The Best You Can Is Good Enough

Radiohead vs. The Corporate Machine

by Marvin Lin

4 November 2010


The no-logo tent tour ignited a wider discourse on the politics of Radiohead.

Not everyone was impressed. More than just solidifying Radiohead’s anti-globalization sentiments, the no-logo tent tour ignited a wider discourse on the politics of Radiohead, where finding contradictions in their political convictions was like finding Waldo.

Similar to the criticisms lobbed at No Logo author Klein, in which she was lambasted for publishing an anti-corporate book through a multinational corporation, Radiohead were (and still are) criticized for being whining hypocritical millionaires. As Douglas Wolk wrote in CMJ, “The punch line is that, despite Radiohead’s all-permeating abhorrence of the ultimate rock-band banality, the consumerist machine […], they’ve got a more finely honed brand identity than any other band of the moment.” Q writer Danny Eccleston shared a similar view: “Logo-free tents or not, Radiohead are bound by contract to the vast global entertainment conglomerate EMI/Time Warner/AOL [sic], and their records do battle with Britney Spears and her fellow synergised icons in the marketplace.” And in an essay about the “improbability” of Radiohead’s resistance, Davis Schneiderman asked, “How can we be sure that Radiohead, for all of its deliberately muddled articulation and innovative studio work, is not a toll of this same endlessly looping beat of the marketplace?”

Even Efrim Menuck, of Canadian group Godspeed You! Black Emperor, had some choice words about the band:

“We don’t know Radiohead, we’ve never met them or communicated with them in any way, some people in Godspeed like their music others don’t . . . the fact remains, Radiohead are owned, part and parcel, by a gigantic multinational corporation, and their critique of global corporatism is tainted by that one harsh reality.”

But if you’re worried about Radiohead’s feelings, don’t be: you’re more likely to see them nodding their heads in agreement with these criticisms than weeping under the covers. And despite the fact that many of the marketing decisions were made by the label (and not the band), the contradictions of a politicized artist feeding off the industry it openly critiques isn’t lost on Radiohead: “We’re screaming hypocrites. No, we are!” admitted Thom to The Wire.

“I’ve had a very privileged upbringing,” said Thom to Mojo. “I’ve had a very expensive education. And it took me years to come to terms with that. A long, long, long time.”

That Radiohead have only continued to prosper both financially and socially could indicate how the seemingly exponential well of do-good-ism from the Radiohead camp may be directly related to this recognition of cultural sway. There’s no hiding the fact that the bulk of Radiohead’s demands since OK Computer—the marketing of Kid A, the limited touring, the “green” requirements, the distribution method of In Rainbows—were only made possible by their cultural and economic clout. They voice this luxury rather frequently in interviews. “People think we’re control freaks, and maybe we are a bit,” said Ed. “But there’s an awful lot that’s just horrible about the process of the music business, and when you’re a young band, you can’t do much about it. Now we can. And we’ve stopped having that conquer-the-world sort of feeling. It’s less important to us than doing things our way.”

Who could blame them? In a time when the channels of mass communication are controlled by only a handful of conglomerates, when subversion has become so dull it couldn’t penetrate butter, when opposition to the dominant culture is too often expressed through commodity (buy these pre-ripped jeans and you too can be subversive!), it’s no wonder that Radiohead have always kept the industry at arm’s length. Appropriation threatens them at every corner, and there has been little wiggle room to freely communicate their ideas, political or otherwise; the industry needs a band like Radiohead to sell both the disease and the cure, and Radiohead know this. While critics like culture writer Thomas Frank believe there is no real solution to this problem but to maintain oppositional autonomy, others like Radiohead feel that some level of engagement is necessary to fight the system within the system, to show faith in the masses to affect mass change. As Johnny Temple, bassist for Girls Against Boys, wrote in his essay “Noise from Underground”: “Punks, for their part, need to stop romanticizing isolation, or they may find their political endeavors, along with their music, doomed to perpetual obscurity.”

But can Radiohead live with the contradiction? As Thom told Uncut:

“Not really, I’m pretty touchy about it. But if you want to actually have your record in a shop, then you’ve got no way round it because you have to go through major distributor and they’ve all got deals and blah blah blah. There isn’t a way around it. Personally, one of the reasons that I wanted to be in a band was actually to be on the high street. I don’t want to be in a cupboard. I write music to actually communicate things to people.”

Clearly, Radiohead’s desire to communicate their ideas trumps the threat of appropriation and commodification. Swallow the contradictions, and the critiques will circulate more widely and more vigorously than ever possible outside of the mainstream. As with the band’s seventh album, 2007’s In Rainbows, Radiohead were not trying to disengage from the industry; they were simply engaging with it on their own terms, underscoring the symbiotic/contradictory dialectic of their subversions within the very industry that sustains them.

Which is precisely where we get to the stakes of Radiohead’s Trojan Horse approach to the industry: given all the energy the band puts into the process of releasing and promoting their music, is their subversive behavior even effective? According to Klein in a 2001 interview with Hot Press magazine:

“I guess the testimony for me is that I know, in a way that I think few people can know, how much they have politicized their fans because they come to my lectures. There are always three people in Radiohead T-shirts in the front row of every lecture I do. Like, every single ... and I get a lot of letters from them as well, particularly after Kid A first came out, saying, “You know, I usually don’t read books like this, but I did, because I read that the band read it.” And I think that everybody needs entry points, everybody needs doorways. […] I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way they’ve chosen to do this. Not as preachers, not politicizing their music, not telling people what to do, but just providing gateways, and portals, and bridges.”

While Radiohead have had to fight for cultural space in order to provide these gateways, portals, and bridges, they have at the very least prevailed in relaying political insights to their fans without being patronizing or overbearing. Sure, they weren’t able to entirely shirk co-optation and appropriation, and sure their political efforts didn’t influence every fan to chuck bricks at the powers that be, but the cultural spaces in which Radiohead voiced their critiques ensured not only that the industry machinations generated during OK Computer wouldn’t be repeated but also that subversion in the mainstream, however dubious or contradictory, was still possible on the artist’s terms. And similar to what No Logo provided for Ed, Radiohead’s engagement with the industry gave their fans “real hope” for a more democratic future.

Topics: radiohead
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