Thursday, November 22, 2012

Revisiting: OK Computer

I'm late getting to this post, but I've been rolling it around in my head for a while. Reason: I am deeply confused by this pitchfork reader's poll, which named Radiohead's OK Computer the most significant album of the last fifteen years.
I know. Reader's polls. Pitchfork. Each one is an easy reason to dismiss the list. Combine them, and it's kind of pointless to even waste a minute worrying about it. What we have here is basically a guide to the formation of hipster taste, as imagined by hipsters.

I don't want to beat up on hipsters too badly. I'm probably one of them. But if you're canonizing OK Computer, you're ripping it out of its context. That's what canonization does; hipsters could look at their parents and learn how this works. Elvis, the Stones, the Beatles: when you pull them out of history, you lose the depth of field you need to assess what their music was doing in the culture around it, other than frothy inaccuracies like “it changed EVERYTHING” or “it just sounded like NOTHING ELSE,” etc etc.

What OK Computer did to the culture around it—and I remember it being celebrated right away as something like the future of rock music—is make electronic music safe for the mainstream again. Remember The Prodigy? They were the other big breakout band of 1997, the year of OK Computer. They did a sort of comic book version of the punk-electronica clash that bands like Refused and Atari Teenage Riot made the moment's sound of choice for some critics. (Pitchfork wasn't around yet to lobby for a certain tasteful blandness. You could still be tacky and overbearing and get listened to.)

Refused and ATR were radical leftists. The Prodigy had no politics, though you could probably argue that they embodied a warped mirror image everything social conservatives feared in 90s rave culture: they were loud, extravagantly dressed, probably fucked up on pills, threatening, multiracial. Pure difference, in a way that tries too hard.

They were also, it seemed at the time, the future of rock and electronic music. "Breathe" was on modern rock radio. The future was in the air: Refused called their album The Shape of Punk to Come, ATR was releasing The Future of War, politics claimed to have found a Third Way that cured capitalism's excesses, and so radical politics resorted to a dour millenarianism. The Prodigy also wanted to embody that future. This was not a reassuring idea. Their imaginary world was half Billy Idol and half nightmare frat party. “Smack my bitch up?” Shut the fuck up. These guys were like the Gilbert Gottfried of pop music: calculatedly annoying, and pushing taste into a place where they were easy to dismiss.

So Radiohead basically saved rock from this bullshit. It's not necessarily a bad thing. But to call OK Computer the most significant album of the last twenty years is to basically say that we'd rather have music that doesn't want to challenge middle class taste. The Prodigy were terrible, but the bands whose shoulders they stood on weren't. Radiohead pushed them all off the critics' desks, and made it so that criticism doesn't have to talk about art and politics in the same sentence, ever. Say what you want about Thom Yorke's politics, which I'm fine with, but the music isn't trying that hard to upset anyone. And neither is Pitchfork, and neither, it seems, are their readers--just look at how introspective and tortured the rest of that top ten is on their list.

No comments:

Post a Comment