The noughties are a hard decade to pin down, but there does seem to be some certainty about the primacy of Radiohead’s Kid A in any discussion of the music of the period. One of the decade’s premier documents, debuting just ten months into it and leaked onto nascent file-sharing softwares several months before that, Kid A nevertheless wound up surpassing the ensuing ten years, at least according to several critical institutions (among them Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Stylus) who positioned the album at the top slot in their end of decade lists.
So, if it is to be believed that Kid A is one of the major voices of the decade, one of its lasting communications, what does it say about our times that the actual voice heard on the album is intentionally compromised, degenerated, and obfuscated? There have been hundreds of gallons of toner, as well as several GBs of virtual text, laid down over Kid A since its debut ten years ago, with most opining over the album’s place as a timely social and political critique. Yet, it’s also an album for which frontman Thom Yorke refused to identify lyrics and furthermore instructed listeners to ignore them. Yorke’s vocals, he himself stated in several interviews, should be viewed as just another instrument in the mix and nothing more. If Yorke was trying to make a statement, he didn’t seem to want his listeners or critics to know about it.
Try as much as Radiohead did to deny their role as generational stewards, they continued to be unofficially nominated as such by the music press and their legions of fans. As a result, Kid A is seen by many as the alpha document of the decade of Bush/Blair malaise (yes, yes, but Obama and Brown’s contributions in that decade mainly consisted of sweeping around the shit their predecessors had left for them). Named after the first human clone, Kid A has, like its namesake, become an artificial intelligence, taking on a life of its own that transcends its authors’ intentions.
When Kid A topped the charts following its release on October 2, 2000, MTV, radio, and monthly music rags formed some kind of unholy triptych of institutional authority over the listening public. Yet, Radiohead offered no videos, no singles, and scarce interviews (particularly with the skeptical British press) to support their album. Its strong initial showing on the charts could be attributed in part to good faith by fans still won over by OK Computer, which had recently been voted Q Magazine readers’ top album of all time, surpassing all albums by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and other sacred cows. But Kid A‘s continued success seemed to signal something much more inspiring. Here was an album that had brought many lauded fringes to the mainstream-20th century atonal classical, Krautrock, fusion, post-rock, ambient, and, perhaps preeminently, Warp Records-style home listening electronics. There was a palpable excitement that this might open the door for other statements and unleash a demand for more adventurous sounds that the unholy triptych would be reluctant to ignore.
Unfortunately, what actually happened just one year later was the invention of a new power structure in the form of a British show called Pop Idol and, later, its U.S. counterpart American Idol. Karaoke shows by nature, Pop Idol and American Idol reaffirmed the centrality of the voice in pop music, making it more crucial an element than it had been since jazz vocals had dominated the charts. While rock riffs and synth hooks played a part in several of the decade’s biggest hits, they held little clout compared to the sway of melisma, AutoTune, hip-hop raps, guest vocalists, and choreographed singing routines for television and film musicals, all of which became standard-bearers of music acceptable for the mass market.
Kid A, meanwhile, was a producer’s album. “Sixth member” Nigel Godrich and the members of Radiohead painstakingly assembled the album from a series of extended sessions, using Can’s Holgar Czukay and his jam session editorials as inspiration. Part of this process involved instrumentalizing Yorke’s vocals, as mentioned above. The intention was to decentralize the singer and radiate attention outward. By mechanizing Yorker’s craft, most dramatically on the opening two tracks, “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Kid A”, Radiohead were able to forge a collective sound experience, rather than just a dynamic interplay of egos.
The first appearance of the voice on Kid A occurs within seconds of its commencement piece, “Everything in Its Right Place”, and it’s as far from an acoustic capture as possible. Digital scraps are hemmed and fast forwarded, warped and depleted, chopped and backwards-masked. The angles of Yorke’s voice sound like a tape recorder being stopped and started and the looped patterns run counter to the song’s oddball 10/4 time signature. A vaguely intelligible whisper of “Kid A, Kid A” emerges from this patchwork, serving like an alien hip-hop shoutout. Reverse reverb crescendos into the first discernible words. “Everything ...” Yorke begins to tell us. “Everything ...” he says again, as if to convince himself. “Everything in its right place”, he says, but the confidence in his voice is far from assured.
In fact, the music seems quite well-situated, right in its place, but the presence of the voices, which soon includes ghostly chants sweeping in and harmonizing with one another, makes everything seem out of place. “Everything in Its Right Place” was written in response to the nervous breakdown Thom Yorke suffered during the OK Computer tour. This was a time when everything seemed to be going exactly as planned for the band. Radiohead were riding a wave of international acclaim and commercial success, but the realization of the rock n’ roll fantasy nonetheless rang false for Yorke, who fell into a deep depression. At one point, Yorke was so psychologically devastated that he couldn’t even speak, his entire trade disabled by a kind of unconscious self-sabotage. He began to hear his music as little more than background noise, an interchangeable motor amidst the Debordian spectacle.
By this point in his career, Yorke’s voice had become a praxis in own right, an institution of sorts. At times an antagonizing force for critics of the band, Thom York pre-Kid A developed a distinctive quality of singing, modeled in part after the late Jeff Buckley, that ranged from sirenic falsetto to assertive harmonic tenor. Favoring a kind of sweetly emotive singing to the grumbling mockney accents of Radiohead’s more populous Britpop peers, Yorke’s oft-downtrodden material was nevertheless often taken for middle class miserablism. Like Morrissey before him, Yorke’s moodiness was seen as an affront to libidinous laddish pub rock in the U.K. Across the Atlantic, the U.S. film Clueless coined the term “Complaint Rock” to describe a character who listened to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees”, a backhanded catchall that condemned the band to be eternally thought of as part of some dodgy and dull company.
After the success of OK Computer, a series of bands appeared who seemed intent to actual embody the miserablism Radiohead were regularly accused of, some even copping a Prozac’d simulation of Yorke’s most drowsily tortured moans. Much to Yorke’s chagrin, Coldplay, Travis, and Muse had fashioned Complaint Rock into a movement. Soon, Yorke felt that he could no longer write rock songs without sounding like one of his imitators. “I couldn’t stand the sound of me”, he told The Wire magazine (”Walking on Thin Ice”, Simon Reynolds, The Wire, July 2001). His voice had become the brand of middle class discontent, of pasty white guys strumming away the angst over their poor suburban ennui.
His voice no longer belonging to him, Yorke suffered a kind of ego death. Having been unwittingly absorbed into celebrity culture, Yorke was now determined to defy its logic, in part by disembodying any self from his creative output, by decapitating the “head” of the Radiohead and merging himself into the rhythm of the record. The lyrics of Kid A were composed of looped phrases, making himself a hook, a riff, a beat. In a way, Yorke was averting the grand rock poet tradition and turning himself into a sampler, a vessel for recitations of abstract cultural thought clusters.