“Kid A” Is Fine, I Guess. Its Real Legacy Is: It Changed Fandom.

The landmark Radiohead album turns 20 this week.

Kid A is a decent album. In a couple of places, it is even very good. Most often, it’s uneven and meandering, but still hangs together as an interesting offering from a band taking a big risk. But try to tell this to some Radiohead fans, and you may well endure a lengthy lecture about the band and modernity and the Cold War and the age of technology and what have you. “The thing about Radiohead,” they’ll begin. Shoot me.

They are not satisfied with it being alright. They’re the ones who want Kid A recognized as an unparalleled achievement. And I’d love to grant them that, if only the facts supported the statement. The album turns 20 this week, and it’s an anniversary worth noting — yes, for how Kid A changed music, but more so for how it changed Radiohead fandom.

There’s an obligatory story you have to tell about the making of Kid A, so let me just get it out of the way: By the late ’90s, Radiohead were on top and could do whatever the hell they wanted. Three albums in, with the smashing back-to-back successes of The Bends and OK Computer, expectations were riding high. They could be the next U2, people speculated. But expectations have a way of suffocating you, bearing down on you until you slip beneath the surface.

Burnt out from touring OK Computer, Radiohead looked for change. Some of the ideas on the table were pretty radical: Lead singer Thom Yorke even suggested at one point changing the band’s name so as to completely untether themselves from any kind of history and free themselves to experiment. He told a magazine that he’d “completely had it with melody. I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure embarrassment.”

Embarrassment or not, the very same melodies meant Radiohead were sitting on a winning lottery ticket. They’d stumbled upon a sound people craved, and copycats were popping up everywhere. Coldplay, Muse, Keane, Travis — Radiohead-lite was a good business to be in, and melodies were having a nice time. But for Radiohead, it turned out to be rather distressing that bands were trying to sound like them. So instead of owning the space they created, they ripped up the lottery ticket and went back to the drawing board.

As a band, they turned away from traditional rock instrumentation and ventured deep into the woods of electronic music. There in the cold wilderness, they engaged in plenty of experimentation, pursued the abstract, pushed themselves to places they hadn’t been. And it wasn’t without skin in the game — emotions were so heightened that guitarist Ed O’Brien said just the act of choosing the tracks for the album nearly broke up the band.

Kid A, for the most part, works. It has some devastating moments (“How to Disappear Completely”) and stunning ones (“Motion Picture Soundtrack”). They birthed certifiable bops (“Idioteque”) and kind of interesting ideas (“Kid A”). This is a pretty good achievement, and I don’t want to belittle it. But it’s also true that “Treefingers” could’ve just...not happened. “Optimistic” would fit just fine on OK Computer. Mostly, it just sounded like an album where Radiohead were trying very hard to be out of reach.

Reception for the record was split. Was it just noise? Was it the divine? Writing for the New Yorker, the novelist Nick Hornby wrote that the album was marked by a “self-indulgence” that creates a “weird kind of anonymity, rather than something distinctive and original.” A British magazine noted, “What do they want for sounding like the Aphex Twin circa 1993, a medal?”

Twenty years later, Kid A landed at No. 20 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time list. This is actually an upgrade — when the list was last updated in 2012, it sat at 67. So how does an album that mostly works, that lands to mixed reviews, get catapulted to the heights it has reached?

The answer lies in timing. In October 2000, Kid A met the internet where it was — in the electric and paranoid days of the early aughts, when we were all slowly transferring more of our lives online, wary of melding with the machines but optimistic about the ways this could connect us. The early aughts were a confusing time on the internet. Kid A landed in the middle of the rush to make sense of the strange digital world that was emerging, when the internet barely knew what it was.

Fan websites anticipated the record with excitement, and the band met them there, too. Radiohead kept an online log of their work on the album, streamed a webcast (Oh god, what year is it?) from the studio, and even let fans hear rough drafts of the songs. They were just making it up as they went along, but it turned out to be one of the earliest examples of a major band involving fans in album development.

The album split the fandom in two. You either get it or you don’t. 

The album embedded itself in the nascent world of online music sites. Kid A became a part of Pitchfork’s legend after the site was one of the first to post a review. The review was glowing — a perfect 10 — but it was also a little unhinged. It read, in part, “The butterscotch lamps along the walls of the tight city square bled upward into the cobalt sky, which seemed as strikingly artificial and perfect as a wizard’s cap.” I mean, what the fuck? As Devin Leonard notes in Bloomberg, “Radiohead fans spread it across the internet, accelerating Pitchfork’s traffic and, in turn, its influence.”

The review hinted at an obscurity and occasional indecipherability that Pitchfork would go on to be famous for. But that indecipherability wasn’t just limited to Pitchfork — it shrouded Radiohead too: The album split the fandom in two. You either get it or you don’t. It didn’t matter that Radiohead themselves weren’t particularly sure of what they’d just made — the cool kids with obscure taste were quite sure, thank you very much.

Against the mood of 2000, it mattered a great deal that the album was allowed to act as a vehicle for the budding technological confusion. In fact, Kid A became so inextricably linked with the angst that defined that period that a new book by music journalist Steven Hyden, This Isn’t Happening, uses the album as a jumping-off point to capture the turn of the century.

This is where Kid A draws its importance from; it became the soundtrack for disorder, the score for shifting currents. During one of the strangest periods of modern connection and communication, one of the biggest rock bands went and embraced the strangeness.

Let me be clear here: On this count, it’s an important album. Of course it’s an important album. For many reasons, the most obvious of which is that it went on to reshape modern music in its image because so many of today’s biggest artists welcomed Kid A as their guide to the strange times.

The album also went on to transform Radiohead’s image from a very good rock band to credible-as-fuck art dudes. It added an enigmatic dimension to how they were understood — a vindication of the arthouse film crowd on a commercial scale never seen before. Yorke and company scored one for the abstract.

I am not a Kid A hater. I’m agnostic. I have an easy time recognizing that the record is significant. But important and great are not the same thing. This isn’t meant as an insult: It’s actually a freeing thought, that someone could do something massively important without it being, on its face, greatness distilled.

The album became a pivot point for Radiohead, and they never looked back. This is a good thing. Seven years later, the embryonic musical notions that served as the best parts of Kid A showed up fully formed in the band’s seventh album, In Rainbows. It’s a stunning achievement of a record, and it owes its existence to the boldness to just throw it all out and start again on Kid A.

I was working through the ideas in this piece with a music journalist friend whose opinion I trust and who loves Kid A. He offered that he found something about Kid A inspiring: that “if you package abstraction in a certain way,” he said, “it can reach people.”

He’s right. And this is not an easy feat. It is also Kid A’s legacy. It’s an album entirely enjoyed as an idea. It’s a college thesis, a scene filmed in one long shot, a shark in formaldehyde. It’s easier to celebrate the thought of what the album represents than it is to revere what you’re actually hearing. ●

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