Wednesday, September 02, 2009

This isn't about Radiohead. There's nothing less interesting in 2009 than writing about how great Radiohead are, how smart and talented and prescient and demanding. All the ink both virtual and actual that has been spilled in the process of lionizing them over the past decade has only made them more unapproachable; their critical acclaim has rendered them practically inert. Why write about Radiohead? They're not interesting anymore - they're ubiquitous and canonized and overpraised. (Yeah, I like Radiohead and I'll be the first to say they're way overpraised - but I also think Sgt. Pepper's isn't very good, either. [I loved Sgt. Pepper's when I was 15, for what it's worth.])

Now is the point in the essay where you are probably expecting me to say something to the effect of, "even though Radiohead have been done to death, I'm going to flip the script and show you something you've never thought about before". But I'm not going to do that - in fact, I freely admit, I don't have anything particularly novel or interesting to say about Kid A itself.

Therefore, this isn't a story about Radiohead: if you want to read about Thom and Co., sorry. Really, just like The Woods and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Sounds of Silver and Show Your Bones too, for that matter - these essays are less about the music than about me working through the decade in my own head through the prism of the music. Does that seem self-indulgent? I'm not trying to tell you that you should like this music, although obviously I think it's pretty good music and you'd be happier if you did. I can't articulate very well why these discs mean the things they mean to me - an odd admission for a writer to make, yes, but it's true. But that's the idea, that's the goal: pop music pulls us back in ourselves, music to which we are attached acts as an ever-recurring Proustian miracle, instant nostalgia for the ways we used to be.

(Perhaps that's why, despite my best efforts, I've never been able to build up more than a clinical appreciation for classical music - it's exalted cultural status demands the exclusive attention of our faculties. It's hard to perceive classical music as a part of our lives when it is only encountered in isolation from the rest of culture. It doesn't interact with our memories in the same way, if we haven't been raised to consume it with the same avidity as we all do pop music. It's segregated in our perceptions, and so therefore fails to gain a foothold in our biological RAM. But that's neither here nor there - that's my own personal cultural insecurity speaking. Wouldn't I be a better person if I could sit around pontificating joyfully on the subject of Mahler, instead of listening to his symphonies with a sense of grim, determined obligation?)

Kid A is, for me, a very specific moment in time. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard it for the first time: it was a hopeful moment, an exciting day. If you don't remember - the buildup to Kid A was huge. The anticipation for the "FOLLOW UP TO OK COMPUTER" was simply overwhelming, with the entirety of the music press (and even many in the mainstream press) filled with breathless speculation, a mountain built atop whatever small crumbs the band had let fall from their studio seclusion. It felt like something was about to happen. Like a lot of things it seems really silly when I type it up now, after the fact - music culture and music consumption has changed so radically in the last decade that this kind of phenomena seems - well, I don't know. Quaint? Sure, In Rainbows was a big deal, but not the same thing.

Maybe I'm reading to much of myself into the process. Kid A seemed at the time like both a culmination and a prelude: a culmination of many different strains of 90s pre-millennial tension, and a prelude of where all these different kinds of futurism, once united, would go. In our future. It seemed for a brief spell as if we were actually living in the future. Y2K had come and gone, leaving a pile of anxiety in its wake, but the Utopian hopes and technological dreams of the 1990s were still hanging in the air. It seems obvious, in retrospect, that we were waiting for something to happen, something that would justify our presumptions, some indication that the absolutely arbitrary calendar flip would have some deeper meaning. We're human, and humans are slaves to their symbols and systems, regardless of how arbitrary they may in reality be.

I sincerely hope my foreshadowing hasn't been too clumsy. Fact is, the future did arrive pretty quickly after that, only it wasn't anything at all like the future in which we had imagined we'd be living. I think it's safe to say that no one saw this decade coming.

I'm not nostalgic for the late 90s. The late 90s was a weird time, and certainly no better than a lot of other weird times. I am nostalgic, however, for the future we thought we were going to get, the Year 2000 that seemed to promise so much that didn't materialize. Kid A is, for me, probably the saddest disc on this list, because it symbolizes something that we (and by using the royal "we", you can understand I mean "me") missed out on: a vision of the future we didn't quite reach.

The 90s was all about smooth and sleek, about moving faster and deadlier towards some kind of approaching event horizon. When I try to articulate exactly what I'm thinking, the only images that seem to make sense are Massive Attack videos - like this andthis and this and this. Although they are obviously - tragically - a bit dated now, at the time they seemed so state-of-the art as to be positively prescient: look at that aesthetic, how shiny and glamorous even the dirt and gravel are. It's cosmopolitan and globalized in only the best way: globalization is one of the dirty legacies of the decade's overly-optimistic neo-liberal Thatcherism, but at the time the idea that national boundaries were being slowly erased by technology and economic prosperity wasn't the least bit controversial. It was reality. Sex is there, but not in the way that sex is here now. It's a (at least slightly more) mature sensuality, a sexuality for adults by adults, not kids.

Most importantly, though, was the music. What did my fin de siecle sound like? It sounded like the smashing clatter of progress. 1999 for me was Surrender, it was Beaucoup Fish, it was Play and The Contino Sessions and The Middle of Nowhere and even (for all its solipsism it was gorgeous) The Fragile - all these albums that pointed to nothing so much as the ultimate effacement and devaluation of the individual artist in favor of a Platonic, principled anonymity. No more pictures of artists with pretty hair on CD booklets. We were going to be living in a real life theme park version of "Cups" - building slowly from a simple disco vamp up through a deceptively insistent beat, growing from a deep house track into some kind of monstrous pseudo-trance breakbeat epic, pulsating Daft Punk-ish synths warring with complex jungle-esque polyrhythms. It was massive and gloriously impersonal and simply bigger than anything you could individually imagine. Even the people making the sound were dwarfed. Daft Punk wear robot masks, and if that seems like a puckish affectation to some, it's really the only logical conclusion that arises from making principled self-effacing dance music.

I was late to the party with Radiohead. OK Computer didn't take over the US immediately, and I was one of those people who only warmed to the album long after the fact, turned on by a loose acquaintance who pressed the album into my hands and assured me I would like it. Sure enough, I did. For a rock band, they seemed to "get it", to feel and to be animated by the guiding spirit of secular millenarianism that moved so much of the rest of the era's culture. Kid A threatened to make good on OK Computer's promise, taking the next logical step for any self-respecting rock band, immolating themselves heroically at the altar of some great, depersonalizing future spirit.

In hindsight, of course, that couldn't have been further from the truth. For all the hype about Radiohead recording a Warp Records album, at its core the disc was still propelled by some fairly conventional pop songcraft - right down to a hard core of two or three rock songs that wouldn't have been that out of place on The Bends (maybe with a slightly different mix, but still). Sure, there was lots of strange sounding music, probably more than most people were comfortable with. But the way it straddled these expectations, that is what seemed so novel - the way it bridged the expectations of so many constituents, achieving something that sounded wholly new despite being the sum total of many years and many obvious influences. Aphex Twin recorded many discs worth of ambient music during the 90s, but he never made anything as coherent. I personally would have been happy with a whole disc of "Treefingers", but the fact that they made "Treefingers" fit with a whole album of less-outright-confrontational but still varying-degrees-of-futuristic rock music was really quite impressive.

But like many things, it turned out to be less than advertised. Kid A didn't kill the rock band, rather, it served as a nice tombstone for an attitude and a philosophy that didn't survive the frightening traumas of our current decade. Turns out the new generation of rockers didn't aspire to be anonymous, consummately professional craftsmen. They didn't want to disappear behind their music, and they didn't find ostentatious displays of individuality to be vaguely distasteful and frankly presumptuous. And that was the moment I began to feel old because I realized my personal vision of the culture had deviated so radically from the reality that I just didn't qualify even vaguely as the demographic anymore.

But it's all moot: the future we got wasn't the future we wanted, for a number of reasons. It's sad in a wistful way to look back at the moment and remember the strange little booklet of political doggerel that came pressed inside the jewel case of the initial release. You know, the one attacking Tony Blair for being a demagogue, promoting a dangerous agenda of centrist neo-Thatcherisms. How nice it must have been to be worried about Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Ah, were we ever so young?

Best Music of the "Aughts"
10.The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
9.Spoon - Gimme Fiction
8.The New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
7.Girl Talk - Night Ripper
6.The Roots - Phrenology
5.LCD Soundsystem - Sounds of Silver
4.The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
3.Radiohead - Kid A
2.Sleater-Kinney - The Woods 1, 2
1.Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot 1, 2

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