Tuesday, September 1, 2009

True Love May Wait, But It's Fans Will Tell You Just How Much Better It Really Is

It's not lost on me that I may have a reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon - a so-called stick in the mud when it comes to certain things that I'm supposed to be a fan of. I very much dislike being told what I like, and the rise of the indie rock blog critic has only exacerbated what I see as a nasty case of cultural elitism. You see, everyone wants to think that what they like is cool, and I have certainly been guilty of that in the past, and probably will be again. However there are two examples in the past decade that have driven me so up the wall that I felt I needed to step back and re-assess my opinion, just to make sure I wasn't holding an opinion purely for pride.

First, there's Wilco. I'm not going to talk much about Wilco, because after going back and listening to them again, I still don't like them. I understand why people like them, but I find them ponderous, faux-"regular guy" art rock and even the addition of the otherwise wonderful Nels Cline to their lineup can't save them for me. Sorry folks, but I'm just closing the book on that train with a handily mixed simile.

It's the hyperbole that swirls around the heads of Radiohead fans that irritates me in a peculiar fashion. It's not that I can't stand Radiohead, and it's not exactly a case of "good band, lousy fans". I'll admit that I still have a certain reactionary instinct regarding the band, but it primarily derives from what I feel is a lack of attention by their most ardent supporters to what the band is actually telling them, and a desperate movement to read what they want into what may or may not be there.

But let's rewind. I bought The Bends in '96 and remember loving it, but being actively teased in the eighth grade because it wasn't Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. I'm dead serious. Whatever. OK Computer comes out in '97 and I love it, as it perfectly correlates with my then-recent discovery of J.G. Ballard's feverish urban nightmares, Burroughs' post-modern cutups, and the idea that the 1997 "Next Big Thing" wave of electronica could be mixed with rock in a bracingly modern way. It was fantastic, and I distinctly remember biking up to K-Mart to buy it the week it came out. This time, just about everyone was on board (well, all the pseudo-musos in high school with me), and we were all living in a Brave New Age. I remember that my friend bought the first US edition of Now! That's What I Call Music, and it had "Karma Police" on it. Seriously. Sandwiched between Aqua and Everclear. It was a fantastic moment for a wonderful big-statement, capitol-letter Album, and deserves to be hailed as one of the first and most interesting records of the Modern Age of Music (despite its now 12-year-old vintage).

Between buying that and the next album, I went to college, in the first explosion of file-sharing. My university, in fact, was one of the first to ban Napster, after the lawsuits started flying, but there was no way to stop online music. I'd become a music hound, absorbing everything I could, soaking it up, spending fistfuls of cash at my local record store for everything from the Jesus And Mary Chain and Faust to early Kraftwerk to Phillip Glass to Ornette Coleman. It was like 50 years of music history (which I also took in school, natch) crammed into a two year period.

So when Kid A came out, I enjoyed it, I bought it, and I listened to it repeatedly... but I didn't find it particularly innovative. Interesting and fascinating to be sure, but there was very little there I hadn't heard on records that were 20 years old by that point. Not to say it wasn't well done, but for every "Treefingers", there was a Brian Eno song, and if "Idiotqeue" wasn't on your copy, I was pretty sure that you could find it on Aphex Twin's Analogue Bubblebath 3. And that's fine... because the band themselves were tellling everyone that it's wasnt revolutionary, it was just a reflection of what they had been listening to. It's not that it was boring, it was a wonderful sort of pop-distillation of the avant-garde that they clearly loved, and it was a wonderful way to both fuck with people's expectations of a prog/art-rock band and bring this esoteric material to the masses. Suddenly, I see Kirsten Dunst on MTV wearing a Radiohead shirt and get treated to a brilliant performance of "Idioteque" on Saturday Night Live. I believe Kate Hudson was hosting, and it was just shocking how wild it seemed. That performance always seemed to get edited out of the reruns, much to my chagrin. While my taste at the time skewed decidedly pop and punk, it's not like I didn't appreciate what they were doing.

Gradually, however, the press (especially that on the 'net), who I recall giving the album a bit of a cold shoulder at first, started winding up. It wasn't the initial reaction, though, which was one of confusion and frustration - where were the songs, maaaaan? We need another twitchy depressed anthem, a la "Paranoid Android"! After a while to let it sink in, it was as if Radiohead had saved music. Fans became fervent, slavering disciples, swearing up and down that you didn't "get" the band unless you heard this live version of the non-album track that they'd found online. Sure, it was nice to see so many people getting so passionate about a seriously interesting band, but I believe that the rise in this serious music, coupled with the sudden widespread usage of the web, made everyone a critic as dour as Radiohead was purported to be. This serious music had to be taken seriously after all, right?

As time went on, Radiohead got bigger and more important, and the more important they got, the less I seemed to care about them. Again, I can't stress enough how good the band was about attempting to defuse this hype - "messiahs" was a term put on them by outside forces, Yorke told everyone to go out and buy Neu! records to see where they were coming from. But suddenly everyone with a (then-new) iPod was a critic, and the line of the day was that if you don't like Radiohead, you don't like "real" music, and if you don't like them, you don't understand them. I understand them fine, thank you very much, but Amneisiac didn't appeal to me (although I wouldn't be glib enough to use the "Kid B" epithet so often thrown at it), and I felt that Hail To The Thief was interesting, but treading water. A band can only redefine music twice, right?

So in my old age (*ahem* twenty-three...), I suddenly became very anti-Radiohead. I still listened to them, but I preferred the records with guitars. As I became a better guitarist, I was aghast that the three-pronged guitar Hydra that twisted and gnarled and spit out The Bends had hung up the guitars in exchange for broken synthesizers and ProTools. I didn't expect them to make that type of record again, and there were certainly enough b-sides and ephemera from that era to tide me over, I just wanted them to do something I hadn't already heard. I was sick of being told that they were the greatest band in the world, and sick that everyone who loved them had a certain superiority complex. "I love music... what do you listen to?" "Well, I listen to Radiohead...", "Oh, you must be so intellectual." It was a sickening cycle of self-satisfaction feeding egotism that I wanted nothing to do with. Leave that to people like my arch nemesis in college (who I'll refer to as M.T.), a self-styled avant musician, comparing Radiohead to the likes of Sid Barret [sic] and telling everyone who didn't get it that they shouldn't bother. Fuck off. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless recently posted on his Facebook page that he thought that while Radiohead might be overexposed, he thought that anyone who said they truly HATED Radiohead was just being a contrarian. While I don't love their recent work, I thought his was a rather close-minded, indie-centric view (and I realize that a status update on Facebook doesn't qualify for a well-planned treatise). People HE knew couldn't hate Radiohead, sure. But I know plenty of brilliant musicians who know their history and would totally understand Radiohead and would probably just loathe them. I hate Antony & the Johnsons, but I bet ol' Antony has fans that couldn't fathom ANYONE not adoring their hero.

But you know what? I've moved on. The fair-weather musicologists are idiots, and I wish they'd move on to something else, but the fact of the matter is that Radiohead is the most interesting band most of these people listen to, and what they listen to is all they have. It's an amazingly interesting record, made all the more astounding by the fact that it was a hit. All the while, Jonny Greenwood is singing the praises of Mo' Wax Records and Amon Duul II, but nobody hears that, they only praise their heroes. It was a bit like Tommy, where, despite his protestations, his acolytes are just hearing what they want to, not caring about what they're being taught.* Nonetheless, for those who cared to listen to the rare interviews the notoriously press-shy band gave, they did their best, and having subsequently worked at the very record store I bought it from, was amazed at the number of people who DID end up discovering some of the influences through Radiohead. Good for the band, good for those brave enough to step up to the counter with an unheard album like Faust IV or Before And After Science.

With a bit of distance from that self-satisfied indie rock scene I ran in, I would go so far as to place Kid A on my list of top albums of the decade, in that not only was it an interesting record, but in the way that Nevermind brought the punk/grunge underground to the surface, Kid A did sort of the same... only this underground was a much older, much more rooted one that may very well be TOO difficult for the average John or Jane Doe. Liking Kid A does not immediately make Can's Ege Bamyasi or Paul Lansky's Smalltalk accessable to peoples' ears. Radiohead moved the mountain, though. They didn't bring the underground to the mainstream, so much as move the mainstream a few inches toward the avant garde. Maybe only a few inches, sure, but it's still a fucking mountain.

For creating a really wonderful album on its own merits, and for changing what a hit album could encompass, I'm adding Kid A to my list of best of the '00s contenders.

*[Of course, since the last act of Tommy was essentially a criticism of organized religion with the hero as a stand in for Christ, I've finally espoused myself into a corner. I'm comparing Radiohead to Jesus. You win, Internet - it's apparently impossible to author a blog without making that comparison.]

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