Written by Nathan Mattise
For two weeks in May I got to live out my academic dream. I had the opportunity to intensely pursue some facet of pop-culture that was seemingly meaningless to some but promised deeper meanings for those passionate enough to analytically pursue it.
MHL 500: The Music of Radiohead – Chuck Klosterman would be proud.
Critically thinking about pop-culture is a beautiful thing. In my Radiohead class, an incredibly diverse group of students united (for two weeks, four hours a day) because of their love of a single band (or in the case of others, their intrigue in a band everyone said to love). Individuals I could never see participating to the fullest extent in some Biology or Calculus class were doing required readings and listenings, adding to the discussions in class and getting genuinely excited about exploring research paper topics. In a weird way, The Music of Radiohead was the most perfect classroom I ever participated in.
I could go on about how Radiohead is a worthy subject to be the focus of such an experience (I have now been convinced they are the most influential band in terms of music and also business since The Beatles, and that no one in my lifetime will ever be as versatile and as meticulously thought out)… but I won’t. Instead, I wanted to share a few example materials from that experience so that others could have a glimpse of what this class was like. Hopefully it all speaks for itself.
- My final paper on how Radiohead’s dominant themes continued to evolve throughout their career (with the related PowerPoint).
- An audio excerpt from the first day of class on is in the May podcast.
- Complete set of notes from the class (courtesy of my classmate Devon).
- Two sample required readings for the class: First David Byrne on how Radiohead changed the industry (and an interview with Yorke), then Paul Lansky’s essay (more on him below).
- Finally, just check out this off-the-cuff Radiohead knowledge I am now able to spew. My favorite song to do this for is Idioteque:
Idioteque is a track of Radiohead’s “Kid A” – an album whose overwhelming theme was present danger of technology (if OK Computer warned of this potential outcome, “Kid A” confirmed it. The album title refers to the first human clone that Yorke believes had already been made).
Anyway, Idioteque is perhaps the most electronic/produced track on an album where Radiohead’s messages were about technology and their music perhaps became as electronic as their sound ever would. Idioteque embodies this nicely. Lyrically it appears to warn about the dangers of the atomic bomb (“Whose in a bunker…” “Ice age coming…” “We’re not scare mongering…” etc.) which perfectly embodies the dominant album theme (and also eeriely warns of a disaster in 2000).
Musically it’s also incredibly electronic oriented. The song is based off a 4-note riff sampled from an early 1970s electronic composition from Paul Lansky (a composition prof. at Princeton who made early electronic compositions, one of which was featured on a Best Of Electronic compilation that Johnny Greenwood got ahold of). The riff happens once in the original composition, Mild Und Liese, and yet Radiohead turned it into the backbone of this song. They simply built around it with processed drums and tons of new electronic tambres. This is the only Radiohead song where the writing is not attributed to all four bandmates… it’s attributed to all four plus Paul Lansky. Easily the biggest royalties check Lansky ever received.
(Links today from Wired.com, YouTube, Google Books and once again my classmate Devon.)