Monday, December 11, 2006

Radiohead dissertation pipe dreams

I haven't posted in a while. I have been so busy with life and school and such. As I am finishing up the first two of the fifteen graduate program applications (University of Wisconsin, Madison and University of Pittsburgh: both due Dec 15), I came across this posted on one of Madison's student's web logs:

And I’ve often had the nagging thought that one could, if one wanted to, place the trajectory of Radiohead’s career up against my maturation as a reader. Not unlike the recording of the sounds in Brandon’s room as they wound up superimposed over Pablo Honey. (These are the thoughts of super-fandom—thoughts that, once written down, aren’t just cringe-worthy, but are downright sickening). I’ll admit it, I’ve thought to myself: “The narrative impulse behind the traditional rock formula that drives The Bends speaks to my realism-driven style of reading, one that requires texts to be clear, well-framed windows onto a coherent, objective event. You know, like folksy, narrative rock songs. OK Computer complicates this in interesting ways by not only providing a commentary on our contemporary hyper-media-saturated frustrations, but by also experimenting with more expressive and performative venues through which to enact those hyper-media-saturated frustrations. Kid A messes with this even further by embracing the artificiality of our hyper-media-saturated historical moment and providing opportunities to occupy expressions that are simultaneously deliriously happy and frustratingly violent within that constructed environment. Meanwhile, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief ask us to shape responsible ways of living within those hyper-media-saturated conditions.” Oh, yes, these are the artifacts of super-fandom.

All this is to illustrate the shape of the Radiohead essay I’ve always wanted to write. Since I’ve been thinking about dissertations a lot lately, I’ve thought about the essay in even grander ways: a book with chapters each dedicated to one album, unpacking each song in ways that provide a method for reading that we would be able to see a younger Adam beginning to shape. It would be BuildungsRoman meets critical theory. Then I blink those thoughts away.

Not until I recently read an article by Mark Greif in n + 1’s third issue (an older issue, I know, but I’m slow to these sorts of things) did I think I could write that essay in a way that would make anybody care. I found myself reading his essay, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” with skepticism at first, thinking to myself, dammit, why didn’t I write this?! Then, on second read, I began to see some of the approaches he makes toward Radiohead as, well, downright honest, tiny gems.

There’s an unrest present in Radiohead that many are quick to notice. They have made an art out of packaging panic and using the soundscape of popular rock against itself, while trying to identify what sort of will listeners can retain while complicit within that soundscape. My results often end up something akin to a cynical shrug: yep, contemporary pop music is damned, so I might as well go down with the ship. Rarely do I get the satisfaction Greif manages to carve out in his essay.

He puts his finger on it, I think, when he uses Hail to the Thief to illustrate how Radiohead tries to coax the listener into not just commentator on, but as active participant in the political ramifications inherent in a media-saturated culture mediated by the artificiality of the modes used to provide form to cultural artifact. Radiohead isn’t just saying “look at how screwed up it all is;” they’re also saying, “learn how to ‘consume’ responsibly.” I find this very helpful when listening to Radiohead on the bus, after a long day at work, using their music as a form of escapism.

I’m just wondering, though, if such a philosophy comes equipped with a methodology coherent enough to provide way(s) of navigating such consumption. Or if its enough for a philosophy of pop merely to point out that we must, in some nebulous way, be more responsible consumers. I’m uneasy with both of those positions, but feel as if the repercussions are far-reaching and important, well, necessary to fashioning a philosophy of pop. All this is to say: how can a philosophy of pop provide a method that doesn’t expire with the relevancy of the pop (music, culture, etc.) used to construct it?

This is the kind of stuff that I hope to one day be able to write. Even though he is almost in jest--it's still awesome.

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