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”. The band’s thoughts on losing one’s voice in an individualistic society take on greater potency.

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.