The Radiohead Backlash: Why Now?

Revisionist rock criticism is a bona fide trend this year, with Slate’s Jonah Weiner vindicating the likes of Creed and Limp Bizkit, and Vulture defending the legacy of Third Eye Blind. Now that everything bad is good again, critics are getting to work dismantling the houses they built. Enter Spin’s new feature: “16 Rock Myths Debunked.” The magazine takes apart the idea that Nirvana destroyed hair metal, tells us Marilyn Manson is a fairly normal guy and reveals that Ozzy Osbourne never bit the head off a bat. But the #1 rock myth of all time, according to Spin, is this: “Radiohead can do no wrong.”

Strangely, writer Chris Norris’ is the second high-profile attack on Radiohead this month. A few weeks ago, The Fiery Furnaces’ Matt Friedberger rocked the web by making fun of the band’s newish song, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of).” Then, to make sure no one misunderstood him, Friedberger issued a press release reaffirming that he doesn’t like Radiohead. What’s weird about all this is that the band hasn’t put out an album in over two years, and it’s not like they’re out picking fights with indie rockers. So, what’s the deal with the current backlash?

Well, let’s look at what the haters are saying. According to Norris — who feels that “Radiohead kinda blow” — they’ve become “an exceptionally well-dressed jam band. That you can’t even dance to.” Moving from catchy Pablo Honey to anthemic The Bends to Dark Side of the Moon-rivaling OK Computer, Radiohead raised the stakes with each new release. Then they made Kid A, “a deft, sometimes beautiful experiment in electronica-based songwriting.” But Norris notes that the band’s new direction alienated some fans, who found the album “a bit formless and switched to Coldplay.” (We’d like to point out here that anyone who finds Coldplay an adequate substitute for Radiohead may well be better off listening to the former.)

Strangely, Norris skips over the best argument for the band’s infallibility (Hail to the Thief), moving right to In Rainbows, with its comparatively pleasurable compositions and game-changing, pay-what-you-want distribution model. And therein, apparently, lies the problem:

So they’re a band, making records. Why all the newspeak? Does Radiohead’s every move have to be without precedent? Must they define a new music language? And really, does anyone believe that the creators of the finest, most original, and significant rock album of the last 15 years shouldn’t be making rock albums?

Norris ends with a similar sentiment: “A band that can make iconic songs that stretch across a fractious culture,” he says (and here he’s talking about, of all classic Radiohead tracks, “Creep”), “that can weave them into an even greater whole, and that have a unique, haunting musical voice we will remember for decades, is plenty special. As special as it gets. If only they’d settle for good.” Honestly, we find these critiques a bit depressing. At a time when mainstream rock is dominated by formulaic teen emo bands and aging veterans cashing in on exorbitantly-priced reunion tours, isn’t it actually a relief to find a popular group dynamic enough to take real stylistic and economic risks?

As strictly casual Radiohead fans, we thought we’d turn to an expert for further response to Norris’ provocation. Here’s what our friend Marvin Lin, Editor-in-Chief of Tiny Mix Tapes and the author of a forthcoming 33 1/3 book on Kid A, had to say about the piece:

Radiohead have hardcore fans, so the din of their accolades almost gives the appearance of critical consensus. But I think that’s far from the truth. Radiohead have been shit on almost as much as they’ve been lauded, from Morrissey to Courtney Love, Aphex Twin to Nick Hornby. Just look back at Kid A reviews or, say, fan reactions to Hail to the Thief. Aside from perhaps OK Computer, most of the reactions to their albums have been decidedly mixed. The Spin article is essentially trying to debunk a myth that was never there in the first place. But of course Spin had to put Radiohead at #1 so that they can put Thom Yorke on the cover and sell more magazines. While the author of the Spin article had a great chance to critique the press’ blind devotion to Radiohead, he instead tries to critique Radiohead in a horribly misguided diatribe with factual errors included.

As for The Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger’s press release is fairly incomprehensible. “Like most creative musicians,” it begins, “Matt Friedberger is not a fan of Radiohead and most of their chart busters.” Then there’s some hedging about what he actually meant in criticizing “Harry Patch” and (perhaps) confusing the song’s title with the name of avant-garde composer Harry Partch. Friedberger ends by expanding his vendetta:

Matt has not heard the Radiohead song about Harry Patch, but if he did, he is sure he wouldn’t like it. No doubt Radiohead and their fans can ignore his opinion of this matter and continue with their triumphant artistic interventions. Matt would have much preferred to insult Beck but he is too afraid of Scientologists.

Oy. To review: “Radiohead is really popular, and so is Beck. Thus, because I consider myself creative and unique, I hate them.” We love The Fiery Furnaces, but Friedberger’s press release reads as little more than an intentionally incendiary plea for more media coverage. Or, as Lin puts it, “Friedberger was speaking so out of his element that it’s barely worth talking about.”

What we get out of both attacks is this: Picking on Radiohead is somewhat subversive, so it causes a stir. And that’s a good way to get people to buy your magazine or write about you on their blog. (And dammit, it worked on us, too!) So, at a slow time for music — and late November-December always is, as publications start compiling their best-of lists and labels hold off on releasing major albums until January — an outrageous pronouncement will surely keep the news cycle moving.