Welcome to another installment of Stress Position, where we test a writer’s patience and insanity by forcing them to listen to an album they hate for 12 hours straight.
Let the carnage begin.
For the debut of this column, I chose metal, which was #1 on my musical black list. Technically, that’s accurate from the standpoint of specific genres. But for my true musical bane, which makes my (now slightly diminished) hatred of metal look like the romance between Jackie O and JFK, I have to go with…
For those of you who haven’t already rage-quit your browser, I have a totally valid reason for my distaste in what many people have deemed the single most important rock band of the late 20th/early 21st century. And it has nothing to do with that time I got the stomach flu after I first listened to Kid A.
Radiohead are a fine rock band. Evocative, forward-thinking, and generally the kind of dudes who work toward greater musical and cultural truths and stuff. But then everyone sees them as the second coming of Christ, as if everything they do, whether it’s playing a packed UK stadium or blowing their noses, has a massive effect on the entire music industry.
Now, I’ve experienced a disconnect before, where lots of people get a band and I simply don’t. It usually doesn’t faze me beyond, “Well, I guess they’re just not for me.” But this disconnect is so grand and so sweeping that the more I try to understand it, the angrier it just makes me feel. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, not finding that weird corner piece, and just deciding to toss the whole thing off the coffee table.
In recent months, my hatred’s grown particularly nasty. In the first Stress Position, I recognized my aging and I wanna let go of my hate and see if it makes me happier or healthier. But I have come to realize I enjoy my hatred of Radiohead like a child enjoys playing with loose baby teeth. It’s this sort of biological component that makes me feel unique, as if no one else can do it, and I bring it out whenever I can. If you mention anything Radiohead-related, I am bound to let loose a stream of baseless insults and then tell you my stomach flu story.
So, as much as I want to hold on to my hatred, it seemed the perfect construct to test against the emotional torture chamber that is Stress Position. From Thursday, March 7th to Saturday, March 16th, I was traveling for work (Savannah Stopover right into SXSW). And though I had plenty of shows to see, I spent my alone time and the hours in airports and taxis listening to nothing but perhaps the band’s most seminal album to date, 1997’s OK Computer.
Album: OK Computer
Release: May 21st, 1997
Label: Capitol Records
History: I’m going to just defer to the OK Computer Wikipedia page. It’s well-written, insightful, and packed with more info than even the most rabid of fan would want.
In the past, any instance of listening to Radiohead is pretty much out-and-out torture for me: sitting around a record player with a beer, hanging out with a group of friends, even if I were sitting in my gold-plated mansion with Jessica Alba and my robot butler. Although, I could handle just about anything in that last scenario.
One thing I respect about Radiohead is that they demand your full attention. They pull and tug at you with so many sound collages and empty spaces. No matter what it is you seem to be doing, when a Radiohead album’s on, there’s just no denying its presence. Love them or hate them, the band is among a select group of artists who don’t fade into the background, making every spin a thoroughly active, sometimes grueling, experience. Normally, if I hear them at a party or a bar, I can escape by leaving that space. But stuck in some metal tube flying 35,000 above the ground for three hours, all options (save for turning off the damn record) are eliminated, and my own sense of professionalism and ceaseless guilt prevents me from even doing that.
But why this particular form of musical waterboarding was so perfect for travelling has everything to do with the very state of travel itself.
I can’t avoid the inevitable hatred of Radiohead followers in the same way I couldn’t go into the Smithsonian, blow my nose on a Thomas Jefferson coat, and ask everyone to just be cool. But I can avoid the whole idea that I’m a whiny little ingrate. I am ever appreciative to have this job and to be flown places, for free, and enjoy live music.
But I am not sure I really enjoy the parts where I actually have to go to places. I’m a homebody who abhors most change, but more than that, I don’t think I have the temperament to travel. For many, the standard headaches of travel (long lines, delayed flights, $36 airport coffee, TSA agents that seem to be deliberately plotting ways to cop a feel) are tiny pin pricks, nothing but a minor irritation on the glossy skin that is a vacation. But for whatever reasons, those pricks feel like tiny stabs of misery and discomfort, each one ruining my day if and when they occur.
As a coping mechanism, I turn to music. Whenever I feel disconnected while I am away, I slip on my headphones and instinctively listen to some old album I haven’t heard in months or some relatively new favorite. It’s my direct connection back to a more familiar emotional status, a safety net as I fly above skies that look strange and menacing. Not to get all New Age-y, but music is a center for me, and without it I can’t help but think the wounds and scars I’d have to deal with while on the road. Plus, no one talks to the guy wearing the Sennheisers.
Continued on page two.
I was supposed to get in to Charlotte at 12:30 p.m.; I didn’t get in till 2:05 p.m.. And while U.S. Airways had the wherewithal to book me a later flight, that flight was just late enough where I had all of 10 minutes to run halfway across the lovely Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. Of course, I made sure to turn on OK Computer as I fumbled my way through. That’s when my reliance of traveling led me to a rather sudden epiphany, which had it come later would’ve caused me to crash into three small children. Like I do with traveling, I tend to have this ability to make mountains out of mole holes. With my knee aching and my perspiration levels reaching critical levels, little album nuances bothered me:
– “Paranoid Android” is like 150 seconds too long.
– The album could do without “Climbing Up the Walls”, or at least having it come earlier in the LP.
– “Fitter Happier” may be the worst interlude ever invented.
– Why isn’t there more badass output like “Electioneering”?
– Would a hook actually make “Exit Music (For a Film)” a little livelier?
– In “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, Yorke shouldn’t try to fit in the part “finally lost it completely”; it’s jumbled and awkward. Just say “think I’ve lost it” or something, man.
– Is “Karma Police” perhaps a new kind of intellectual’s Britpop?
But the worst part is that, in literally every single review, people only bathe the record in heaps of praise. It’s like every critic got first class seats, and I’m stuck in coach between a fat guy and someone with a raging case of pneumonia. It was befuddling and isolating, smack dab in a time where I couldn’t have been more of either.
That’s when it all got really clear to me and I reached a point where my annoyances weren’t some shameful scarlet letter, but an opportunity for interpersonal connection.
You could easily look at the album’s talk of alien abductions and vehicular catastrophes as something terrifying, a warning against the perils of life away from home (and perhaps a metaphor for the banality of touring). But if you were me on that day, alone, tired, and hungry in a foreign city staring down the barrel of two weeks of long nights, emotional isolation, and seas of rude festival-goers, then it’s nice to see someone else is just as scared to walk out the door. It’s hard to find that level of kinship in some of Radiohead’s other works, as they tend to get lost in the haze of their own experimentation or critical reception. Here, it’s like Thom Yorke and I are standing on a street corner, too scared to move, too weary not to.
Still, through March 10th, I would hardly say the album had broken my outer critical shell, instead doing little more than soften it (which is still a huge victory). But on that Sunday, with the hectic Savannah Stopover on its way to becoming a distant memory and plenty of work to do while I sat alone in another hotel room — this one with a cowboys and Indians theme — I actually found myself turning to the album for support. Don’t think that I immediately submitted my application to the global fan club. Instead, I think my embrace of the album was once-again emotionally motivated.
Perhaps the mere acceptance of Radiohead and relying on their music is close enough to actually liking it. Maybe they’re not the band whose lyrics you quote, but whose work encapsulates feelings and experiences in the listener’s lives. Lots of us can think of a band or a song and are immediately teleported to some other time and place, but Radiohead might serve that purpose better than any other band on the planet. Even as the songs fit into some grander theme, like travel, the individual songs are ambivalent and nebulous enough to just about any moment or circumstance. If you’re angry and detached about some ex-lover writing you a note or just because a group of friends left you behind, the indignation of “Karma Police” can work for either. Whether you’re loving love or down in the dumps, Thom Yorke’s wails on a track like “Lucky” will have you celebrating or flat-lining either way. Radiohead’s sound is that of pure, visceral emotion, to be interpreted and consumed by the listener as they see fit. If their music moves you, it’s yours to take with you throughout every experience and every up and down. Not even Huey Lewis could do that.
On Monday, March 11th, I arrived in Austin, TX. As much as I paint SXSW as a kind of voluntary death march, I love it dearly and look forward to it. Yet as I made my way through the city during the first couple of days, I started to imagine a kind of real-life representation of my life-long dynamic with the ‘Head: me, the one guy who hates them, in a sea of people who no doubt worship at their feet. And it made me feel less alone than I had all week and more justified than ever before.
A band can’t be universally loved; otherwise, that critical dissection of their cultural value can’t happen and we just end up suckling off their teet like mindless zombies. And since I’ve literally never met anyone who has hated Radiohead (the closest is a few people had a kind of foggy ambivalence), I always thought it was up to me to hold down the fort of dissent. But then, I realized just how readily and thoroughly I had begun to be swayed, how fast my icy exterior began to melt. That realization scared me to my core; sometimes, hate is a good thing, an agent of balance. Hatred can be a powerful force toward legitimate good, and in that way I felt revitalized in my approach. I didn’t necessarily begin to distance myself from liking it, but it did help me realize that I didn’t have to get caught up in the crowd. In fact, not doing so can be way more rewarding and purposeful than my childish sense of distaste.
If you’ve been following my emotional arc thus far, you’ll know that every great revelation is eventually met by a crushing wave of disappointment. I more or less rode the wave of Radiohead praise through the evening of Friday, March 15th, at which point I saw London garage rockers Palma Violets and everything was all but ruined.
One act isn’t better than the other, but Palma Violets are everything that Radiohead isn’t: immature, unpredictable (in the scary, “please don’t bite my nose off” sense), ferocious, hyperactive, accessible, restless, chaotic, and a slew of other adjectives and descriptors. Seeing them reminded me of another reason why Radiohead and I never got along, and that’s because even when Radiohead were wee tykes, they already seemed like rock fogies. Every moment of OK Computer is planned and plotted. There is not a space left blank accidentally nor a musical explosion not thoroughly crafted. And, for many people, including myself for a time, that kind of approach is perfect; it ties back into the whole notion of something warm and familiar to wrap yourself in. But after a while, it seems as if all of their plotting and planning isn’t enough.
I hate to once-more tie this back into the whole vacation/traveling analogy, but follow me for a second. Everybody always tries to plan their exact vacation to a T: where they’ll eat, what shows or attractions to see, how long to spend at each destination, even the clothes to wear or how much sunscreen to bring. As fun as that whole scheduling deal can be, some of my best vacation moments are when I deviated from the itinerary and just got off the beaten path, exploring some monument I never knew existed or getting lost in some district and finding a great little restaurant.
OK Computer is a truly experimental album from a band who already pushes loads of musical boundaries. But there should be a distinction made between what the band is doing and what I think real experimentation entails. Regardless of the artist, be it Kelly Clarkson or Kraftwerk, there should be this thrill that something new and potentially frightening is happening, that the band/singer is throwing off the familiar and embracing the unknown. With Radiohead, there’s none of that, and the band are merely doing away with structure, randomly banging on their instruments and making silly noises, capturing whatever may result. In this way, their “experimentation” actually comes off less as a means of creative exploration and more of a half-hearted excuse to do something new while creating an out if it all falls to pieces. In fact, so much of their process feels like it falls into one narrow and constrictive category. Really, they should be truly reckless in their approach because real experimentation means getting lost in the moment right alongside the band. And then going home to scarf leftover fried chicken sliders at 3 a.m.
Still, the biggest death knell in my run of admiration was that by Saturday the 16th, I simply had no more need for the album. With my flight leaving in a few hours, I knew I’d leave behind the last 10 days or so of greasy food and cheap beer, loud music, packed crowds, and a sense of isolation and head back to my little home with my beautiful fiancée and my wonderful little doggies. Most of all, I’d leave behind my need for a crutch, which the album had become. That last day or so was my time to wake up and realign my whole thinking regarding OK Computer, a chance to get real about just what it actually meant to me and whether the whirlwind of emotions and analysis was accurate. Or, had I been caught up in the exhaustion and light-headedness that comes with this much traveling
I distinctly remember listening to the album, closing in towards “The Tourist”, when the captain came on the loudspeaker and told us to shut down all portable electronic devices. Though I’d spent much of the last day feeling a sense of relief, this sudden stab of anxiousness struck me, as if this would be my last chance to come to a conclusion on the album. That in the next five minutes, I’d have to decide if I had been converted or if I’d take up the anti-Radiohead cause once I touched solid ground again.
The simple truth is that nothing in life is that extreme, especially a Radiohead album. Not to discount the physical and emotional journey I went on, but I gained a sense of perspective. Radiohead is not the greatest band in the world, OK Computer is not the greatest record in the world; they are solid and enjoyable and still vastly important to the musical landscape of the last 30-plus years. And if you agree or disagree to whatever extent, it really doesn’t matter cause, despite their importance, they’re just a rock and roll band, who make songs to be enjoyed or hated as people see fit. I finally understand that all that hullabaloo surrounding them distracts people from finding their own truth and being happy with it.
My truth? I like them now. Sure, I was happy to get out to baggage claim and start listening to a on-the-fly medley of R. Kelly, Misfits, and the Shins, but I put Radiohead and OK Computer together in a special part of my brain. It’s the part where I’ll always remember its corresponding 10 days, and all the life-affirming highs and emotional lows I experienced as I traveled, listened to good music, ate great food, and hung out with my friends. When I return to the album, that span will always come back to me, and for better or worse, I’ll always be grateful for that.
Now, dance me off, Yorke.