Sound and Vision: Radiohead’s Kid A and the 21st Century

In his new book, music journalist Steven Hyden reckons with the English band’s millennial masterpiece for its 20th anniversary

Kid A at 20 (Art: Ron Hart)

It’s hard to remember, twenty years after the fact, how batshit crazy the end of the Nineties were.

After a decade in which the countdown to 2000 was treated as the end of days, we all woke up on January 1, 2000, and the world was continuing on as before. Who knew that, in a few years, we’d be inundated with news about terrorists striking at our country, endless wars overseas, and an all-seeing, all-knowing worldwide web that we were all willing participants in? According to Steven Hyden, Radiohead may have called it with their fourth studio album, Kid A.

In This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and the Beginnings of the 21st Century, Hyden makes the case that the English band’s 2000 album, which rejected the guitar-based approach of their previous three albums with a more electronic sound and (even) more pessimistic lyrics than usual, was the event that brought the curtain down on the relative security of the Nineties and ushered in the “War on Terror” and everything that’s happened since. It’s a daunting proposal, of course, to assign such agency to an artifact created by a rock band, but pop culture criticism thrives on such grandiose conceits. And Hyden, a veteran music journalist and critic, interweaves the tale of how Radiohead arrived at a place when they put down their guitars with the story of how the internet became widespread and also how the music industry which had gorged on enormous profits leading up to the invention of online streaming services saw the golden goose die right before their eyes. In a sense, Kid A was one of the last hurrahs of a golden era for music and culture. 

Steven Hyden’s new book, This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century, is in stores now

The book opens with a brief overview of how Radiohead began to stake a claim for themselves by releasing “Creep,” still their signature song in many ways, in the midst of the mid-Nineties “Britpop” scene that birthed such “names you might remember” like Suede and Elastica (not to mention the two major bands of the era, Oasis and Blur). Radiohead became huge in America first, even appearing on MTV’s “Summer Beach House” concert series (which I’m sure is on YouTube and, if I remember correctly, just as odd as it sounds). But with The Bends in 1995 and then OK Computer two years later, the band became the bellwether for British rock, spawning imitators not as art-conscious as them (Travis and Coldplay). In order to escape the crushing pressure of being “the biggest band in the world,” Radiohead steered clear of the U2 route (i.e., becoming leather-clad rock stars with “message songs” about what ails the world) and instead began to play with the notion of recording less accessible electronic music. The results, first Kid A in 2000 and then Amnesiac a year later, would serve as the dividing line between fans who preferred the band’s more rock-oriented style and those who embraced the new direction. 

Hyden weaves into the narrative tales of his own fandom for the group, having come of age when Pablo Honey (their debut album) dropped in the States in 1993 and continuing through their latest work. He shows how the band evolved after the grueling pressure of the OK Computer tour to emerge with a challenging album that didn’t pull any punches, and how that redefined them as a band that could last when all of their contemporaries and imitators (save Coldplay) fell by the wayside. He also talks about how the internet went from being an escape for our everyday lives to a trap in which our lives are conducted, usually through social media. And the record industry has found ways to survive despite the almost total extinction of their business model by adapting to the internet through services like Spotify and in the vinyl revival that has come to dominate the collectibles industry. 

Radiohead Kid A, Capitol Records 2000

Twenty years ago, we all thought the worst thing that could happen was Y2K. As it turns out, we were just beginning a period which saw the 2000 presidential election decided by the Supreme Court, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the rise of Trump-sponsored nativism and cruelty.

Kid A didn’t predict that future, but it sure sounds a lot like the collective nightmare that many have had since the dawn of the 21st Century. Who knows if it’ll sound out of date or less timely any time soon?

 

 

 

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Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is a substitute teacher (the chill one) in South Carolina. He is more machine than man now, but you can still look him up @T_L_Seigler on Twitter.

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