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Rawkward by Blake Madden: Radiohead Vs. Thomas Dolby

April 19, 2012

Some part of me has always wanted to be cool, even while never understanding what this means. It must be what made me become a rock musician. After all, rock has been scientifically proven to remove panties/ win hearts and minds/ earn free beer. The grand irony is that I will never be a cool musician. I loose my balance when I jump around on stage. I binge on candy and ice cream instead of booze and hard drugs. My stage banter is a mix of cheesy one-liners and the types of things you might say when meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time. No matter what heights my music may achieve, I get it: You wouldn’t trust me with your convertible or to get beer for your party.

For this reason, Radiohead is an important band to me. Since The Bends, they’ve shunned and stunned their audience repeatedly, trading chunky rock riffs for synths, drum pads, and a host of warbling, ghostly, sometimes clumsy effects. Improbably, this made them infinitely more popular. That’s right: they got cooler by being weirder. This makes no sense by any societal metric, but provides great inspiration to rock musicians that want to avoid making beer-chugging anthems but still have fans. Maybe people don’t want everything dumbed down after all. Maybe they can stomach some weird every once in a while if it’s delivered with poise.

Still, I can’t figure out how Radiohead did this, why they are so damn popular, or who their fans really are. Sometimes, I still think it’s some kind of mistake. This is probably why I thought I could wait four whole hours to buy tickets to their Key Arena show, when they sold out in four seconds.

This should have been an omen of my concert experience to come. I’d never seen a real arena rock show in my life- if this was only the beginning of the process, it didn’t seem meant to be. A friend with extra tickets (all singles in different places due to demand) convinced me over time that I would regret it if I didn’t go.

My seat was about five rows from the top of Key Arena. An arena rookie, I knew things would be worse at that height, but didn’t know how bad. I didn’t realize that I would feel no connection to the band or their music whatsoever. Everything seemed to come out flat, delivered old and stale from some far away place. It didn’t matter if they were my favorite songs; there was no nuance, no impact. The movements of the tiny band below didn’t match the delayed and processed sounds that eventually made their way up to me. When I finally snuck down to my friend’s level during the last encore, it hit me: I may have missed a really good concert, even while being here.

Of course, you can’t blame the band. Or can you? In Steve Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up, the comedian acknowledges that it was the apex of his popularity itself that pushed him away from standup. Martin had worked his way up to sold-out arenas, but on such grand stages, his nuances, gestures, and delivery would get lost. What was more frustrating: people didn’t seem to care. His jokes had become so ubiquitous that the punchlines could be anticipated, sometimes with premature hysterical laughter. The joy and challenge were gone. It was no longer cool to be cool.

Does Radiohead live and work through this prism, but just continue to plough through? Or more interestingly, does the amount of pushback in their music correlate directly to their growing popularity? Is it a coincidence that they are leading their biggest shows ever with material from King of Limbs, their least overtly tuneful, least conventionally arranged album ever?

An answer of sorts came later. A friend went to an afterparty, met Thom Yorke in the flesh, and asked politely for a photo. Thom’s reply: “Sorry. I don’t feel comfortable with that.” Poor Thom- after all these years, hundreds of shows, and significant fame and fortune, he’s still being put in situations that are uncomfortable for him, still trying to accept the difference between what he is and what he thinks he should be. He’s a more patient and polite Kurt Cobain, still not ready for when the bright lights of cool hit home.

There must have been at least fifteen seconds in Thomas Dolby’s life when he was as cool as Radiohead, or it felt that way. His 1982 debut album The Golden Age of Wireless hit #13 on the US Billboard charts; he toured the world and did all the things that pop-stars do. These days, Dolby commands a half-packed house at the Showbox on a Wednesday night, with an audience of mostly-seated mostly 40-somethings who mostly know him as “that one-hit wonder who made the quirky synth tune about ‘Science’”. Before Wednesday, I myself could only name one and a half Thomas Dolby songs. But I love synths. And I love that ‘Science’ song. And I love seeing people after the cool has gone.

Dolby certainly had the appearance of a novelty act past its expiration date as he took the stage. He wore what looked like a miner’s light over a spandex cap and a big puffy coat, the kind of thing that might have seemed ‘cutting edge’ in the 80s. His accompaniment, and older guitar player and a younger drummer, could have just as easily slid into a wedding band or some other type of session work. Half of the set was older, better-known tunes, while the other half was Dolby’s newer Americana- tinged efforts. The synths and samples were bombastic and dated. I knew very little of the older stuff and none of the new stuff. And yet, halfway through the performance I realized something strange was happening: I was enjoying Thomas Dolby, the one-hit wonder, more than I had enjoyed Radiohead, the band I had grown up with.

Let’s be clear: I didn’t find Dolby’s music better, or even more important than Radiohead’s. Dolby just had a better grasp of both his physical venue, and his figurative role as a performer in it. He worked harder at earning our attention because he knew he had to. He was no longer cool, so he might as well be good. He talked as much as he performed, telling funny and/or poignant stories before every song. Perhaps Thomas Dolby is just a good storyteller and an old-fashioned English charmer, but the stories worked; I was invested in the songs before he even played them. And for every story he told of a highlight of his bygone pop-star days, there was always some awkward moment in there to balance them out.

He recounted being flown to Spain to lip-sync in front of hundreds of teenagers on a Spanish television show (pop-star), but not knowing any of the words because it was a Spanish version he sang phonetically off of cue cards in the studio (awkward). He talked of being interviewed by a New Orleans radio station due to the popularity of one of his songs there (pop-star), but then being called-out and embarrassed by some of the geographical factual inaccuracies in the song (awkward). He talked of meeting a bar proprietor who had been briefly famous in 1961 for writing “The Mother-in-Law Song”. ‘I heard you had a hit once, too’, the man told Dolby in the story, which of course got the biggest laugh from the crowd.

By contrast, Thom Yorke’s only real attempt to connect with the Key Arena crowd was his thoughts on a new song entitled “Daily Mail”: ‘The Daily Mail is a UK tabloid paper that goes through people’s trash, which is shitty’. Radiohead did what Radiohead does: live and perform in their own imagined vacuum. Thom Yorke will continue to pretend the college meatheads screaming “Radiohead! Fuck Yeah!” over his tense piano intro to “Pyramid Song” don’t exist. The band will pretend that their music translates as well to the top of an arena as it did when they were starting out in small clubs. They will pretend that they aren’t playing disjointed electro-afrobeat grooves to packed arenas now because of a pop song that a million sixteen year-olds liked over a decade ago. And they will still be uncomfortable with some photo requests even while being the most photographed band in the world.

What both acts have figured out: work faster and harder than the criticism around you. When the noise (or lack thereof) around your work becomes overbearing, sidestep it by moving onto the next idea, next project, next album without thinking twice. This is what doomed hair metal. When Kurt’s guitar threatened to end a thousand careers overnight, instead of hair bands digging in and saying: “Well, fuck it. Let’s just keep doing what we do,” they all reacted as if they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, backpedaling, fixing their images, getting “harder” or “softer” as they saw fit, but generally fading away. If Dolby wants to invent something, or make a video game, or add fiddles and banjos to synth pop for a new album, he just does it and moves on. If Radiohead wants to make an album where they masturbate all over a bunch of loop stations and delay pedals, they just do it and move on. Who cares what we say; they’re already on to the next thing.

What only Thomas Dolby seems to have figured out, though, is this: own everything you’ve done, past and present. He owns the elephants of his past, neither clinging desperately to his brightest successes nor overcompensating with ‘newness’ to prove he isn’t a one-trick pony. His songs and stories reflect his career accurately: Some are cool. Some are awkward. All of them are uniquely him. His self-awareness allows him to combine the novelty of his past and his continuing music exploration into one harmonious whole.

Radiohead live in a weird fame construct, sharing none of the musical/ aesthetic/ lifestyle choices of the Taylor Swifts and Kanye Wests that occupy the same arenas on different nights, but all of the popularity. If they admitted they were cool, it would probably make them less cool.

So is it great? Is it awkward? Do they embrace their past or hate it (the Key Arena show contained no songs from Pablo Honey or The Bends)? Are these the stages and shows they always dreamed of or is it some sort of twisted nightmare? Do they own the fact that they are an arena rock band now or are they just resigned to it? How would we even know? Anyone who has followed their career and attitudes knows these are legitimate questions to ask. My inability to find answers may be as much to blame for me not enjoying the show as Key Arena’s shitty acoustics. In the end, I’m left with a humorous and dead-on take from a friend seeing the band in similar circumstances years ago: “I didn’t think it was going to be a good show, but it was Radiohead; it was the right thing to do.”

If you have paid attention to popular music during the last decade and noticed and appreciated a huge anomaly in the middle of it, going to see Radiohead is the right thing to do. It is the cool thing to do, meaning you should do it, even if you don’t necessarily enjoy it or understand why other people do. Meanwhile, Thomas Dolby has found the one loophole that allows you to be cool even when you’re not naturally anymore (or never were): do what you do, own what you do, and don’t give a fuck about how it looks to other people. Always be comfortable in your own skin, otherwise all the interest and attention you garner will be fleeting.

I hope Radiohead figures this out at some point before they are done being the biggest band in the world. Right now, they are a newly-crowned King Macbeth: still paranoid to opposition even with no enemies left. Maybe in another twenty years we’ll see a relaxed band, playing a half-packed venue on a Wednesday night, telling engaging stories about their heady days as the world’s biggest draw. They’ll laugh and joke about how surreal it all was, and about how seriously they took it. They’ll play any and every song from their catalog they feel like playing, without hesitation or fear of what it says about them now or what it said about them then. Tell me: Which group of musicians would you rather be in? Which show would you rather see?

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