With this fall’s now-legendary auto-leak of their newest record, In Rainbows, Radiohead has consummated the most extraordinary rock and roll story of the past ten years. It’s the story of a rock band, yes, but it’s far more than that. It’s also the story of a decade, and of a rootless generation defined by it, one consumed by social anxiety and political frustrations, with lives padded by technological wonders on one hand and uprooted by instability on the other. To trace the path of the band and the pop culture landscape that it helped settle is to trace the path of that generation’s follies and foibles, its obsessions and impulses, and its surprising influence over how contemporary culture defines itself.
Time has forgiven few of the bands that were big in 1997 and born in the early ‘90s. Aside from Radiohead, the only alt-rock survivors still flourishing are Pearl Jam. But Eddie Vedder and company enjoy far less cultural cache. You go to a Pearl Jam concert to light up and rock out. You go to a Radiohead concert to be transfixed and teleported. Like their albums, Radiohead’s live performances are events, recoronations of the band as the peerless postmodern icons of popular music. In the past ten years, they’ve learned how to thrive as the embodiments — deliberate or otherwise — of our full palette of era-appropriate buzzphrases. They’re authentic. They break down boundaries. They reinvent themselves. They flout convention. They shatter expectations. They’re ‘willfully perverse.’ They almost broke up over track listing. They were the subject of an essay in n+1’s first issue. People think seriously about writing their dissertations on Radiohead.
Yet the prospect of a decade-long retrospective seems to have put off or disinterested the same critical world that has always been captivated by the band. It’s hardly drudge work. Rewinding back to OK Computer and letting the tape play would not even require us to revisit the questionable/embarrassing years between celebrated demo On A Friday and breakthrough record The Bends. All it takes is a reckoning with the past ten years.
The decade since 1997 has been filled with strangeness, foreboding, and qualified disappointment. Something that seems inexpressible intertwines contemporary IMAX-scale anxieties — war, politics, terror, globalization, the environment, the economy — with the individual uncertainties of our personal stories. For the generations that came of age as Radiohead got huge, patterns of life seem to have emerged that mutually reinforce and confirm a downward revision of expectations. The band’s catalog tracks the increasing acceptance of a newly fundamental degree of contingency, incompleteness, and transience. It extends across careers and love lives, shaping attitudes reaching from domestic politics to cosmic fate. Many now seem happy just to find or help create the passages of experience that permit momentary and communal escapes. Immanent and transcendent, such fugitive moments of therapeutic authenticity ameliorate the painful costs of being comprehensively compromised.
In a world where that may be the best there is (when it comes to life), Radiohead has been conspicuous as the best of the best when it comes to pop-cultural documentation of that life. Their songs have helped ratify the genuineness of our memories. Their concerts have touched the souls of post-teens who morosely bank their identities on seeming emotionally unavailable. When the Killers’ Brandon Flowers asks to be taken where the white boys dance, it’s hard not to think of Radiohead as the original pied pipers. The fresh crop of indie bands, of which the Killers are exemplary, aspire to inherit such great heights, vamping for catharsis like fresh-faced strippers with youth on their side. But although premature experience is the fashionable way we kill kids with adulation (see Spears, Britney), no other world-famous act can come close to the emotional authenticity that Radiohead evokes in their biggest fans — those particularly smart and creative but somewhat adrift and often conflicted, aching people who were between driving age and drinking age when OK Computer hit, as was the case those days, the shelves.
It may be that we cannot reckon adequately with Radiohead until we reckon in this regard with ourselves. And with the band charting a subtle turn inward in the wake of the Iraq war, the inverse might be true as well. As glib a marker as a decade might seem, in this case it’s still instructive. The grandeur of Radiohead’s tableaux of escape has always been in its hint at some decisive break with the past, some form of real redemption. And if we can learn something of that strange art from a rock band, it’s possible that the Radiohead generation can grow beyond its fugitive hopes.
Looking back on the emotional climate of the early nineties, much of it now seems unrecognizable. A hangdog, Seattle grunge aesthetic reigned, and post-yuppie liberal arts refugees aimlessly roamed urban landscapes. Amidst all this, Radiohead first appeared with the song destined for every compilation record ever to be titled Grunge Anthems: The Self-Loathing Collection: “Creep.” But the year alt-rock finally got out from under grunge was 1995, the year The Bends was released. There are two kinds of rock fans in the world: those who missed out on Nirvana, and those who missed out on Radiohead. For those who were too young or too well-sheltered to get any closer to In Utero than the eerie beige t-shirt hanging from the acne-blighted stoner with the stringy-haired goatee, The Bends offered angsty catharsis at adequate decibel levels which nonetheless avoided dirty words and rape-related content. And then there were the ballads. The ten-thousand-tambourine effect that was supposed to make “Sulk” a hit might never have hit the mark, but “Fake Plastic Trees” tapped politely on the door to your heart, lifted it out with kid gloves, dropped the thing where you stood, and wept over the ruins. The big hits of the year before included Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Green Day’s “Basket Case,” and The Offspring’s “Self Esteem;” this, then, was a revelation, even if still somehow inexplicable.
Radiohead entered the final stages of musical puberty as their future devotees did the real thing. On The Bends, Thom Yorke’s love-benumbed anthems were still very British. Girls are pondered on the train; boys think they have the world “all sussed out.” Holidays are declared, men are analogized to polystyrene, and something called an answerphone, well, answers the phone. Albion’s darker depths wait in the wings. A session b-side, “Bishop’s Robes,” tackles the eternal curse of English boyhood, the “bastard headmaster.” But Yorke was rejiggering the formula as early as 1996, when “Lucky,” the soaring OK Computer anthem about an air crash appeared on the HELP benefit record. Another track, “Exit Music (For a Film),” with the “hope that you choke” coda, closed out the second-biggest dorm-poster event of the decade — Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet (the first, of course, was Pulp Fiction). Even “Fake Plastic Trees” ennobled the Clueless soundtrack. The band was recolonizing America, one three-CD disc changer at a time. And as Yorke supplied Radiohead with less parochial content, their up-and-coming enthusiasts in America witnessed the unthinkable: Emo was going mainstream.
Portents of this mystery seemed to be everywhere, a sky full of comets streaking across suburbia. The Morningstar was Dave Grohl, the one guy from Nirvana who didn’t die or disappear, and who stopped pounding the skins on “Territorial Pissings” in order to veer, as the frontman of the Foo Fighters, between thrash-pop and cheese-folk. For the Foo’s second record, The Colour and the Shape, Grohl cut his pigtails, grew a mustache, and shed the horrifically ambiguous schmaltz of the band’s early Pat Smear days in favor of the entire rhythm section of emo godheads Sunny Day Real Estate. When The Colour and the Shape dropped the same year as OK Computer, the proto-indie emoheads of the high school thrift-store set worked up wrenching solo arrangements of big single “Everlong.” It was easy for kids whose Corollas were a pigpen of Promise Ring, Cursive, and Mineral records.
And then, just at the moment when nobody could do it better, Radiohead did. “Let Down” was the centerpiece of OK Computer, the early promo single that blew off the doors on the nostalgia for the present that had already been the soundtrack of every unrequited emo-boy’s life for what felt like one long year. With “Let Down,” emo hit the rock establishment. No song about boozy yuppies imbricated with Kafka references so perfectly captured the psychic ache of a generation of sensitive boys just coming of age and desperately in need of equally sensitive girlfriends.
But rock and roll redemption could only come as escape. In real life, what Radiohead’s bleeding heart boys got instead were proto-indie chicks in premature possession of that other buzzterm of the late ‘90s: issues. Guys struggled with chord memorization, not having a car, and the goatee question. Girls were suddenly doing ecstasy and cutting themselves and partying with people who later committed suicide and trying out being bi. The sexual and emotional corruption that the emo boys had missed along with the rest of Nirvana returned at a moment when girls had seemed to go from radically distant and unavailable to shockingly intimate and uninnocent. This was the moment when self-cutting became a public problem; when ecstasy and meth were flooding — and creating — suburban markets; when, as the New York Times documented in 1997, bisexuality started to be seen as “stylish.” To generalize, boys felt imprisoned within boundaries. Girls transgressed them.
So when Sunny Day Real Estate re-formed for their 1998 triumph, How It Feels to Be Something On, emo felt its innocence switch off. It was college hookups, group-sex ‘friendcest,’ university counseling, a wavelet of party drugs, and Noel Gallagher and Patsy Kensit in an eight-page fashion centerfold in Rolling Stone. It was Marilyn Manson putting out a glam record (Mechanical Animals) about broken hearts and broken parts. It was spring break in Europe. Instead of American Psycho, it was Glamorama. Instead of Pulp Fiction, it was approximately three years of people quoting Trainspotting and buying that Roni Size/Reprazent double album for blacklight parties thrown in Chapel Hill dorms or at Ministry of Sound. Ahead of the curve, Radiohead followed up the universally-praised OK Computer with a tour documentary that sketched the psychological burnout rate to which college kids had unwittingly pegged their lives — titled, in bitter irony, Meeting People is Easy. And then college was over, and the Radiohead generation was moving to L.A. — maybe to intern at a film studio — and they’d kind of had a few girlfriends or boyfriends and the jury was out as to who was more emotionally immature and prematurely intimate because the boys had adapted and that was that, at least until 9/11.
In fall of 2000 and summer of 2001 Radiohead released the fruits of one long hermetically-sealed studio session, Kid A and Amnesiac. Flawed as these records were — this was Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery disease working to split discipline and perfection in two — they saved connoisseurs of Actual Music from a fate worse than Limp Bizkit. It’s easy to forget how wretched and disabled rock had become after the glory year of 1998. That year, Garbage, whose lead singer, Shirley Manson, would later confess to cutting, had a record that spawned five singles. Elliott Smith, whose girlfriend would later deny that she played a part in his knife-to-the-heart death, won an Oscar. PJ Harvey, Queen of the Damaged, had Thom Yorke all over 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. As the naïve and the innocent rotted away, the Radiohead generation mutated away from college rock and into millennial sleaze garden mode. Beck’s career-defining distillery of this transformation — the one-two punch of Mutations (1998) and Midnite Vultures (1999) — seemed irreplicable as The Smashing Pumpkins went out in a blaze of bloat, unwilling, or perhaps just unable, to “fight Britney” while a wave of punk pop rose up from Southern California. Some guy in regular rotation kept whining about a little black backpack. Some other guy named Justin Timberlake was fronting a band that, at a suitable distance, appeared to include David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc. People resigned themselves to the idea that Massive Attack and Portishead were never to be heard from again. It was a dour moment.
The vast darkness of the alt-rock flameout foreshadowed the end of party mode and the start of rehab mode. Smashing Pumpkins’ goth downer Adore (1998), Trent Reznor’s two-album comedown The Fragile (1999), and the post-Columbine despair of Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood (2000) pointed toward a psychic terminus that groups like, say, Alien Ant Farm were busy evading with pop hooks and cheeky kitsch. That option had long been foreclosed to the Radiohead generation. Yet the brokenness that afflicted the stars had not quite caught up to the fans, though both were on the same trajectory. Especially in places like L.A., the vectors of wreckage would eventually run in both directions. But as late as summer 2001, the emotional baggage train had not yet pulled into the station. People were feeling, as the Dandy Warhols drawled, “bohemian like you.” Dave Navarro, heaven help us, had a solo record. Heroin was passé. Weezer was back with a record of hand-clappy Cars singles.
Radiohead, however, had largely dropped out of this milieu. Their alternative was the bunker. The band’s grandeur expanded — Tower Records held release parties at midnight, and KROQ broadcast their records without commercial interruption — but they became the biggest niche satisfaction in town, coming out in 2000 only to play two shows on planet Earth. While rumors of depression and writer’s block swirled around Yorke, the Radiohead generation accumulated a compressed lifetime of potent but uncertain experience. On the Gray’s Anatomy writers’ blog, one woman captured the spirit of the age by enthusing over how “cute” and “hot” a character was when declaring “I never said I wasn’t scary and damaged too.” But in 2001, the summer still seemed endless, and any reckoning with the full import of that line was postponed. And then the war came.
For a slightly earlier cohort, characterized by Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision, it was the end of the Cold War that took on uncanny resonances with the personal life of emotion. But for the follow-on clutch of emo kids, who had started becoming “indie” in the vacuum created by the sudden death of alt-rock in the musical mainstream, 9/11 set in motion a long span during which neither adulthood nor The Future ever quite seemed to arrive. Sure, the Internet got bigger, and wi-fi was everywhere, and pagers transformed into cell phones and eventually blackberries. This was inevitable, or at least unstoppable. But 9/11 announced a retrograde move away from a time when the world, like Bill Clinton’s cabinet, would “look like America” — when nobody you knew would break up with the person they moved in with or have an illegitimate child or require an intervention or escape rehab for a pill spree in Mexico. Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine all proclaimed the death of irony. But the private irony of selves struggling for a personal, professional, and romantic authenticity — that somehow could escape the permanent commitments which make authenticity possible — punched back relentlessly into the public sphere.
The pain of this contradiction could not be repressed. In public and private life alike it returned. The bright white future Radiohead had helped us obsess over in a way that got hipper and hipper until 9/11 was suddenly replaced with something more brooding, something with profoundly revised expectations. 2003’s Hail to the Thief was a sprawling, unhinged lament, spiked with songs that induced nausea and pointed nowhere. Tellingly, Yorke’s subject matter was changing from public to private dystopia. Yes, there were Bush/Blair gestures, more stuff about Kid A’s melting glaciers, but something more intimate elbowed back in. The second half of Thief returns again and again to the personally broken and the soul-sick (“We Suck Young Blood,” “Myxomatosis,” “Scatterbrain,” “A Wolf at the Door”). A post-licentious hangover haunts the tracklist.
What might otherwise have been reminiscent of the early Radiohead (jaded kiss-offs and lugubrious torch songs) seemed instead new — and newly disillusioned. “Like a house falling in the sea” described not just the state of the world but the state of life, the state of every post-9/11 indie kid’s jagged personal interior. “Steer away from these rocks,” Yorke warned the Radiohead generation. “We’ll be a walking disaster.” But they could not make this escape without risking a pain that promised the psychological equivalent of crashing on couches until, one day, something worked out. A generation of latchkey kids and shy suburbanites had thrown themselves into the collective compensation of emotional orphans. A series of messy endings, never really quite over, illustrated the nature of being.
By this point the Radiohead generation had been strumming its acoustic guitars long enough to start plugging in with bands of their own. After Thief, Radiohead went away, and indie rock took the band’s place. Yet amid the sudden scores of acts drawn from the Radiohead generation, Radiohead itself had no real heirs. Supergrass never had a U.S. hit. REM went adult contemporary. Muse and Travis had not yet figured out how to avoid the contempt of Radiohead fans. Among the indie kids, The Strokes and The White Stripes formed a vanguard, but the two poles of indie came quickly to be defined by Interpol and The Arcade Fire. One did songs about threesomes. One did songs about childhood. Both got famous.
Interpol took Supergrass’s place at Capitol, and David Bowie coronated the husband-and-wife brainchildren of The Arcade Fire by declaring he, not Coldplay’s Chris Martin, discovered them first, and joining them onstage and in studio. Paul Banks, Interpol’s consumptive frontman, was, by contrast, unmarriageable. But neither band made for light listening. Nor did Radiohead, for that matter, but they put the melody up front and somehow transcended the dark night of the latchkey lover. Even when Radiohead was therapy, they were therapy with a transference. They were older. Yorke was from another time. Their personal lives were mysteries. They weren’t you and me. Indie rock gave us therapy as a priesthood of all believers. Within its sheets tangled the conflicted bodies of sexual abandon and the abandonment of childhood innocence.
In 2006, Thom Yorke peeped out from the bunker, into this new, dark, young milieu, alone. The Eraser, a foray he refused to call a solo record, focused relentlessly on the obsessions of the Radiohead generation: damaged love and desolate hangups. Lovers zone out, go cold, act like kittens at the bottoms of wells. This is territory far distant from the band’s “city of the future” (“Palo Alto,” 1997). Analysis is futile, repression is in vain, and there’s even a prodigal father bit at the end, with someone coming home and eyes being dried. The album pressed hard on the raw nerve of the indie aesthetic.
Cementing the indieness of it all was the record’s centerpiece, “Skip Divided.” The anti-“Let Down,” it’s a tuneless, spoken-word nightmare about stalking someone on the party circuit in the grip of a debilitating psychosis. It’s Yorke as David Lynch. Working within a strictly home-brewed, indie framework — The Eraser was done mostly on laptop — Yorke managed nonetheless to transcend the genre by evoking something that sounds eerily like adulthood. The damage in question points disconcertingly to a trajectory of disappointment and coping that has no natural or artificial end. Keep this up, Yorke warns, and there will be a reckoning. Steer away from these rocks.
After The Eraser, In Rainbows is both a resolution and a return to form. As such, it’s the highest promontory for a panoramic view of the Radiohead decade. At first, or tenth, listen, everything’s in its typical place. The quirky song (“Faust ARP”) transitions between ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B.’ The low-key non sequitur (“Videotape”) brings the curtain down. And the hooky rocker (“Bodysnatchers”) takes track 2. But there are deviations. Whereas The Bends, OK Computer, and even My Iron Lung featured a few songs recorded the year prior, on Rainbows you get “Nude,” a song first penned 11 or 12 years ago. Only the unreleased, would-be chart-topper “Lift” enjoys bigger cult status. And Rainbows makes clear that the band has finally figured out how to make the digital music mesh with the organic. Nothing like “The Gloaming” or “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors” fills space here.
But the greatest departure is in content. In Rainbows is an obsessively sexy record about sexual obsession. The trope of techno-paranoia is dead and gone. “15 Step” is a sequel to the invasive baggage search of The Eraser (“You used to be all right. What happened? / Did the cat get your tongue?”). “Nude,” though edited down, still speaks for itself; “Weird Fishes” pick at the bones of an emotional captive; “All I Need” lavishes the subject of “Skip Divided” with tuneful, but no less bestial, monomania. Yorke idles in post-coital reverie (“Faust ARP”), disavows pleasure (“Reckoner”), and gives in again to begged-for adultery (“House of Cards”). “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” places Yorke and That Woman in a centrifugal club: drunk, dazzled, losing control. Eyes lock eyes; words function with all the delicacy of a “sawed-off shotgun;” a collapse into sex will finish the night, but the only path open to the future requires that you “wish away the nightmare.”
Nightmare? Didn’t we resolve to arrive at a post-Sex and the City arrangement, where neediness is optional and pain is always, when it comes to relationships, at arm’s length? Or is the dark wisdom of the indie kids inescapable? In Rainbows is Radiohead’s Eyes Wide Shut — an enchanting and entrancing but thoroughly grim reminder that we indulge our fantasies at our own peril, that when we stare into the abyss of desire the abyss stares back. Darkness — to quote, in good indie style, from The Big Lebowski — “warshes over” all the young dudes and dudettes. There is no bottom.
9/11 notwithstanding, there is no future caught between the two modes of indie abandon, in which irony is meant mostly to hide the hurt. As techno-paranoia and the fast-track spectacle of The Future gripped the imagination ten years ago, today we find agony and anxiety in a condition that seems impossible to escape from for more than stolen minutes at a time. It’s a psychosexual milieu in which satisfaction seems obsolete, mutual manipulation is common currency, and fully contingent commitment defines our interrelationships. Stanley Kubrick’s last masterpiece got mixed reviews (coming just slightly before its time as it did) for portraying the desperation of the contemporary sexual imagination — and its almost nihilist emotional craving — as the spirit of the age. But Eyes Wide Shut perfectly reflected the glint of the slicing edge of its time as much as 2001, bluntly asking: How do you escape from escape?
In Rainbows, with its carnal grip, relates in much the same way to OK Computer, with its chrome-trimmed space aria. This weird malaise of the Bush years, in which time has seemed so enduringly out of joint, won’t disappear in a puff of Hillary. Many in the Radiohead generation have always sensed the hard-to-articulate connection between the contingency, directionlessness, and corruption of the world at large and that of the world swirling in our heads, hearts, and souls.
What’s clear is that Radiohead has turned away from the madness of modernity and toward the psychology of desire. This shift reflects the increasing abstraction of the first problem and the heightened danger of the second.
Perhaps, among rock bands, only Radiohead has the credibility to do that in a way that can move people to steer away from the rocks of the age on something resembling their own terms. Treating music like this risks pretension. But the alternatives show little, or incomplete, promise. Death Cab for Cutie and Modest Mouse, though technically sophisticated, are trapped lyrically by the rhetoric of blunting loss. Franz Ferdinand is all burning cities and pansexual dry humping. Ryan Adams is a caricature of the indie manboy — the worn-out soap opera of cheating hearts, the worn-in Diesels, the artfully dangling Parliament. When it isn’t going out, getting trashed, and getting laid, the indie crowd is recuperating in the tent in Wes Anderson’s guest bedroom — listening to old records, internalizing its own context from a critical distance made comfortable by habit, as disillusioned as it is romantic.
It’s impossible to canvas all of indie in a single swipe. But one of the few real uses of the retrospective as a genre is to put the recent past in enough perspective to actually make sense of it. On that level, The Arcade Fire half of indie that revels in latchkey nostalgia reminds us of a past that’s eligible enough, but also offers to trap us there. And the Interpol half, selling what we might term the Suicide Girls bathos, a fittingly bi punk-rock sexuality driven by the refugees who pack the Williamsburg dives and L.A. rock clubs, offers a different trap — more cynically visceral in the way it strikes poses before the power of the pleasure principle, but no less terminal.
Instead of finding the end of these rainbows, as Lynch’s Mulholland Drive reminds us, we find ourselves fatally trapped inside. This is the “Reckoner” of In Rainbows. For a generation conditioned to both crave and doubt trust and authenticity, Radiohead continues, ten years after the band became a talisman, to provide both those things in art.
Their reliability and authenticity has always borne with it the potential for transcendence. For its fans, the band has provided a decade-long emotional field guide, and a ready shield against the turmoil of extended adolescence. For observers on the outside, the band has proven alien, shrouded in mystery and obscurity despite their enormous presence. But slowly and surely it has also risen up as a sturdy cultural touchstone, an icon of an age that even those who failed to worship at its feet will remember.
But it remains an open question whether we can ever really convert the shared escape of spectators and audience members into any sort of permanent redemption. Radiohead has imparted a measure of hope even while chronicling its loss. But, for many, the capacity to hope may still be permanently damaged. To escape from escape, after all, is to reject it.
For everything the Radiohead generation owes their band, one thing it cannot expect from them is the magic spell to undo the faithlessness that seems to define life in the 21st century. In their turn toward the intimate, Radiohead points to the place where the loss of faith does its deepest damage. Part of restoration of the faith that holds the world together is the recovery of a responsibility still best described as ‘adult.’ Until the Radiohead generation manages that feat themselves, any retrospective of the Radiohead decade will remain incomplete — caught up, all too typically, in unresolved contradiction.
–James Poulos is a writer and doctoral candidate in government at Georgetown. He blogs at Postmodern Conservative and The American Scene.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire