Radiohead as Suburban Avant Garde

by Nathan Pensky

29 June 2010

Mathematically speaking, say, in a 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 rarefied air of universal acceptance and indomitable singularity of vision with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed.

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.
When OK Computer was released in 1997, the year I became a senior in high school, I remember being shocked, not only by the high-mindedness of Radiohead’s sound—including, in “Paranoid Android”, the first non-Christmas use of jingle bells I had ever heard—but also how this high-mindedness seemed to instantly extend to its fans, some of whom were anything but enlightened. The lyrics of OK Computer are about anti-globalization, the evils of capitalism, the social isolation of the digital age, and the intellectual stagnation of our corporate culture. Yet on more than one occasion in the halls of my suburban (largely Mormon) Arizona high school, I witnessed classmates wearing Radiohead merchandise under their letterman jackets, heard them sing the band’s praises between “dudes” and “bros”, and felt the calming effect of this cerebral, difficult music on their ordinarily jock-rocked brains. The band’s sound was mellowing, yet thematically unrelenting, and its effect on the normals of my high school was undeniable. Listening to Radiohead seemed to make kids feel like they were in on something smart and real. Hearing Cam Johnson, a notorious school bully, hum “No Surprises” under his breath while passing me in the halls registers as the first moment I remember actually seeing from the inside a world I had before then only viewed through several layers of social stratification. Football players, metalhead burn-outs, super-religious would-be debutantes, even my orchestra teacher loved that album.

So last year when rumors of a Radiohead break-up were swirling about like bits of yarn at an Etsy party, my first thought was “Where will the normals go for their avant garde?” I reminded myself that the former jocks and cheerleaders of my Alma Mater would still have the pop sensibilities of Arcade Fire and The Flaming Lips, as well as the newer MGMT/Animal Collective/Grizzly Bear set to comfort them when their favorite band finally went the way of all favorite bands.

And yet what the knee-jerk question of “Where will the normals go for their avant garde” implies is that normals invariably need some measure of weirdness in their lives to hold center. Again… how? How has this come to pass, and is Radiohead indeed responsible, or is the band merely a symptom of a larger cultural dynamic? How does this symbiosis between “normal” and “weird” actually happen? Is the relationship dualistic or parasitic in nature? As both an art movement and as a general terminology for the aesthetic of “the new”—whether by definition or by popular decree—avant garde couldn’t actually be some yin-to-their-yang complement to “normal”, could it? Can one band actually make such a difference in the semiotics of weirdness? Can bands like Radiohead, with both legitimate anti-pop pedigree and easy commercial in-roads, become almost a kind of public service to the Cam Johnsons of the world?

Whatever the answers, when considering the overarching questions of how and why art meant to shock or confuse finds a large audience among the normals, the great error is not to arrive at wrong answers but to dismiss as sell-outs those figures who by hook or by crook have emerged to represent to our pop consciousness all that is possibly profound and definitely weird. Here I refer to giants who have maintained the suchness of their art while climbing the rungs of cultural relevance, pop changelings who are sometimes still scoffed at by cultural standard bearers for rising in the charts to the delight of normals everywhere. It takes a certain level of pop cultural refinement to realize how reductive such dismissals are, how unreflective of the power of art to touch a wider cultural milieu. Artistic freaks on whom the normals have projected their mingled fascination and derision do not necessarily become lame just because they have gone so far as to receive this level of attention.  A messiahesque, way-heavy zeitgeist figure like John Lennon doesn’t all of a sudden become less relevant just because my accountant brother-in-law happens to kind of like him.

A better interpretation of the Radiohead effect of weirdness (somehow) becoming generation-defining is to cast iconoclasts as representatives of the pasty, possibly homosexual boy remembered from high school, whom the normals publicly denounced, but whose free-wheeling otherness they secretly envied. Normal people seem to be interested in what they consider to be “artsy”. as such designations limit and define their own ideas of what is secure and unchanging. CD sales become a psychologically safe form of conflict resolution between the normals and their bullying, less sensitive selves, who think Radiohead kicks ass but who in high school couldn’t make the full evolutionary step from “normal” to your run-of-the-mill teenaged freak.

While remaining causally unplumbed by this particular student of popular culture, Radiohead’s popularity should be appreciated for its positive effect on their wide-spread fan base, its altruism to tame the jocks and cheerleaders of the high school world, and maybe even to bring to pass a slightly less perilous existence for the freaks.

Topics: radiohead
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