Thursday, January 15, 2009
Why I (sort of) Hate Radiohead
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.