Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Early Failures

It’s funny how the first major piece of work you do as an artist affects/defines/reflects on the rest of your career—the published one, that is; every artist has embarrassing juvenilia that has hopefully, for everyone’s sake, been incinerated or otherwise disposed of by the time it becomes very clear it is embarrassing juvenilia (i.e. immediately; or, less cruelly, a year or so afterwards.) Radiohead is an interesting example—they’re the intellectual rock band that’s probably—if you’re a critic or listen to one frequently—the defining band of the aughts. So here’s their first hit:

It is a good song that has been, well, less than warmly embraced (though not totally disavowed) by the group’s ringleader:
Kids still yell for ''Creep'' at Radiohead concerts, which is an indication of how important a hit single can be in building a fan base. Radiohead won't play ''Creep'' anymore, and when I brought it up with Yorke, he lit into American radio, and how modern-rock D.J.'s tormented him with questions as to whether the ''Creep'' was him, and what had his parents or somebody done to him, did he think, to make him turn out this way: the pop-analysis inquiries of the grunge era. ''You can't imagine how horrible that was,'' he told me. ''And the thing about being a one-hit wonder: you know, you do come to believe it. You saw you don't but you do. It messed me up good and proper.'

It’s interesting because you can define the song in one of two ways: either a really good, say, angry Coldplay song; alternatively, a very clumsy Radiohead song. The song does the bleakness and experimentalism of Radiohead songs (e.g. the random blasts of noise in the middle of the song as it’s building up to the bridge), but it’s clumsy: it’s direct. The first time you listen to it, you can tell exactly what the song is about; you can tell what the story is like; you have essentially figured out the emotional contours of the song within one or two listens of the song. That’s a consequence of both musical directness (a pretty conventional verse-chorus structure) and lyrical directness (it’s more like Hemingway than Joyce, say). That doesn’t exhaust the song’s vitality, but it does differentiate it from the rest of the Radiohead canon.

Differentiates it, mind you, in both good and bad ways. One of the virtues of being a critical darling is you get the intellectual equivalent of fuck-you money: you can kind of do whatever and get credit for being, well, daring and such. And while the concept of fuck-you money sounds liberating—it’s the amount of money you need to say fuck you to the random, annoying obstacles the world throws in your path—in reality it probably enslaves you by becoming the new normal; once you have the amount of money that looks like fuck-you money, well, now the real fuck-you money is that plus a whole lot more. Similarly, I’d argue, critical approval sounds like it should free you to do whatever you’d like; in practice, I suspect many critical darlings try to cultivate as much critical appeal as possible. That’s natural—who among us doesn’t enjoy approval, particularly when it can also drive money and power our way?—but it doesn’t quite deliver everything it promises.

I suspect, in a roundabout way, that critical approval ended up doing a bit of that to Radiohead. A bit because while their reputation is a bit overstated in my mind, they’re still quite excellent. But a band that’s uninterested in critical approval doesn’t make “Fitter Happier,” otherwise known as the buzzkill between “Karma Police” and “Electioneering.” On a certain level, however, you don’t mind and even want Radiohead to make “Fitter Happier,” because it can always be skipped or deleted—the great stuff, the stuff that artfully mixes experimentation with, well, the fundamentals. Part of liking a great artist is ignoring what fails (and where the artist started).

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