FUV Essentials: Laura and Lynn Fedele on Radiohead
Collage by Laura Fedele
Wow. How do you write about Radiohead?
One option is to write with someone else, based on the theory that there is so much going on that a single point of view might leave too much out. So there are two of us here now, Sister Radiohead Fans, which seems appropriate when it comes to a band that enters into a dialogue with each listener, one full of challenges to the assumptions we hold about music (and art, and life).
We didn't talk about it at the time, but it turns out that we both used to drive back and forth from visiting our Alzheimer's-stricken father listening to Radiohead (one of us addicted to "Black Star," the other to "Pyramid Song"). We each found it was the only thing we could stand to hear at the time in the face of such overwhelming grief, confusion, and dread.
This is not to say that their music hasn't also brought us both crazy joy as well.
And as Radiohead fans, we all tend to seek each other out to describe just how we are affected by this music, as evidenced by all the books and online discussions where fans debate every note, every lyric, every change in time signature.
What follows is the result of passing the computer back and forth between sisters:
Laura Fedele: Being a Radiohead fan is not a casual thing. It's a committed relationship. If you don't put in the time, you don't get the full glory. You may feel like a "Creep" for a few minutes (for example), but that's just a teeny glimpse of the deep sea of complications and possibilities you find in this body of work.
This is art, which isn't supposed to be easy. It makes you feel and think, and travel through time and space, if it's done right. And this band is not about breaking out the rhyming dictionary and crafting nicely structured pop songs, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But make no mistake, this is High Art.
Lynn Fedele: To really pay attention to Radiohead means entering into a partnership with music that forces us to look within. But it's not as if their music is inaccessible; millions of people worldwide have been drawn in, and the band can crank out a damned good radio hit. Even in the simplest of their songs there are layers of lyrical and sonic interweavings that can leave you in awe. They really invite us to let our inner geeks out to play.
Laura: They challenge us. They force us to decide what we feel about important subjects, to suspend expectations about what music is supposed to be, and to judge our own responses to anything new or different, to ideas that are difficult, and complicated.
Lynn: The most simple thing to say about Radiohead is, ironically, that they are complex. (They are even often complex about irony itself.) Never static, the permutations their music has taken over the past two and a half decades have invited legions of fans to a space where complexity is a thing not just to be discussed, but to be celebrated.
For example, it is not infrequent that one Radiohead song is really multiple songs; from the three distinct movements in "Paranoid Android" to the incredible stratification and subsequent melding of sounds in "Bloom" or "Idioteque," Thom Yorke's vocals move at paces that defy rock-song logic, while bringing you along into places where what has started out sounding discordant becomes a welcomed harmony.
And that complexity also carries us through the sometimes inscrutible lyrics. Moments of pain and alienation are sung in soft, high, dulcet tones, and words of confusion and conflict are carried through the air by music that makes us dance.
Laura: It feels like an accomplishment, getting yourself to focus on something so unfamiliar, to listen deeply while you stretch yourself between the gap of what you think should be happening—where did the melody go? wait, do I hear it in the percussion now?—and what this team of talented creatives do to play with structure of music. When you ride it out, following them around the moon and back, and you hear them pulling each string until they chime back together and reward your flexibility, you end up satisfied and amazed by what feels like a jubilant, communal success.
Lynn: Yes, and these feelings again mirror that recursive relationship between the personal and the communal. For instance, Radiohead has also had a relationship with technology through their career that parallels our own journeys from the pre-internet age to the era of constant and immediate electronic communication. The changes have come to us all as fast as the speed of sound and light, making our world broader in its reach and more mystifying in its intricacies. Their explorations into how this affects us—individually and communally—are mirrored in how they employ and deploy technology as music itself. We can wonder at the electronic voice of "Fitter, Happier" telling us all how to live better, but the pulsating warnings of "Idioteque" and tragic loneliness of "On Videotape" remind us that we are far more caught up in a world moving quickly beyond our grasp than we would like to admit.
Laura: But despite all the tempting analysis, a Radiohead show is still a visceral experience. You hear them with your whole body. You can tune into the lyrics if you want, or the guitar, or the percussion; you can dance a little nod-to-Thom jig, or you can leave the physical behind and truly surrender to the journey. In any case, these songs demand participation. And just as much as we're drawn toward the band, their music needs our presence, in equal measure, to build that feeling.
Lynn: Radiohead is a musical journey, one that started out as exciting 20 years ago, and which remains exciting, since we never know where the band will take us next.
Laura: So, go see them. Listen hard, even if you don't totally get it. It took even their biggest fans years to go from hating Kid A to loving Kid A.
Lynn: Perhaps there is one thing true Radiohead fans can agree on: There are no easy answers to music, or to life, or to how the two are so inextricably intertwined. But it is in these complexities, through these dialogues with the band and its music, that so much joy and beauty is to be found.