185769-is-everything-in-its-right-place-kid-a-and-the-problem-of-narrative

Is Everything in Its Right Place? A (Polite) Dissent to ‘Kid A’

Kid A is more fun to think and write about than it is to actually listen to.

What’s that Radiohead song where they eschew a God-given mastery of songcraft for marginal electronic-based mediocrity?

— Eli Braden (@EliBraden) on Twitter

Kid A received generally positive reviews from music publications…”

Wikipedia entry on Kid A

For a moment, writer Chris Norris of Spin had the argument almost right. However, as it so often happens in the world of clickbait, whatever persuasive argument he might have made was undone by three attention-grabbing words: “Radiohead kinda blow.”

Those three words form a contrarian, provocative cloud over the remainder of Norris’ 2009 article, tantalizingly titled, “MYTH No. 1: Radiohead Can Do No Wrong“. Though he expresses disdain for the music Radiohead made following its exalted 2000 LP Kid A, he never outright dismisses the band’s entire discography. His view of Radiohead’s output in the ’00s is best summed up in this paragraph:

At last year’s [2008] All Points West festival, as their thin, stubbly faces filled massive video screens, Radiohead began their set with In Rainbows‘ “15 Step”: an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they did the 2001 song “Morning Bell/Amnesiac”: an open-ended groove with a quirky electro beat, two-chord motif, and airy, abstract singing. Then they kept going, one groovy tone poem into another, masterfully weaving beats, sound-washes, and misty vocals into an immersive experience of sound, light, pattern, rhythm, and utter, paralyzing boredom. By the encore, it was obvious what Radiohead had become: an exceptionally well-dressed jam band. That you can’t even dance to.

Essentially, Norris’ thesis is that while Radiohead had great songwriting success in the ’90s with records like The Bends and OK Computer, following their turn toward electronic experimentation, the music became less substantive and far more navel-gazing. Juxtaposing the performances of “15 Step” and “Morning Bell/Amnesiac” at All Points West with the performance of the Bends essential “Just”, Norris notes a sharp change in the audience dynamic, writing, “It was like a toggle switch transformed the crowd from a group of happy, attentive young men and women to an ecstatic mob. ‘Pumped by an oldie’ doesn’t come close; this was now a different audience.”

Were I to have been in attendance at that show, I probably would have felt the same way. Aside from the unsubstantiated declaration of “Radiohead kinda blow” at the top of the article, I overall agree with Norris’ key thesis. I also endorse his summary of Kid A, which he describes as “a deft, sometimes beautiful experiment in electronica-based songwriting.” While I don’t hate Kid A, for me it’s a far less compelling representation of the band’s talents than The Bends and OK Computer.

In my view, In Rainbows is the last overall success Radiohead had; while there is in that album plenty of the “airy” and “abstract” stuff that has come to dominate the group’s sonic (see the forgettable 2011 release The King of Limbs), there is also some genuine rock there, as well. The garage rock vibes of “Bodysnatchers” are much welcome after the middling Hail to the Thief. “Nude” is, without a doubt, the most beautiful thing Radiohead has written.

There are beautiful things on Kid A, as well. The chords on “Everything in its Right Place” are intoxicating. The free jazz propulsion of “The National Anthem” displays the kind of groove that rock bands the world over try to emulate. But Kid A has never represented Radiohead at its best for me, which is why both the glut of worshipful reviews and thinkpieces about the album and the flame war “rebuttals” to the album’s fans bother me.

Either response, be it unencumbered praise (see the infamous Pitchfork review of the record) or unbridled loathing (see Noisey‘s bitter lament “Radiohead Is for Boring Nerds”), only stands to reinforce the very serious nature of the LP. The former establishes Kid A‘s importance; the latter, in its scorched-earth attempts to counter a dominant narrative, only reinforces the strength of those narratives.

“Narrative” is the key word to focus on, because the question is too often reduced to a simple “is the music good or bad” debate. To be clear: I have no illusions that my thoughts on the record are a drop in a voluminous ocean. My lukewarm response has to fight against almost 15 years of critical adoration. There’s no way Kid A is going to be viewed as anything but a major artistic achievement. (Even PopMatters ran a lengthy, multi-part special section celebrating the album’s ten-year anniversary.) Since I don’t hate the album, this isn’t a point of major concern. However, what is disconcerting for me, as someone who very much enjoys The Bends and OK Computer, is the narrative role the praise of Kid A creates.

Whether one loves, hates, or mildly tolerates Kid A, although the first is indisputably the most prevalent, there is one undeniable fact: it changed the direction of Radiohead. Following OK Computer, which itself amalgamated the band’s guitar-centric songwriting style with influences from krautrock, progressive rock, and electronic music, Kid A is indeed a stunner in terms of the instruments that make up its songs. The only real guitar-driven track here is “Optimistic”, which lacks the staying power and visceral nature of riffs like the ones in “Just” or the key riff in “Paranoid Android”.

The most energetic tunes on the album are “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque”; the former’s propulsion comes from its stellar bassline, the latter its electronic drumbeat. Of course, that doesn’t make either track bad; “The National Anthem” is one of my favorite Radiohead songs. But these choices in instrumentation did signal in 2000 that Radiohead was going “post-rock” (not to be confused with the genre of the same name), moving beyond the admittedly impressive achievements it had achieved with The Bends and OK Computer.

To borrow the wise words of Grayson Haver Currin, an album like OK Computer “creates a de facto albatross for the band that’s made it: Hit repeat, and you’ve made yourself obsolete.” As fine an LP as that one is, had Radiohead been content to churn out OK Computer 2: Electric Boogaloo, its status as rock’s avant-garde wunderkinds would have no doubt been put into question. For that reason, I think it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that Kid A is not the sound of change for change’s sake.

Nevertheless, while it is indisputable that Kid A changed Radiohead, the question is properly phrased as: “To what extent did the album change the band for the better?” Insofar as, for me, nothing following OK Computer comes close to topping either that record or The Bends, the answer is that the change was not for better.

Much of Kid A displays interesting ideas, but so few lack the mark of the band responsible for tunes like “Paranoid Android”, a track that both showcases Radiohead’s rock prowess and its creative edge. “Treefingers” makes it clear that Yorke has given a few Brian Eno records a spin, but little about it is interesting on its own terms. The kitchen sink rhythmics of “In Limbo” make the song sound exactly like what its title implies. And while Yorke’s sometimes whiny tenor often serves the group well, on “How to Disappear Completely” he sounds like he’s on the verge of doing just that, his somnambulatory delivery serving as a dose of musical NyQuil. Even the driving riff of “Optimistic” starts to lose its energy around the song’s halfway point.

Already, the rebuttal to my claims here should be evident, given that it hangs over the entire narrative of what supposedly makes Kid A great: “That’s what Radiohead was trying to do.” In Mark Richardson’s paragraphs on Kid A for Pitchfork‘s Top 200 Albums of the ’00s feature, he writes,

[Kid A displays] thoughts about millennial techno-dread; fragmentation, broken transmissions, garbled communication; the feeling of helplessness that comes from having access to so much information about the world while not having the power to change any of it; the subtle and dramatic ways that electronics are altering our landscape and our consciousness.

The word “alienation” is often used in describing Kid A. For many, the record stands as the musical manifestation of the Y2K collective consciousness, terrified about the new millennium and unsure of what to do with the growing proliferation of technology. This thing called the internet was suddenly taking up more and more of our lives. Some people predicted the end of days.

Because of these fears, the argument goes, Kid A is the perfect artistic response to the signs of the times. As Timothy Gabriele argues in his article, “What Was It That You Tried to Say? The Degeneration of the Voice in Kid A, the ways in which Yorke’s voice is manipulated throughout the album stand as signposts for the ways in which the new millennium was changing the very nature of the voice itself.

In describing “How to Disappear Completely”, Ian Mathers suggests in “Between the Grooves of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’” that the song “recognizes and appreciates the terrifying joy and ghastly freedom of leaving everything behind”, a fitting way to describe the feelings of many people hesitantly stepping into the year 2000. Jesse Cataldo of Slant writes that the record is “a chillingly detached work that signaled a newfound ambivalence with the omnipresence of machines.” (“The 100 Best Albums of the Aughts“, 1 February 2010)

Even those who would agree with David Fricke in saying that Kid Ais pop”, it’s undeniable that it’s an especially chilly pop album. However, as the long-standing argument goes, that’s the point of the music: just as art holds a mirror up to society, Kid A reflects the vacillating emotions of the beginning of the Aughts. This narrative is near impossible to avoid when talking about the record, as well as to a lesser extent Amnesiac, which followed a year later. It’s no reach of an interpretation by any means, but the grandiloquence with which this narrative is argued has always seemed disproportionate. This is so for at least two reasons.

The Changing Nature of the Voice

First, while the sonic shifts from OK Computer to Kid A are unmistakable, I question how unique this feeling of alienation in the latter LP was. Much of the “millennial techno-dread” attributed to Kid A is in large part present in OK Computer, whether in the haunting “God loves his children” passage in “Paranoid Android” or the robotic voice in the interstitial piece “Fitter Happier”.

Furthermore, I would dispute Cataldo’s claim that the album is “the perfect closing note for one decade while also serving as a lasting emblem for the next one.” To my ears, the aptly titled “Exit Music (For a Film)” fits this role splendidly. Obviously, Kid A‘s 2000 release gives it a contextual uniqueness that its predecessor does not have. OK Computer may have simultaneously foreshadowed and capped off the technoparanoia at the end of the ’90’s, but Kid A happened right in the heat of it, after we already uncrossed our fingers when the calendar turned to 2000 when we found we were all still alive.

What Radiohead does on OK Computer is balance turn-of-the-century angst with visceral, grabbing songwriting. By contrast, Kid A feels like an esoteric, detached rumination on an already compellingly established artistic idea.

Second, and following from this point, much of the rhetoric in writing about Kid A betrays something important about the response to the music. For me, Kid A is the quintessential Music Critic Album, in that it seems like people enjoy writing highfalutin things about it more than they actually enjoy listening to it. While us critics love our hyperboles, exaggeration, and adverbs, few albums since the inception of pop music criticism have inspired passages like this one, taken from Brent DiCrescenzo’s 10 out of 10 review for Pitchfork:

The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax. It’s an album of sparking paradox. It’s cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womb-like, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes. It will cleanse your brain of those little crustaceans of worries and inferior albums clinging inside the fold of your gray matter. The harrowing sounds hit from unseen angles and emanate with inhuman genesis. When the headphones peel off, and it occurs that six men (Nigel Godrich included) created this, it’s clear that Radiohead must be the greatest band alive, if not the best since you know who. Breathing people made this record! And you can’t wait to dive back in and try to prove that wrong over and over.

Furthermore, not many records get to have heady, intricate theories put behind them. Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman famously developed a reading of Kid A in which he argues that the LP foreshadowed 9/11 in eerie detail. To like Kid A is not merely to like it, so these narratives hold; to enjoy it is to understand it as making a Very Serious Statement, one that loomed over any and all musical achievements in the first decade of the Aughts. People love it so much that they even design whole meals around it.

There is a philosophical progenitor to this kind of florid music writing. In his famed “end-of-art” thesis (sometimes called “death-of-art”), the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel posited that, at the time of his writing, art had served its purpose. In his Lectures on Fine Art, Hegel famously declared, “[A]rt, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”

For Hegel, by the time art had reached the 19th century, it had already achieved its chief aim, which in his view is the presentation of the Absolute Idea in sensuous Form. To go further beyond that aim is to go into the world of philosophy, of thinking rather than creating art. Hegel is, of course, notoriously obtuse, but the simple summary of his view in relation to the discussion of Kid A at the present is thus: art, according to Hegel, is at its end because the ideas expressed through art are better stated through philosophy and theology.

The general reaction to Kid A is thus a microcosmic example of what Hegel was getting at with the end-of-art thesis. Despite the fact that all of the theorizing about the album comes after listening to and ostensibly enjoying the album, the critical responses to it have dwarfed the music. I enjoy cuts like “Everything In its Right Place”, “The National Anthem”, and “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, but I can’t escape the ethos that envelops the present cultural presentation of the record. Kid A is more fun to think and write about than it is to actually listen to. This is the true artistic shift that happened between OK Computer and Kid A: while the former is a striking musical synthesis, the latter represents a highly abstracted take on its predecessor’s themes.

In Hegel’s end-of-art thesis is the notion that, as he argues in the Lectures on Fine Art, “Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that is not for the purpose of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what it is.” Similarly, with each successive article I’ve read in Kid A over the past many years, the notion has dawned on me that what is more appealing about Kid A are its ideas rather than its actual musical substance. Though I’m captivated by the chords of “Everything in its Right Place” and the slick bassline of “The National Anthem”, as the album goes on I experience it not as a collection of songs I want to hear, but rather a string of musical ideas that I’m to interpret.

I do have to qualify my words here, as there’s a clear gap in my observations on the record. Kid A does not come with a manifesto about the the follies of the digital age. (On that subject, we get decidedly non-erudite observations like the ones on “Optimistic”: “The big fish eat the little ones.”) Nor does it ever proclaim itself to be “an album of sparking paradox.” These $5 words and lofty ideas are all critical constructions. (Constructions that I recognize I’m often guilty of; I did, after all, just bring Hegel into the mix.) Unless you believe the heated rhetoric of Noisey‘s “Radiohead Is for Boring Nerds”, no one would make so extreme a claim as to say that Radiohead knew the depth of critical analysis it would receive for the music it wrote.

However, based on the trajectory Radiohead followed after Kid A, it certainly wasn’t doing much to distance itself from these portentous encomiums. Based on the bloated length and experimentation of Hail to the Thief and the attempt to capture a “new way of distributing music” with the pay-what-you-will model of in Rainbows, the band was very aware of their public image as art rock gods, determined to break significant ground with each release. (I put the “new way of distributing music” in quotation marks because several bands, such as Harvey Danger and Bomb the Music Industry!, had already seen success with this model several years prior.)

How Radiohead responds to or views its critics is an open question, but there is a neat parallel between their off-kilter experimentation in the ’00s and the critical anointing of the band as innovators who can do no wrong. Rolling Stone has been rightly lambasted for its ideological commitment to giving every Bruce Springsteen album 5 stars; Radiohead is the present generation’s version of the same critical adoration. Much of this finds its beginning in the narratives that surround Kid A; OK Computer gets a lot of love as well, but it gets much less of the (pseudo) philosophical rhetoric.

All of this explains why major pieces that run against the grain of the Kid A narrative are worded the way they are: the authors are acutely aware of how uphill the battle is that they fight. Were it a lukewarm or inoffensively negative response, people would brush it off, because music fans in the 21st century instinctively know that Kid A is great. That’s why someone thought to put the subtitle “Radiohead kinda blow” in Chris Norris’ Spin article, and it’s why Noisey‘s “Radiohead Is for Boring Nerds” does things like accuse Radiohead fans of having “shitty taste in music.” Incendiary language of that kind is the only way to garner any attention to a countervailing reading or narrative about the album. Unfortunately, not only does this reinforce the greatness of Kid A by painting anyone dissenting from it as contrarian, but it also undercuts what could have been reasonably constructed arguments.

For example, in “Radiohead is for Boring Nerds”, author Dan Ozzi argues that Radiohead fans “have to spend 10% of their time listening to Radiohead albums and 90% trying to convince themselves that they understand what the fuck they’re about.” This line of thought is similar to the one I developed in the latter half of this essay; namely that Kid A is more enjoyable as an intellectual curiosity than as a cohesive album. However, it’s Rhetoric 101 that the delivery of an argument is relevant to its efficacy and its persuasiveness. As a consequence, by attempting to stir up the emotions of Radiohead devotees, arguments such as Ozzi’s merely reinforce the present discourse and offer no substantive insights into the unstated assumptions that underly that discourse.

For those of us who have legitimate grievances, these kinds of arguments only leave us more frustrated. At its base, the claim boils down to the fact that while many hear Kid A as akin to “witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax”, others of us just hear… an album. One that, in my view, is not the major achievement of Radiohead.

Because so few albums have been consecrated in the way Kid A has in the present age, admitting to not liking it is similar to being at a party where everyone is making references to a book or movie that you haven’t seen. It’s easy to feel like an outsider. This is especially the case in the context of this record, because so much of the narrative momentum behind it has to do with its “decade-summing” quality, a fact reflected in its near-universal placement in the Best of the Aughts lists from publications the world over. Consequently, to understand Kid A as not summative in that way becomes a tacit admission that one sees the music of the ’00s in a fundamentally different way.

As someone who thrives on dissent and argument, I expect and indeed enjoy opinions different than mine. (There is a comments section below this article for a reason.) Kid A is a difficult case, though, as it is the rare album that comes with a fairly precise discussion built right into it. The one thing I would hope this alternative reading of the record does is slightly nudge a door open towards new conversations about what Radiohead did or did not achieve in the year 2000. Despite it only being 14 years since the release of Kid A, its greatness status feels as permanent as Pet Sounds or Highway 64 Revisited; suffice it to say that reconsidering the established narrative is no small feat.

This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not worth doing. Because try as I may, no matter how many times I attempt to open my ears to a new experience of the music, I can’t help but feel that everything is not in its right place.

I am indebted to PopMatters interviews editor, Evan Sawdey, for letting me bounce ideas off of him in constructing this essay, and for offering some fine insights, as well. I’m also grateful to my good friend Brian Austin for our numerous discussions about Radiohead, and in particular this album, over the years.

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