In the year 2000, despite popular opinion, Rock was not in need of salvation, mainstream music was, but it wasn’t left for Radiohead to save popular music, that task was left to less sacred hands. The industry had its many Ken and Barbie bands: the Backstreets Boys, N’Sync, TLC, the Dixie Chicks, they were the golden geese of the music industry, fowl that came and went with the change of season. Country, Pop, Rap, and Hip Hop, were the order of the day, rendering unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s.
At the 43rd annual Grammy award ceremony, Radiohead shockingly headlined the “Album of the Year” category alongside such disparate acts such as Eminem, Steely Dan, and Paul Simon, and even went on to win the award for “Best Alternative Album”, which underscored a few things: A) the Academy was not as out-of-touch with music as some of us would like to believe. B) Radiohead was not as avant-garde as their fanbase were claiming. C) An artist could represent the mainstream and the alternative to the mainstream at the same time.
Radiohead had quietly conquered the world with their previous album, OK Computer, and then lead singer, Thom Yorke, had an alleged nervous breakdown that rendered it impossible for him to continue in the same musical vein, which partly explains the “radical” new path they struck out with Kid A. Radiohead were importing tropes into their music that had been the modus operandi in literature for at least 60 years hence: irony, black humour, pastiche, fragmentation, distortion, alienation, paranoia, lifted from the likes of Beckett, Gaddis, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Barth, Ballard, Pynchon, and DeLillo. Ever heard of W.A.S.T.E.? Pynchon got there first.
Musicians were employing similar postmodern techniques around the same time as these lionized authors: Miles Davis, Scott Walker, Brian Eno, the Talking Heads, Aphex Twin, Talk Talk, and U2, in one form or another, all had a hand, wittingly or unwittingly, in the creation of Kid A. Radiohead didn’t invent experimentation. But they certainly popularized it in the year 2000. They took on the music business, challenging the traditional model of production and consumption, refusing to produce videos or interviews to advertise their nebulous new album. There wasn’t a promotional peep. They even took the songs on the road well before the album dropped into record stores. And this was the essence of Kid A, the spectre that caught the popular imagination, flying the zeitgeist, for a brief instant, in the right camp. And it was all thanks to the dawn of the internet.
Which pill did you take? I took the red pill and it set my hair on fire. 06-13-00. Arles, France. I wasn’t there and yet I was there. I heard Thom’s recursive, self-reflexive voice like I was at the front of the stage. A musical revolution was brewing and I felt like I was part of it. The band was channeling Hendrix, reinventing electronics the way Hendrix reinvented guitar in the 60’s. In fact, it was the 60’s all over. We were a global village again. There were hipsters and squares like before. Boundaries were clearly drawn. The grunge and grease of the 90’s was being laundered and deodorized and finally swept under the carpet. But there was a new national anthem on the horizon. Like before, it was loud and fierce, and full of teen spirit. It was just what was needed in the summer of 2000.
Our “alternative” camp had a brief post-millenial rebirth. We were stomping to post-apocalyptic music, but hope sounded in the dissonance. The album had crash-landed in October. We’d been listening to live-cuts and bootleg studio leaks for weeks and months, but there were secret corridors that were still unexplored with the album firm in our hands. The deluxe artwork and the ebony pressing had me thinking of Finnegan’s Wake. The archetypal element of darkness percolating in my brain: Freud, Jung, and Campbell. A myriad of mysteries materializing all over. We found the freedom to live. Heard the call to adventure. As long as the song stayed the same, there were trapdoors to fall into, vanishings to investigate, misty landscapes we could explore, new games to be played within strange frontiers. The magic beans spilled over into Christmas and the magical flight continued. We were masters of two worlds.
And then there were rumblings of an immediate follow up from the band, a second set of soldiers, armed, ready to enter battle. Another incantation would be chanted. Another spell to transfix our gaze. We held our breath until the release. Of course we had the live bootlegs to tide us over: Pyramid Song, Dollars and Cents, Knives Out. Our appetites were whetted. Belated Spring finally arrived. Nature bloomed. Our fair-weather, feathered aviators convened at their posts. Little did we know of what they whispered.
When Amnesiac had finally arrived, we hungrily unwrapped it and consumed its shapeshifting contents like the stranded survivors of an air crash, the ultimate boon. But the ingredients didn’t sit well. Assemblies were called over the internet. Symposiums conducted. We dissected every aspect of the album. We believed there were secret communications in the songs, coded missives of great importance. We believed ourselves when we typed the words. Even when our fingers lied to our eyes, to our ears, to our stomachs.
We had started to collectively feel ill. It wasn’t the music. There was nothing wrong with the music. It was the artwork. The runaway themes on the album. Shards we tried to piece together, splinters we picked our teeth with: a weeping minotaur, nefarious constellations, twin tower beacons, declining empires, unmarked gravestones, Edward Gibbon, Vico and the circular repetition of history. “We are not scaremongering. This is really happening—while you were asleep.” It didn’t sit well. We couldn’t ignore the nausea. It was engulfing us. The end of our arcane microcosm. We had the chills and it felt like food poisoning. Salmonella. E. Coli. Maybe some new pathogen? We couldn’t be sure.
Months later, when the real chill came in September, the macrosmic ice age that Radiohead had predicted, we hit the floor and everybody else joined us. Everything we held dear had frozen over. The insurgent music, the momentary jubilee of 2000, the anti-consumerist revolution, it was all forgotten, winnowed down to nothing, glacial in the belly of the whale. The Evil Empire had found a way to pull the rug out from under our feet. Up was down and down was up. War was peace. Freedom was slavery. Maybe we should have listened to the migratory clairvoyant birds. Maybe we should have taken the blue pill.