Listening To Radiohead’s “Kid A” At The End Of The World
The world has gotten worse since the seminal album was released, but the songs still serve as a balm.
As you might expect, because I am a white Gen X’er bro in my late forties who was not cool enough to be familiar with Aphex Twin but was hip enough to shit all over U2, I really like Radiohead’s Kid A — which came out 20 years ago this week.
It’s easy to forget just how good things seemed back in October 2000. The prevailing mood was one of optimism. The Cold War was over. The Supreme Court had not yet handed a contested election to George W. Bush. The 9/11 attacks were a year away. Climate change still seemed like a distant concern. The economy was in the midst of the dot-com boom/bubble. The internet was going to bring us all together in a marketplace of ideas, make the world a better place. Handjobs all around. And in the middle of all that, Radiohead rolled out Kid A.
It was some bleak shit.
Kid A, a mostly downtempo, mostly electronic, 50-minute-long mumbling, stuttering dirge, voiced a nihilism and hopelessness, dread and regret that was at odds with a lot of the bubblegum culture of the late ’90s. It spoke to digital alienation, even though it predated Facebook and Twitter and Myspace. It predated most people having an internet connection or an email address or even a cellphone. It was the kind of music you wouldn’t see on a show like Friends. (Fuck Friends. Those assholes probably loved U2.) It was the sound of exiting your twenties and entering some other, more forlorn era.
Kid A sounded like a breakdown. It sounded like coming down off pills the next morning. It sounded like a hospital. It sounded like staring into the flicker of a computer screen, forever. Or at least for 20 years.
When people talk about Kid A, or Radiohead in general, they often attempt to get inside Thom Yorke’s head. But who cares what he was thinking? Who cares what he was aiming for, or trying to accomplish, or wanted to say?
Kid A sounded like a breakdown.
All that matters is what’s on the page. All that matters is how it makes you feel. And for me, at least, from those very first four notes of “Everything in Its Right Place,” you know you are in for an elegiac ride through the darkness of your own soul. There are uplifting moments, to be sure. But it’s the simple plea of “release me” in “Morning Bell” that has always defined the album. Or the repeated cry from “In Limbo”: “I’ve lost my way.”
And that’s why I love this album, and why I think it still stands up, all these years later. Because Kid A was right: The world is fuckin’ bleak.
A lot of us who were in our twenties when the album came out already had that worldview despite the boom times of the late ’90s. But the world proved grimmer than I think most of us could possibly imagine. Even those of us raised in the midst of the Cold War did not expect something like 9/11 and the forever wars that followed. We didn’t expect the way social networks would create anger machines and divide us into tribes. We didn’t expect swipe-by dating and the sexless solitude of modern single life. We didn’t expect Nazis to be culturally relevant again, or the opioid epidemic to decimate our friends and families. We didn’t expect President Trump or President Xi or Prime Minister Modi or President Putin. Well, actually, Putin, we could, but definitely not that the guy would still be in the same gig 20 years later!
The planet is dying, there’s a pandemic that’s killed a million people and counting, cops are still killing Black people, the country is being rent apart by racism and hate, it’s red state versus blue state, California is literally on fire, and did you even see the fucking debate? Did you see it? Jesus. Talk about “Idioteque.”
I read a Rolling Stone story to prepare for writing this piece. And I got to this part and decided I wasn’t going to finish it, or read anything else about Kid A at all (although I might read Steven Hyden’s new book because he is a lovely writer):
Man, was this music fun to argue about. Whether you loved or hated Kid A, it gave undeniable entertainment value. All through the miserable fall of 2000, the debates raged on. Is it a masterpiece? A hype? A compendium of clichés? Will it stand the test of time? Why aren’t “Knives Out” or “You and What Army” on this album? Where’d you park the car? Is Al Gore blowing it on purpose? Why didn’t the umpires toss Clemens after he threw the bat? Where’s “Pyramid Song”? Who let the dogs out? When is the second half of this album coming out — you know, the half with the actual Radiohead songs? How did they get away with that in Florida? Is this really happening?
What? No. I don’t want to argue. This is everything wrong with being a music git. Again, all I care about is how Kid A makes me feel. And Kid A makes me feel a little less alone in my anxiety. Kid A makes me feel kind of like it’s all bad, yeah, but in a beautiful way. In “Optimistic,” when Yorke sings, “If you try the best you can / If you try the best you can / The best you can is good enough,” he’s explicitly not saying it is in fact good! But he is saying it’s going to be okay. And, who knows, maybe it is.
It’s a good album. Sometimes when you’re feeling raw, all you want to do is listen to something that dulls the pain.
There are critics, including my colleague Elamin, who say you can’t have a good time listening to Kid A. They’re right. Yet it does make me feel transcendent. At least sometimes. At least when I let it. It’s beautiful and rich and has these sonic textures that somehow soothe my anxiety, like a nice warm Ativan. Plus, you can actually dance to it. You know, like Aphex Twin. ●