Kid A turns ten-years-old this month. Ten! That’s quite the anniversary, so I feel obliged to spend a few moments celebrating the album, since I think I owe a great deal to it. You could probably trace my roots as a designer back to a single moment sitting in the chilly front seat of my beat-up Grand Am in the mall parking lot outside of a Sam Goody.
I think everyone has a certain streak of luck, a divine moment where Fortuna spins the wheel and it comes up with something wonderful. My pop walked by a record store in Brooklyn blaring Cream, and walked out with a copy of Disraeli Gears. Ginger Baker became his idol throughout high school and gave a bit of purpose to those drums he was aimlessly banging.
I, for whatever reason, got dropped off at the mall as a bored suburban teenager, stumbled into a record store with $40 burning a hole in my pocket, and walked out with a copy of The Bends and OK Computer on the same day. It was 1998, and I had not heard the music. I was a bit leery of the spooky looking covers, but there was something that made me choose them. Maybe they were propped up by the counter. I’ve no idea.
I just remember getting home, jamming The Bends into the CD Player, and whoosh. It was like someone tossed a bucket of ice water on me. It was an instant resonance: a smart, dark, creepy set of anthems for my angst and boredom. Twice through The Bends, then I popped in OK Computer. Whoosh. Another bucket of cold water. I think I accidentally skipped dinner that night.
I still slightly prefer The Bends to OK Computer, but I think this is just because I listened to it first.
Two years later, I rushed out of 7th period, jumped in my car and drove to the same record store to buy my copy of Kid A on release day. I was anxious and halfway prepared to either be terribly disappointed or elevated to new levels of consciousness known only to Buddhist monks, method actors, and, oh my god, oh my god, I’m holding it in my hands, I must get out to my car to listen to this as soon as possible and I think that this must be one of the best moments of my life, and God, why do they always make the wrapper so difficult to get off, and what’s the deal with this stupid sticker on the top, and why doesn’t it ever come off cleanly, and don’t they realize that the little tab doesn’t ever work, and I think I might as well just tear the lid off by the hinges to get this disc into my CD player.
Anyway, this part is a bit of a haze, but, yes, it was revelatory. Because it was not what I expected. Worse yet, it was not what I wanted from my beloved band Radiohead. Why did it sound like computers? Why are there no vocals on this track? Where are the drums?
I sat in my car, and by the time I got to Treefingers I think I understood a little more. This was different. The only thing that this had in common with my previous, beloved albums was that it was made by the same people. But, they were different people. I sat in my chilly seat, equal parts in shock and awe.
I drove home 6 tracks in and kept listening. I spun it 4 more times that night, and with each pass through, I acclimated to its quirks and I think maybe gained a bit of understanding about what was happening. And I loved it. I grew to love it, and I’d say that probably makes me appreciate it more. There was friction.
It was a big year for me. I had spent the past 7 years of my life playing basketball, and having that be the tacked on portion of my identity. I had just made the decision to quit, and needed something different. Looking back at Kid A, it was a catalyst: I taught myself markup and web design by making a Radiohead fan site. I learned a bit about writing and analysis by transposing lyrics. I embraced music with both arms, and started making gigposters and album design for friends in bands, and cut my teeth on image making and gained chops in Photoshop.
This was high school for me. Kid A gave me something to be excited about. That’s all you really need.
Ten years on, I still love Kid A, but I come to it from a different viewpoint: not as an audience member, but as a person who has an audience. I relate a lot to Radiohead, not in terms of success by any measure, but more as a person trying to gain some personal satisfaction by making things, and having to struggle and grapple with a captive audience.
And, I keep coming back to the same question: How do you follow up what people consider to be an epic achievement? I’ve none of my own, but the thought of following up something of the magnitude of OK Computer paralyzes me. I work alone, so nevermind the friction of trying to collaborate in a group.
As I go down my own creative path, I sympathize. I think there are insights about art that you only gain by creating. These are things that typically aren’t spoken about. Mainly, you can not choose your audience. Once you make something and release it or publish it, you lose control of it. The more ambiguous it is, the less command you have. You can not control how people meet your work if it requires them to contribute something of themselves to complete it. (And, I’d say that the best creative output requires us to project something of ourselves into the work to complete it. So, the better quality the work, the less control you have of its effect on people.)
You can’t choose what resonates. You can’t choose who it resonates with. You can cue your Creep reference here. This is frustrating for me, because I pride myself on the clarity of my communication. I used to think to have something I’ve made be misinterpreted is a shortcoming of my own. Or, I’d bat back the feeling of failure by labeling the people who misinterpreted my intent as idiots.
But, really, it’s nobody’s fault. An artist can’t predict everyone’s condition, and there needs to be some mystery to it all in order to craft a compelling piece. Good work is a personal experience in its creation and consumption, and because of that there will be mistakes and misinterpretations. But, who’s to say those aren’t valuable too?
How to Disappear Completely
I think one of the best things you can do for an artist is to trust them. Especially when they change.
How do you follow up OK Computer? I don’t think you can. As I work on my own little things, I realize now that good ideas can’t go on forever. Each inclination about the work, no matter how good, comes to a logical conclusion. You’ve explored all the options, and published all the good ones, and there comes a time where it must come to a rest.
It’s tough to appease an audience. They’re not made privy to the fact that a way of reasoning comes to an end. All they know is that the last thing you made is fantastic, and this new thing that you made is not the same as that last thing. But, worse yet, if you hang on and ride a dying horse too long, they notice and become impatient as your schtick becomes long in the tooth. My feeling is that it’s better to recognize when a way of approaching the work ends and to change on your own accord, even if it means giving a bit of whiplash to your audience and alienating a few of them.
It’s probably better to go down in a blaze of glory than to evaporate slowly. Bands should break up when they run out of ideas. Studios should close. Book series should end. One should completely change things and pursue a new idea or methodology without fear. Or they should end it. You’re probably not doing anything interesting if you don’t have to invent new ways to work.
But, that’s hard to do. And as a creator and a person who makes things and is trying to appease an audience, that is why I appreciate it so much when an artist makes a decision to change directions significantly. Dylan had to go electric, because, really, how much longer could he continue playing folk songs? And, I’d bet that Sufjan Stevens on his newest album had to release something drastically different because there was no currency left to his old routine. It’s a painful process to figure out what’s next, but change has to happen. Complacency is the opposite of art for both the artist and the audience. To make and to enjoy art is to love it, and sometimes love opens you up to disappointment. Time changes us all. Even artists.
Everything In Its Right Place
Art seems more relevant than ever, especially in an age of “content.” Content is so easy: it accommodates to your lifestyle, fits seamlessly into the negative space while waiting for the bus or while in the waiting room of the doctor or to fill the extra cognitive space as we mull away at the mundane task of satisfying the demands of our inboxes. Art is being transformed to content to squeeze itself into the cracks of our splintered attention.
I’m not placing a value judgement on this, but this makes Kid A feel like a bit of a relic. A last gasp for something that requires the whole of your mental space. I couldn’t drive and listen to the album when I bought it for the first few songs. I just couldn’t: the sound was demanding, and any headspace I had left while listening was mostly just repeating to myself “Is this real?”
The more content we make, the less art we have, and the fewer things we have to lose ourselves inside of. Creative people only have so much energy and so many years. Content and art are usually directly contradictory towards one another, I would say, because content comes to you on your terms, while art dictates that you must approach it on its own terms. I don’t mean to place values on either or to establish a hierarchy, but I think it’s worth noting that each form of creative output has different intents and requires a different amount of your attention. You can’t read The Sound and the Fury and listen to music at the same time. It’s too difficult–it’d require too much of a mindshare. But, Gladwell? No problem. Which one is more desirable? That’s up to the individual. I’m craving thicker, thornier books, triple albums, and 25-minute songs. I won’t pretend to make sense of it as a reaction to other things, because I’m not sure I know enough to say that.
What I do know is that the more we thin-splice our attention, the dumber we become. I don’t mean to say that society as a whole is becoming more stupid or less intelligent, but that a Frank where you get 30% of his attention is dumber than a Frank at 100% attention or 90% attention. I type this while having 5 browser tabs open, a chat, my mail client dinging and Twitter updating its stream. My definition of “long” has changed significantly the past 10 years, and I’m ashamed of it.
It’s a simple concept. It’s tempting to think that the proliferation of books with subtitles like Let’s Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By is happening more frequently because society as a whole is getting stupider. But, I’m more inclined to say that society is just as smart as it always has been, just dumber from a self-inflicted splicing of our own attention.
So, we should celebrate the things that command more of us. Longer texts, deeper plots, greater nuance. There is value in being challenged and then rewarded, whether that’s in front of a computer screen or sitting in the front seat of a beat-up Grand Am.