Radiohead released their eighth album online last week. Perhaps you heard something about that. After we had a few days to absorb The King of Limbs (or however it is that people ingest Radiohead’s music these days), the Popdose brass assembled to discuss the album, and wound up discussing the band’s bulletproof status as tastemakers…and the possible lie behind that distinction.
Dw. Dunphy: First questions: “What is a newspaper album,” and “Why does the band feel they’ve made the first of them if two variations of the newspaper theme have already been done?”
David Lifton: Newspapers are dead. If they were really as hip as everybody says, they’d put out an “app album.”
Kelly Stitzel: So, I’m guessing that I’m the only one who didn’t go batshit crazy when the album was announced and I haven’t heard it. I used to love Radiohead, but now…I don’t know. I’m just completely uninterested. I bought In Rainbows and listented to it twice before deciding that I think I’m just over them. We all move on, I guess (although, I don’t think the Internet will ever not love them, based on everyone losing their damned minds over getting the record one day early). I respect the band and think they’re doing some interesting, innovative things when it comes to releasing their music. But the music itself just doesn’t grab me anymore. However, I did love the gorgeous solo album that Phil Selway put out last year.
Jeff Giles: Radiohead’s music has never done anything for me, and I haven’t listened to King of Limbs yet, either. I joked on Twitter that New Radiohead Day always makes me feel like Kyle Broflovski on Christmas.
Dunphy: You’re not the only one. I’m excited that the music is out there, but I’ve had the MP3 album for three days now and haven’t even unzipped it yet. While I would like to buy the big set, and might if my tax return isn’t destroyed, it hardly feels imperative. To me, I’ve crossed that line from being intrigued by every cryptic thing they say to just admitting they’re weird and moving on.
David Medsker: I’ve listened to it once, and I guess I can appreciate the album as art, but it’s one of the coldest, most emotionless albums I’ve ever heard. I felt absolutely nothing while it was on.
Lifton: That’s exactly how I’ve felt about everything I’ve heard them do since The Bends.
Dave Steed: I haven’t been a fan since The Bends, but I did listen to this one and it just sounds like two different albums to me. The first four being very experimental and the last four being more straightforward. It didn’t flow very well at all, and that first track is just simply unlistenable.
Medsker: So is this an ’emperor’s new clothes’ thing, then, where everyone praises the band because they’re afraid to admit that they just don’t get it?
Lifton: Hasn’t that always been the case with them?
Mike Heyliger: Not really. I’ll happily admit that I don’t understand Radiohead when they’re obviously trying to be weird – Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief are tuneless and pretentious. That said, I love Thom Yorke’s voice, and when he works within a more conventional musical framework, the music is always good, and often great. I haven’t listened to the new album yet (although I did download it), but if it sounds anything like In Rainbows, I’ll be happy.
Medsker: I don’t think that’s always been the case. OK Computer and Kid A had a pulse, and even Amnesiac had “Pyramid Song” and “Knives Out.” Since then, though, it’s all felt bloodless to me, and having kids hasn’t helped. “Guys, wanna listen to Radiohead?” “Waaaaaaaaah!”
Giles: I think David’s broader point is that Radiohead is a peer pressure band — if you don’t like their music, it’s because you aren’t smart or cool enough to understand what they’re doing.
Medsker: Precisely. And now that you mention it, I stopped writing about them the moment I stopped “getting” them. I guess I caved to the peer pressure, too. I am ashamed.
Stitzel: So what happens when you are smart enough and cool enough to understand what they’re doing, and once liked it, but now you don’t care?
Giles: I think that means you’re old.
Lifton: Then you’re no longer cool or smart enough. Duh.
Stitzel: Or maybe you’re cooler and smarter than everyone else?
Heyliger: Eh. I understand where you guys are coming from. Just don’t think that way myself.
Lifton: I always think of that line from The Commitments: “You had that Frankie Goes To Hollywood record before anyone else, and you were the first to realize they were shite.”
Medsker: My favorite line from that movie.
There have to be other people out there who feel the same way about the band as some of us do, which begs the question: don’t you think it’s curious that they haven’t suffered a backlash yet? Why exactly are they so unimpeachable?
Jason Hare: Perhaps the way they’ve bucked the system has had a part in avoiding it.
Jack Feerick: I think that’s a big part of it, actually. They seem to be protective of their integrity, and they’ve never been reticent about how uncomfortable they are about the machinery of stardom and promotion (Meeting People Is Easy, anyone?), and their constant willingness to try new things and think outside the box resonates with a lot of people, even if their music doesn’t. And they do it without seeming unnecessarily confrontational or obnoxious or even particularly full of themselves.
From the start, they’ve projected an image of low self-esteem, which has the paradoxical effect of making them seem like perpetual underdogs even as they’ve become arguably the Biggest Band in the World. And people like an underdog, so they continue to root for Radiohead long after they would have turned on a more self-aggrandizing group.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that they’ve never really used their position to try to set themselves up as kingmakers or spokespeople. The attitude seems to be, We’re going to do our thing and make the records we want to make, and if you dig it, great. I happen to be one of those people who doesn’t dig it, but somehow I get the feeling that Radiohead themselves wouldn’t hold that against me.
I don’t like Radiohead as a product, but I respect the hell out of them. As opposed to somebody like, say, Sonic Youth, who I think push a lot of the same buttons as Radiohead artistically — and who were, in their day, a similar sort of peer-pressure/litmus-test band — but who come off as sneering, pretentious jerks.
Lifton: Our friend Beau Dure has just given his take on that concept.
Michael Fortes: I like Radiohead because they make music that exists on a plane of its own. I’m actually envious of the fact that they can make such obtuse records. I have to be in the right mood for them, and when I am, they might as well be the only band that exists. I think Jack nailed their appeal precisely. I’ve liked everything they’ve done since OK Computer, though I didn’t fully jump on board till Kid A, which was what sold me on the band for good. I probably won’t be able to hear King of Limbs for a while just because of all the other music I’m committed to right now, but suffice to say, I’m expecting some mind benders.
Dunphy: My thing is that The Bends and OK Computer are, to me, just great records that came out in a period of so many great records. Kid A and Amnesiac may not be great, but each has great songs. Hail to the Thief left me cold and while I admire In Rainbows and like some of the songs, I don’t go back to it much. At any rate, I’ve fallen out of love with the contrariness of the group. I get that they’re not really interested in pleasing me and, as artists, that’s their right. But I’m no longer put off by that stance either, so if they’re not interested in pleasing me, big deal.
That’s where the reverse psychology falls off and, I think in a lot of ways, their primary marketing tool in the past decade has been just that: reverse psychology on a large scale.
Chris Holmes: I saw the video for “Lotus Flower,” and can’t remember a damn thing about it other than poor Thom Yorke being afflicted with St. Vitus’ Dance. I didn’t get into Radiohead until OK Computer, which is still one of the great albums from the 2nd half of the century. I appreciate Kid A and enjoy a lot of it. Right after Amnesiac I just lost interest completely. They’ve been cupping their own farts for the better part of a decade, and I just can’t be bothered anymore.