The Music Club

Having It Both Ways

Dear Sasha,

Anywhere near the culture scale of theMountain Goats?!? Look, I think John Darnielle records weirdly interesting low-low-fi rootsy autobiographies—and when he shows up for his shows I hear he’s kind of cool live, too. But what do you mean by “cultural scale”? You don’t mean he’s popular. Maybe you mean he’s influential, though upon whom or what I’d be curious to know. Do you think it’s on history’s scale where his weight will finally be fairly measured? If so, your thumb better be on it.

OK, what you are actually saying is that you are quite worked up (while trying gallantly not to seem to be) about Radiohead’s critical reputation. I don’t get it. I’m not saying I don’t get that you don’t think as much of the band as I do. I don’t get why you feel embattled. Lots of critics don’t like Radiohead or are indifferent to Radiohead—especially in New York. Robert Christgau seems to use the Village Voice’s “Pazz and Jop” issue each year to kick the band around; Rolling Stone’s writers have never really gotten behind Radiohead (compare their Radiohead clips to the gushing they’ve done over the White Stripes); and the critics here at the Times have tended to be respectful (just). Timbaland, who’s Virginia Beach’s answer to Brian Wilson—he’s much more the critics’ choice than Radiohead.

I bet, though, that Timbaland thinks a lot more of Radiohead than you do. (Most hip-hop DJs and producers do, I suspect). Which is to say that here in the States, and not only in the States, Radiohead’s reputation resides less with critics than with musicians, musicians of all kinds—classical pianists and composers; jazz players; countless other bands. It’s the music, of course, but I don’t want to get your blood pressure up again about that. So let me offer a second reason—one that will address, I hope, your seeming irritation that when it comes to the marketplace, Radiohead doesn’t return the checks from sales of their CDs. They want it both ways, the swinish hypocrites: The money and the modernist freedom. Well … Yes! That is the point. That has been the point for the past 150 years in every aspect of adventurous Western (read capitalist) culture. And that Radiohead has pulled it off is a subject of much discussion and admiration (and not a little envy) among pop musicians all over the world. The members of Radiohead have been extremely clever at marketing; they have surrounded themselves with good people on the management side; and they have not fallen into the pathetically useless dead-end alt-music trap of thinking that the meaning of their music—its “authenticity”—resides in its marginality. This kind of thinking was killing Nirvana before Kurt Cobain put a gun to his head. I think that’s what Thom Yorke learned from him, Yorke’s anti-capitalist mutterings notwithstanding.

To me, Radiohead’s “protest,” never actually voiced by the band, has really been this: That the “system” can be bent to your purposes. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. It takes will and work and ingenuity. But without a single or a video or the cover of Rolling Stone, Kid A—that, you know, mid-brow thing that failed to take into account anything that has really happened in the past 30 years—debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Basta! I sense you are more interested in the question of protest music just now than that of Radiohead, but maybe there is a way to combine the two somehow. What would you have the band do or say, exactly? And what do you imagine whatever they did or said would mean? Sasha, when Jay-Z raps “We back home, screaming ‘Leave Iraq alone,’ ” what in the world are you hearing?