Usually, music meets the moment. The Beatles released All You Need Is Love as the hippie movement swelled worldwide. Disco music perfectly captured the mindless nihilism of the 1970s as surely as punk rock eviscerated it. So it is not surprising that when Radiohead released Kid A in October 2000, it was not met with universal acclaim. This was 2000, folks - we had survived Y2K, the economy was humming, the stock market was at a record high, and the world was (mostly) at peace. What could an album that leaned heavily on electronica, was littered with nonsense lyrics, and contained a hidden track that included literal silence, say about a world that seemed so … stable?
As it turned out, quite a bit. A week after Kid A’s release, Al Qaeda terrorists killed 19 sailors on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden, Yemen, foreshadowing a far more devastating attack less than a year later. And as Kid A was going gold, the world watched as the U.S. presidential election was litigated all the way to the Supreme Court. Thom Yorke screaming “JUST HOLDING ON” on Kid A’s third track, The National Anthem, went from “huh?” to prescient awfully quick. In the succeeding years, 9/11, the Iraq War, and the 2008 economic collapse would cascade one after the other, leaving America, and the world, on the mat reaching for its collective mouthpiece. And all of this happened as technology fully consumed our lives. It would take some years for the moment to meet the music, but when it did, this album that toggled between ambient and chaotic noise would come to be seen not only as a foresighted prediction of our world in the 21st century, but its most profound musical statement. In Steven Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening we not only get the inside scoop on the creation of this modern masterpiece, but Hyden’s unique talent for connecting disparate elements of our culture into an intelligible whole.
In 2000, technology generally and the internet specifically were seen as net goods. E-commerce was still in its infancy and the idea you could “chat” with someone anywhere in the world and connect with people who shared your interests was still novel and new. Facebook did not yet exist. Algorithms that slice and dice our preferences based on our past behavior were not a thing. It is unsurprising that Kid A was met with skepticism. An album that anticipated how these things would be turned on their heads and isolate us instead of bring us together would have been considered naive and unrealistic. The critics were unsparing. In Radiohead’s home country, one review called the album “self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” Ouch. None other than Nick Hornby, he of High Fidelity fame where Jon Cusack and Jack Black debated such important topics as the “top five side ones, track ones” dismissed the whole effort, whining that “the music critics who love Kid A, one suspects, love it because their job forces them to consume music as a 16-year-old would” before tut-tutting ~ the youth ~ with a lecturing tone that “Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.”
Including Hornby’s kiss off review is fitting because This Isn’t Happening is, in the main, a record store fan boy’s book-length meditation on beloved music. And I do not say that as an insult but rather as a compliment. As Hyden points out, music matters precisely as much to us as we deem appropriate. As someone who literally has Radiohead symbols tattooed on his body, I get the obsession and welcomed it (for the most part). If you’re a die-hard fan, Hyden has a CVS-length receipt. Do you want to know the signature live version of True Love Waits? You’re in luck, it happened on December 5, 1995 in Berlin, Germany. How about the location of On A Friday’s (the precursor to Radiohead) first ever gig in 1987? That would be the Jericho Tavern in Oxford, England. From the obscure instrument Jonny Greenwood whipped out for Kid A (ondes Martenot) to Ed O’Brien’s dairy of the album’s making, no stone is left unturned in tracing the band’s history.
But what elevates This Isn’t Happening from a compilation of random trivia into a deeper meditation on how much music influences our lives is Hyden’s ability to place Radiohead within the broader sweep of popular culture, sprinkling in call outs to everything from long-forgotten 90s Brit pop like Suede to the early aughts last gasp of guitar rock from The Strokes. He traces the band’s evolution not just against its contemporaries (and how its predecessors influenced them) but Radiohead’s own progression from a band of baby-faced outcasts who performed Creep on MTV’s Beach House in 1993 to the fully realized musical gods who had the balls to perform a fully freaked out version of The National Anthem on Saturday Night Live eight years later. The cultural currency Radiohead collected is also impressive. From Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaborations with Jonny Greenwood to Brad Pitt and Ed Norton reminiscing about how they listened to OK Computer on repeat as the filming of Fight Club came to an end, the band’s reach extended well past its manifest influence on music in the 2000s.
But in the spirit of record store debating, a few omissions bear noting. While Hyden touches any number of bases connecting Kid A to the broader culture, the one he skips past entirely is The Matrix, which is surprising considering the DNA the album and movie share. Both speculate about a sterile, near future that devalues individualism. At the time, The Matrix was wildly popular and critically acclaimed, whereas reviewers were more ambivalent about Kid A, but it is possible the dystopian view of the former was deemed too out there to be taken seriously, whereas the latter was not dystopian enough, written off as gloomy navel gazing instead. Ironically, that the matrix was fed through the human mind would end up being a spot on description of what social media platforms would ultimately do while Kid A now looks like it undersold how unnerving the future would be.
The other elephant in the room is Hyden’s passing treatment of what some of us consider Radiohead’s true masterpiece - OK Computer. It would be like writing a book about Picasso’s Cubist period but tossing off Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as a nice, but unimportant work in the milieu. To understand Kid A a full accounting of OK Computer is required but the most we get from Hyden is a dismissive insult of Fitter. Happier. as a too-on-the-nose criticism of consumer culture. But that song, and the album more generally, is precisely about the pressure society places on people to conform. The through line between stripping people of their autonomy and the yearning expressed in songs like How To Disappear Completely and The Morning Bell could not be more direct. To be sure, Hyden goes on at length about the song writing process and more particularly Yorke’s fear of having his lyrics be seen as too ham-handed or obvious (dating to criticism he received early in his career) but it is impossible not to see Kid A as building on the themes initially explored in OK even though one relied on click tracks and synthesizers and the other used guitars.
I always looked at Kid A as part of a three album continuum from OK Computer to Amnesiac that bore the closest resemblance to Pink Floyd’s mid-70s run of Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. The themes of alienation and isolation, of corporate influence and individualism, of rebellion and conformity just ooze out of both sets of music but instead of seeing these parallels (you won’t find a single reference to Pink Floyd in the entire book) we get a pages-long digression about Linkin Park (because, reasons?) and a bit of filler in the form of an imagined Kid Amnesiac that blends the best of both albums. And this is not to be overly critical. Part of what makes fandom fun is swapping opinions and interpretations of shared canon. Hyden thinks “There There” is the best song on Hail to the Thief when everyone knows it is “Where I End And You Begin.”
I also liked how Hyden ends the book. After tracing the band’s post-Kid A (and really, post-Amnesiac) work there is a meditation on aging and loss. Of whether, as Neil Young once wrote, it is better to burnout than fade away. When we think of iconic albums, invariably, we are thinking about music produced when the artists were in their 20s and early 30s. When the hunger to succeed, the single-minded focus on creating, and the possibilities of the world are greatest. The inevitable pull of ~ adulthood ~ be it marriage or parenting, the material comfort that comes with success or the validation from sold-out arenas, critical acclaim, and chart-topping albums comes for every successful musical act. Nostalgia, Don Draper famously said, is a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. What Kid A represents to Hyden, and to many of us who love that album and the band that created it, is not just a time machine to a moment that has already passed (yeah, it’s gone … I’m not here, this isn’t happening) but a reminder that it is possible to feel emotion in a modern world stripped of it.
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