By the time of 'Kid A', Yorke admitted to listening to nothing but electronic music.
While Britpop and Complaint Rock were rising on the rock charts, another phenomenon was sweeping Radiohead’s home country—illegal warehouse parties, pirate radio, “reclaim the streets” events, street drugs, and national legislation. The rave scene had formed not only its own musical counterculture, but its own black market alternative capitalism. Radiohead themselves had lived through the second summer of love. In fact, Yorke was even in an electronic band at Exeter University with future members of Big Beat outfit Lunatic Calm during the rise of acid house. By the time of Kid A, Yorke admitted to listening to nothing but electronic music. His vocals were now being fashioned to sound like the looped samples of UK Hardcore, Jungle, and Big Beat, which sounded like incessant repetitions to the uninitiated, but hypnotic mantras for those who had felt the soundsystems coursing through their veins. Part of electronic dance music’s danger had always been its threat to supplant the eminence of the voice, but even at its peak the music remained an underground culture, its perpetual alterity precluding any realignment of hierarchies (see my column on this tendency here).
As a pop band, Radiohead set out to adjust that. Just as Yorke had altered his own voice, he also persuaded the rest of the band to alter its “voice” as well. Hence, an album where guitars act mainly as background noise, electronic instruments are at the fore, rhythm sheds its backbeat for a skittery take on IDM, odd time signatures reign, and texture becomes equally as important as melody. The soundscaping on “Idioteque”, for instance, is borrowed from two experimental electronic compositions. The lead in for “How to Disappear Completely” is a 90-second atonal drone while the lead out is a pitch bent warble that unsettles and disarrays the whole mix, before briefly recovering it for the final phrase. “Treefingers” finds an Ed O’Brien guitar solo processed into a staid ambient suite. Nascent Sousa horns in “The National Anthem” enter as if from another world, like the radio concrète on Silver Apples’ “Program” before they return as free-jazz ejaculations. The ondes martenot, a kind of keyboard-based Theremin used by composers like Messiaen, Varèse, and Boulez, is played by Jonny Greenwood throughout the album, often as the main instrument, usually as a substitute for the lead guitar.
Greenwood explained the album’s electronic voice as an exchange of artificialities: “I see it like this: a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto your CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer—it doesn’t put Thom in your front room. But one is perceived as ‘real’, the other somehow ‘unreal’... It’s the same with guitars versus samplers. It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer.”
On the title track, Yorke sings his entire part through the ondes martenot, which produces an unnatural-sounding robotic voice. In contrast to similar devices like the vocoder, the talk box, and AutoTune, the ondes martenot obscures the voice, making it more distorted and harder to decipher. As a melancholy music box forms the main melody of the track, Yorke transforms himself into Kid A, the titular human clone that the album is “loosely” based around. A swelling metallic noise emits a massive whine in the final seconds of the track, like Kid A crying out his first breath. Yorke finds Kid A’s unveiling to be not dissimilar to Product A, another consumer choice in which the purchasing public can choose among the many “heads on sticks” to select their next child. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Yorke saw parallels between his own lack of control over his own destiny and the wheels turning around him, consuming everything in their path. Once corporate culture conquers all aspects of your life, you not only undergo ego death, but you surrender autonomy as well. “You’ve got ventriloquists / standing in the shadows at the end of my bed”, Yorke says.
This is the final degeneration of the voice on Kid A the loss of self in late capitalism. During the making of the album, Radiohead became captivated by Naomi Klein’s anti-globalization manifesto No Logo, almost going so far as to name the album after it. Klein’s book speaks of the encroachment of corporations on available public space, the limitation on options in a colonized world, the loss of acceptable identities, and the deterritorialization and subsequent reterritorialization of all methods used to subvert the existing order. Although the final section of Klein’s book focuses on methods of resistance, Yorke’s lyrics for Kid A adopt an appropriately bleak, defeated, and claustrophobic take on this cultural landscape.
“The most important political issues of the day have been taken out of the political arena”, Yorke told The Wire. “They’re being discussed by lobby groups paid for, or composed of, ex-members of corporations. And they spend a lot of effort trying to exclude the public, because it’s inconvenient.” With the power structure so distant and impenetrable, the culture at large is completely alienated from its machinations, and bound by them at the same time. The people, according to Yorke, have lost their voice. Made to feel like participants, they’re actually just spectators, disembodied from their own life narrative and watching it being conducted without them. “That there / That’s not me”, Yorke says in “How to Disappear Completely”. And it can’t be him, because “I go where I please”. The self is autonomous. It can make it own decisions, but not when they’ve got a ventriloquist standing at the edge of your bed.
If people have no voice in the structure of their society or in the construction of their identity, they’re also disconnected from one another, indifferent to the suffering and exploitation of others (“The big fish eat the little ones/ Not my problem, give me some”) and unable to approach conflict without reducing humans to manageable data (the domestic drama of “Morning Bell” finds parents seeking to “cut the kids in half”, dividing them like furniture on the lawn). In “The National Anthem”, Yorke enunciates this grand estrangement by declaring that “everyone is so near”, yet “so alone”. As the track builds, the other instruments begin to encroach on Yorke’s vocal instrument, making his yelps of “it’s all alone” sound ever more claustrophobic as if he’s being stranded, becoming more isolated as the world around him gets more crowded. Less at home. Less of a person. No space. No choices. To proclaim this as one’s national anthem is to declare an alien-nation, a culture of lonely crowds, a sea of individuals set adrift to drown or swim individually.
In the most cynical song on the album, ironically titled “Optimistic”, Yorke finds us on an inevitable course to extinction, noting “flies are buzzing around my head / vultures circling the dead” and calling us “dinosaurs roaming the Earth”. Yet, when he tries to warn of the ensuing environmental devastation (“ice age coming! / ice age coming!”), he’s met by calls for balance to the argument (“let me hear both sides”). This kind of forced cultural relativism was a trend that would haunt the ensuing decade as mass media attempted to portray public relations propaganda as perspective. With each side represented equally (“here I’m allowed / Everything all of the time”), it was easy for the dominant ideology to maintain its authority and to marginalize empirical truths such as global warming as untested conspiracy theory (“we’re not scare mongering / this is really happening!”). The mass communications apparatus, far from being totalitarian and oppressive, silences its opponents by making them secondary and tertiary, irrelevant even. “What was it that you tried to say?”
On my drive to work, there’s a particularly noxious billboard with a picture of Susan Boyle, renowned for her stunning singing voice, with the caption “She Dreamed a Dream”. The campaign, a variation on Boyle’s audition song for Britain’s Got Talent, is from the inspirational quote-generating company Values.com, a non-denominational, supposedly apolitical organization that emphasizes universal touchstones so generic that it would be hard for anyone to disagree with them. Boyle’s dream is instructive. Sure, she came from modest roots, but she only pursued her dream by appearing on a major television program. She was selected by a panel whose very existence precludes its validity being called into question. This is how Kid A is allowed to dream. This is how the voice can be heard in the ice age. Every one on the right stage, in their right place.