The Best You Can Is Good Enough: Radiohead vs. The Corporate Machine
PopMatters' coverage of Kid A's 10th anniversary concludes with an exclusive excerpt from Marvin Lin's forthcoming 33 1/3 book about the album, here discussing why the band decided to abandon all conventional publicity mechanisms to promote the album, and what such gestures ultimately said about the band's mindset at the time ...
[The following is an abbreviated version of a chapter entitled "Kid Activism" from Marvin Lin's forthcoming 33 1/3 book on Kid A, reworked specifically for PopMatters. The book is due November 25, and you can pre-order it now through Continuum.]
Around Kid A's release, Radiohead's views on the mainstream music industry was at its most tumultuous. While the industry thrives on pearly-toothed celebrities regurgitating an established aesthetic, the problem Radiohead had was one of appropriation, in which the industry would focus on Thom's "tortured" personality while presenting facsimiles of Bends-era Radiohead through their distribution channels. But everything changed once OK Computer proved both critically and financially successful. After seeing how horrifying the industry could be during the OK Computer tours, Radiohead realized they no longer had to be at the whim of the music and media industries; on the contrary, they were in the prime position to reshape these industries, to subvert them from within.
But how exactly does a band so knowledgeable and impassioned voice their gripes within an industry that controls the means and modes of communication? How do Radiohead engage with the industry without getting swallowed whole?
One way is to fight for more cultural space. Because Radiohead had learned from the media tornado of OK Computer, they were at that point better able to see through the industry mechanizations that threatened to co-opt anything and everything it found beneficial. And given Radiohead's inability to assert their own context throughout most of their career, it's not surprising that they'd finally use their cultural potency to try to regain control over both their identity and their artistic direction. Radiohead had been face-to-face with co-option many times, and Kid A was an opportunity for Radiohead to create their own cultural spaces in which to artistically and politically express themselves.
From July 1999 to June 2000, Ed maintained an online diary on Radiohead's official website. The primary purpose was to update fans on the recording process for Kid A and Amnesiac, but this being Radiohead and all, Ed would also occasionally veer into politics. On February 25 -- seven months before Kid A hit the streets -- he posted an update on the frequently mentioned track "Cuttooth". He concluded with a short but pointed request: "please read 'No Logo' by Naomi Klein." Given the abruptness and unexpectedness of the recommendation, it was hard not to take note.
No Logo is an anti-corporate treatise that arrived in stores in early 2000, roughly a month after the pivotal WTO (World Trade Organization) Ministerial Conference protests in Seattle. The first three sections of the book intimate a time in which corporations are accountable to shareholders, not the public; an environment in which stained corporations like AIG, Philip Morris, Enron, and WorldCom can rebrand themselves to evade unfavorable perception; a marketplace in which you're buying cool, not a shoe. Klein finishes the book with an optimistic chapter entitled "No Logo," which gives voice to the anti-corporate activists who she believes are "sowing the seeds of a genuine alternative to corporate rule." As Klein concludes: "[The demand] is to build a resistance -- both high-tech and grassroots, both focused and fragmented -- that is as global, and as capable of coordinated action, as the multinational corporations it seeks to subvert."
The book struck a deep chord with Ed, so deep in fact that Kid A was at one point rumored to be titled No Logo. As he commented in an interview with Q, "No Logo gave one real hope. It certainly made me feel less alone. I must admit I'm deeply pessimistic about humanity, and she was writing everything that I was trying to make sense of in my head. It was very uplifting."
The ideas expressed in No Logo segue perfectly into Radiohead's attempt to create their own cultural spaces during Kid A. Because Radiohead and their management wanted to avoid the publicity-by-numbers promotional machine, they decided not to release any official singles during the marketing of Kid A. This meant no promo cycles, no B-sides, no videos, no exhausting world tours. In place of conventional videos, the band disseminated throughout the internet a slew of promotional "blips" -- 10- to 40-second animated shorts created by visual artists The Vapour Brothers and Shynola.
Part of defining new cultural spaces is to avoid those that are most susceptible to spin, so it's not surprising that the band limited interviews to only a handful of publications. In fact, it would have been less had Jonny not convinced Thom of their responsibility to the fans. And even when they did agree to an interview, Radiohead didn't just let the press call the shots. For example, instead of doing a routine photo shoot for Q, Radiohead submitted distorted, computer-manipulated images of each band member, where facial features were embellished and elongated, and eye colors changed. Why these images? According to Thom, "I'm fed up of seeing my face everywhere. It got to the point where it didn't feel like I owned it. We're not interested in being celebrities, and others seemed to have different plans for us. I'd like to see them try to put these pictures on a poster [giggles]."
Radiohead's subversion reached a national television audience on October 14 with an appearance on Saturday Night Live, where they performed "The National Anthem" and "Idioteque". As if the music wasn't "weird" enough for a mainstream audience, Radiohead used this opportunity to get political: during the show's end credits, when the SNL cast groups with the guests to wave goodbye, Thom boldly held up a "Let Ralph Debate" placard, in reference to the exclusion of then Green Party candidate Ralph Nader from the 2000 US presidential election debates.
Outside of the off-the-cuff commentary in Ed's diary, other areas of Radiohead's website clued us in to some of their more obvious political passions. Featuring links to organizations like Free Tibet, the World Development Movement, People & Planet, Fair, and Corporate Watch, the website served as an ideal medium for Radiohead to communicate their political concerns directly to fans, unmediated by a transnational conglomerate. The unabashed politics on their website expanded outward too: Ed marched in protest against the WTO in April 2000, while Thom, alongside Bono and Youssou N'Dour, made an appearance at the G8 Summit with the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel Third World debt.
But the political gesture that garnered the most controversy was the Kid A "tent tour," Radiohead's first major trek in three years. The tour stood in direct opposition to the commodified, industry-puppet tours for OK Computer, as Radiohead didn't allow any advertising or corporate sponsorship in the portable, custom-built tent. Indeed, if there was ever a clear example of Radiohead wanting to claim their own cultural space, it was on this tent tour. As Jonny explained in a radio interview: "We don't want to play in those venues that are designed for sport and have Coca-Cola adverts everywhere. That's not what we want to do really. We'll make our own neutral space that's got nothing in it and play some concerts like that."