[14 September 2009]
If you are completely obsessed with Radiohead, completely obsessed with philosophy, or endlessly fascinated by unlikely connections, Radiohead and Philosophy is not only a book that you will enjoy, but one that will provoke thought about rock music, culture and philosophy in a larger sense. However, if it would irritate you to find the above topics stretched to the breaking point, you can skip this collection and not be any worse off for it.
I have a found that connecting musicians and philosophy can be self-serving exercise for academics: if you obsessively study philosophy, it’s easy to see it showing up in the art you love. It’s considerably less easy to convince an average reader why we need Heidegger to fully appreciate an album that won a Grammy eight years ago.
But Radiohead lends itself to this book because of its cult-like status. Reading this book in public, I was approached by gooey-eyed Radiohead fans that seemed desperate to connect with me, just because I looked like I was connecting with Radiohead.
Unsurprisingly connection, or lack thereof, is a major theme across the essays. And it helps that Thom Yorke is vocal enough to create the impression that he has larger aspirations than simply making pop music. The book is peppered with Yorke’s flashiest contentious quotes, adding to the sense that Radiohead is more of a political organization than a band.
That said careful effort, via analysis of Heidegger, Rimbaud and others is made to ensure that Radiohead plays the social role of the poet, namely the pained, insightful outsider, observer, and champion of the underserved. Much of the credit for preserving the band’s larger-than-life artistic status goes to the editors, for compiling the essays in an arc that effectively demonstrates the interplay between pop music, emotion, and the post-modern intellect.
The essays have also been compiled in a manner that creates a semblance of narrative arc. The first essay, Mark Grief’s piece of the philosophy of pop music, is essential because, breadth of influence or cult-status aside, Radiohead is still a pop band, and any philosophical treatment of it must bear that categorization in mind.
The theory of pop music presented here is that it’s pop music’s job to be both ambiguous and perceptive such that it goads us into making realizations about our own lives. Through this experience, we are implicitly participating in a collective whole. We share universal feelings with others, and we share an ability to access these feelings through music. What is unique about Radiohead is that the unifying experience it invokes is that of acknowledging isolation and abjectness. The message is reminiscent of Sartre’s line in Les Jeux Sont Faits: “We all dance alone”.
Through these discussions of a deeper isolation, the bands artistic trajectory is logical. One of the more remarkable elements of Radiohead (according to most of the essayist) is the transition it made from being a pop band famous for songs like “Creep” to producing Kid A and Ok Computer.
There is a recurring discussion of Radiohead and technology, focused on the obvious irony of the technology used to produce those later albums. Authors ask: What is Radiohead saying by criticizing technology while also employing it to make music? The discussion of Radiohead and technology cannot be fully understood without the simultaneous discussions of Radiohead as a political force. With recording, production and even distribution (i.e, the digital sale of In Rainbows), the band has used technology to usurp the control it has over society.
However, it does not take a take a philosopher to establish that giving away In Rainbows was a bold move. Certainly some of the content presented here is either obvious, or unnecessary. The topic of political isolation is discussed to the point of being overdone, and was less compelling in essays that elevated Radiohead beyond the status of artist. The music may be political, but Radiohead is not a politician.
One of the better essays was “The Mutilation of Voice in Kid A because it demonstrated the band’s power over technology. It is also drove home the notion that Radiohead is a band that can both exist in the present (be “of technology”) but also speak out and resist the development of dehumanizing practices.
The essays as individuals are far less powerful than they are as parts of a collected whole, partially because while many other bands have done one or more of the remarkable things Radiohead has, it seems that only Radiohead has done them all. For example, Neil Young made Trans in 1983, an album that could be argued had the same political and technological message, conveyed similarly through a mutated voice.
But Radiohead has managed to achieve a god-like status for many people, and perhaps that is the most important reason for this collection to exist and be read. The question of why an artist is successful is equally central to the study of aesthetics and the study of society.