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Loving to hate Radiohead

in retrospect

Over the summer, I attended a screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s music documentary “Junun,” which featured a Q&A with the director himself along with some of his co-conspirators in the making of the film. Among them was Jonny Greenwood, who has become Anderson’s chosen composer, responsible for the scores for “There Will Be Blood,” “Inherent Vice” and, most recently, “Phantom Thread.”

But the obvious elephant in the room, once the moderator opened the floor to audience questions, was Greenwood’s other project — that is, Radiohead, in which he is the lead guitarist. Although the night had nothing to do with the band, more than one eager audience member took the chance to ask Greenwood about the group’s plans, often prefacing their question with a drawn-out paean to its genius: How was the movie different from Radiohead? When can we expect the new album from Radiohead? Like, how did you do that guitar riff on “Paranoid Android?”

Greenwood, all too aware of his band’s outsized reputation, graciously deflected most of these questions (after the last one, he quickly decided it was time to put the Q&A portion of the evening to rest). But that screening displayed Radiohead’s cult in a nutshell, symptomatic of the hegemony the act has enjoyed over the 25 years of its existence, a status that’s been upheld by (mostly white, mostly male, mostly on the internet) critics and fans. As the target of utterances of "Best Band Ever," Radiohead seems to rival only The Beatles, its very name ensuring legions of fawning reviews for every new project. And like the Fab Four, no other band attracts so much ire, both from listeners who find its music more difficult than enjoyable and from dedicated music enthusiasts who find its influence overblown. If even Jonny Greenwood is weary of Radiohead’s deification, isn’t there a problem?

I rolled my eyes along with Greenwood when the conversation kept steering back to Radiohead that night. But part of the pleasure in my own cynicism, indeed, is that I, too, have something of my own fanboy history with the band. If’s metrics are to be believed, there was a period of time somewhere between eighth and ninth grade where, it seems, I listened almost exclusively to Radiohead — so much so, in fact, that even today they’re my most-played artist of all time, a fate I may never escape (and it’s not even close).

I suppose that it was only natural. Unlike other bands, Radiohead’s catalog had the benefit of being thoroughly and exhaustively documented on the internet; spend any amount of time on Pitchfork, Wikipedia or Rolling Stone, and you start to get the point. My work was cut out for me. And this made it easy to get lost in it all: I began with the Britpop pleasure centers of “The Bends,” dove headlong into the moody underworld of “Kid A,” went back a step to catch up on “OK Computer” and then again into the 2000s, the scattershot “Hail to the Thief” and the kaleidoscopic “In Rainbows.” (I, like many others, simply never made the time for “Pablo Honey.”) I learned “Karma Police” on piano, I attempted to dissect the drumming pattern of “15 Step,” I was entranced by the reversed-audio gimmickry on “Like Spinning Plates.” Even if my appreciation was colored by the band’s presupposed greatness, I incorporated these tools into my musical vocabulary, linked these moments with my own experience.

But unlike some other artists I discovered during formative years, I don’t find myself revisiting Radiohead again and again. Maybe, for one, I’m simply more self-conscious of how unwittingly typecast my nascent taste was: because of course a moody adolescent is going to identify with Thom Yorke warbling about Y2K anxiety, soul-sucking neoliberalism and not one, but two George Orwell novels.  These days, copping to a Radiohead phase is more a self-deprecating joke than an actual admission of an interest.

In addition, there’s no doubt that Radiohead is, in a practical sense, good at what it does: At this point, one gets the sense it is less a “band” and more a group of five professionals working on a project, with a longevity and chemistry that few other artists can boast. The group’s greatest achievement may be its ability to distill its more experimental influences — from krautrock to IDM and tape manipulation — into rock music that is at once accessible and meticulously constructed and, by all accounts, “perfect.” But that’s part of the problem, because perfection isn’t interesting, or particularly fun. It’s stasis.

In this sense, Radiohead can feel like a dead end amid the tributaries of its various influences. The band’s fingerprints are all over modern rock, from Coldplay and Keane (regrettably) to Moses Sumney (less regrettably). But too often the spontaneity, the humor and the rough-around-the-edges charm of its forebears — CAN and Faust come to mind — are lost under Radiohead’s clinical devotion to studiousness. From the “perfect record,” where else is there left to go?

For all its self-seriousness, when Radiohead lets pathos and vulnerability take the wheel, the results are often, counterintuitively, the most stunning: Take the raw wall of sound of “The Bends,” or the heart-on-sleeve of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” or the crushing dance of 2016’s “Present Tense.” Beyond all the precious arrangements and the all-consuming front of alienation, Radiohead sometimes makes room for sadness, for catharsis, even for joy — which is nothing if not the point of pop music.

To Greenwood’s credit, when asked about the guitar line for “Paranoid Android” at that screening, he replied, simply, that he didn’t really know what notes he was playing at the time. The answer didn’t surprise me; too often, I think, people forget that most rock musicians are just rock musicians. 

It was assuring, too, to hear this bit of levity from him. Jonny Greenwood doesn’t take Radiohead too seriously, so why should we? I’ve always believed that to really love something you should be its harshest critic. Whether I choose to admit it, the same is true for Radiohead.