The Music We Hate: Radiohead
"Radiohead's Intelligent Musicianship is always up in my face. It’s like being distracted, mid-act, by the fine detailing of a partner’s high-end labial cosmetic surgery."
Illustration by Josh J. Holinaty
Dear Radiohead, I’m writing to say thanks for allowing me not to give a shit about you throughout the past decade of your global hegemony. Some would dismiss me as a rock critic because I’ve never voluntarily listened to OK Computer or Amnesiac, but I suspect you understand. My indifference has caused guilty twinges; every other band venerates you, and brilliant young jazz musicians revel in covering your tunes. On historic terms, you’re clearly the victor. But as a condition of surrender, here are a few points of dissent—one for each day of any given week of not listening to you.
Monday. I’m not a punk-nostalgic clown who denigrates virtuosity and beauty. Music needn’t be recorded on a boombox in a toilet stall. But craft is no more than the vehicle for art’s mind-budging or sense-enhancing woosh. Your Intelligent Musicianship is always up in my face. It’s like being distracted, mid-act, by the fine detailing of a partner’s high-end labial cosmetic surgery. Couldn’t you strap on a rubber prosthesis or brandish a whip?
Tuesday. Your constant midtempo stateliness domesticates your borrowings from jazz-fusion, prog-rock, musique concrète and techno, till all the grand goofiness is sanded away. But the risk of the ridiculous is the vent that lets in love and grace. You’re not humourless—“Karma Police” is sort of funny, though not as funny as Leonard Cohen’s “Jazz Police.” I just doubt you can be really great if no one ever accuses you of being in bad taste.
Wednesday. That vast influence of yours? Not all good, though not as bad as the U2 burden you suffer from. In indie/chamber-pop, Radiohead syndrome means striving to be awesome at what one is doing, instead of doing something awesome—putting the labour ahead of the job. It’s a symptom of late capitalism and the decline of various empires (Britain’s, America’s, rock’s), but you haven’t helped. And while Coldplay or Muse get charged with watering down your style, I fantasize about how they’d sound if they’d aimed for Queen or E.L.O. instead.
Thursday. Defenders say your aridness embodies a conceptual preoccupation with the depersonalizing effects of technology and globalization. But from Devo to Kraftwerk, from Funkadelic to Lil Wayne, artists have stalked that nightmare on Cyber Street with more range. And without sidestepping the subtler perils of posthumanity—such as liking it.
Friday. Those other electro-dystopians have emerged in times or contexts where it was unexpected. With you, I feel like I’m on the internet, reading debates about the internet.
Saturday. We all do that, of course. But I don’t look to music for a feeling of inevitability. That’s what death and taxes are for. So rather than listen up like a good boy when you were declared the greatest music band ever, I pulled a Bartleby: I preferred not to. Let other people handle it. People who wanted to.
Sunday. For a habitual music-wars geek, this was so liberating: I didn’t have to take a side! And I’d gotten lucky, because at the turn of the millennium, the quantity of available, purportedly worthwhile music was about to rise quantum-exponentially, with diminishing substantive returns. I soon found myself turning a deaf ear to all sorts of things, often ones that reminded me of you: Wilco, Phoenix, Broken Social Scene, Michael Ignatieff (those vacant eyes! that robot voice!).
So thank you again, Radiohead, for the lesson you gave me, that in the twenty-first century, not giving a shit about all sorts of shit may be all that keeps the important shit alive.
P.S. By the way, I quite enjoyed In Rainbows.
Related on maisonneuve.org:
—The Music We Hate
—The Music We Hate: Online Supplement
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