The other day the refined shortlist for the next batch of 33 1/3 books was posted on the official blog. One of the choices is a proposal on Radiohead’s Kid A, but alas, it’s not mine — it would have been a treat to see if I could make it all the way to the final round, but you can’t have everything!
Mind you, if you read some of the comments on the blog above, it almost seems like some people think you can. That said, there are two separate issues to unpack a bit. On the one hand, as Maura commented over at Idolator, the final list tends to stick to a “Big Albums And Artists That Stand The Maybe A Bit Rockist-Leaning Test Of Time” model — though let’s face it, my choice of subject matter pretty much fit into that.
On the other hand, though, the sheer amount of lack of grace, conspiracy theories and other bitterness in many of the comments leads me to shake my head a bit. A little perspective here — when I received word I hadn’t made the cut, I was up north visiting my sister, and just a minute before I saw the rejection e-mail, she had just passed on some further word about a dear friend of hers, who I also know, that had been in a terrible car accident through no fault of her own the previous night. While her brain and spine weren’t damaged, this friend was very severely hurt, faces numerous surgeries and will be spending months in recovery.
So when I read the e-mail, of course I was disappointed a bit, but I was mostly thinking about my sis’s friend and the cruel hand fate had dealt her. Even without that weighing on my mind I hope I would have taken the note with equanimity, but as it was I was actually pretty numb. There are more important things in life, after all.
All that said, I figured I might as well share the actual proposal here, as a bit of a curio. It was definitely flattering to have gotten so far with it, and my understanding is that there was some pretty fierce debate over whether to go with this one or the other one. If that proposal makes the final cut then you can be the judge when the book comes out — and hey, for all I know my book might have turned out pretty terribly in the end!
No less than Radiohead’s immediately preceding album – 1997’s OK Computer – 2000’s Kid A, the band’s fourth full-length release, generated both wide attention on appearance and continuing awareness since, especially due to its perceived break from the ‘real’ rock the band had gained fame for in favor of a distinctly different sonic palette based in electronics. What is less remarked upon now is how, somewhere between intent and accident, the album – anticipated and, even more importantly, leaked and released in the year when file-trading via Napster became part of widespread cultural knowledge – represents an intersection of technological trends and opportunities, not one which either the band or its then record label had full control over even as they happily participated in it, that has set the tone for how listeners encounter and consume music. The microcosm of Kid A’s themes about technological absorption and alienation, often expressed in often strikingly romantic and, intriguingly, retrospective rather than futuristic terms and styles, exists within a macrocosm: the unintentional symbolism of album and band arriving in and inaugurating a largely unexpected new world, now since taken as commonplace. It’s a world where the ‘music business’ as previously understood has steadily contracted, and increasingly where, to borrow from Marx, all that is solid has melted into air – or onto YouTube clips, or limited edition vinyl runs, or something else besides.
This book will look at these issues through two lenses – my experiences as a fan and a necessarily brief but broader consideration of the artistic and technological histories that produced Kid A as unstable artifact. A partial role model here is Timothy White’s The Nearest Faraway Place, his study of the Beach Boys that also was a study of the creation of ‘Southern California’ as a psychogeographical landscape, covering everything from how and why people moved to the area from other parts of the United States and elsewhere to the interlocking evolution of youth culture as the Los Angeles area grew over the years, how the Beach Boys were shaped by greater forces as much as they seemed to shape them. I strongly believe that Kid A and the admittedly vast subject of ‘music and the Net’ can be similarly, fruitfully twinned – how one band, one album, and one listener fit into a wider whole, a product and reflection of time and place.
Here is a brief ‘rough draft’ sample of the kind of tone and content I am aiming for in the book:
“For the longest time my copy of this album was a slowly rotting CDR that I burned from the mp3s that circulated when it first leaked to the Net. It has all the odd little glitches that cropped up in the rip of “Optimistic,” spikes and stutters that aren’t ‘glitch’ in musical terms, but actual mistakes, clips and interference. It wasn’t the official version of Kid A, with artwork and UPC codes and copyright warnings, it wasn’t even my version since these glitches were shared with a lot of other people out there, from whoever had created the original rip. When that person made that rip, a personal stamp had been placed on it, an unintended remix via the mechanics of the copy made or the computer used to create the rip, or maybe even simply the tray the CDR rested in. If vinyl crackles and radio has static, then this kind of error is the legacy of the CD in part, the thing that seems to make it real, even as the action of ripping the album created something else entirely, the formless sound file, the theoretically unchangeable artifact that is never fixed in place.”
INTRODUCTION – A USER IN 2000: The framing stories for the book consist of two separate incidents where I engaged with Radiohead via the computer – where the computer wasn’t incidental but essential, where the existence of the technology of the Net and personal computing and everything that went into that had to come first. The introductory story discusses the day I purchased tickets for the band’s Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl concert for the short American Kid A tour – this was done, not by standing in line outside ticket outlets or a box office or trying to call on the phone, but by patiently waiting in front of a computer on a recently installed cable internet network, accessing a vendor’s website. The goal here is to show how something so mundane is in fact remarkable, unusual – to remind all of us now what it was like then, before it was mundane.
SINKING INTO THE NETWORK: Rather than starting with Radiohead or Kid A, the book proper begins by discussing the evolution of personal computing and the Net with an eye on music – not so much musical creation as electronic discussion and sharing between companies, programmers and users, in the seventies and beyond. Where and what were the initial flashpoints, and what decisions in retrospect had the greatest impact down the line? Some representative examples include: the evolution of Usenet discussion groups and mailing lists on bands and styles, the use of the CD-ROM as a standard data format in personal computers, the development of the mp3 format and its adoption as a widespread standard for sharing music, the creation of the World Wide Web, the debut of the Internet Underground Musical Archive in 1993 as the first formal site for bands to share and sell their work online, the haphazard recognition of the music industry on dealing with the Internet in general and the increasing commercial interest in higher-end and faster Internet service for home users. Potential interview subjects – computer/Internet historians, record company employees, radio station employees, music press writers.
RADIOHEAD – JUST ANOTHER UK POSTPUNK/PROG/ELECTRONIC BAND?: This chapter reviews the position of Radiohead as a simultaneously new and familiar band throughout the 1990s. There’s a well worn pathway the group followed in its initial fame – its appeal to Anglophiles and college radio in America, its love/hate relationship with the music press, the ‘breaking’ of America and a one-hit wonder tag, gained with the success of “Creep.” As time passed and their work became more overtly complex, the tone of discussion shifted towards the gravely serious, with OK Computer’s critical and commercial success being a key turning point, even as the band’s humor arguably became more overt and direct while their disenchantment with a perceived role as musical standard-bearers became equally notable. Meanwhile, the band’s increasing interest in electronic music – both in earlier 20th century experiments and in then-contemporary popular efforts, most notably the putative genre of ‘intelligent dance music’ or IDM – became clearer over time, pushing the perceived identity of Radiohead as a ‘rock’ band to increasing extremes. Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members.
TOWARDS A NEW MILLENNIUM: Radiohead established a website early on in its career – who were the prime movers in the band and its associates behind this move, and what were their goals and expectations? How quickly did their fans find them and each other online, and what communities did they build, and with what tools? When the sessions for what became Kid A and, later, Amnesiac progressed, the band used their site and the fan networks associated with it to preview material online, inviting fans to tune in and catch what they could – and clearly expecting they would be there. But who were these fans, with what technology and Internet connections in the late nineties would they use to listen in? As the sessions moved towards completion, the wider world saw the rise of Napster, the popularity of mp3s and the widespread knowledge of file-sharing. High-profile leaks had already occurred for bands like Metallica, Oasis and the Cure – how did Radiohead and EMI react to all this as the release date approached? Was there any overall clear approach or was it improvised? Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.
KID A’S LIVES – Kid A’s songs were formally introduced to Radiohead’s fans via an initial European tour, with performances recorded and almost immediately shared online, to widespread interest. A month before its formal release, Kid A then appeared as a leaked document, a bare presentation of imageless files, even as elaborate limited editions of the album were announced, in both vinyl and CD formats, while formal single and video releases were eschewed in favor of Internet-targeted advertising which began appearing in the form of embedded sound clips and video files. The debate over the sound of the album and Radiohead’s choices for performance and arrangements was immediate – had they sold out, turned their back on rock, made a huge artistic mistake? What, then, was – and is – Kid A? A studio creation, a collection of songs, a concept album, an encapsulation of music and technology in and of itself and as reflected via mp3 sharing, the sharing of live tracks, the on-the-spot tracking. Was it ‘just’ an album in the end? Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.
KID A LIVE(S): Following the leaking of the files, Kid A debuted at the top of the charts in the US and the UK upon release, as well as in many other countries. The band brought the now-familiar songs to America and Canada for a brief three-date tour which was also the end of Kid A’s promotional cycle, including a high-profile Saturday Night Live appearance with two songs that were not singles, even promotionally, and the previously mentioned Hollywood Bowl show, which will be discussed in detail. That would seem to be the ‘end’ of Kid A but what is its afterlife as a ‘classic’ album, or more? There’s the question of musical impact – the many bands and albums that followed where the combination of musical and thematic influences, especially in terms of the freer use of electronics, will be discussed. There’s the continuing popularity of the album among the fans, how certain songs have become established favorites in concert, how the ‘unfamiliar’ and seemingly shocking became ‘normal.’ Finally, there is the now-established model for how we generally encounter music – not street dates, but leak dates and more recently formal digital releases, where the physical product has been increasingly overtaken by the ephemeral, a situation highlighted (not prompted, it should be clear) by the fact that within months of Kid A’s release, Apple introduced the iPod. Potential interview subjects – band members and associates, webmasters of long-running fan sites, mailing list moderators, music press members, EMI employees, computer/Internet historians, music press writers.
CONCLUSION – A USER IN 2008: Mirroring the introduction as noted, this will discuss the day I watched Radiohead’s free broadcast of a Santa Barbara show at the conclusion of its In Rainbows tour in late August 2008 via my computer. It was the same desk and same chair I used back in 2000, the same computer monitor, but a different computer, sound system and Internet connection, something that was a ‘new’ mundane much like the experience of watching a web broadcast in general. Kid A songs were played along with plenty of other tracks, it was just part and parcel of the experience, as was the fact I was copying the broadcast onto my computer and the fact that clips appeared on YouTube almost immediately via other users. Kid A itself and everything about it was seemingly ancient history now, a time before iPods and iTunes and BitTorrents and questions about DRM and more besides – but how far away is it, as historical marker and as artistic creation? If, as the band claimed at the time of release, ‘Kid A’ him or herself was supposed to be the first cloned human baby, are we all now Kid As in a new century, replicating our experiences in a seemingly futile – and unnecessary? – search for what is ‘real’?