The meaning of Radiohead

The most surprising thing to have happened to Radiohead is that they are now a byword for brave musical experimentation. It could have all gone so very wrong.

Editor's Desk - Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2010 0:00 - 9 Comments

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Hicham Yezza

In “Karma Police”, Radiohead’s zany ode to the disenfranchised, Thom Yorke sings: ‘I’ve given it all I can/ But we’re still on the payroll.’

Without wanting to indulge in a fanciful over-arching reading, this is quite a brilliant encapsulation of what the band’s primary theme, its force motrice, has been since its inception: that of the inexorable human condition of being part of a society that refuses to acknowledge your individuality yet doesn’t offer you a way out. A prisoner’s dilemma for our emotionally-bankrupt age.

It is debatable how much of Radiohead’s rise to global stardom in the mid-90s owed to the transfer of loyalty that ensued from the disappearance from the front lines of that other great band with an equal claim to the alienation niche, Nirvana. It is certainly the case that Radiohead’s initial efforts were heavily embued with the Seattle-sound of Generation X angst. Yet their own brand of beneath-the-skin empathy is unmistakably theirs and always will be.

The most surprising thing to have happened to Radiohead is the fact they have become a byword for brave musical experimentation. It could have all gone so very wrong – yet it didn’t. They patently hold most of what passes in the music industry for common wisdom in utter disdain. For instance, when “Creep” their mega hit of 1992 launched them as a mainstream success, everyone expected them to do the wise thing: More of the same, please!

Instead, they released “The Bends”, a sinewy collection of solid, noisy, relentless sketches to the dismayed admiration of critics and fans alike. Indeed, the whimsical bathetic wailings of “Amnesiac”, their fifth album (2001), would’ve been considered commercially suicidal by almost any other band in the world but they seemed to relish a taste for the perpetual wrong footing of their audiences.

The nearest cultural outfit one can think of to their brand of re-invention-lite is not another band but actually a different sort of artist altogether: Mr Ricky Gervais of ‘The Office’ and ‘Extras’ fame. If you think this is a laboured analogy, bear with me: Gervais’ sure-footed evolution from masterful cringe-merchant to the uber spokesman for good-hearted cynicism seems, with hindsight, like an obvious strategic repositioning, yet it was a gigantic risk at the time and had, at its heart, a careful sense that creative stagnation, even at the very top is the kiss of death for any artist worth their salt. Likewise, Radiohead have simply refused to play the game they were so comfortably winning. A very commendable position – and one that has, fortunately for them and for us, paid off handsomely in the shape of sustained commercial and critical stature.

At a recent gig in Manchester in June, there was a moment when “Karma Police” was reaching its apotheosis and the crowd, lathered in quasi-religious togetherness, heaved side to side to the lyrics. For a minute there, I lost myself*, I lost myself. After twenty years on the road (and the couch?), the point was still the same: losing yourself maybe the best thing that can happen to you. Radiohead keep striving to lose “Radiohead” only to come up for air, Zelig-like, transformed into something stranger, hazier and as hard to corner as ever. We protest of course, but we do so with a beaming smile.

Hicham Yezza is Editor of Ceasefire.

* This was incorrectly rendered as “For a minute now, I lost myself” when the piece was originally posted

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9 Comments

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Kuzball
Feb 5, 2009 20:46

That lyric from Karma Police goes “For a minute THERE, I lost myself.”

Evan
Feb 6, 2009 7:14

I’d direct your attention to Mark Grief’s very insightful article, “Radiohead, or The Philosophy of Pop”—he offers a fuller analysis of the band’s socio-political positioning within this particular historic moment, and generates a fairly lively description of why Radiohead matters at all just now or for the last decade. Sublimating the self, the ego, dipping into anonymity against tyrant/fascist forces, against a police state, against the “emotionally bankrupt age,” you approximate why this should be so—if only to formalize Radiohead’s development as something half-marketing/half-artistic evolution. In this way, the comparison with Ricky Gervais has some merit. Otherwise, I suppose they are only so similar in that both outfits are British. And Kid A, even before Amnesiac, seems the more risky of their albums hinging as it does on unfamiliar, electronic, cinematic soundscapes, abstracting away from ‘rock’ as such (with Amnesiac profiting as the outtakes of that set). In Rainbows seems more of a return to general rock elements of grunge, the Seattle scene, with the sophisticated computer engineering of OK Computer/Kid A & the like polishing it up. Anyway. Perhaps what is interesting about Radiohead is that the band’s trajectory anticipated certain & key elements of popular music (voice manipulation/electronic audioscapes) fused now with ideas about pop culture (the lyrics and their articulation of mass media/mass terror/invisibility). Probably I’m paraphrasing—apologies.

Idioteque is of course my favorite song by the band.

Paris
Feb 6, 2009 18:27

Writing an article on “The Meaning of Radiohead” without referencing Greif’s remarkable essay is a bit like writing an essay on “The Humanism of Existentialism” without referencing Sartre or one called “Animal Liberation” without mentioning Peter Singer or one called “The Meaning of Yes” without referencing Bill Martin. Thanks, Evan, for pointing this out. Greif’s essay can be found in the literary magaize “N+1” (see http://www.nplusonemag.com/node/395/print for the first few paragraphs). Research, people, research!

George
Mar 31, 2009 17:06

Greif’s essay is reprinted alongside many others that answer the question differently (or have a different question altogether) in the book Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive (Open Court, 2009) that Brandon W. Forbes and I just finished editing. Radiohead has many meanings and many identities over the years, but I think much of their “meaning” (depending on what you, ahem, mean by that) comes at looking not at their art, but also its enormous popularity. That is owed to the connection so many people evidently feel to the sorts of alienation and uncertainty (much of it having to do with technology, as Greif emphasizes) that weave through the band’s music. But there is a lot of metaphysics, and not just notions of identity afoot. Check out Michael Thompson’s essay on Time in Chopin and “Pyramid Song.”

Jamie Ellis
Aug 30, 2010 11:39

I must say I found the most appropriate and relevant response to this article to be the first one where the Karma Police lyric was corrected. Why can someone not write what Radiohead represents to them and the world without mentioning this Greig essay? What a load of pompous cobblers. Why not just publish said essay then?

That said I found this to be a very insubstantial piece which displayed a rather scant knowledge of the band. It barely mentioned any lyrics nor did it quote anyone from the band. In understanding this cultural behemoth, I found it vital to watch the uncomfortable yet fascinating Meeting People Is Easy to understand their alienation as both a band struggling to cope with their success, and with their (certainly Thom’s) inner demons. Yorke said, when he released The Eraser, that (paraphrased) ‘finally I realised my anger had become external, at the world, and no longer myself’. Something along those lines could have demonstrated the intense humanity to what the band do, rather than depicting Radiohead as some kind of faceless binary cultural movement because they made OK Computer. There’s a lot more to this band than this article’s author seems to be aware.

The other responses to this article come over like grown up Drowned In Sound users: ie people who love their own verbal diarrhoea and the smell of its resultant farts.

hich
Aug 30, 2010 12:07

Jamie, thanks for the comment.

In terms of the piece being unsubstantial, I plead guilty. I had to keep it short for space reasons (Ceasefire is a print magazine, as well as an online one). The ‘Meaning of’ series are written with an explicit admission (at least to myself) that these are mere sketches that offer a number of pointers about what a certain artist means. In fairness, i should probably have called it “what Radiohead means TO ME” but I sort of assume that’s what every writer implicitly intends whenever they issue judgements of value.

Peace etc
H
P.S. I should probably fix that error in the lyrics

JQ
Sep 2, 2011 11:08

some great point in there Hich, thanks.

JQ
Sep 2, 2011 11:09

‘points’, sorry..

Seth Mowshowitz
Oct 16, 2011 9:44

I don’t think Radiohead have ever set out a clear socio-political agenda of any kind. One can suggest interpretations of Radiohead’s socio-political intent and significance but compared to artists like Bob Dylan, Caetano Veloso, Silvio Rodriguez or more recently Lowkey, it can hardly be said that Radiohead have taken a stand on any specific issues. They are reflecting the world they experience through an emotional channel. That which they reflect is deeply embedded within the psyche of so many troubled and disaffected souls and to me they reflect it in such a beautiful and compelling manner that it is difficult to ignore.

In brief I would not call Radiohead activists as such but they are very much part of a great unmasking of the true face of society.

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