Wednesday, 21 October 2009

'I’ve Given All I Can, But We’re Still on the Payroll'

As promised I am drawing up my best albums of the decade list in my room at night when I cannot sleep. It is proving to be a tough job, so much so that I’ll probably have to extend the list to 30 albums rather than 20. I wish the media had this problem. So far I’ve read five best of the decade lists. Four of them have Radiohead’s Kid A at the top of the list while one of them has White Blood Cells by The White Stripes. Seriously? The White Stripes? What the hell was Uncut Magazine smoking?

However its Radiohead that are worth exploring. What the hell makes them critical darlings? To me, they are just a conventional Brit Pop band who evolved musically into a somewhat electronic sound, deliberately labelling themselves as ‘A look at me band’, all the while being smart enough to corner an uncharted market for just over a decade. Fans will probably lynch me for saying this, but they are the alternative version of Britney Spears.

There is no question that some of their songs are bordering on pure genius, but these are far too rare. 1997’s OK Computer remains unquestionably their strongest album with great songs such as Let Down, Exit Music (From a Film) with of course both Karma Police and Paranoid Android. I would argue that this was their creative peak. At the time this was hailed as the great work that it undoubtedly was, but comparisons about it being the modern version of Dark Side of the Moon were pure hyperbole.

Things started going downhill with the release of Kid A and Amnesiac. Radiohead starting crafting music that dared to be different, rather than focusing on the actual song craft. To be sure there were still a few good songs, but with each new album the quality dipped. In fact, out of all there 21st century output I have only liked about 8 songs. For every Morning Bell/Amnesiac there was a Like Spinning Plates and many other stinkers. Hail to the Thief arrived to critical raptures, but only had two decent songs. Then came the triumph of marketing over substance known as In Rainbows.

It didn’t matter that the record was a steaming pile of turd, the whole debate over getting users to choose their own price for the record, was outstandingly savvy, and probably the most genius marketing strategy ever. The anti marketing strategy. The hipster Pitchfork wankers of the world thought they were sticking it to the record company, when in fact they played right into their hands.

This confirmed for me that Radiohead are not revolutionary just patchy with excellent marketing strategies. I think I could write a thesis on how Radiohead use anti marketing techniques to position themselves as a universally admired band. They try to be provocative just as Britney Spears does. Instead of using sex/stupidity, they use anti-authoritarian publicity to whip the media up into frenzy, The marketing campaign for In Rainbows being a classic example. They get more publicity for this strategy then the music on the album. Their great material lives up to the hype, but that hype is carefully orchestrated. Most people who are looking to them as musical royalty have fallen for the marketing machine.

The day after In Rainbows was released I counted four newspaper articles and seven blogs discussing the concept of pay what you think its worth. At that stage I couldn’t comment on the content of the album, but neither did they. Fans suggest that Radiohead avoid attention and marketing. That’s just nonsense.

A quote from one of my favourite blogs Intensities In Ten Suburbs (by a Radiohead fan) sums up how they realised special edition box sets after the initial hype only to squeeze out every possible dollar from gullible fans.

Brilliant manoeuvre on Radiohead’s part pretty much now matter how you look at it, but naturally, it’s not quite as simple as all that. For those cheeky bastards have also set a snare trap for their more gullible fans in the form of a box set that costs 40 pounds, which comes out to over 80 bucks for you Yanks out there. The box set contains the album in CD form, an extra disc of new music, 2 LPs with the same content as the CDs, and some photos and art work. So essentially, assuming you would’ve gotten the download for free anwyay, you’re paying $80 for about eight songs worth of new music.

My relationship with Radiohead charts the course my young adulthood. When OK Computer was released my brother would listen to it in the car repeatedly while taking me out. They clearly weren’t my taste then so they dropped off my radar. About five years ago they emerged for me again in a whole new context. For a period of about 3 months I devoured every Radiohead album as I was getting to know the person who has probably had the most profound effect on my life to date. Then Radiohead dropped off my radar again, only briefly returning upon the release of In Rainbows.

And over the past week I find myself listening to the good songs again as I can feel myself going through another profound change. To be sure, most of the output I like is meant to sound depressing as shit, but their great work seems to have the opposite effect on me. It gives me optimism, it makes me feel creative and it gives me freedom. And so they might not be the greatest band of the past fifteen years, but if they can get rid of all the bullshit, they might just be a decent band.

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