Pop-Cultured: The Expansive Experiments of Thom Yorke


(Illustration by Izzy Schlegel | Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Weston Wood, Arts Writer

Thom Yorke’s angelic voice blasted alongside experimental guitars and synthesizers for six straight hours. Our car shook from the music and from 40 mph winds as we crossed the Arizona-Nevada border. I had never listened to Radiohead’s music. You can usually tell who has and who hasn’t — if they do listen to it, they’ll tell you. They’ll tell you how good the band is and how you’re missing out on one of the best artists of all time. Or, maybe they’ll ask you to drive with them to Las Vegas tomorrow to hear Yorke, Radiohead’s lead singer, perform live. 

We listened through Radiohead’s most popular albums — “The Bends,” OK Computer,” “Kid A,” “In Rainbows” and “A Moon Shaped Pool.” “OK Computer,” released in 1997, has been called the best album of the past 25 years. Even as a newcomer, I wasn’t surprised — the production is incredible. Radiohead’s music and Yorke’s solo works are cross a few genres, primarily alternative rock, electronica and experimental music. Radiohead combines synthesizers, traditional instruments making untraditional sounds and sporadic time signatures. Yorke’s own unique range, lyricism full of double meanings and passion for every facets of his track combine to produce well-made music.

I was caught pleasantly by surprise with the band’s experimentalism. It’s hard to exactly describe what hit my eardrums, but it was mostly pleasant and the music kept me on my toes. There were many of the traditional elements of songwriting, and tracks would sharply turn away from avant-garde elements to music with more familiar roots. It’s that particular style, paired with their roots in alt-rock and grunge, that skyrocketed their success.

Radiohead’s harshest critics are the band themselves. Many interviews have highlighted their resentful views toward their mainstream tracks, like “Creep” or “High and Dry.” They talk about those tracks as “oppressive” and how they set a standard for themselves early in their careers. I sympathize with the struggle of creating an artistic image and how popular songs can set an unwanted standard. They just wanted to make good music, and that’s something I really respect.

Ultimately, the biggest debate is whether or not experimentalism and their unique interpretations are good at all. Sometimes, Radiohead can be jarring, with switches in time signature and overpowering vocals. The music can sound just like noise, while other times it hits and really makes sense. Does the experimentalism actually make the music better? Experiments can challenge the music we like and expect. People have a preconceived notion of what “good” music means — if it’s not using drum 808s, four chords, a 4/4 measure and simple beats, it tends to confuse people or be off-putting. It’s easy to lose ourselves in the ignorance of what we subjectively believe makes for good music, and it’s easy to brush off experimental music.

Watching Yorke perform, I was deeply moved by the sheer effort he put into his performances. Yorke was on stage with his own synthesizer, he had another person controlling a secondary synth, and another person was creating background visuals in real-time. He hardly talked at all, letting one facet of the performance — like a drum line or a chord from each song — hang in the air to build off of and transition to the next song. It was refreshing to see someone who truly didn’t have a stage persona. His presence was in his music, and he communicated through it. He and his fellow artists wore black shirts tucked into black jeans. He didn’t talk in between songs, except to thank the audiences who came to the show. Yorke is really about his music, and regardless of whether or not Radiohead is your thing, the message is respectable. 

Radiohead makes music for people who are interested in hearing something you’ve never heard before. It’s easy to lose yourself in the experimental genre and to get caught up in the pretentious subculture that surrounds it. Radiohead and Yorke make some incredible songs, but they are not infallible deities who make songs that just sound like white noise. They have a lot of trial and error within their process — which is something that’s admirable considering how bold their music is and how many fans they have to lose. I would recommend checking them out, particularly so your friends with nose-piercings can stop telling you to.


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