What Was It That You Tried to Say? The Degeneration of the Voice in 'Kid A'

For being one of the defining albums of its time, Kid A certainly doesn't have much to say -- or at least that's what the band wants you to think. The band's thoughts on losing one's voice in an increasingly individualistic society suddenly takes on a much greater potency.

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.

For being one of the defining albums of its time, Kid A certainly doesn't have much to say -- or at least that's what the band wants you to think. Timothy Gabriele argues that the randomly-generated lyrics and cold, robotic vocals transform Yorke's angelic voice into just another instrument, but in making such a bold decision, the band's thoughts on losing one's voice in an decreasingly individualistic society suddenly takes on a much greater potency.

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.

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.