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.

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.

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

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.