Authors: Marvin Lin
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Copyright © 2011 by Marvin Lin
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Kid A / Marvin Lin.
p.cm. — (33 1/3)
1. Radiohead (Musical group). Kid A. I. Title. II. Series
Typeset by Pindar NZ, Auckland, New Zealand
Printed and bound in the United States of America by Thomson-Shore, Inc.
For my grandma Po Chu Chan and my son Miles
It was virtually impossible to ignore Radiohead’s
when it was released in early October 2000. Bolstered to various degrees by the hype generated from the Napster controversy, its “anti-marketing marketing” campaign, the media’s sensational myth-building, and a rabid online fan community,
was more than just a ten-track collection of songs written by five musicians from Oxfordshire, more than the “weird” follow-up to the critics’ fashionable go-to record of choice
, more than what the
described as “the biggest, warmest recorded go-fuck-yourself in recent memory.”
was political yet visceral, thoughtful yet abstracted, assured yet contradictory; it served as both a musical breakthrough for its fans and a hybridized pastiche for its critics; it was actively critiqued, not passively consumed; it was an assimilated cultural aberration that wouldn’t stop grumbling, a subversion of capitalism that ultimately produced a lot of capital; it was a medium through which the chatter of the
industry would crescendo to a point that nearly suffocated the album’s incessant protests and aesthetic explorations.
The album, in short, served as many different things for many different people. But for me,
was my ticket to transcendence.
* * *
Back in 2000, as a sophomore in college, my ideal music experience wasn’t too different from other impressionable fussbudgets: I wanted music to sweep me away, to transport me to a new plane of existence, to make me feel like nothing in the world mattered except that all-enveloping, transcendent musical moment. Transcendence was more than just an entertaining way to “pass the time”; in fact, it was during these moments when time itself seemed utterly inconsequential, when schedules were forgotten and all I could do was surrender to the music. It was rapture without guilt, ecstasy without drugs, and I’d spend much of my formative years trying to recreate the feeling, if only because it was so rare, so transient.
While any music designed to “sweep me away” would be adequate, I was drawn to rock’s grandest construction: the album format — specifically, albums that adopted aesthetic tricks (transition tracks, deliberate sequencing, conceptual unity) to elongate a sense of continuity and wholeness across its runtime. With these albums, not only was a ritualistic response
practically built in but also the format created the illusion that transcendence was indeed the ultimate goal. Radiohead seemed serious about this too, as the band sent promotional versions of
in “modified cassette players” (Aiwa players that were literally glued shut) to encourage press and radio DJs to listen as intended: undisturbed and in its entirety. I played right into the idea. After all, who was I to short-circuit the intended experience? This is Art, isn’t it? This is how “serious” listeners consume music, right?
With rumors that debates over
’s track listing had nearly broken up the band, I saw no reason to veer from the ritual. The album was arriving at the most opportune time, too, as by 2000, I was so obsessed with Radiohead that my heart would pump faster just by spotting those ubiquitous “genetically modified bear” stickers clinging to car bumpers or hugging some college kid’s water bottle, signifiers that interpellated me as strongly as someone shouting my name. (Who knew a sticker could so forcefully affirm identity?) Such a visceral reaction to the album’s imagery was a testament to my efforts to devour the band whole: at that point, I had owned original copies of every official Radiohead song (including all of their B-sides and the coveted
EP); I had seen the band perform in both Minneapolis and Chicago; and I had even made my dad purchase a copy of
from Japan while he was there on business, just so I could hear it a month before its US release.
But this time, hearing
early wasn’t my concern: I just wanted to hear the album undisturbed and in its entirety. The goal was to retain, as much as possible, the “purity” of the first listen, to abstain from immediate pleasures in order to heighten the feeling of transcendence. This meant avoiding bootlegs of live
tracks from Radiohead’s early-summer 2000 Mediterranean concerts, restraining myself from downloading the album early (it had been leaked in full roughly a month in advance), and avoiding the viral marketing that was urging me to preview both the full-album stream on Capitol’s website and the promotional blips that pervaded the internet.
On October 3, 2000 (midnight, October 2), I purchased
at a record store and rushed back to my dorm room, fast-walking like a fucking fanboy idiot. I was so excited to finally enact the ritual. I proceeded to put on my headphones to block out any potential disruption, flicked off the lights, and closed my eyes. Sure, this “pure listen” was a self-imposed, manufactured buildup. But at the time, all the waiting, all the teasing, all the hype, all the research, all the anticipation, all the asceticism, all the enthusiasm had combined to create what I believed to be the perfect disposition for pre-transcendence, the ideal state of mind to sponge up
But I was wrong. Not because of the impossible expectations I had for the album, but because the whole ordeal wore me out.
So I fell asleep.
I FELL ASLEEP TWICE DURING MY FIRST LISTEN TO
* * *
While this failed attempt at “transcendence” was upsetting at first, time has afforded me new perspectives. There I was, lamenting the fact that I couldn’t keep my eyes open, while a week before
’s release, anti-globalization protests in Prague became so disruptive that the last day of the IMF and World Bank summit was halted; and two days after
’s release, the president of Serbia — accused of treason, kidnapping, murder, and censoring independent media — was forced to resign under the pressure of thousands of demonstrators fighting for a more democratic future. With all the political turmoil in the world, why was I even thinking about “transcendence”?
Over the next several years, I would continue to seek new perspectives by burying my head in academic books about music, culture, and politics. I would think back to these so-called moments of transcendence and chuckle at my naïveté, asserting that these experiences were nothing more than escapist retreats into fantasy worlds, aesthetic traps to keep me politically disengaged and socially disconnected. I would note how tenuous and fleeting these transcendent experiences were, how they could be so easily deflated by “reality” (a cell phone ringing, an alarm clock buzzing). I’d wonder why anyone would
to transcend in the first
place. I would call the experience illusory, immature, distracting. I would call it a waste of time.
But can this intense perceptual experience be so easily marginalized?