Radiohead, Politics & Paying Attention
As the Democrats descend on Philadelphia this week for four nights at the Wells Fargo Center, Radiohead lands in the United States for two nights at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The overlap comes amid a complicated year in both politics and music. This includes an increase in fear, xenophobia and racism in mainstream politics, the loss of innovative icons like David Bowie and Prince, and the advocacy of musicians on behalf of political candidates and the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier this month, Pitchfork writer Jillian Mapes wrote an essay asking if 2016 is “music’s biggest year in decades,” noting that “historically, art has flourished in times of immense cultural shift.”
Radiohead, the band Jim Fusilli at The Wall Street Journal recently called “the most consistently excellent recording act since the Beatles,” has long inspired devoted fans and critical praise. But it is possible that the band’s cultural importance, 25 years into its career, is only now peaking: the right act at the right time because it emphasizes, in its own subtle strokes, the importance of paying attention. This broad philosophy aligns with the songwriting approach of its singer, Thom Yorke, whose lyrical fragments frequently suggest the disastrous consequences of self-deception.
In “Daydreaming,” a standout from this year’s pristine A Moon Shaped Pool, Yorke sings, “dreamers / they never learn.” The lines are reminiscent of lines from the song “Nude” on 2007’s In Rainbows: “don’t get any big ideas / they’re not gonna happen.” It would seem it is common for people to indulge in fantasy until they’re “beyond the point of no return.” Mankind has always been haunted by inevitability, and it is compelling to consider the roles we play in our own destruction, especially as a result of self-imposed distraction. For how many people does the thrill of supporting Donald Trump overtake the logic?
The nature of free will becomes an abiding theme. When are we to blame for our self-destruction, and when is it simply a function of human nature? The confidence many people have in their dangerous and unqualified beliefs—for example, denial of climate change—can be bewildering. Top-level deniers seem mostly to be helping their own bottom line, and they are frustratingly capable of using fear and conspiracy to suggest the issue is so clear that it is not even worth researching.
So there is an epistemological concern in this music: what exactly is human knowledge, and when is it safe to pretend to know anything for sure? Yorke is very capable of original expression. But it is just as common for the singer to sample idioms and repurpose clichés. Rather than making bold pronouncements, the songs frequently mirror our discourse in fresh contexts and force us to examine how we think and communicate. As one blogger notes, Yorke channels “the broadcasts of the modern world, not commenting as a privileged observer, but allowing all of the vastness of the data to penetrate the stereo.”
An early example of this phenomenon occurs in “Fitter, Happier,” the thesis statement on 1997’s OK Computer. The track features a Stephen Hawking-like computer voice reciting common bits of contemporary “wisdom” for someone striving to live a happy life: “regular exercise at the gym three days a week”; “no more microwave dinners or saturated fats”; “an empowered and informed member of society.” It also takes some dark turns: “the ability to laugh at weakness.”
The idioms are paired with ominous, disruptive music, and the combination hints at the spiritual bankruptcy that results from the pressure to improve yourself through culturally-sanctioned routines. It results in a robot-like existence; your thoughts and actions are programmed into you, and you perform actions only to keep performing them, repeatedly digging holes just to refill them. At what point does resisting such messages become a matter of personal choice? OK Computer maintains that this kind of adherence to social programming—advertising, political slogans, and the like—can have serious consequences for personal happiness. But things become far more complicated when willful ignorance in the name of comfort begins to play out globally.
2003’s Hail to the Thief, the band’s most overtly political album, opens with a song called “2+2=5.” The title is a nod to George Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare, 1984. If a person with power over you says 2+2=5, according to this conceit, you are not in a position to say otherwise. And what if this person claims that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction? The album was released three months after the invasion of Iraq, and the band appeared to be calling its shot: “It’s the devil’s way now / There is no way out / You can scream and you can shout / It’s too late now / Because you have not been paying attention.”
There is undeniable fury when Yorke delivers these lines. Whether he’s referring to climate change, authoritarian rise, or both, there is clearly blame being placed on those who prefer the comfort of thinking what they already think to the discomfort of “paying attention,” which comes with the cost of admitting the limits of your own knowledge. The band itself tried to help inform us about climate change in 2000’s Kid A: “ice age coming…we’re not scaremongering / this is really happening.” (Notably, “Burn the Witch,” the opening track on A Moon Shaped Pool—a song the band has reportedly been toying with for more than ten years—revisits the notion that fear can be deployed to control your electorate: “Sing a song of sixpence that goes / burn the witch / we know where you live.”)
But the band also seems to recognize that for every argument, there is a counter-argument. In “Reckoner,” the statement song on 2007’s In Rainbows, they strike a more conciliatory tone: “you are not to blame for / bittersweet distractor,” Yorke sings. Human frailty is a fact of human existence, and In Rainbows, the band’s most cosmic effort, emphasizes the inevitability of death: “It comes to us all / It’s as soft as your pillow,” he sings in “15 Step.” No one chooses to be born; no one chooses their own innate impulses, destructive as they may be, and the way of humankind is ultimately the way of the rest of the universe. Our being born and dying is a fact of nature, a blending like those that play out in planetary nebulae (strongly hinted at with the album’s artwork), in real and metaphorical rainbows, and it is useful to acknowledge the kind of sadness that sometimes attends this knowledge. As Yorke terms it on 2010’s The King of Limbs, the “universal sigh.”
It is worth noting that affordable tickets to Radiohead’s Madison Square Garden shows have been impossible to get. There is no more mainstream an arena than MSG, nor more capitalist a ticket-dispensing enterprise than Ticketmaster. Predictably, tickets were sold out in seconds, with perhaps 60 percent being bought up by bots. OK computer? More like fuck you, computers, and Yorke claimed to be “as fucked off as you are” after it happened. Tickets showed up minutes later on StubHub and other sites at astronomical prices.
But it could also be said their position as a mainstream act enables them to maintain real cultural relevance. “The whole point of music is that it’s life-affirming,” Yorke said in a boozy 2012 interview with Austin City Limits, which is perhaps the opposite of the fear-stoking that has overtaken modern political discourse. And few major acts, in the age of the individual song, have remained as devoted to the album as its principle method of delivering music. The ideal result, as guitarist Ed O’Brien said in the same interview, “is a very satisfying 45 minutes, if you get it right—to take somebody on a journey.”
Notably, the band’s very name is the title of a Talking Heads song. And according to Yorke, there’s never been a distinct “Radiohead style”—albums, he has said, are a way of “contextualizing what we do,” which he described as “flailing around in different styles.” His lyrical approach appears to be similar. He doesn’t set out to make political music; as he told the BBC in 2006, “I don’t have a problem […] writing about things that may be seen as political […] but […] it’s not political music, it’s just part of what’s in front of me.” When composing Hail to the Thief, he didn’t sit down to write something political. “But my mind-set is more immersed in that than it was four or five years ago,” he told British GQ in 2003. “There are a lot of reasons for that, a lot of it comes from listening to the radio compulsively because it coincides with my son’s eating times.”
So it is precisely the band’s devotion to “paying attention” that places them among the most relevant major acts to our contemporary cultural discourse. “Identikit,” the seventh track on A Moon Shaped Pool, shares a distinction with “Reckoner,” the seventh track on In Rainbows: in each case, the song discretely harbors the album title itself. On “Identikit,” Yorke, in a distant echo, opens with a lyrical sequence with the words “a moon shaped pool.” On “Reckoner,” in the album’s climactic moment, Yorke sings “because we separate like ripples on a blank shore” as his background vocals draw out the words “in rainbows.”
The discovery of such Easter eggs is one aspect of Radiohead albums that makes them so addicting. They are famously designed for repeated listens; a listener awaiting some sonic pleasure discovered on a previous listen becomes surprised to find yet another, and this process of expectation and reward continues ad infinitum, making the records an enactment of the ideas Yorke filters out in his lyrics. Acknowledge ignorance, acknowledge sadness, acknowledge the “universal sigh”; it can be uncomfortable, but seems like the only entry point to real empathy, which is possibly the only philosophy that can to make voices of hate and violence less appealing.