The question we’re debating today (having recenty gone toe-to-toe on the virtues and sins of Jerry Seinfeld): Is Radiohead one of the greatest bands of our time, or are they lazy millionnaires who’ve been repeating themselves for the last 16 years? Are they innovators or technophobes? Is Thom Yorke a lyrical genius or an overgrown ninth grader? Read on for a sharp critique of the band; at the end you’ll find a link to the counterargument.
The truth becomes clearer every year, and the truth is that Radiohead is the Banksy of rock music. Banksy has many fans, but he is not the best in his field—not even close. Likewise, Radiohead are totally fine, but they’re not elite. The Radio-Banks connection goes even deeper. Banksy and Radiohead are both ‘90s British legacy brands trying to remain relevant in a scene they helped usher into the mainstream. And they’re millionaires who made a living criticizing capitalism. Funny that. Or maybe that’s the ultimate joke. On us. The consumers. They are the emperor whose nudity they call out in their work.
Admittedly, Radiohead has made two borderline unimpeachable albums: OK Computer and Kid A. They have made zero terrible albums, but I’d argue that everything since Kid A is Radiohead-by-numbers, a simple rehashing of a template they had established decades ago: a guitar band with distinctly anti-pop structures and time signatures (but not as experimental as, say, Tortoise) and a melding of synth and acoustic sounds. Amnesiac feels like a cynical cash grab—a b-sides album that is extremely disappointing following OK Computer and Kid A. “Pyramid Song” is “Everything in its Right Place” minus all the good parts.
Similarly, Hail to the Thief sounds like a retread of OK Computer. Take “2 + 2 = 5” for example. It’s just a poor man’s “Paranoid Android,” and a much shorter one at that. In Rainbows? More of the same recycled formulas. “15 Steps” feels like a IDM-inspired parody of something that hit the cutting room floor during the Kid A sessions with its unnecessary 808s and tiny percussion. I can’t remember one song from The King of Limbs. A Moon Shaped Pool, their latest offering, feels the least familiar out of this bunch, but at the same time, it also feels like the least urgent. None of these albums is particularly “bad.” They just don’t warrant much attention, unless you’re drinking the spiked punch.
While I mostly agree with Radiohead’s political messaging, I just wish they’d do it in a way that reminded me less of being a ninth grader fumbling with symbolism for the first time.
But what makes Radiohead perhaps most difficult to defend, especially in this century, is Thom Yorke’s metamorphosis into full blown muppetdom. He’s become a self-parodying buffoon, a cartoon version of himself who—while he might have good intentions—is veering headlong into Bono territory. Yorke has been impossible to take seriously for about a decade. Whenever his DJ career started is when he started exposing his true lack of taste. His DJ sets have been an absolute farce for all of these reasons: poor mixing, poor song selection, lack of vibe/concept, and felt like he was jumping on the ill-fated beat scene bandwagon three years too late. You know that saying “Don’t meet your heroes”? Well, don’t let your heroes DJ.
Also, what’s up with the hats Thom? I thought you were better than that.
Lyrically, Thom Yorke does two things: repeat cliches, sometimes with a mild twist, and use the cut-up technique. See also: every other lyricist since the ‘60s. While I mostly agree with Radiohead’s political messaging (George W. Bush = bad, surveillance police state = bad, saving the environment = good), I just wish they’d do it in a way that reminded me less of being a ninth grader fumbling with symbolism for the first time.
That said, Thom’s voice itself is distinctive and not inherently unpleasant, at least in small doses. But having to listen to more than four of his songs in a row is challenging. There’s a self-pitying, dirge-like quality to his voice in the context of most Radiohead compositions that wears on the ears. How many decades can you get away with sounding like a heartbroken tween on the cusp of a cry for help?
Now, finally, to that one quality that makes it so very difficult to appreciate the band: the cult of Radiohead. Radiohead has their fans and most rock critics by the balls. They could record Thom farting and add a syncopated drum beat and a wailing cello and they’d have Best New Music in the bag. “Hail to the Queef.”
Whether it’s their cryptographic promotional scavenger hunts or the GooglyMinotaur, there is this pervasive idea propagated by Radiohead fans that the members of Radiohead are intelligent, or more intelligent than the listener. This is absolute bullshit. It requires no intelligence to appreciate (or not) what this rock band does. There is no deeper, hidden meaning behind the work. Their thematics, lyrics, and worldview are all pretty on the nose and feel culled from a 9th grader’s mood board.
A common refrain Radiohead defenders will berate you with is that a listener must not understand the group if she doesn’t love them. This message board opinion sums up the “you don’t get Radiohead” argument:
“Critics love Radiohead. Any musician I know that is well versed in music and open-minded love Radiohead. People who don’t get them are either listening to them wrong, or just don’t have the musical knowledge to understand their brilliance.”
This is how your typical Radiohead fan expresses himself, and it’s almost identical to another fan group’s fallacy that it clings onto dearly. Which is to say that Radiohead is like a Christopher Nolan movie: a humorless thing that’s trying to make you feel smart. Where I grew up, we call that pretentious. If that’s not be what the word is actually intended for, how about overrated?
DON’T AGREE? Read Christopher Tarantino’s defense here.