sin: he forgets the protagonist's name. Identity loss is a recurring theme throughout OK Computer, but it's not that the camera can actually steal your soul. It's that the Matrix cannot tell you who you are. The titular "Airbag," the jets in "Exit Music" and "Let Down," and the "pretty house" and "pretty garden" in "No Surprises" are not menacing creatures. They just aren't your friends, either, and yet most terrifying line on an album full of them is this one: "We are friends 'til we die."

Radiohead is often accused of being cold, unfeeling, and misanthropic, and while there's certainly material to support that claim, OK Computer is above all else an act of supreme empathy, slipping into strangers' skins and glimpsing the world briefly through their eyes. That's why the lyrics so often seem like streams-of-consciousness, jumping from fragment to fragment. Witness the non sequitur "Bring down the government, they don't speak for us" in "No Surprises." Taken on its own, the line's a real head-slapper, didactic and pandering and dumb. But swept up in the song's stream of hopeless, numbed mantras, the line makes sense as a dispatch from a decaying mind, a stray spark of neurons that exists to point out its own feebleness. After all, the next line is hardly revolutionary: "I'll take a quiet life." Look at the album's title. Computers still require us to say "OK" to them; they don't yet determine any course of action on their own. We surrender, ourselves; we surrender ourselves. Jump back an album earlier to find Yorke at his most bitterly honest: "You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts." Radiohead never lets us off the hook for our own follies, but sympathizes with our sinful hearts anyway. (Again, it's a very religious album.)

Far from being a didactic screed, OK Computer is defined by tensions and confusions, waves rising and receding, some walls collapsing while new ones are erected: in other words, humanity still being humanity even as progress marches forward. Lyrically, the primary struggle is appropriately one of movement and stasis, and the possibilities and pitfalls inherent to both. "Subterranean Homesick Alien" offers the possibility of space travel and sublime perspective, but ultimately abandons its hero to claustrophobic subjectivity, "watch[ing] your feet for cracks in the pavement." The aforementioned "Exit Music" releases its escapist couple into the atmosphere with a defiant, generational cry of "We hope that you choke," but then "Let Down" takes over, a soaring, tearjerking reminder of how easy it is to travel all your days and feel like you haven't moved an inch. That jet ride crashes down in "Lucky," after which our hero finds himself wandering disoriented in suburbia as "The Tourist," never heeding the cries to "slow down." OK Computer doesn't really tell stories, but nor does it ever plunge into full abstraction (that would wait until Kid A). Instead, Yorke strings together various fragments, wandering half-thoughts, and broken mantras into representations of mindsets and partial images, creating more of a collage than a single portrait. "Paranoid Android" is probably the best example of this technique, lurching between pathetic cries for release and snarls of misanthropic rage on a dime's turn, until I end up more afraid of the singer himself than the Orwellian deathscape he's ostensibly describing.

Rarely does Yorke draw concrete conclusions, preferring to leave his protagonists stranded with their hopeless dreams and paranoid fantasies. This sounds cruel, but he usually makes clear that they deserve it: this is an album about human failings and human nature, and technology seems to be more aiding and abetting that nature than actively changing it for the worse. Only "Electioneering" names its target and allows the singer to stand outside it, which is why it remains the album's weakest link (although it does further the theme of moving/standing still: "When I go forward, you go backward, and somewhere we will meet.") "Karma Police" hints at a more dire, all-encompassing foe, but Yorke's perspective seems to switch from plaintiff to prosecutor to victim throughout the trial; as the title and the closing howl of "For a minute there, I lost myself" indicate, the song has more to do with righteous fantasies of judgment and punishment than with their actualization. "We're still on the payroll" is one of the album's many lines that implicate the singer in the inhumane systems he's railing against (see also "the head of state has called for me by name" and the various "I am" mantras in "Climbing Up the Walls"). Interestingly, the rare lines that hit home as anthemic statements of will are the record's most accepting, serene moments, hinting that Radiohead's redemption may hinge more on letting go of delusion than escaping any objective terror. "I'm all right, I'm just uptight," "One day, you'll know where you are," "Hey, man, slow down."

Sonically, the album concerns itself with colliding the organic and the digital head-on, much as Animal Collective's equally generation-defining Merriweather Post Pavilion would do near the end of the subsequent decade. While that album hid the Collective's stock-in-trade fever dreams of isolation and insanity beneath layers of joyful noise, OK Computer's sonics defy the album's miserabilist reputation, bursting at the seams with impossibly creative arrangements and dramatic shifts in dynamics even as Yorke bewails everything and everyone. Those distorted guitars kicking off the album are the very sound of revving engines, that start-and-stop bass a distant, decaying signal; if OK Computer is about computers eating our souls, why do all these machine-sounds sound like the machines are failing? More importantly, if Radiohead hates technology so very much, why are all these sounds so awesome? By Kid A, the band would be chopping and screwing Yorke's distinctive voice, tucking it behind keyboards and under drum loops, but one of Computer's driving tensions is juxtaposing the singer in all his golden-throated glory against all that ferocious full-band noise. The climaxes of "Airbag," "Karma Police," and "Climbing Up the Walls" finds Yorke dissolving into his band's explosive energy; you could cast it as the machines winning, or as a gorgeous sonic synergy. Either way, really: OK Computer stands firm in its refusal to give up its ghosts, even as Yorke's voice is layered and redoubled throughout (see the astonishing production in "Exit Music") to emphasize the sensation that he's speaking from inside the listener's head.

Even as the jazzy arpeggios and white-hot solos of "Paranoid Android" seem to spiral Yorke down to fuzzed-out oblivion, there's simply too much fierce joy there to be denied. Guitarist/genius Johnny Greenwood has always seemed most at home playing around with the white noise underlying (and undercutting) Yorke's ghost-in-the-machine antics; even as the singer decries his world, Greenwood constantly gives him a new one to inhabit, mobile and unpredictable and thrillingly alive. Outside the band, Greenwood is best known for his impossibly suspenseful score for There Will Be Blood, a film that treats the past much as OK Computer treats its present: as raw material used as ballast to elevate and sharpen universal themes, though all epochal trappings fall away the closer the artist gets to individual darkness.

And "individual" is the key word, because if there's one emotion that bleeds through every cut-up lyric and howling guitar wave on OK Computer, it is loneliness. Yorke begins the album "born again" in airbags, neon signs, and a fast German car, and can never find any better company than that. OK Computer's cars, planes, cameras, and computers fail, not as tools but as spiritual idols; they can provide the better life satirized in "Fitter Happier" and "No Surprises," but they can't salvage the heart (full up like a landfill). That heart is broken and bleeding, reaching out in every song, only to be turned away by a world whose definition of "progress" is increasingly suspect. The album is a full-length cry for help. Upon its release, many compared it to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which made clear by its closing tracks "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse" that its cosmic, psychedelic sweep was contained in the cracked brain of a madman. Radiohead has mined not a little pathos from the journey their art has taken: years after the open wound of "Creep," they abandoned easy identification altogether with the intimidating, steel-wrapped monolith called Kid A. In between lies OK Computer, one of pop's definitive transition albums; caught between grandeur and alienation, empathy and emptiness, it jets off from a world it can't connect with, but can't stop itself from glancing back through the reinforced plastic spaceship window.

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