Friday, November 20, 2009

Radiohead is just OK (Computer)

SPIN this month published a list entitled “16 Rock Myths Debunked,” leading off with “Myth No. 1: Radiohead Can Do No Wrong.” It’s a myth that’s long deserved some discussion, despite most music fans’ unwillingness to question Thom Yorke and his mates. As writer Chris Norris notes, “sometimes the elephant isn't in the room, but onstage.”

Norris broaches the sensitive subject with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, saying, “In some ways, when you think about it…Radiohead kinda blow.”

“At last year's All Points West festival, as their thin, stubbly faces filled massive video screens, Radiohead began their set with In Rainbows' "15 Step": an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they did the 2001 song "Morning Bell/Amnesiac": an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they kept going, one groovy tone poem into another, masterfully weaving beats, sound-washes, and misty vocals into an immersive experience of sound, light, pattern, rhythm, and utter, paralyzing boredom. By the encore, it was obvious what Radiohead had become: an exceptionally well-dressed jam band. That you can't even dance to.”

However, he then goes on to waffle about, essentially backing off on his previous statement and explaining that Radiohead used to be the greatest band ever, but In Rainbows was disappointing and caused him to rethink his fandom.

The truth about Radiohead lies somewhere in between.

I appreciate the sentiment of “Radiohead kinda blow.” It’s the kind of thing one needs to say in order to combat the legions of people who think Radiohead have surpassed The Beatles in terms of musical ability and historical significance. Saying, “I don’t care for Radiohead” -- and optionally adding, “It insists upon itself” -- will only earn the holder of such opinions a Scarlet Letter of Musical Incompetence. To dislike Radiohead is to love Nickelback, Kid Rock and The Jonas Brothers, as far as those in the know are concerned, so questioning the group’s music outright might be the best path to take.

The problem is, Radiohead doesn’t blow.

The real heart of the matter: Radiohead inspires a kind of unwavering loyalty that no band should deserve. No band, save for perhaps The Beatles, has enjoyed such a perfect career that it deserves to be called “the only band doing anything new” or some similar hyperbole.

Plenty of bands show flashes of greatness, push the envelope, or just record a great album. Only a few have been blessed enough to gain so much notoriety for their efforts, and Radiohead counts itself among that select group. Worshipping Radiohead above all others for it is a disservice to the vast amount of amazing music that exists beyond the bubble of OK Computer.

“Blasphemy!” they say. “This one doesn’t understand that OK Computer is the best album in history! He must be burned!”

If I am to be a martyr for the cause of keeping Radiohead’s constantly inflating reputation as the greatest modern band in check, then so be it. No band is deserving of such singular adoration, not even a good one like Radiohead.

Radiohead is a band of millionaires, dudes so rich that they can afford to release albums for free. So go ahead and spread the love a little. Buy some albums by “lesser” bands. The guys in the band won’t miss you for those brief moments you choose to spend listening to someone else’s record. They probably won’t even hold it against you if you come to realize, somehow, that there is a world of sound beyond the dulcet tones of Thom Yorke’s incomparable voice.

Radiohead can do wrong, and knowing it is liberating. I have the freedom to take it in stride when Thom Yorke stumbles. When the band’s next record is disappointing, I won’t have to listen to it 37 times in a row, waiting for its genius to become apparent. I’ll be able to simply move on to something better.

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