From the time I left campus last spring until June 14, I had Radiohead on my mind. Mine was an obsession that verged on downright mania, transforming my usually tepid opinions into axioms and outright platitudes. I can't recall ever throwing around the words "brilliant" and "genius" so often in my life. Anytime I tried to chalk it up to it being "just a phase," I found myself on YouTube, transfixed by Thom Yorke dancing his way through "Idioteque" like a holy fool.
I'd also had the suspicion that the Oxford group had become a little irrelevant since the hullabaloo of 2000 and 2001. It took a good two years to get a handle on what Kid A was all about, to get some small notion of its brilliance and the scope of its ambition. The whirlwind media coverage of their summer tour, in short, took me by surprise.
Some 20 hours of my summer was also spent in a colorless jurors' room, pouring over a collection by Lester Bangs, the now infamous rock critic from the '70s. Among other quotes to the same effect, he defined rock as "basically a music meant to be tossed over the shoulder and off the wall." But if attitude and spectacle trump talent, where did that leave my new heroes, a band that spent three years painstakingly crafting its masterpiece?
On June 14, when five relatively unremarkable men took the stage at Madison Square Garden, I decided I'd found my answer. Radiohead's well-rehearsed, understated set brought 5,000 people to something like a sustained roar. No posturing, no chaos - just sheer, overflowing exuberance. Sloppiness and showmanship once served a function: shaking an industry (maybe a society, as well) out of complacency. Iggy Pop rolling around on broken bottles made a pretty powerful statement in 1970, but today, pop culture rewards the most spontaneous and confrontational. Indulging taboos has become something of a matter of pride.
After that night, I had to laugh a little to see Thom Yorke's face on the cover of August's Spin, framed by the ever-so-ironic headline "Mr. Sunshine." If there's any lesson from Radiohead's relatively low-profile success, it's that attitude isn't everything. The pendulum's swung the other way. Behind the pretense of clever magazine covers and music videos lies newfound craftsmanship in the way pop music is made. Oh, personality still counts - showmanship will always sell records - but consider the growing prominence of the producer. "Sexy/Back" is equal parts Timberlake and Timbaland; St. Elsewhere's success was as much about Cee-Lo's soulful croon as it was Danger Mouse's meticulous songcraft.
I came to love Radiohead because they didn't just wander, drunk, into a recording studio and "capture the spirit of a generation," but doted and agonized their way through five spectacular, distinct albums. Their music counsels diligence in a time and place where flippancy and Wikipedia knowledge count the most.
That all sounds like a pretty cozy moral, but I'll be damned if it doesn't make for sublime results.