Monday, February 21, 2011

Technically Challenging

So I wanted to go back to that Radiohead review of King of Limbs, with its notion that serious listening had become its brand:
The funny part is that they basically trained the world into this, by spending their career moving in the opposite direction from most of their peers. Most bands like this start off as something marginal, then grow into popularity. Radiohead kicked off by proving they were a good big rock band — then started pulling their many fans, some of them kicking and screaming, off into new places. They taught people how to enjoy that. They made music good enough to satisfy their left-field music-geek peers and their everyday fans at the same time. Their main emotional register — which sits somewhere between abject world-weariness and a kind of itching, wriggling-in-your-skin discomfort — has turned out to be more relatable, to more people, than anyone would have guessed. And their election as the arty rock group of consensus means we get to watch something really rare and amazing: A band that can do whatever it wants, and do it really well, and have it matter on a big scale.

There was another artist who was a lot like this, and it was David Foster Wallace. Having listened to King of Limbs all the way through and a bit more, I feel the comparison all the more strongly. Both explore similar emotional states—I can’t improve on the description of “abject world-weariness and a kind of itching, wriggling-in-your-skin discomfort”—though Wallace has a wider palette, I think (Wallace’s protagonists feel much the same way as Radiohead, but Wallace does humor much better than Radiohead and he also does earnestness much more. To put it pithily: Radiohead talks about world-weariness while Wallace recognizes world-weariness and tries to cure it.). Both can do conventional very well but seem to prefer difficult technical modes. Both have a subset of fans that prefers the conventional stuff (Wallace:nonfiction::Radiohead:In Rainbows) that is, oddly, smaller than the small-scale cults that likes just about everything from the difficult to the easy (Wallace:short fiction::Radiohead:Amnesiac, say.)

You would think hardcore Radiohead fans would correlate well with hardcore Wallace fans and vice-versa for this reason, but I’d categorize myself as more in the latter group than the former. Indeed, I disproportionately favor the “easy” Radiohead stuff, which is why I found In Rainbows to be some of the best stuff Radiohead has done on a consistent basis. I’d make a more definitive statement, but I’d be worried about said Radiohead fans branding me with the mark of Cain for such heresy.

One seminal experience I had with a Radiohead probably says a lot. A large group of us are hanging around and said Radiohead fan is zooming through various songs in OK Computer: “Electioneering,” “Karma Police,” “No Surprises,” etc. Suddenly he stops at “Fitter Happier” which for the uninformed is this:

(This video has 83 thousand views! Another version has 218 thousand views! Madness!)

So we sat through about a minute or so of the dirge, everyone wondering what the hell is going on, said Radiohead fan with a straight face daring all of us to disagree with him…until he burst out laughing and changed it. “Come on, you don’t really believe I thought this was good?”

Well, you never know. Anyway, such are the perils of intense fandom—and, yes, there are people out there who enjoy “Fitter Happier.” At least, judging by the YouTube comment section there are.

I suspect Radiohead know very well that they’ve done something inaccessible; why do it anyway? Well, probably they think they have a point—which I suppose they do, except it’s delivered so boringly that no one but the converted will think it interesting. But analyzing it in terms of its impact on the audience is probably missing the point somewhat; most artists create at least partially for themselves, and highbrow-type artists take that part more seriously than most. (They know they won’t get the audience.) When you create for yourself, the fun of writing these inaccessible yet technical works is the challenge of having done them. Write a novel without using the letter “e”? Awesome, dude, nice job.

I don’t, however, value these technical tricks unless they’re used well. “Fitter Happier” is the kind of song that’s easily decoded intellectually and provides little scope for further contemplation; to say nothing of any emotional effects. (It’s kind of the intellectual equivalent of the resolutely unfunny skits in hip-hop albums. Thank god those have mostly been dropped.) Wallace’s technical tricks may not work all the time—many of his short stories do this—but when they do, they get you twice: suddenly, then gradually. (See: “Good Old Neon,” to say nothing of Infinite Jest.) That’s something the airiest Radiohead stuff doesn’t do. What makes it worse—for me, at least; plenty of smart people disagree with me—is that they’re perfectly capable of doing a smart take on a pop song. That might not sound like a huge achievement, but there’s an underappreciated value to craftsmanship relative to the totally appreciated value of masterpieces.

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