Is Radiohead invincible?

Posted by Greg , Wednesday, March 30, 2011 2:12 PM

Or, asked another way, is it possible for Radiohead to make a bad album?

Stereogum's senior writer Brandon Stosuy posted a very interesting article today on Radiohead's The King of Limbs, in which he asserts that this is the first time he's noticed fans disgruntled over one of the band's albums.  He notes that the press tends to wear "kid gloves" whenever it comes to talking about Radiohead ("Basically, people are very polite when it comes to Thom Yorke & Co") and wonders if this will be the album that breaks the trend.

I've been wondering about the latter point since The King of Limbs was announced.  As you may remember, I was disappointed with the pay structure of the release, notably over the high price of the vinyl, seemingly to offset the cost of all the non-music filler like 625 pieces of "artwork" and the inexplicable decision to release it as a double-10" (considering that, clocking in at only 37 minutes, the album would have easily fit on a single 12" vinyl).  It seemed like the band was focusing on packaging instead of their own music.  I also objected to the self-aggrandizing way the announcement was written (e.g. the "purpose-built record sleeve" or the "full-colour piece of oxo-degradeable plastic").  Buy our record; it even comes with its own sleeve!  Then, coinciding with the date of the album's physical release, the band also released a companion "newspaper" The Universal Sigh, filled with poetry and other random stories.  Great.  More "stuff."  Promotion is great, and even necessary, but it seemed like Radiohead had jumped the shark.

So it was interesting that my preview about the King of Limbs got more comments than any other post I've written.  Admittedly, my blog doesn't get a lot of comments.  Most don't, including much more well-established and higher-visited blogs than mine.  But it was notable that this post earned me my first negative comments, seemingly for no other reason than I had dared criticize Radiohead.

Thus, my perspective is a little different than Brandon's.  Where he sees the first signs that Radiohead can-do-no-wrong status is eroding (at least in the press), I see more evidence that the band's fans are unwilling to accept that Radiohead can possibly make a bad album.  Even in the comments of Stereogum's articles about the album, fans generally insisted that they hadn't listened to it enough times.  That's the recurring theme when it comes to Radiohead, and The King of Limbs in particular: "I just need to listen to it more."

Indeed, Radiohead's music is generally more complex that of a run-of-the-mill pop band.  The band is known for subverting traditional song structures and subtly overlapping several layers of instrumentation.  So it's not entirely surprising that one would benefit from repeated listenings of their music.

But it seems many of Radiohead's fans have convinced themselves that it is outside the realm of possibility for the band to craft a bad album.  If you don't like it, you don't "get" it.  It's not Radiohead, it's you.

Sure, every good band has a set of hardcore fans who will support everything they do.  I'm not pretending that level of fandom doesn't exist.  But somehow Radiohead has gotten a higher share of its fanbase to join its Unwavering Support Club.  And I don't know, something about that is perplexing to me.

2 Response to "Is Radiohead invincible?"

Lara Says:

They are amazing, that is the thing, there is no mystery there. Fans are supportive to them because they always deliver, in a way or another, what they want. And Radiohead fans are really harsh towards the band when they do something they dislike. It is an enormous fanbase, of people who discuss their music to death, refuse to vote for the band in retarded polls, freak out every time DAS is updated and expect the next album, single, song as a God gift to humanity. This is us. And it is fun as well as rewarding.

MTM Says:

Great response. I agree; look at the hardcore fans that The Grateful Dead and Phish have. A critic once said, "(The author) concludes that Phish could urinate in people's ears and they'd (Phish Heads) pay for it." With some cult followings, this quote is valid, but I don't think it is with Radiohead. As the band continues to make albums, their audience grows with them; what I didn't like 5 years ago I might very much enjoy now. I do think Radiohead can do wrong, but they aren't afraid of taking the chance. And if they fail, they will try again.

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