With all of the Drudge-sanctioned coverage of the release of In Rainbows, you may have noticed something: Radiohead is one of those â€œIMPORTANTâ€ bands. Now, we live in an era that has digested and forgotten what it means to experience â€œimportantâ€ music. We have neither the attention span nor the sense of history to appreciate art and some critics are more pessimistic than others. On the right, Alan Bloom lamented, with great hysteria in The Closing of the American Mind, the advent and development of jazz, R&B, and Rock & Roll. On the left, intellectual titan Theodor Adorno, in his essay â€œThe Culture Industry,â€ strenuously argued there hadnâ€™t been an admirable piece of music produced since the work of Haydn (and Adorno reserved intense vitriol for Beethoven). But I digress.
In case you havenâ€™t plugged in to their work, let me offer a synopsis of their corpus. Radiohead started as one of many Brit-rock bands during a flurry of rock activity in the UK during the early â€˜90s. Their first record is remembered by the uninitiated for a single called â€œCreep,â€ which became a staple on alternative radio, MTVâ€™s 120 Minutes, and made it onto the soundtrack for the movie Clueless.
Their sophomore release, The Bends, coincided with the early-â€˜90s Britpop invasion of Blur, Elastica, Pulp, and, of course, Oasis. Thom Yorkeâ€™s furtive vocals, however, distinguished Radioheadâ€™s jangle from the cocksure swagger of Oasisâ€™ one-two punch of Noel and Liam (on their debut, Definitely Maybe). And while Oasis perfected soaring and accessible ’90s arena rock, _The Bends_ hinted at the obscure road-less-taken path that Radiohead took in subsequent years.
Enter one of the touchstones of the â€˜90s: Radioheadâ€™s 1997 album, OK Computer. Itâ€™s hard to overemphasize its impact. It ranks alongside Nine Inch Nailsâ€™ The Downward Spiral, My Bloody Valentineâ€™s Loveless, Nirvanaâ€™s Nevermind, and P.J. Harveyâ€™s To Bring You My Love as the most important records of that decade. Sonically adventurous and drenched in reverb that recalled the psychedelic dabbling of Pink Floyd, Radiohead crafted a record that heralded the arrival of post-rock (later typified by acts like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You Black Emperor).
Computerâ€™s foreboding and alienation was prelude to Radioheadâ€™s most obscure and innovative record to date, Kid A. It is their masterpiece, and though resistant to initial contact (itâ€™s quite icy and hard to process) has become a definitive statement of post 9/11 unease. The record wrapped itself in isolation and enforced its alienation through sparse electronic programming. _Hail to the Thief_ followed in 2003 and was a more organic turn. They stressed â€œrealâ€ forms of percussion (over electronic) and produced a very thick, primal sound that seemed to be the rumblings of tribes stuck between the worlds of Sendakâ€™s Where the Wild Things Are and Kinboteâ€™s Zembla (in Vladimir Nabokovâ€™s Pale Fire).
Now they return with the self-distributed In Rainbows. (Emphasis on the phrase self-distributed.) Within in 10 days of each other, Radiohead and Trent Reznor announced that they were leaving their respective record labels.
The American music industry has been in steady decline over the past 15 years. Rock music, in particular, is a genre whose valuable artists no longer express themselves to our culture by way of direct communication. It used to be the case that the charisma of the â€œRock Starâ€ alone could invigorate albums with a sense of the transcendent. Records actively influenced the zeitgeist (David Bowie and Mick Jagger are the premier examples of this phenomenon). But the Rock Star fount is dry. On top of that, the vitality of Rock music has waned: there is no _Sgt. Pepper_ or _Pet Sounds_ paradigm shift waiting in the wings, because the industry is no longer built to accommodate epic works of art. Worse for the record labels, there are no longer Michael Jacksons and Bruce Springsteens who are guaranteed to have diamond-level sales. As a culture, the only knowledge of musical history that we have are vague memories of the leading personalities in a handful of bands. We remember John Lennonâ€™s braggadocio when explaining how the Beatles were bigger than Christ; or Brian Wilsonâ€™s daddy issues that left him a slightly-less-than-functional lunatic; or the ambisexual, Ziggy Stardust-Aladdin Sane period of David Bowieâ€™s career; and the Curtis and Cobain suicides.
In the aftermath of those â€œimportantâ€ moments in pop music, enter Radiohead. This assembly of Brits offered us a lead singer with a facial tic and a high-pitched whine. Oh, and yeah, they used their music as a platform to eulogize an art form. Radioheadâ€™s third and fourth records, 1997â€™s _OK Computer_ and 2000â€™s Kid A gave voice to a dirty little secret: that Rock & Roll had collapsed and died in our not so distant past. Like Nietzscheâ€™s Zarathustra, these records articulated a discomforting message: rock is dead.
Hand-in-hand-in-hand, _Computer_ and _Kid A_ and Nine Inch Nail’s _The Downward Spiral_ expressed through mood, lyrics, and production technique two sweeping conclusions. First these records functioned as acerbic statements of disenchantment with recent American history. They indicated that the revolutions of the â€˜60s and â€˜80s had failed. Second they demythologized Rock & Rollâ€™s relevance as a major art form. They proclaimed that Rock was dead. Culturally these records accepted that the â€œfree loveâ€ of the â€˜60s hadnâ€™t resolved or eliminated tensions between western society and sexuality, but instead rewrote the rules of engagement. Sex was still brimming with mystery, danger, and thrill, but no matter how much access one now had to birth control , the spectre of disease now haunted all carnal contact. The reaction of the â€˜80s was to make money: success will improve us; the market will save us; greed is good; weâ€™re a â€œcity on a hill.â€ But the ’80s proved morally and aesthetically hollow: the decade gave us the development of the â€œHollywood blockbuster,â€ junk bonds, and Hair Metal.
Both Radiohead and Reznor made their masterpieces at a time when the record industry was still thriving and ignored the impending electronic revolution. The were experimenting with how technology promised to change the sound of popular music, while the industry decided to sue the listeners who were pushing content through new mediums. Now adding to their reputation in the R&R canon, both artists are the first still-financially-viable, highly visible acts to abandon, resolutely, the 20th century model of record distribution. And this is why youâ€™ve seen a handful of stories about the release of Radioheadâ€™s seventh album, In Rainbows. They have accepted the technological shift. They have rejected the recording industryâ€™s paradoxical jihad against their own consumers. And now we have witnessed the first front of the counter-offensive to an industry that has struggled since the turn of the millennium to make themselves obsolete. What follows will be unscripted.
Read our review of In Rainbows.
Steven Rybicki holds a M.A. in Philosophy from Texas Tech University. Currently, he is the Communications Coordinator for a trade association in Alexandria, Virginia and is co-authoring a book on terrorism and executive power in the post-9/11 era.
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