Photo: Courtesy of XL Recordings

The Degeneration of the Voice in Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’

For being one of rock’s defining albums, Radiohead’s Kid A doesn’t have much to “say”. Their thoughts on losing one’s voice in an individualistic society take on greater potency.

The 2000s 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 software 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) 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, 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 instructed listeners to ignore them. Yorke’s vocals, he 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.

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 2 October 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. It 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 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 US 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 backward-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.

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 as planned for the band. Radiohead were riding a wave of international acclaim and commercial success. Still, 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 Yorke 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 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 UK. Across the Atlantic, the US 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 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.

While Britpop and Complaint Rock were rising on the rock charts, another phenomenon was sweeping Radiohead’s home country — illegal warehouse parties, pirate radio, “reclaim the streets” events, street drugs, and national legislation. The rave scene had formed not only its own musical counterculture but its own black market alternative capitalism. Radiohead themselves had lived through the second summer of love. Yorke was even in an electronic band at Exeter University with future members of big beat outfit Lunatic Calm during the rise of acid house.

By the time of Kid A, Yorke admitted to listening to nothing but electronic music. His vocals were now being fashioned to sound like the looped samples of UK hardcore, jungle, and big beat, which sounded like incessant repetitions to the uninitiated, but hypnotic mantras for those who had felt the soundsystems coursing through their veins. Part of electronic dance music’s danger had always been its threat to supplant the eminence of the voice, but even at its peak the music remained an underground culture, its perpetual alterity precluding any realignment of hierarchies (see my column on this tendency here).

As a pop band, Radiohead set out to adjust that. Just as Yorke had altered his voice, he also persuaded the rest of the band to alter its “voice” as well. Hence, an album where guitars act mainly as background noise, electronic instruments are at the fore, rhythm sheds its backbeat for a skittery take on IDM, odd time signatures reign, and texture becomes equally as important as melody. The soundscaping on “Idioteque”, for instance, is borrowed from two experimental electronic compositions. The lead-in for “How to Disappear Completely” is a 90-second atonal drone while the lead out is a pitch-bent warble that unsettles and disarrays the whole mix, before briefly recovering it for the final phrase.

“Treefingers” finds an Ed O’Brien guitar solo processed into a staid ambient suite. Nascent Sousa horns in “The National Anthem” enter as if from another world, like the radio concrète on Silver Apples’ “Program” before they return as free-jazz ejaculations. The ondes martenot, a kind of keyboard-based theremin used by composers like Messiaen, Varèse, and Boulez, is played by Jonny Greenwood throughout the album, often as the main instrument, usually as a substitute for the lead guitar.

Greenwood explained the album’s electronic voice as an exchange of artificialities: “I see it like this: a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto your CD, through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer — it doesn’t put Thom in your front room. But one is perceived as ‘real’, the other somehow ‘unreal’… It’s the same with guitars versus samplers. It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer.”

On the title track, Yorke sings his entire part through the ondes martenot, which produces an unnatural-sounding robotic voice. In contrast to similar devices like the vocoder, the talk box, and AutoTune, the ondes martenot obscures the voice, making it more distorted and harder to decipher. As a melancholy music box forms the main melody of the track, Yorke transforms himself into Kid A, the titular human clone that the album is “loosely” based around. A swelling metallic noise emits a massive whine in the final seconds of the track, like Kid A crying out his first breath. Yorke finds Kid A’s unveiling to be not dissimilar to Product A, another consumer choice in which the purchasing public can choose among the many “heads on sticks” to select their next child. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Yorke saw parallels between his own lack of control over his own destiny and the wheels turning around him, consuming everything in their path. Once corporate culture conquers all aspects of your life, you not only undergo ego death, but you surrender autonomy as well. “You’ve got ventriloquists / standing in the shadows at the end of my bed,” Yorke says.

This is the final degeneration of the voice on Kid A the loss of self in late capitalism. During the making of the album, Radiohead became captivated by Naomi Klein’s anti-globalization manifesto No Logo, almost going so far as to name the album after it. Klein’s book speaks of the encroachment of corporations on available public space, the limitation on options in a colonized world, the loss of acceptable identities, and the deterritorialization and subsequent reterritorialization of all methods used to subvert the existing order. Although the final section of Klein’s book focuses on methods of resistance, Yorke’s lyrics for Kid A adopt an appropriately bleak, defeated, and claustrophobic take on this cultural landscape.

“The most important political issues of the day have been taken out of the political arena”, Yorke told The Wire. “They’re being discussed by lobby groups paid for, or composed of, ex-members of corporations. And they spend a lot of effort trying to exclude the public, because it’s inconvenient.” With the power structure so distant and impenetrable, the culture at large is completely alienated from its machinations, and bound by them at the same time. The people, according to Yorke, have lost their voice. Made to feel like participants, they’re actually just spectators, disembodied from their own life narrative and watching it being conducted without them. “That there / That’s not me,” Yorke says in “How to Disappear Completely”. And it can’t be him, because “I go where I please”. The self is autonomous. It can make it own decisions, but not when they’ve got a ventriloquist standing at the edge of your bed.

If people have no voice in the structure of their society or in the construction of their identity, they’re also disconnected from one another, indifferent to the suffering and exploitation of others (“The big fish eat the little ones / Not my problem, give me some”) and unable to approach conflict without reducing humans to manageable data (the domestic drama of “Morning Bell” finds parents seeking to “cut the kids in half”, dividing them like furniture on the lawn). In “The National Anthem”, Yorke enunciates this grand estrangement by declaring that “everyone is so near”, yet “so alone”. As the track builds, the other instruments begin to encroach on Yorke’s vocal instrument, making his yelps of “it’s all alone” sound ever more claustrophobic as if he’s being stranded, becoming more isolated as the world around him gets more crowded. Less at home. Less of a person. No space. No choices. To proclaim this as one’s national anthem is to declare an alien-nation, a culture of lonely crowds, a sea of individuals set adrift to drown or swim individually.

In the most cynical song on the album, ironically titled “Optimistic”, Yorke finds us on an inevitable course to extinction, noting “flies are buzzing around my head / vultures circling the dead” and calling us “dinosaurs roaming the Earth”. Yet, when he tries to warn of the ensuing environmental devastation (“ice age coming! / ice age coming!”), he’s met by calls for balance to the argument (“let me hear both sides”). This kind of forced cultural relativism was a trend that would haunt the ensuing decade as mass media attempted to portray public relations propaganda as perspective. With each side represented equally (“here I’m allowed / Everything all of the time”), it was easy for the dominant ideology to maintain its authority and to marginalize empirical truths such as global warming as an untested conspiracy theory (“we’re not scaremongering / this is really happening!”). Far from being totalitarian and oppressive, the mass communications apparatus silences its opponents by making them secondary and tertiary, irrelevant even. “What was it that you tried to say?”

On my drive to work, there’s a particularly noxious billboard with a picture of Susan Boyle, renowned for her stunning singing voice, with the caption “She Dreamed a Dream”. The campaign, a variation on Boyle’s audition song for Britain’s Got Talent, is from the inspirational quote-generating company, a non-denominational, supposedly apolitical organization that emphasizes universal touchstones so generic that it would be hard for anyone to disagree with them. Boyle’s dream is instructive. Sure, she came from modest roots, but she only pursued her dream by appearing on a major television program. She was selected by a panel whose very existence precludes its validity being called into question. This is how Kid A is allowed to dream. This is how the voice can be heard in the ice age. Everyone on the right stage, in their right place.

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This article was originally published on 25 October 2010.