Rock and Roll Book Club: 'This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's 'Kid A' and the Beginning of the 21st Century'

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'This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's 'Kid A.''
'This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's 'Kid A' and the Beginning of the 21st Century.' (Hachette Books)

You don't expect to get a lot of laughs from a book with a title like This Isn't Happening: Radiohead's Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century (buy now). I had a literal LOL moment early on, though, when author Steven Hyden asked rhetorically, "Is it possible that I take Kid A way too seriously?"

There is, of course, virtually zero chance that anyone who would even contemplate cracking a book about the music of the 2000s would accuse any critic of taking any Radiohead album, especially that one, too seriously. Both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone named Kid A (2000) the greatest album of the decade 2000-2009, and there are still plenty of critics who would argue it's not as good as The Bends (1995), OK Computer (1997), and/or In Rainbows (2007). You're safe, Steve.

Of course the author knows that, and he aptly points to the documentary Room 237 as an illustration of where he's not going to go in this book. That film profiles several people who have obsessed over the movie The Shining, watching it so many times that they've devised, as Hyden puts it, "incredibly complex and completely bats--t interpretations of what the film 'actually' means."

So This Isn't Happening isn't be a deep dive into the lyrics or soundscapes of Kid A, an album whose creators were inspired by Brian Eno's experimental studio practices. "Thom Yorke purposely compiled his lyrics in random order," notes Hyden, "picked out the lines that sounded cool but were otherwise nonsensical, and distorted his voice to the point where most of what he was saying was unintelligible anyway."

The new book is a more elliptical way of assessing the greatness of Kid A, which turned 20 on Oct. 2. Hyden considers the album in its historical context: what made it feel so fresh in 2000, and so eerily prescient with each passing year? In sections titled "Before Kid A," "During Kid A," and "After Kid A," the author situates the work in the context of world history, a rapidly transforming music industry, and Radiohead's career.

Hyden's conversational, discursive, at times even tangential approach is gratifyingly accessible and disarming with respect to a band that have occupied a pedestal of reverence for a quarter century. In the first section, he takes readers back to the days when Radiohead were just...a band. He particularly delights in recapping Radiohead's 1993 appearance at the MTV Beach House; in which Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien "prowl the small poolside stage like Pete Townshend" and Thom Yorke actually jumps into the pool, allegedly nearly drowning himself when his Doc Martens became waterlogged.

Although Yorke had long wanted to be a rock star (Hyden notes a distinct Elvis Costello influence), by 1997 he was having mental breakdowns as he grappled with the price of fame. Radiohead set out to do something deliberately different with their follow-up to OK Computer, forsaking the guitar-driven rock songs that had fueled their rise. (Hyden observes that despite their commercial and critical success, in their home country of England the band always seemed to be coming up short compared to bands like Travis.)

A relatively concise volume at 244 pages, This Isn't Happening doesn't dwell too deeply on the actual making of Kid A. Suffice it to say, the birth of the album wasn't easy — especially for members like O'Brien, the most conventional rocker in an unconventional group. Eventually, though, the group landed on the suite of songs that became Kid A; the following year, they'd release more songs from those sessions as Amnesiac, and Hyden boldly offers his own vision of the "Kid Amnesiac" sequence that could have been if the group hadn't been so resolved to purge the former album of relatively accessible numbers like "Pyramid Song" and "You and Whose Army?"

From a fan's perspective, the long gestation period of Kid A meant years of leaks, speculation, and chatter (some from the band themselves) on the nascent World Wide Web. "For many people," Hyden writes, "Kid A was the first major rock album that was experienced via the Internet." He notes that the band even offered free, complete "previews" of the album via an embeddable player — a notion that now seems as bizarre as the original Star Wars novelization coming out months before the movie. Spoilers? What are those?

One of the reasons Radiohead became a defining band of the turn of the 21st century, Hyden notes, was that they grasped the promise of the internet without being overly concerned about its perils. In Rainbows would pioneer the "pay what you can" model of online content delivery; like Prince (even earlier), Radiohead saw the potential of the internet to allow artists to connect directly with fans. At the same time, the relentless unease to be heard in the music itself presaged the darker turn the online arena would take as big corporations moved in (Spotify also launched in 2007, Hyden points out) and the kind of audience service that once felt like a luxury became a requirement, even a grind.

Whether you adore it or abhor it, you wouldn't call Kid A a perky album. That's exactly what made it a defining turn-of-the-century document, argues Hyden. Its opening track, "Everything In Its Right Place" ("maybe the greatest opening track ever"), played in the opening of Cameron Crowe's movie Vanilla Sky, a movie that was widely panned but was so timely in its atmosphere of uncertainty, surreality, and dread that Hyden posits most people don't realize it was made before 9/11.

The author also points out that for many Americans, Kid A provided the soundtrack to the weeks of unease that accompanied the 2000 presidential election. Radiohead actually performed in Berlin on 9/11 itself, soon enough after the terrorist attacks that Yorke's onstage comments reveal he didn't assume everyone in the audience had heard the news yet. "This is hoping," he said, "George W. Bush doesn't start World War III." For Hyden, the events of the early 2000s were more disorienting than even the past few years of a century that's now a fifth complete.

Personally, I've never been a huge Radiohead fan. Even so, my Last.fm obsession reveals I've listened to them more often than artists whose music I actually enjoy far more, like Natalie Merchant and the Police. That's largely been me trying to, well...get it. Why all the hype? I certainly appreciate the members' musicianship and creative daring, but what is it that makes people constantly elevate this band's albums to the summit of critical acclaim?

Hyden notes that Kid A marked the passing of a generational torch in music criticism. Pitchfork planted its fork, so to speak, in the sand by giving the album a perfect 10.0. Brent DiCrescenzo's widely read and brilliant if sometimes impenetrable review ("the butterscotch lamps along the walls of the tight city square bled upward into the cobalt sky, which seemed as strikingly artificial and perfect as a wizard's cap") burnished the online publication's reputation for encouraging the kind of risky and ambitious writing that had once been the signature product of hard-copy rock magazines.

(The author allows that High Fidelity author Nick Hornby, writing in The New Yorker, also had a valid point when he suggested that a lot of Radiohead's fans prized Kid A precisely because of its arcane experiments, which may fascinate stans but don't necessarily reward casual listeners.)

To get back to the earlier question, there is at least one way to take Kid A too seriously: by appraising its significance without considering the other strains of music running through the turn of the 21st century. Hyden is more concerned with what the album is than with what it isn't; that means he doesn't artificially inflate its genius, but it also means that alongside the comparisons of Kid A to U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, it might have been instructive to consider other 2000 landmarks like OutKast's Stankonia (a disc Hyden mentions that he actually listened to more than Kid A at the time) and D'Angelo's Voodoo.

In the grand sweep of popular music history, the merging of hip-hop, pop, and R&B may have been the signal contribution of the early 2000s; many of the era's biggest sellers, though, were uninspiring. Hyden points out that the Strokes' Is This It, arguably the last great rock record to come out of the pre-Napster music industry, took two years "to move as many units as Linkin Park's second proper album, 2003's Meteora, sold in its first week."

Revisiting Kid A after reading Hyden's book helped me appreciate the music with new ears. I let the music take me back, not existing out of time as a transcendent composition but instead existing as a fixed musical artifact of a very specific place and time. Ironically, that fresh listen also let me heed Hyden's observation that the album doesn't actually fit the branding that's been slapped on it since before it was even released.

Anticipating Kid A, Melody Maker predicted that "Radiohead 2000 won't be making pop songs. It's going to be orchestrated rock messed around with computers, looped and spliced adventures in sound, art rock for the people with funky jazz influences and white noise. Expect long, drawn-out experiments and beautiful journeys, with Thom's voice more intense than ever." As Hyden points out, that's still how a lot of people think about Kid A, even though the description doesn't actually bear much relationship to the music.

Kid A was, and remains, enigmatic. Sometimes "beautiful," but darkly so. Occasionally "jazz-influenced," but not joyfully so. "White noise"? In more ways than one, perhaps. "More intense than ever"? In some respects, but not on its face compared to the wailing "Creep." Like the century, Kid A is still being born; its baptism by fire is well underway.

On Dec. 22, Steven Hyden joined Jay Gabler for a conversation on Instagram.

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