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In Rainbows: Radiohead Bridges the Centuries (Part 2)
Miss Part 1? Read it here
At the dawn of the new millennium Radiohead released Kid A. It was the last album of its kind. Like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper or U2’s Achtung Baby, it was a game-changing record released by a rock band at the height of its popularity and the peak of its creative powers. Like Sgt. Pepper and Achtung Baby it was an album that was conceived, written and recorded with full knowledge of its context. After OK Computer, Radiohead had everyone’s attention. Kid A was, in ways both positive and negative, a response to that attention. Never again would a rock band be in quite the same position, and in many ways subsequent bands would have Radiohead and Kid A to thank for that. Before Kid A, that old force, The Holy Church of Rock and Roll, had defined the terms of Rock. But by the time the new millennium rolled around the Church had grown complacent. Once made up of devout believers in the music itself, the Church had grown accustomed to letting the power of the profit-driven industry establishment call the shots. And why not? Everyone was making money while paying lip-service to the “great legacy and history of Rock and Roll.” It seemed like things could go on like this indefinitely. However, the entire industry was about to fall apart and the influence of the Church was about to disappear, with Radiohead figuring prominently in the demise of both. In the aftermath of these events, a new musical landscape would take shape. As forces competed to redefine Rock in the absence of any authority, Radiohead would again point the way to a potential future. By taking full advantage of the freedom of the new landscape, Radiohead would prove that perhaps the Church of Rock and Roll needed to be destroyed in order for its Gospel to be saved. Despite the fact that Kid A caused many to lament the “death of Rock,” In Rainbows would prove that Rock and Roll will never die.
Kid A Revisited: The Church of Rock and Roll in Crisis
By the time Kid A was released in 2000, the Church of Rock and Roll was actually beginning to crumble, though it wasn’t as easy to see at the time as it is in retrospect. On the surface, Rock music looked the same as it had for years. Radio and MTV were still the means by which people heard new music. Record sales were still the measure of success. And mainstream rock critics (like Nick Hornby or Rolling Stone) were still tastemakers. The memories of Nirvana and the “alternative” breakthrough were still fresh, and rock still felt relevant. MTV continued to promote new rock artists – both popular and underground – with staples like Unplugged and 120 Minutes (a two-hour showcase of alternative music), and VH1 continued to preserve the mythology of Rock and Roll with shows like Behind the Music and Legends. The box office success of Almost Famous and High Fidelity seemed to confirm the reign of the Church. But beneath the surface a different reality was unfolding.
MTV had changed drastically by the turn of the millennium. Nirvana’s 1994 Unplugged special would prove to be the last relevant live performance for the once-popular MTV series, and in the late 90s it slowly disappeared (it now makes its home on MTV.com). 120 Minutes was cancelled in 2000 after a 14-year run, as the term “alternative” increasingly failed to connote anything but a stale genre of hard rock music. By the end of the 90s, MTV, which had begun as a rebellious force that prided itself on being “cutting-edge” (remember the chainsaw!?), was unabashedly favoring Top 40 pop and R&B. The advent of Total Request Live in 1998 solidified this shift. By moving their studio to Times Square and elevating Carson Daly above a backdrop of screaming teenagers, MTV planted itself firmly in mainstream pop culture. This shift, along with the success of The Real World, signaled the beginning of the end for music on MTV. While music videos still played about half the time on MTV in 2000, those figures belied the march toward total “pop culture programming” that would eventually land even TRL on the list of music-programming casualties by 2008.
That’s right, I’m talkin’ about you, dude…
At VH1, MTV’s sister station that adopted the slogan “Music First” in the 90s to supplement MTV’s dwindling number of music-driven shows, the popularity of programs like Behind the Music and Legends actually signaled a trend that was hastening the Church’s demise: the mythologizing of Rock’s history. By relegating all things Rock to a historicized “past tense,” Rock was not only rendered irrelevant to the increasingly now-oriented younger generation, it also lost what it seemed to be trying to preserve: its narrative. As younger generations were inundated with documentaries about The Police, REM, U2, Nirvana, Bob Marley, MC Hammer, Milli Vanilli, Michael Jackson, Alan Freed, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, Christina Aguilera, Spice Girls, Barenaked Ladies, Elton John, and Elvis, the cumulative impression was not one of a linear narrative, but of a leveling nostalgia – one that placed everything that had come before into an all-encompassing “old.” This trend reached its apex with the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the very existence of which signaled the end of an era to those concerned with Rock as counter-cultural force. Those curating the Church of Rock and Roll (including the Hall’s co-founders: Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner) appeared relatively unconcerned. By 2000, the Rock establishment seemed content to rest on its history, legend, and mythology. This myth-making machine, however, would backfire.
By 2000 Rock journalism too had moved toward mythology. Rolling Stone had been founded in 1967 as a magazine for people who took Rock music seriously. Founder Jann Wenner stated at its inception that to combat the “mold of myth and nonsense, we hope we have something here for the artists and the industry, and every person who ‘believes in the magic that can set you free.’” But by 2000, Rolling Stone had become a mixture of precisely the “myth and nonsense” it had been founded to combat. It focused more and more on current celebrity pics and gossip (the issue containing the review of Kid A featured a scantily-clad Kate Hudson on the cover), while its music features focused increasingly on preserving the legacy of Rock’s storied past (did anyone actually read Ethan Hawke’s 8-page puff piece on Kris Kristofferson?). By 2002, when Wenner embraced what RS had already become by handing over the reins to a British lifestyle-mag editor, the Los Angeles Times could say to Rolling Stone’s unhappyreaders (and the Church of Rock and Roll), “Shove over, you middle-aged boys, with your Bics burning at Bruce Springsteen concerts, your thinning hair, your love of 6,000-word dispatches from Tom Wolfe…It's not about you anymore." And they were right. The rise of a million niche music magazines illustrated that there was no longer One True Church of Rock and Roll. As Sean Elder wrote on Salon, “A magazine built on the notion of Us vs. Them is no longer relevant; there is no Us.”
All about the music…
Just as the pillars of traditional Rock television and journalism were beginning to crumble, the dominance of radio and major labels came under assault by the advent of file-sharing and internet distribution. Though all of these changes had only just begun in October of 2000, the stage was set forKid A, which would prove to be a major factor in ushering in the new era. In only a few short years, everything about Rock music would be turned upside down. Labels would fold, record stores would die, magazines would go under, MTV would almost entirely shut down its music programming, and the Church of Rock and Roll would shatter into a million different factions and denominations. The only question was: what would take its place?
Kid A Revisited: The Opposition and the Overthrow
Criticisms of Kid A, along the lines of Nick Hornby’s scathing review (outlined in Part 1), came to fall on increasingly deaf ears. Two totally separate forces would conspire to win the battle over Kid A and ultimately overthrow Hornby and the Holy Church of Rock and Roll. From Hornby’s own generation would come the post-modern intelligentsia, who had been waiting in the wings for such an opportunity. Armed with their own 20th century saints of philosophy (Adorno), politics (Alinsky), and music (Schoenberg), they saw the information revolution as evidence of the deconstruction they had been prophesying for decades and gladly stepped into the mainstream. From the other end of the spectrum would come the mp3 revolution and the first generation to come of age in the internet era, one unburdened by the baggage of the old hierarchies. As the intelligentsia claimed victory over the Church of Rock, the mp3 generation uncritically accepted their claims and went about the business of creating a completely new musical landscape.
In direct response to Hornby’s critical review of Kid A, post-modern apologist, essayist, author, and Illinois State English professor Curtis White wrote his own article, titled “Kid Adorno,”in which he evokes post-modern founding father Theodor Adorno in an attempt to destroy Nick Hornby and the Church of Rock and Roll once and for all. Advancing Adorno’s philosophies on art (Schoenbergwas Adorno’s personal favorite), which had been avant-garde truisms for years, White used Radiohead’s Kid A to bring these ideas into the pop culture mainstream. The main idea was that the sole virtue of art lies in its “spontaneity,” that the only true art is that which is free of all conventions. While White bemoaned the fact that this battle between spontaneity and convention was being fought in the realm of pop culture, he embraced it because, as he says, “in an otherwise domesticated art world, rock still has the potential for ‘social explosiveness.’” To White, Hornby’s review was representative of the repressive rock establishment trying to force artists to follow its conventions. White’s tone seethes with pent-up anger at the Church of Rock and Roll as he writes, “This is a band that hates you, Nick Hornby, you and your ilk, with your philistine taste and the abominable arrogance which allows you to claim you know what rock-and-roll ought to be about.” White quotes Hornby’s use of the descriptive terms “gorgeous” and “lovely” to prove Hornby’s “philistine taste,” resting his case on Adorno’s pronouncement that “whoever concretely enjoys artworks is a philistine.” And there you have it, in a nutshell.
One can only imagine what Hornby thought of all this, but it was certainly a blindside hit. While the Hornbys of the world had been obliviously rolling along for decades, White and his counterparts had been awaiting just this opportunity and were well-prepared for a philosophical coup. It would never have occurred to Hornby or the rock critics of his generation that “enjoying” music meant something negative or that music which “connects” or “inspires” does so only by appealing to “conventions.” By using Adorno’s terms as his starting point (thus introducing a whole new set of rules that Hornby was unprepared for), White’s attack was somewhat unfair. It wasn’t just that, though, it was the confident and condescending tone of his article (Alinsky would have been proud) that, in a few short pages, relegated the Holy Church of Rock and Roll to an ancient obscurity. Using a blueprint straight from Rules for Radicals (the same blueprint used by post-modernists to attack all forms of authority), White used ridicule, the twisting of words (somehow reducing Hornby’s piece to simple “consumerism”), and ire-raising buzzwords like “old,” “tired” and “repressive” to totally reduce forty years of rock criticism to a pile of inconsequential goo. White’s article surely didn’t have the circulation of the New Yorker, but the very fact that it appeared at all reflected the changes that were taking place.
“Today, the government. Tomorrow, Rock and Roll…”
While the influence of this sort of post-modern philosophy struck almost silently (and subliminally) at the crumbling foundations of the Church of Rock and Roll, another force would slam a wrecking ball into the edifice itself, and again Kid A would be one of the operators of the crane. This force could be broadly described as “the internet.” Beneath the preoccupation with copyright issues and mp3 file-sharing which distracted people at the time was a far more important issue: the “democratization” that the internet would afford to artists, fans and critics. The marketing of Kid A tapped into this in a number of ways. Radiohead already had a legendarily direct relationship with their fans via their website, where they posted running blogs of the recording process, bypassing press releases and the usual media filters. When the album was finished, no promotional copies were circulated to the press. Instead, certain critics and fans were invited to listen to Kid A in controlled environments. While this made for a haphazard review process (and a largely negative one, with critics writing about a very complex album that they’d only heard once), it also drastically limited the media’s chance to tell listeners what to think before they heard the album. Radio stations, too, were cut out of the deal as the band decided not to release any singles from Kid A. MTV was handed 50 or so head-scratching “blips,” strange animated samples of music from Kid A that were only 10 to 40 seconds long. Then, weeks before the album’s release, Kid A leaked onto Napster in its entirety, making it available to Radiohead’s fans before the critics even realized what had happened. At a time when many popular artists were suing Napster, Thom Yorke countered that “it encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do.” It created such enthusiasm, in fact, that the album’s sales seemed to be helped rather than hurt by the advance leak. Kid A was the first Radiohead album to debut atop the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sex, drugs and lawsuits!!!
During the short window of time that Napster was operating at its peak (before being shut down in 2001), most record companies, artists, and journalists were bemoaning the copyright infringement of file-sharing and talking about how the artists weren’t making any moneyfrom these free downloads. But what the marketing strategy and leaking of Kid A would prove was that a whole new model of success was emerging – its real implications going relatively unnoticed – right before their eyes. Kid A proved what many thought might be true – that widespread exposure of an artist’s music, free or not, could translate into actual sales. While free downloads might not help established artists that everyone already knew, online accessibility made it possible for anyone to have their music heard by anyone, a life-changing development for the thousands of great underground artists toiling in obscurity. But how would they get heard? Radiohead had shown the expendability of corporate radio, MTV, and rock criticism by having huge success without them. But with so much music available and the traditional oracles becoming irrelevant and out of touch with the new technology, to whom would young music fans turn to sort through the mess and help guide them through this brave new world? And what sort of landscape would take shape to replace the Church of Rock and Roll and the old music industry model?
Kid A: The Aftermath
With the demise of Rock as a popular genre, the failing of major labels, and the new accessibility of music online, Rock music went underground. There were still people who were interested in the old idea of Rock as a creative art form, they just no longer connected it with cultural impact or mass popularity. And for music to have cultural impact, it has to be heard on a large scale. Curtis White’s idea of Rock as a force for “social explosiveness” had died with Kid A, leaving the post-moderns with no battle left to fight. The Rock music landscape was an open book. Free from the commercial and financial pressure that burdened Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Rap, and Country, Rock music would find its way by going “indie.” Similar to the 80s “alternative” scene which combated that era’s bloatedPopular Rock and glittery Pop, the term “indie” would soon became a catch-all for artistically viable Rock music. The difference was that there were no artists like U2, REM, or Talking Heads in the mainstream anymore. In the aftermath of Kid A, the new “indie” scene was the only place to find Rock that meant anything.
In 1996, a 20-year-old Minneapolis record store clerk started an online fanzine from his parents’ house. By the time of Kid A’s release, Ryan Schreiber had established Pitchfork Media (now just Pitchfork) as the internet’s most all-encompassing guide to indie music. The site was based on a few foundational principles. First, Pitchfork was updated constantly, with four new album reviews daily (there are now even more), as well as a news feed of (ostensibly) everything that was going on in the indie music world – tour dates announced, album release dates, album release rumors, new video clips, interviews, etc. The result was a “one stop shop” every indie music enthusiast had to visit each morning. The other foundation of Pitchfork was the nature of the reviews themselves. Written by non-professional writers (more so at first – Schreiber himself had no journalistic training), the reviews were personal, conversational, and brutally honest. The tone was a fresh alternative to old-guard print journalism, speaking the language of the fans (while avoiding the no-form/no-regard-for-punctuation-or-grammar style that would characterize most blogs). At the same time, the reviews took the critic’s role (and the music) very seriously, with a 100-point scale (0.0-10.0) that gave the impression of total precision and understanding. In this context, the very rare 10.0 review demanded attention.
“I will change Rock music forever! – As soon as I get out of my parents’ basement…”
In October 2000, Pitchfork had a loyal and influential – but modest – readership. More importantly, however, they had already laid all the groundwork and established their online presence before the turning of the tide. As the Church of Rock and Roll crumbled, as the old voices turned hollow, and as music fans were looking for a new guide, Pitchfork was there waiting. As Nick Hornby and others were wringing their hands over Kid A and the old guard hedged their bets (Rolling Stone gave a glowing review that could only commit to 4 out of 5 stars), Pitchfork placed itself firmly in the future by giving Kid A a brash 10.0 rating. The actual reviewwas somewhat outrageous, filled with ridiculous metaphors and personal non-sequitors. But it became an instant online sensation. The review was initially passed around the internet in a sort of “look-at-how-crazy-this-is” kind of way, but the end result was a radical increase in Pitchfork’s hits to 5,000 per day (a recent Time magazine articlecited the Kid A review as the beginning of Pitchfork’s rise to prominence). This was partly because the review, despite its comparisons to “mating Tyrannosaurus” and references to “eye crust,” proved to be right in its assessment of the album’s importance: “Considerations on its merits as ‘rock’ (i.e. its radio fodder potential, its guitar riffs, and its hooks) are pointless… [Kid A is] an album which completely obliterates how albums, and Radiohead themselves, will be considered.” Even Pitchfork now seems to regard this review as their true beginning, having deleted almost all of their pre-Kid A content.
Over the next few years, as uploads and downloads went high-speed, the sheer volume of available mp3s became staggering. A recent Pitchfork articledescribes those days, and how there was a “need for new critical middlemen…to step in and make sense of things.” They humbly add, “It's no coincidence, of course, that Pitchfork's own rise coincided with the mp3 market glut, or that mp3 blogs would emerge as an eclectic network of music fans as the decade opened.” And here was the other new player in the game: the music blogger. Many were college kids with computers and way too much time on their hands, but they would soon create a haphazard online “community” of music lovers that would sort through the chaos of available mp3s and post their favorites. While Pitchfork (in its own way) aimed from the beginning for an air of critical legitimacy, the music blogosphere that developed was a different thing entirely. While some blogs were more thought-out than others, most aimed for immediacy over legitimacy. Punctuation, grammar, and spelling took a back seat to the joy of being the first to “leak” an unheard or unknown track or album. And even if the blog legally shared an iTunes link or a “suggestion,” file-sharing sites like LimeWire (now defunct), and later BitTorrent and The Pirate Bay, would gladly let you download it for free. The music blogs also served the new, fragmented music culture very well. Since every blog had its own tastes, certain ones would attract a following of like-minded fans that would learn to trust that blogger to post new music they would like. New genres were being coined all the time (with Pitchfork often putting the stamp on these names), from “freak-folk” to “chillwave.” The buzz on a band could grow virally with approval from the blogs. Popular major-label bands were totally irrelevant in this context. But where would this leave Radiohead?
“Hey! We could be ‘chillwave’!”
The first few years of the 2000s were a period of instability, as everyone struggled to find their bearings in this new landscape. In 2003, Radiohead released Hail To The Thief, which was an example of the uncertain climate. The music reflected this in its self-consciousness. Reined in at every turn, the songs that pushed toward the experimental were stopped short of being off-putting, while the songs that showed glimpses of grandiosity and bombast seemed to stop short out of fear of rejection. The result is an album that never turns you off, but also fails to turn you on (Kid A did both extremely effectively). Thief, their last album for Capitol/EMI,found Radiohead unsure of the album’s context, a complete reversal from Kid A. Sure, it was a major-label release and the band had a large audience. But what did those things mean anymore? It was clear that Radiohead was after more than that. They wanted to be artistically relevant, something that was proving to be more and more impossible for a major rock band. As Radiohead witnessed U2’s popular renaissance in the early 2000s, one that completely alienated U2 from the new generation of indie rock fans, Radiohead must have wondered: will that be us in ten years?
It was becoming clear that the age of the Rock-Band-as-Cultural-Touchstone was ending (isn’t that what Kid A was about in some way?), and Radiohead seemed unsure of what this meant for them. There was no blueprint for this. While many bands had seen their popularity dwindle, no band had ever been in quite the same position as Radiohead. They were faced with a choice. They were probably the last band with the opportunity to take the “legacy” route and follow U2 and Bruce Springsteen into a future of multi-platinum imitations of their once-vital selves. They were in a position to have a lifetime major-label deal that would keep preserving and repackaging their back catalogue (Capitol is already doing this without the band’s blessing) and reminding us how great they were. They could keep touring and recording super-hyped albums that would continue to sell well based on sheer marketing. They could become the signature band for the 90s “alternative generation,” hitting the outdoor circuit every summer to capitalize on the nostalgia. They could be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In other words, they could make a ton of money and be taken into the mainstream mythology of Rock and Roll. But this was the future they had glimpsed with OK Computer and rejected with Kid A. The decision to actually reject all of this was far scarier than it seemed at the time of Kid A. In order to maintain their relevance, it was becoming clear that they would have to cut ties with the establishment entirely. After Hail To The Thief, their major-label contract was fulfilled. They no longer had that security blanket, but they were now free to do whatever they wanted. What they chose to do just may have saved Rock.
In Rainbows in Context: The Brave New World
By the middle of the decade, a new structure for underground Rock music (read: indie) was beginning to take shape. In 2005, Hype Machinecreated an aggregator of over 1,000 hand-picked music blogs, collecting all new music in one place. Oh, and it was beautifully searchable: by recent (as in “posted 3 seconds ago”), by blog (who’s your favorite?), by artist (has that new Wavves track leaked yet?), and more. This would prove to be an important part of the structure that emerged: individuals would upload music to the file-sharing sites, the bloggers would do much of the listening “legwork,” Hype Machine would collect the raw information in one place, and Pitchfork would put it all in perspective.
Back in the real world, the changes had finally sunk in, even to the likes of Nick Hornby, who eventually embraced the music blogs as a great alternative to the intimidating thought of being a 50-something in an indie record store looking for the latest hip music. He also puts in perspective where he was at the end of the old era:
“Back then, the future of music didn't look particularly interesting to me. I don't mean that music itself seemed boring, although I was 38 years old, and I felt like I'd heard a lot of the mid-90s before. I mean that neither I nor anybody else I knew spent any time thinking about how our consumption of music might change. How could it?”
Hornby goes on to talk about how he finally discovered Hype Machine and his favorite music blogs, and how it took him “longer than it should have” to realize that “the internet is one giant independent record shop.”
“Well, that’s just great. What am I going to do with all THESE?!”
As Radiohead was putting the finishing touches on In Rainbows, it was far from clear what this new landscape was going to mean going forward. Musically, the “indie” scene was pulling in a couple different directions. While it promised a new kind of democracy, it also struggled with a new kind of elitism. While united by a distrust of major labels and a lack of interest in the old “Rock Star” goals, there was a dividein what exactly the musical goals of the “indie” artist were. This was an important battle, even if it was being fought below the radar. Its consequences would determine the future of Rock music as a viable genre.
On the one hand, their were artists like Arcade Fireor Sufjan Stevens(both of whom were helped along by Pitchfork) who aspired in their own ways to Nick Hornby’s old ideals of “connecting” and “inspiring,” while doing so with music that was fiercely originaland never pandering(both were on legitimately independent labels). With their display of true artistic creativity these artists were demonstrating a new model of success that had little to do with selling millions of records. Their viral internet popularity and universal Pitchfork acclaim would translate to a comfortable career based on artistic credibility, where their loyal followings would support them by filling theaters across the country, further establishing a personal connection between the fans and the artists that had been lost in the previous era of Clear Channel Radio and stadium tours.
Pulling in the other direction was a more reactionary mindset, especially in the music blogs. They tended to judge music less on its merits, and more on its obscurity and its “freshness.” With so much music available to be heard, the music blogs relished their roles as the true “discoverers” of new music. This elitism would become a detriment to the music itself, as more and more artists sought approval in one of the countless niche genres that appeared. The era of the “buzz band” had begun. Over-hyped by the blogs as the latest and greatest in “noise-rock,” “slow-core” or “lo-fi R&B,” these artists had career arcs that were only possible in the internet age, where in a matter of months they could go from being “the next big thing” to yesterday’s news. These artists – through their sheer inaccessibility – would give the increasingly-emboldened bloggers what they wanted: buzz bands who would never threaten to escape the blogger’s sphere of influence by going “mainstream.”
The bloggers’mindset, like that of Curtis White and certain post-modernists, was more philosophical than musical. While White praised Kid A for what it represented (the triumph of “spontaneity” over “convention”), it was hard to imagine him actually sitting down and listening to music because he truly loved it (that would be so “philistine” of him). But just a few short years after White’s article, Radiohead would be on the opposite end of the philosophical sword. Like White, the blogger “Hipster Runoff” had his own philosophy that had little to do with actual musical content. His philosophy contextualized the climate into which Radiohead would re-emerge:
There is nothing more annoying that [sic] Conceptual Artists/Bands who have allegedly garnered mainstream praise. For example, the Radioheads… I think the main gimmick behind these bands is convincing yourself that their 'product' stands for something more than most music. They are pretty much a lifestyle brand for every sort of alternative ideal possible: social change, innovative instruments + recording techniques, reflections on humanity, usage of performance + visual art during the live show, environmental awareness, anti-War, embracing technology, innovative/meme-able music videos, having opinions on politics, and stuff like that which makes the band interesting/easy to write about. I'd say bands on this level exist as sort of a 'non-profit lifestyle brand' and have a progressive simpleton fan base that can't really 'see' what's going on. The bands are probably all way more 'deliberate' than we give them credit for, but also kind of excessively 'grassroots/organic' in an annoying way. U kinda just want them 2 embrace their mainstreamness and focus on being mediocre. The people who 'genuinely' like these bands are not worth taking seriously because they didn't really know how to use the internet to find their 'favourite band.' Instead, they picked the artist on what they perceive to be 'the extreme left' in the lineup of mainstream artists. In essense [sic], they want to identify with generic alternative ideals that they think a band is supposed to represent. So while the artists themselves may be 'truly expressing themselves', it is hard for an internet-centric bro who 'has the whole internet at his fingertips' to take these artists seriously when we have found a whole new world that makes…Radiohead seem like a concept/band for simpletons.
For someone with this mindset, there was little (if anything) a band like Radiohead could do to legitimize themselves. Their crime was not musical, or even commercial, but something beyond their control: it was the fact that people in the mainstream were familiar with them. “Hipster Runoff” would take the same hatchet to younger, less well-known bands like Arcade Fire as well, even though their mainstream familiarity level was miniscule in the grand scheme of things. The problem was that some people in the mainstream were familiar with them. It was a dangerous time for Rock music, and the underground battle lines were being drawn between those who were interested in the music and those who would reduce it to an elitist statement of individuality. In the “Hipster Runoff” world, all types of music were simply “lifestyle brands,” and you chose the one that best represented the way you wanted people to see you. While there had always been an element of this involved in music, especially in the “alternative” or “indie” scene, never before had it threatened to become the only defining characteristic of Rock. With its increasing disappearance from the mainstream, Rock had never been more vulnerable. While there were signs of life, there were never fewer people willing to defend the vitality of Rock – or its music as music.
In Rainbows: Music as Music
In October of 2007, Radiohead again changed the game for how a mainstream album was released and marketed. And, once again, they were successful. Buried beneath the storylines in the mainstream media, however, was the fact that Radiohead had also weighed in musically on the future of Rock. This contribution of In Rainbows – what it meant musically – would prove just as important as what it meant as a business model, although the two were interconnected.
Ten days prior to the release of the album, Radiohead announced on its website that the album would be released as a digital download, with listeners free to pay whatever price they wished. Thom Yorke explained to Wired that "every record for the last four—including my solo record—has been leaked. So the idea was like, we'll leak it, then.” While they scheduled a physical release for the end of the year, they also decided not to sign a new major-label record deal. Yorke told Time that “the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say 'Fuck you' to this decaying business model.” Instead, they retained all rights to the album and licensed its release to a few independent record labels and distributors. Having learned from Kid A how an advance leak could help generate momentum for a record’s release, this time they controlled the process themselves (and even made some money on the downloads). The result was another huge success, with In Rainbows debuting atop the charts again in the UK and the U.S., this time with no major-label support.
While In Rainbows received near-universal critical acclaim, most mainstream press reviews focused on the album’s novel release and praised the music’s “accessibility.” It was framed more in the context of the band’s alternative contemporaries and Rock legend forbears than in the context of the burgeoning indie rock scene. Pitchfork, however, warmly embraced the album with a 9.3 review and gave Radiohead its stamp of approval for yet another generation of fans (in this new age, the seven years since Kid A was a long time). They couched the album’s “accessibility” (sometimes a back-handed compliment in indie circles) as the band being in “generous spirits.” For all the talk about the pay-what-you-want release and the “accessibility” of In Rainbows, what went unnoticed was the fact that Radiohead, by way of ten nearly flawless songs, had once again redefined what Rock music could be.
“We will now save Rock and Roll with the cunning use of…POWWW!!”
The album’s opener, “15 Step,” goes a long way toward revealing just what Radiohead is up to on In Rainbows. Starting with a twitched-out drum machine sputtering in 5/6 time, it captures the energy of the Kid A-era’s swaggering live shows more than that album’s more subdued studio sound. Thom Yorke starts, “How come I end up where I started?/How come I end up where I went wrong?/Won’t take my eye off the ball again…” singing confidently in a way that suggests that the band has a renewed focus, that they won’t “take their eye off the ball,” that Radiohead is here to stay. Then Phil Selway’s live drums kick in, taking the infectious beat to a visceral level. And then, just when you’re all amped up on the rhythm, Johnny Greenwood drops a restrained, groovy guitar riff worthy of OK Computer, except this time its clean and concise, not hidden beneath a wash of effects. Ed O’Brien provides subtle and tasteful non-guitar sounds that never grab for attention, but manage to further the song’s feel. Colin Greenwood lies low, but occasionally chimes in with some one-off bass riffs that take the song to the next level. His restraint and confidence on this song is representative of the album – it’s as if he listened to the song over and over before ever picking up the bass, eventually realizing, “It just needs this!” and then busting it out like only a bassist of his caliber can. While the song has repeated lines and rides Johnny’s guitar line much of the time, it never settles into a distinct structure, keeping each new turn fresh and unexpected. While “15 Step” is certainly “accessible,” as in “easy to like,” it is not pandering to some sort of radio audience or anyone’s idea of what Radiohead ought to sound like. This is the Radiohead of In Rainbows: just five talented and extremely experienced rock musicians who, having tried just about everything they could, decided to bring everything they’d learned to the table in order to just make the best music possible.
“Bodysnatchers” finds the band resurrecting the blistering three-electric-guitars-at-full-volume attack of The Bends, but instead of sounding tried and tired, it sounds as fresh and exciting as ever. It’s liberating to hear the band just let loose; nobody does that anymore. On “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “Reckoner,” Radiohead comes as close as they will on the record to defining a “new sound.” Unlike their previous tortured efforts to deconstruct Rock, here they settle for clean guitars and clear drum sounds, both understated and immediate, not to mention the beautiful melodies that Yorke still manages to dig up.
The unashamedly pretty “Nude,” the groove-turned-glorious “All I Need,” and the laid-back “House of Cards” present new sounds as well, but also highlight the album’s new lyrical focus. For the first time since the almost-adolescent lyrics of “Black Star,” there are some love songs here. Sure, there is some Yorke-ian paranoia involved, but you get the sense that Yorke and the band, now mature men with families and such, are more focused on the personal as being important. Ed O’Brien would characterize the album’s lyrics as “universal. There wasn't a political agenda. It's being human.” While Radiohead had practically defined the themes of alienation and yearning for human contact, they had always addressed them in an abstract sense, embracing irony and symbolism. In Rainbows, however, is by far Radiohead’s most un-ironic album. By the time we reach the album’s piano-led closer, “Videotape,” we know that Yorke is not just reaching for an ironic metaphor in surreal imagery. He’s embracing the human connections to his kids and their mother, taking the opportunity to get these words down, even as death looms. It’s his most poignant lyric to date:
When I'm at the pearly gates
This'll be on my videotape
Mephistopheles is just beneath
And he's reaching up to grab me
This is one for the good days
And I have it all here in
Red, blue, green
You are my center when I spin away
Out of control on videotape
This is my way of saying goodbye
Because I can't do it fact to face
So I'm talking to you before
No matter what happens now
I won't be afraid
Because I know
Today has been the most perfect day I have ever seen
In Rainbows: The Legacy and the Gospel
It was easy for most critics to simply absorb In Rainbows as yet another solid album from a band that we had come to expect solid albums from, and at the same time to dismiss it for not being “revolutionary” in the same way as Kid A. The problem with this assessment was that In Rainbows was indeed revolutionary, but not in a way that was easy to see. First of all, it gave Radiohead a career arc that had never been seen in Rock – a band making possibly their best, most original music while pushing 40. It makes sense that a band that has played together for 20 years might get better and better as they grow as musicians and artists. It happens in literature, visual art, poetry and elsewhere—so why not in Rock?
The blame lies with the Holy Church of Rock and Roll and its concept of the “Rock Star.” The first “Rock Stars” (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones) achieved that status through their music, but they gave birth to an image that so many after them aspired to. This had good and bad results. On the one hand, it gave future icons like Bruce Springsteenand U2belief in the redemptive power of Rock on a large scale. On the other hand, it devolved into the popular image of the “Rock Star” and the “rock and roll lifestyle” that would inspire bands from Aerosmith to Poison to Oasis, bands that seemed to be more interested in being “Rock Stars” than making great music. Being a Rock Star was a great gig, if you could get it. The problem with the likes of Springsteen and U2 as they aged was not that they “sold out,” but that they reveled in their status. They liked being “Bruce Springsteen” and “U2.” And while they tried hard to remain relevant, all their money, fame and “legend” status made it increasingly impossible for them to have any sort of connection to the real world. Radiohead, on the other hand, had caught a glimpse of this and avoided it like the plague. That’s what Kid A was about. But here, on In Rainbows, with the battle over and the Age of the Rock Star passed, Radiohead is redefining what a band can do 20 years into their career. Free from a major label, commercial pressure, and any desire to live up to a “Rock Star” image of themselves, they can just focus on making music. Put 40-year-old Springsteen or U2 in that position and imagine how different Human Touch or All That You Can’t Leave Behind might have been. At the time of In Rainbows’ release, Radiohead did a live internet broadcast called Scotch Mist, featuring the band playing the new songs live in the studio. The whole production -- the band’s found-this-on-the-floor-next-to-my-bed wardrobe, the no-frills camera shots, the modesty of the studio itself – was decidedly un-“Rock-Star.” You got the feeling you were just watching some guys play music…but such amazing music!
“Hey, Radiohead! You too can become caricatures of yourselves!”
In the same way, In Rainbows also had something to say to the younger generation of indie rock. By stripping away all the elements of Rock culture that had alienated the “indie kids,” here Radiohead was embracing much of the “indie” ethos. They eschewed the major labels and the “Rock Star” posturing. They incorporated unconventional instruments like the glockenspiel, the celeste and analog drum sequencers. They defied traditional band roles, with members playing multiple instruments sometimes on the same song. They embraced the new technology of the internet and used it to their advantage. They inhabited the new landscape that they had helped create with Kid A, but they also showed what was possible in that landscape. After a 15-year recording career and numerous refinements, they were showing that they’d learned a few things about how to make great music, and they were teaching the kids some lessons. In addition to their own experience, they also had the whole history of Rock to draw from; something the younger generations had a hard time understanding. Using all of this, they were able to make truly great music that defied classification in any radio genre, or any indie genre for that matter. They were not trying to emulate any of the younger bands. They were being Radiohead. And by doing so, they were planting themselves firmly on the side of the music, against the rising tide of sophomoric niche bands and blog buzz. They were professionals.
In the years followingIn Rainbows, many indie artists would follow Radiohead’s lead by embracing the idea of putting the music ahead of the buzz. By 2010, this was translating into a new kind of success where bands on independent labels were climbing the charts without compromising creative control and without the crushing pressure or fame. As it turned out, there was an audience for this. Arcade Fire matured with The Suburbs, which debuted at #1 in the US and UK. Vampire Weekend moved from buzz-band to exquisite pop as Contra hit #1 in the US, while The National’s subtle High Violet debuted at #3 and Sufjan Stevens’ experimental venture, The Age Of Adz, debuted at #7. All of these were career highs, marking a new high point for indie in the mainstream, but with no sign of the compromise that so many indie-lovers assumed was the price of success. This affected a growing number of underground bands as well. Take a band like Menomena, once a buzz-band known for the kitsch-y novelty of their recording process, which has matured into one of the most undeniably original rock bands around with 2010’s Mines. Whether they realize it or not, In Rainbows was a major catalyst in the maturing of these indie bands.
“Hey guys, we’ve got a number one album! Should we be thanking Radiohead?”
In Rainbows cemented Radiohead’s unique legacy. Before In Rainbows, even with the landmark Kid A, Radiohead’s career had mirrored the major-label-icon careers of many before them. But as that era ended, Radiohead refused to become a casualty. Instead, they reinvented themselves as…themselves. In doing so, they did what no other artist of their generation could pull off: they bridged the two eras. As the Holy Church of Rock and Roll crumbled, many were casting aside the rubble like so much dust under their feet. Some laughed at it and mocked anything associated with it. Some took pieces from it as ironic novelties. Most took its excesses, hypocrisies and failures as proof that everything about it was fake. But Radiohead, having grown up in the Church and having been inspired by it, knew that its Gospel was true. They carried the tradition and the narrative of Rock with them, whether they liked it or not. They had something that artists of their generation could not avoid – the story. From Elvis to the Beatles to Dylan to Pink Floyd to U2 to Nirvana, it was a story that Radiohead knew well. They had rebelled against it and bristled at its conventions, but they knew it. With Kid A, they had orchestrated what turned out not to be a rejection of the Church, but a reformation. They had been instrumental in stripping away all of the over-bloated nonsense that had become so much a part of Rock culture. They had gone to an extreme in order to make their point, and it had worked. But with In Rainbows, they made it clear that the intent of all that was not to destroy, but to save the only thing that had mattered all along – the music.
“Let’s invent Rock and Roll so that someday Radiohead can save it…”
Radiohead is currently preparing to release their follow-up to In Rainbows. How the new record turns out will not change the legacy of In Rainbows. The future is now safe for Rock music, but not necessarily for “Rock Stars.” The future is safe for those who look to Rock to “connect” and “inspire,” as Nick Hornby did. In fact, Hornby has seems to have come around, albeit slowly, to the realization that music can thrive without the structure of the old Rock model:
“I don't know how it will all pan out, who will pay the artists to make their lovely or ugly or scary music in a world that's increasingly beginning to expect everything for free… All I know is that if you love music, and you have a curious mind, there has never been a better time to be alive.”
If Hornby represents the Holy Church of Rock and Roll, is this the Church’s admission of defeat? Perhaps. But perhaps it was only the hierarchy that was destroyed. Perhaps the true believers, however scattered and however few, could persevere on their own with a knowledge of the story and a renewed faith in what really mattered. Perhaps the Church never needed the corrupt apparatus of the major labels, corporate radio stations, MTV, or lifestyle journalism. Maybe it didn’t need Orthodoxy in matters of taste. Maybe all that ever mattered was the “philistine” idea of “enjoying” Rock music. And maybe the music still tells a story. And perhaps we can picture Nick Hornby passing on stories to his children of the internet age, in hushed tones, relaying a secret history which can’t be aggregated by Hype Machine or rated by Pitchfork. “In the beginning,” he might start, “There was a truck driver named Elvis who wanted to record a song for his mother…”