Dissonance in the Cathedral: Radiohead at the Verizon Center
What makes us love Radiohead? What is it about this unassuming team of Brit rockers who whip off rich and complex music with such casual panache, they make it appear logical and even inevitable? I have a few theories, some of which remind me of a certain former musicology grad student manning all sorts of analytical wagons in his Rock Music seminar, tracing poetic circles around Radiohead but never quite finding an answer satisfactory to his aims. For the benefit of this review, ostensibly “about” Radiohead’s extraordinary show at the (gigantic global cell phone provider who doesn't need more unpaid advertising) Center last Sunday night, I’ll do my best to keep the wagoneer holed up in a library cubicle.
Back to my initial question. In simple, broad terms, I think it’s about ecstasy. In his essential 1995 book of literary criticism, Testaments Betrayed, Milan Kundera points out the root of the word (italics mine):
Ecstasy means being “outside oneself,” as indicated by the etymology of the Greek word: the act of leaving one’s position (stasis). To be “outside oneself” does not mean outside the present moment, like a dreamer escaping into the past or future. Just the opposite: ecstasy is absolute identity with the present instant, total forgetting of past and future.
Judging from the rapt, beatified expressions of tens of thousands of fans who paid upwards of $150 per ticket, ecstasy is Radiohead’s prime commodity. Each Radiohead song seems calibrated to supply the maximum amount of it – the deliberately obscure imagery of the lyrics, the incantatory dissonances of their melodies (frequently using “flat 9s” as might be found in Middle Eastern music), electronic manipulations and loops disassociating the sound from human warmth, all hovering above mechanized, hypnotic bass grooves. And most of all, the presence of Thom Yorke, an emaciated Kris Kristoffersson bobblehead doll ping-ponging around the stage as if attached to marionette strings. Yorke appears like a grown up version of the oddball child talking to himself in the corner of a birthday party, and his unorthodox rock mega-stardom speaks to the “triumph of the outsider” status Radiohead has cultivated. His affecting voice, eerie like the smell of an old cedar closet, is one of the great artifacts of modern pop music, equally capable of straight-toned drones, dull moans, and high swooping colorations.
Anyone familiar with the sort of commentary I’ve been contributing for PinkLine knows that even though I teach it in the classroom, I’m not much of a rock guy, preferring the subtle textures, urgency, and emotional richness of classical music and jazz. Thus, being on the floor about ten rows from the stage, standing for hours, personally felt like an unusual experience – yet I immediately felt commonalities between what we seek in, say, classical music, and what we seek in Radiohead. We look for melody, for heart, for spiritual connection and the “human cry,” all of which we find in this music, regardless of its emotional coolness. Yet, perhaps ironically, we recognize the distant, computerized sheen of Radiohead’s sound as a suitable foil for the humdrum deadness of modern living: regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week), getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries, fitter, healthier and more productive, as a mechanical voice famously intoned on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer. Other popular bands have covered this terrain, but Radiohead is different because their music, unlike that of dare-I-say most of their peers in rock, is so knotty, carefully crafted, and relentlessly interesting. (This was apparent in the contrast with the bland if enthusiastic opening band, Caribou, who sort of sounded like Radiohead plus soon-to-sound-dated electronic gimmickry minus the odd time signatures and musical competence plus a drummer giving Prep Beats Really High In The Air.) The dirty little secret is that Radiohead is just as influenced by jazz greats like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis (Yorke claims that OK Computer was inspired by the "incredibly dense and terrifying sound" of Bitches Brew) and modern classical music (the modern Polish modern composer Krzysztof Penderecki is a mentor to Radiohead’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood), as they are by mainstream rock music, and these influences continually bleed through their ambitious music.
I read a tweet the morning after the concert stating that “Seeing Radiohead live was a religious experience,” and I remember describing my first live experience (outdoors in Massachusetts, nine years ago, amongst so many people I described it as "watching a people watch a concert") with the band in these terms. Turning away from the stage and facing the staggering size of the crowd behind me, uniformly engaged and enraptured, I couldn’t help thinking of religious devotees hearing sumptuous, complex, vocal polyphony in enormous Gothic cathedrals hundreds of years ago, when musical sound wasn’t an object so much as a rare aural phenomenon, perhaps signaling the presence of the divine. The (charges me ten cents per extra text message) Center is, of course, a modern secular cathedral and sacred temple to the Enormity of Successful Capitalism, a place where a bottle of filtered tap water costing $4.50 apparently does not include the right to retain possession of your own plastic bottle cap. (I cannot fathom why.) When technicians turned off all the lights at points during the show, you could see tiny flickering safety lights everywhere around the arena, looking for all the world to me like votive candles. For hundreds of years, spiritual seekers attended Church for spiritual sustenance; in the 21st century, young Americans go to Rock Concerts in Enormous Corporate-Sponsored Coliseums. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and confuse 'em with unconventional art, I guess?
Musically, the band deftly mixed old and familiar songs like "Airbag," "Paranoid Android," and "Idioteque" (from their most memorable albums OK Computer and Kid A, respectively) with newer material from their equally compelling, if less penetrating and less melodically-driven more recent albums. A particular favorite was the duo version of the ballad “Give Up the Ghost,” where Thom Yorke used a self-controlled loop to accompany brief recordings of himself made mere seconds in the past. (I saw local performer Margot MacDonald, deeply influenced by Radiohead, do this last week to equally stunning, and arguably more artful, effect.) The visual effects were impressive, and must have cost a small fortune: 12 square screens hoisted above the band, each with the ability to rotate around to different positions, broadcasting stunningly good-looking, color-filtered live footage of each of the band members, all in various states of ecstatic performance concentration.
I'd better wrap this up. I don’t know if I came any closer to answering my initial question than when I was in grad school – saying something which hasn’t already been said about the world’s most famous modern rock band is a daunting task – but because this band is ever evolving, I imagine I’ll take another crack a few years down the road. Thankfully, Radiohead keeps surprising us and thrusting us into the present moment, borrowing from the past but showing us glimpses of the future along the way.
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