In a particularly stifling scene from Radiohead’s 1998 tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy, director Grant Gee uses Thom Yorke’s numerous false starts while filming a drowning scene as a metaphor for his band’s sense of suffocation about itself existing in the vacuum of Rock Stardom. The clip for “No Surprises” features a close-up of Yorke’s pinched and pale visage inside a diving helmet as it slowly fills up with water. Now, apparently Yorke has Navy SEAL-ian breath-holding ability, having eventually held his breath for 55 seconds as the sequence was filmed. But through Gee’s camera, we watch as Radiohead’s principle headcase repeatedly reaches the brink of suffocation as the sequence is shot and re-shot, Yorke yanking the safety release valve each time he can no longer take it.
Radiohead haven’t exactly reached for that safety chain yet, but their behavior since the release of Kid A is starting to look like a cop-out on the scale of a Christo art installation.
Rock Stardom in 2001 is like some bizarro S.P.E.C.T.R.E. experiment gone horribly right. Through manipulation of globalized media, gossip, rumor, and the artist’s own personality/ability (depending on the, er, “talent” of said Rock Star), pop culture domination is achieved by shady characters in mahogany boardrooms (picture Donald Pleasance stroking a cat). Oh, and the Rockstar gets real paid. Through the efforts of operatives with evil moustaches – or Carson Daly – the world’s creativity is siphoned off into holding tanks and replaced with an international pop-culture poultice made out of Jessica Simpson, Aaron Carter, Jon Tesh, and Michael Flatley. Compared to Sumner Redstone, Dr Evil is a little bitch.
And the poor lads in Radiohead are stuck in the middle of this corporate game, like life-size chess pieces with pasty English skin. After the international acclaim garnered by 1997’s OK Computer, the band’s post-rock melodic experiments could no longer be wasted upon the ears of haughty record store clerks and people who wear shiny fabric. Radiohead’s success – like it or not – had made them a commodity. Sure, a skinny, strange commodity with odd traits and strong followings in far-flung locales. But a commodity nonetheless. To the ENCOM-like Capitol Records, Radiohead had become bauxite.
Even though you gnash your teeth each time Fred Durst appears on television, treading water in the Grotto with 14 Playmates fanning him with palm fronds, you forgive the son of a bitch because he’s a Rock Star and it’s part of the game. Hef’s Grotto is a destination of Rock Stars; it’s a rite of passage that occurs when The Man’s dealings have achieved the desired effect (i.e. worldwide cultural acceptance). Now here’s the bombshell: Radiohead has never visited the Grotto. They’ve never thrown TVs from windows. In fact, in Meeting People Is Easy‘s 90 minutes, Our Pals spend most of their time looking forlorn and fretting about how lonely they are (meanwhile outside the hotel, yowling pre-teen Japanese girls pile up like chickens in a factory farm). Is this the life of a Post-Modern Rock Star?
Oh no. that was just the beginning. Only after the buzz for Kid A began did it begin to seem like the band had become too post-modern for its own forlorn good. Absurdly confusing websites written in bizarre languages. Scanty tour information. And shifty rumors that Kid A was – uh oh – a “concept album.” Indeed, the album’s icy, angular tunes distill Radiohead’s essence down to its most base form; they demand a patient ear. It would seem that Yorke and his fellow fame-sufferers had hit the panic button in the wake of OK Computer, pulling the safety valve to release the water in their diving helmets. Kid A’s minimalism would return them safely to the folds of psuedo-intellectual music listeners everywhere…
A self satisfied Thom Yorke to Capitol Records’ evil henchman Sark: “Do you expect me to rock?”
“No, Mr Yorke! We expect you to be popular!” (Maniacal laughter ensues…)
Capitol’s Master Control Program of a marketing blitz that propelled Kid A to a Grammy nomination was pure evil genius. Here was a dark, unhappy collection of songs that would devour Billy Gilman’s brains in one sitting, and yet the record debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The critical acclaim (Entertainment Weekly: “A+!”) was deafening. Kid A was so popular, Brian Eno was seen sitting in the Grotto next to Fred Durst. You could almost hear Thom Yorke screaming in intellectual pain. All of his efforts to disassociate himself from the pain of Rock Stardom, all of his band’s strides to create music that emulated the harsh glare of florescent pod lights, and what does he get? An F’ing Grammy nomination! Bollocks!
I have not yet heard Amnesiac. But given that the songs were recorded during the Kid A sessions, I’m pretty sure it’s not an uplifting collection of ska-inflected soul grooves. But enough about the music. The point here is not to accuse Radiohead of being musicians with a brain. On the contrary, their artistry challenges a listener willing enough to accept it. What they need to realize though is that being post-modern, or post-rock, or just plain avant-garde (and doing it for real, not as part of the act) in today’s global pop culture economy is pretty much impossible. Their commodity status was proved after Capitol successfully marketed their dropout attempt of last year. It will be interesting to watch Yorke and his mates’ reaction to the marketing blitz behind Amnesiac.
Is it post-modern for a Post-Rock Star to receive an on-camera massage by three Playmates? If I was Thom Yorke, I’d look into that.