Since Radiohead’s landmark album OK Computer (1997), the band’s music has had two defining characteristics to me: A) forward-thinking experimentation unsacrificing of melody, and B) somewhat unexplainable popularity. The enigma of Radiohead is not that its esoteric, bleepy-bloopy music stands in stark relief against the Britney Spearses and Justin Biebers of the world (which it certainly does), but that Radiohead ever charted at all, that such a comparison is even possible. To register surprise at the mere oddness of Radiohead’s experimentation would be unrepresentative of the group’s appeal. Singer Thom Yorke himself repeatedly has pointed out in interviews that the band isn’t even really all that experimental, how it never claimed to strive for the high water mark of the experimentation of such artists as Aphex Twin or Sigur Rós. Rather, discussions of Radiohead as avant garde makes sense only against its pop music peerage, a classification where it belongs, if anywhere. Mathematically speaking, say, in an X-Y Graph where the X-Coordinate represents measures of Weirdness against a Y of Popular Success (and the “Nirvana Diagonal” representing a slope of 1), Radiohead falls somewhere deep in and high up in the rarified air of universal acceptance and indomitable singularity of vision with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed. Yet, Radiohead’s albums fit more snugly on the racks of the pop/rock section at Wal-Mart with those of Miley Cyrus and Dave Matthews Band than with any other so-called “experimental” group.
And so the question on the lips of both hipsters and their junior high-age sisters everywhere remains… how? What is that certain something that has ranked Radiohead so high in the estimation of critics and consumers alike? Certainly not the fact of its experimentation, because even artists historically on par with Radiohead’s experimentation usually cannot boast that group’s success. Can you imagine Jobriath rivaling the Osmonds in concert ticket sales, or Funkadelic toppling Olivia Newton-John for radio play? And of course not because Radiohead’s forays into anti-pop ever offered anything overtly commercial, containing none of the fratboy-identifiable aggression of your Rage Against the Machines nor the manic-pixie-dream-girl fantasies of your Björks.