Giving Radiohead a Second Chance To Convince Me That They Don’t Suck

Me: “Are you a fan of Radiohead?”
Friend: “Of course. Whoever isn’t is a jerk. Why do you ask?”
Me: “lol I am a jerk then.”

Admitting to people that I not only don’t like Radiohead’s music, but in fact actually kind of hate their music, never helped me in the popularity or credibility departments, especially around other rock music aficionados. The looks of confusion, anger, and even disgust that have graced the faces of those who have learned this fact about me often made me feel like I had just exposed some sort of dirty detail about myself – like admitting that I voted for Trump or that I hate of sunshine and laughing.

I realized recently though that I hadn’t actually spent very much time listening to Radiohead’s music. Though I can’t provide you with the exact amount of time I’ve spent listening to Kid A or In Rainbows (the latter of which came out when I was a music director at my college radio station), I could probably ballpark it and tell you that I spend longer tying my shoelaces in the morning. How fair is my assessment that a band sucks if I haven’t really listened to them?

So, as a fun little project for my blog here, I thought I’d give Radiohead a second chance. I chose their album OK Computer, since it’s supposedly one of their best albums and challenged myself to listen to it, in its entirety, five times.

Upon my first listen:

– I desperately want to turn this off.
– Why did I think this would be a good idea?
– Someone hide the razor blades.
– So melodramatic.
– Someone get this guy on Prozac, stat.
– (“Exit Music”) This song sounds just like all the others: BORRRRINNNNNGGGGG.
– How is this album still going? 

So, that went well. Great project idea, Jules.

Upon my second listening, some of the nuances started shining through and I was able to determine, with a bit more clarity, what I did and didn’t like about the songs:

– Some of the instrumental bits (especially the guitar work) aren’t too bad. Thom Yorke’s voice is still very annoying though.
– Listening to this album still makes me want to run into traffic.

My third listen:

– (“Airbag”) This song is definitely growing on me. I’m actually really digging the instrumentation.
– (“Let Down”) I think I’m almost enjoying this. This might be a good song to include on an indie movie soundtrack.
– Nope. This album is still boring and Thom Yorke is whinier than a toddler who needs a nap.
– Sitting and actively listening to an album multiple times that you don’t actually like takes more self-discipline than I think I have.

What is it about Yorke playing the part of a sad, tortured outsider that bothers me so much? Though there are exceptions (Kurt Cobain, but maybe that’s because we all know how his life ended), I have a hard time not being irritated by the whole mentality behind the grunge scene of the 90’s and the anger and alienation the musicians claimed they felt. Some of it was legit, I’m sure, but for many of them, where was this anger coming from? Yes, I was only a child in the 90s (the year OK Computer came out, I was 10 and exclusively listening to the Spice Girls), but why were the Gen-Y’er musicians so dramatic? There was grunge music, Alanis, NWA (ok, I can kind of wrap my head around the source of anger there), Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson. These were pre-9/11 years—the economy was booming, Clinton was in office, social media wasn’t a thing yet, and Prozac was readily available. If you were straight and white, you were livin’ the life. So take a pill and pipe down!

Now that I got that out of my system…

I guess a lot of this music just feels to me like a bunch of people who take themselves way too seriously. I have such a vivid image of a stereotypical overly serious Radiohead fan in my head, even though lots of my friends (who are nothing like this stereotype) like the band. Reviews of the album like the following made me roll my eyes so hard, it hurt:

“Radiohead brought the noise of avant-garde rockers like Sonic Youth, but no one else had juxtaposed it against such exquisite singing that suggested mankind’s frailty, much less married it to studio craft that updated the painstaking aural architecture of bygone prog and krautrock.”

My fourth listen:

– It’s a lot harder to keep an open mind about this music than I thought it’d be. I feel myself digging my heels in with my initial opinions of this band.
– (“Paranoid Android”) So tortured. York sounds here like when Mariah Carey really starts wailing with vibrato. It gets all big and emotional and I’m probably supposed to feel something from this, but I mostly feel like pressing Mute.
– (“Fitter Happier”) The social commentary is actually pretty intriguing. Though how many times would I really want to listen to this track?
– (“Climbing Up the Walls”) This song has an atmospheric quality to it that I kind of like.
– (“Electioneering”) No thanks. Those same tortured vocals… Has a great guitar opener though.  

My fifth listen: 

– Love the guitar solo parts where Jonny Greenwood wails.
– There’s a lot of experimentation here that I can appreciate.
– Stop singing, Thom, and go find yourself a new hobby. You’re ruining this album.

Well, it seems clear by now that my problem with this band circles around the vocal stylings of Thom Yorke. The rest of the music, while it’s not something I probably would fall head over heels for, I can appreciate. This is not the first time that vocal tones have completely ruined a band for me. Ben Gibbard and Colin Meloy’s vocals are both entirely annoying to me, which is why I could never get into Death Cab or the Decemberists, no matter how good their instrumentation or songwriting.

From what I hear, Ok Computer seems to get a lot of points from fans for being experimental. But does “experimental” make an album “great?”  Tomes could be written on this topic, I’m sure. But for me, “experimental” does not always equal “great.” “Influential” or even “respected” maybe, but not “great.”

So all in all here, am I a major Radiohead fan now (a Radioheadhead?)? No. Do I like them more than I did before this little experiment? A little. It does make me curious to check out a few of their other albums (The Bends, in particular) and see how they compare. But it wouldn’t surprise me if this is where my journey with Radiohead begins and ends.

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