See What Radiohead Sees

by Mike Cosper

Radiohead made waves in recent weeks as they surprised everyone with the near-simultaneous announcement and release of their eighth record, The King of Limbs. They have a profound influence in certain pockets of pop culture, and what follows is few reflections on who they are, what are they saying, and why they matter.

Who Is Radiohead?

Radiohead burst on to the scene in 1993 with the words, “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo . . . I don’t belong here.” That single, “Creep,” received mixed reviews. Some believed it was sheer brilliance, and others panned it as “grunge-lite.” Few could have predicted the influence that would follow. In the ensuing years, Radiohead has walked a perilous tightrope, somehow managing a hostile posture to both media and fans, while nonetheless remaining the darlings of critics and maintaining a fiercely loyal fan base.

For example: As “Creep” carved out a place on mainstream radio, the band grew bitter. The demand to play the song became a burden at shows—a three-minute task that validated their existence and their payday. The dread and animosity towards the song boiled to a head during the production of their next record, The Bends, and gave birth to an ode to the burden of writing a hit—“My Iron Lung.”

This, this is our new song
Just like the last one
A total waste of time
My iron lung

The Bends exploded onto both radio and MTV. They were no longer a one-hit-wonder. They were a bona-fide rock band, with an album full of anthems, angst, and anger. Then came OK Computer, an album that cemented their place in rock history. It is perhaps the last great guitar album made in 15 years, and it broke the formula for rock music. Like all of Radiohead’s projects, it’s an album of contradictions. While the album is unapologetically a technological masterpiece, it’s also a warning cry about mass culture, technology, and the loss of humanity. The album opens with the inner conflict of “Airbag,” a song that expresses ambivalence about technology (in an airbag) saving a life, and progresses to its most paranoid in “Fitter Happier,” a computerized voice narrating our evolution, ending as a “pig, in a cage, on antibiotics.”

With each subsequent album, Radiohead has seemed to move farther and farther from the rock-and-roll formula. You’re hard-pressed to find “real” instruments on many of their songs. Instead, you find samples—computerized, compressed, far-from-human sounds, which nonetheless continue to communicate this same ambivalence about technology, a growing mass-culture, and the place for a human in the midst.

What Is Radiohead Saying?

I have a friend who’s a pastoral counselor. In almost any situation, when he puts on his “counseling” hat, he opens the conversation by asking, “What are you noticing?” and follows that line of questioning with, “How are you processing that?” I think these are great questions to ask when we look at art in the wider world: What are the artist noticing, and how are they processing it?

In much modern art, the medium is the message, or at least part of the message. You see this in the work of visual artists whose compositions are made of common household objects, or taxidermy. You see in film when the movie is shot on a handheld camera. And you see it in Radiohead, where the sonic landscape of digital sound—layers of samples, drum loops, and drones—serve as a context for real instruments and human voices. Thom Yorke’s vocals swim through this ocean, often battling for space. It’s not uncommon for the vocal to be lost in the chaos, or caught up in echoing layers and deconstructed into something robotic. Radiohead’s work is deeply affected by the way that technology has transformed our culture, both in a personal and a broad sense.

This sonic tension evolved over their first three records and has continued to evolve (with less sudden leaps) in their subsequent records. The newest release, The King of Limbs, gives the impression that the technology is winning. The robots are taking over…

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