Thursday, January 15, 2009

Why I (sort of) Hate Radiohead

(Whither, Thom Yorke?)

I've been taken to task for my comments on this blog dissing Radiohead, including saying that they've ruined rock for an entire generation. I may have been slightly exaggerating for effect. Still, they have a lot to answer for.

This isn't to say I think Radiohead is terrible or anything. They're just not my cup of tea and never have been. I first heard the band like pretty much every one else. "Creep" was a song that captured the zeitgeist of those self-effacing 90s so totally that I fully expected them to fade once the alt-rock trend petered out. However, it turned out the band was more talented than, say, Local H, and a few years later the band released their "masterpiece," OK Computer. I had a d-bag roommate at the time who played that album constantly which might be part of the reason I never took it. That tidbit notwithstanding, those Pink Floyd comparisons were probably a lot more right on than anyone wanted to admit at the time. Subsequent albums impressed many with how adventurous and challenging they were but it might have just seemed that way to listeners who probably grew up listening to Green Day and Weezer. When the band released In Rainbows, a friend asked me what I thought of it and I said I hadn't heard it. He wanted to know why since I could just download it for free, my reply being that if I wasn't willing to pay for it, I probably didn't want to listen to it that badly anyway.

Of course, taste is subjective, and it might be that Radiohead's musical values are simply at odds with mine. They're a band that favors calculation over immediacy, sound over songwriting, grandiosity over intimacy and histrionics over subtlety. I'm more than willing to admit that they apply these values to their music as well as or better than anyone and it's not as though those other elements are totally absent but, again, not my cup of tea. And when I hear those values picked up by other bands who don't have the ability of Radiohead, it makes for some rough listening. I'm reminded of a comment one of the members of Slayer made about 80s hair metal in some VH1 documentary (I'm paraphrasing): "It's like Van Halen turned up to 100... but in all the wrong directions." Similarly, one could make the case the past decade or so of independent rock has been Radiohead turned up to 100 and in all wrong directions.

How many times have we heard variations on the riff from "No Surprises," a song that aims to be ethereal but winds up sort of plodding?

How many times do we have to hear some motherfucker try and sing like Thom Yorke? He has the pipes to pull it off. Most don't. And when someone tries to sing in that style and they can't.... man, it's like stepping on a cat while wearing cleats.

How many bands, following Radiohead's example, have misguidedly turned to electronics and atmosphere when they wanted to expand their sound (or were just out of ideas) despite being novices or perhaps clueless about electronic music in general?

And, of course, there's fucking Coldplay.

The above might seem a little harsh. Radiohead undoubtedly has more than a few affecting songs in their catalog. Plus, their willingness to not always take the easiest path to success, whether it be the "pay what you want" digital release of In Rainbows or simply not repeating formula, is quite commendable. One could even make the case that since I'm not intimately familiar with the band's oeuvre, I'm in no position to judge. (And they might be right.) However, as someone who grew up on indie rock, I definitely saw huge shift in the scene around the time OK Computer was released. Until then, even more studied bands like Pavement and Slint were somewhat punk-derived and the DIY ethos of punk were still quite prevalent in indie rock. Then suddenly, Johnny Rotten's "(I Hate) Pink Floyd" t-shirt meant nothing. I'm not claiming that indie music prior to OK Computer's massive influence is inherently superior but it did seem like most of the ideas and values that attracted me to underground rock in the first place were falling by the wayside. Sterile, NPR-approved rock was the new vanguard.

I'm aware one could make the same argument about any band who've influenced a lot of junk through no real fault of their own, including the Beatles. Truth be told, I'm not super crazy about them either.

21 comments:

Tim Duffy said...

how bout the ramones? you into them?

black flag? those guys never influenced anyone who sucked.

pavement? i'd rather listen to "clocks" by coldplay than anything by tapes n' tapes to be honest.

ok computer sounds more like the smiths, or r.e.m. than it does pink floyd.

also i would argue that electronic techniques like running one's voice through a transistor radio, or using a barrage of antiquated electronic instruments lifted from decades of wear and tear leaves alot more room for "immediacy" than you are giving them credit for.

beyond all of that, to say they put sound before songs and grandiosity before intimacy shows that you're missing what hundreds of thousands of fans find in this band. (namely the exact inverse of what you suggest.) you seem to see anything that isn't traditional rock instrumentation as being against the song. as if to say if radiohead spent more time writing and then just set up a tape recorder in the center of the room the authenticity would magically make the song better and the band more worth while.

some songs want for a littel more. just ask roxy music.

i guess my real problem with this curmudgeon-y post is that, there is so much good in what you like. and you almost seem willing to give that radiohead is just not your cup of tea(which suggests an understanding that they unlike say travis are not a shitty band), so why waste the energy on this kind of negativity it can't be good for your chi?

PB said...

Tim, hundreds of thousands of fans can be wrong. Just ask Kid Rock.

Sure, you can play the "influenced a lot of junk" game with everyone from the Beatles to the Ramones to Nirvana and anyone in between but that's not exactly my point. Radiohead caused a huge shift in the perception of underground music, a shift that I'm not particularly fond of.

And I'm not fundamentally opposed to anything that isn't traditional rock instrumentation or, for that matter, even big production values. As with anything else, it's a matter of how it's done. How Radiohead does it doesn't hold much appeal for me. Should I force myself to like them?

Maybe I am wasting my energy on a negative post but I've just been asked too many times why I don't cotton to that band. I thought I owed an explanation.

For the record, I probably haven't heard OK Computer from beginning to end in 10 years but I certainly remember at all thinking that it sounded like R.E.M. or the Smiths. Unless, maybe you're talking about R.E.M.'s post-Bill Berry records.

If you'd rather listen to "Clocks" than Tapes N Tapes. that's your prerogative. Personally, I'd rather reenact "One Guy, One Jar" than listen to either.

Tim Duffy said...

Um, I think you're wrong if for no other reason than that A) Radiohead have never been underground rock, and B) in the past decade between post-punk, garage rock, disco rock, and freak folk revivals most of the underground rock trends of the past few years have been about looking back to records released prior to Radiohead's existence. (I like to call it PB-salad days revisited.)

And no I don't mean post Bill Berry records. Chimey guitars, mopey vocals, overly literate lyrics, and atmospheric production, these are hallmarks of the record. Meanwhile the album lacks long form instrumental breaks, extended intros/outros, backing gospel vocals, and orchestral flurishes.

PB said...

No, they've never been underground rock but their aesthetic has been hugely influential on the rock underground. That's pretty much my point. Thanks for reiterating it for me.

Tim Duffy said...

i think you're missing something there. who of consequence in actual underground rock sounds like radiohead or has adopted their asthetic?

thus far the only example you've given is coldplay.

Sarah Mo said...

Pulled from your posting: "They're a band that favors calculation over immediacy, sound over songwriting, grandiosity over intimacy and histrionics over subtlety."

That may be one of the most dead-on statements I have ever read about Radiohead. I still love them though.

PB said...

Tim, you agree with the fact that they are influential in your first comment then you try and pretend they're not influential by asking me who they've influenced. You're the devout Pitchfork reader, so you tell me. I give these bands a listen, I'm annoyed and I forget about them. Sorry.

Brushback said...

Geez, PB. How could you post your very own likes and dislikes on your very own blog? You mean, over-reaching motherfucker, you.

Ms. Francis said...

1. I thought cleats was spelled kleats.

2. I think it was pretty DIY to overwrite the corporate music distribution scene with In Rainbows. Interestingly and disappointingly that doesn't seem to have caught on as much among popular music outfits as the "sound over songwriting" thing, which I agree is how Coldplays are born. Also, I thought Radiohead was a Pop band.

3. The Bends is still one of my favorite records, but orobably because when I first heard it it was remarkably different from much of what my friends were listening to, yet didn't get me made fun of (that started with Belle and Sebastian.)The only songs I ever actually fell out of love with were the shouting anthemas of hxc shows from days long ago. Turns out I didn't really like some of them, they were just catchier than the rest of the predictable repitoires of many (but not all) of my friends' bands and their influences.

4. Opinions are like complimentary salads at sit down dinners. If you like them, great. If you don't, there's always the next course. The possiblity of being introduced to something new exists, but either way there's still a whole lot more of them to come in life ahead. No reason to sweat or yell at the waitstaff.

5. I have no musical credibiltiy so no one will comment back. I <3 being a gurl.

m. said...

The best part about this post, is the eloquent commentary.

"...hundreds of thousands of fans can be wrong. Just ask Kid Rock."

"Personally, I'd rather reenact 'One Guy, One Jar' than listen to either."

That's some moving sh*t, my brother.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I feel the same way and can't believe how often I scare people who find out I don't like them. Tim, the tone of your comments is far more negative than anything in the post. The argument was very calmly and fairly stated. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I don't like Radiohead one iota. I find listening to them is much like staring into an endless vat of mustard- all boring yellows, formless globs of over wrought moaning and bleating. Boring, tired, middling, flat and yawn inducing. I blame U2 actually-they started all of this mediocre art wrapped in meaningful band posturing that has become the schtick everybody uses when they wanna prove their artistic worth. Yeeech!
The yuppies can have em!

Lucas Gelati said...

I don't like Radiohead too. Tank god i'm not the only one :)
Sorry for the shoirt english. Bye.

RadioheadNazi said...

When the band released In Rainbows, a friend asked me what I thought of it and I said I hadn't heard it. He wanted to know why since I could just download it for free, my reply being that if I wasn't willing to pay for it, I probably didn't want to listen to it that badly anyway.

Yea, you're so cool. D-bag.

Anonymous said...

Music is art. Do you like all art? Nobody does. Who cares? If people care that you don't like them, they're sheep. Besides, Radiohead doesn't make music for you. They make music they feel. It's not formulaic, it's not pop music. If you don't like it, no big deal really. Listen to something else.

Radiohead didn't influence anyone. People just copy them. That's what society does, it's human nature. The science of hype. That's what business does, copy a successful formula. Get rich, get girls, get fame. If you want to blame anyone for Radiohead influencing other bands, blame society.

Some artists provoke and sell themselves to the media. Radiohead is definitely not one of the worst offenders of this and hardly a good target. Until Guitar Hero Radiohead comes out at least.

I think your animosity is really misdirected. To say Radiohead has influenced a lot of bands on their own is a huge stretch. I suppose we should hunt down all the bands that influenced Radiohead and hate them too. Influence is an endless cycle. Everything comes from something. To say there are "a lot" of Radiohead-esque bands is pretty absurd. To say that Radiohead is responsible for influencing the new sound of independent music is ridiculous and shows a limited grasp on the variety of music that exists within independent music. Where do you get your music from? The radio? MTV?

This just doesn't happen anymore. It's not the 60s and 70s. There aren't a handful of bands that everyone copies and defines a generation. If you think thats the case, you should stop reading SPIN and Rolling Stone. The amount of music and the number of movements within the artform are far beyond the limited amount covered in mainstream industry sources.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you hate Radiohead, its your fault.

Anonymous said...

Before I had started listening to Radiohead, I would listen to mostly lo fi punk-derived indie rock. Then I heard Kid A. Kid A changed a lot for me. It didn’t sound punk or post-punk revivalist. I still love that album very much and it influenced my listening habits immensely,it brought me into the vast part of the underground that is not so much "punk" influenced. I now listen to experimental pop because of Kid A, stuff like Animal Collective, Sigur Ros, Gang Gang Dance, Boards of Canada. It showed me that music shouldn’t have limits, that it doesn’t have to sound “raw” or “loud” or “small” to get me emotionally. Music can use texture and sound to evoke the same kind of emotions.



“I think your animosity is really misdirected. To say Radiohead has influenced a lot of bands on their own is a huge stretch. I suppose we should hunt down all the bands that influenced Radiohead and hate them too. Influence is an endless cycle. Everything comes from something. To say there are "a lot" of Radiohead-esque bands is pretty absurd. To say that Radiohead is responsible for influencing the new sound of independent music is ridiculous and shows a limited grasp on the variety of music that exists within independent music. Where do you get your music from? The radio? MTV?

This just doesn't happen anymore. It's not the 60s and 70s. There aren't a handful of bands that everyone copies and defines a generation. If you think thats the case, you should stop reading SPIN and Rolling Stone. The amount of music and the number of movements within the artform are far beyond the limited amount covered in mainstream industry sources.”

I agree completely. If you look at the state of the full scope of underground music today, it’s pretty much all over the place in terms of sound. Dan Deacon does not sound like Grizzly Bear, The XX does not sound like Devendra Banhart, Caribou does not sound like Four Tet. I remember John Cale once saying something to the effect that Radiohead will probably not influence much people in terms of sound but more in the sense of not being afraid of doing your own thing and not being afraid of taking chances.

Anonymous said...

You just don't know how much I agree with you, I have tried and tried to enjoy or understand what it is about Radiohead's music that attracts its myriad of fans, and have failed. I simply have come to the resolution that Radiohead is vastly inferior to the bands that influenced and preceded it. Thus knowledge of that music preculdes me from accepting the pale imitation of what Radiohead is to me. Thank you for your blog, it shows to me I'm not alone on this.

I know I'm late said...

I'm actually quite thankful for Radiohead; hours of band co-ordination has now become "always do the exact opposite of Radiohead"...

Anonymous said...

there's music i enjoy listening to, for fun. and then there's music that i enjoy listening to because i have an emotional connection to it. it's entirely subjective, it's entirely personal.

fun music is like my friends, they cheer me up and make me feel good and they're important to me. the music i'm emotionally connected to is like my lover, or my soulmate. it has me by the soul.

my friends are plenty, but i can only love a few so much at a time, my go to bands. radiohead is my soulmate, pearl jam and joy division are my lovers. radiohead makes me feel connected to where ever the hell it is i came from to this dysfunctional fucked up albeit beautiful earth plane.

and maybe they're not my twinflame band, but they sure as fuck are my soulmate band. they're the most honest band i've found.

if you can't connect to radiohead, then i hope you find your soulmate band, cause everyone should have one.

Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting read for me. I got into radiohead when I was 12 and OK Computer has just come out. When you're that age, something so different will make you think it's the best thing ever and that's what I thought for the longest time. And I still love every album thereafter, but I have to say, I do agree that some of the bands they have influenced do make me want to throw up at their own sense of superiority. Animal Collective, for one, is not a band I think is worth a tenth of the credit they're given, and I can understand why you say they are more interested in sound than songwriting.

But what I will say about radiohead and bands that try to emulate them is this: when you've listened to so much music, you become like a seasoned drug addict that's tried every drug there is to try, and what you end up needing is something more and more far out, and bands like Radiohead and Animal Collective seem to provide that.

Anonymous said...

I agree with original post. Radiohead to me write a lot of forgettable songs. I listened to every album when they came out and all were boring. I don't even hear great production quality when I listen to their music. For the record I'm a big fan of Pink Floyd, Mars Volta, MGMT, Type O Negative, Primus... Lots of music in every genre. And I fall asleep every time I hear Radiohead... I actually saw some local band lately that are largely influenced by RH and it was god awful. Made me want to die. Sounds like a bunch of moaning and jumbled atmospheric crap.