In his new book, This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, a story centered on the Radiohead album Kid A, music critic Steven Hyden—without meaning to—asks the “Where were you when…” question regarding the album’s release: “I know I bought Kid A the day it came out, as opposed to downloading it illegally. I know this because I still own it—thank you physical evidence.” This is a book whose central idea is to examine, explore, and critique Kid A—to discover why it remains relevant, what it is still telling us. But more than that, as readers, Hyden says, “we will also revisit parts of our own lives that have since been lost—often without us noticing. Because as much as Kid A enticed listeners in 2000 because it seemed to herald an exciting, shadowy future, we keep returning to Kid A all these years later because it radiates like a beacon illuminating distant versions of ourselves.” Despite this sense of history and nostalgia, Hyden’s book leaves something to be desired in terms of critical analysis.
This Isn’t Happening lies somewhere between an exegesis on Kid A and a surface-level biography of Radiohead. Both angles are interesting; and, both suffer from lack of conviction. Hyden’s engagement with the primary text (i.e Kid A) is sparse. In the first chapter, he provides a track listing of the album written “like bros quoting the Dude at a Big Lebowski convention.” The description of the tracks include lines like “Evil synths,” or “A robot ballet on the moon,” and “The only song on Kid A you could possibly have sex to.” Irony doesn’t always make for good criticism, though.
The Big Lebowski line shows Hyden’s chief approach of contextualizing Radiohead at every turn. At different moments, he seeks to locate Radiohead alongside bands like U2, Oasis, The Strokes, Travis, Suede, David Bowie, and Linkin Park (huh?). That’s not to mention historical moments (9/11, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars), and other pop-culture references. And, okay, fair enough, but Radiohead has always seemed like a band bent on eschewing the kind of contextualization being placed upon it—never content at sitting still, or making the same record over and over. They have no fixed aesthetic, no fixed argument; instead, they use themselves (not, say, U2, or Travis, or Suede), their own work, as reference points.hey are, at once thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In a 2001 MOJO interview Yorke said, “And if we choose to go off in a new direction and do something different, it’s OK if you don’t want to come along this time. But we’ll probably be returning your way sometime anyway. We’ll be getting our guitars out just when everyone else is doing German techno. So don’t worry about us!”
At other times, Hyden’s attempts at adding context seem bizarre. In a passage regarding the song “Creep,” the band’s breakout single, Hyden asks us to imagine a scene from an imagined biopic in which “Daniel Radcliffe, in a tour de force that will finally make the public forget Harry Potter, as young Thom Yorke.” Rami Malek plays “the dashing guitar player Johnny Greenwood.” I guess I’m asking: what does this add to the examination of the Radiohead as musicians or people? How does this imagined film help us understand anything new about Radiohead or Kid A?
To be clear, I am in no way advocating for a New Critic approach; no text is an island, after all. During analysis and criticism of a text like Kid A we have to find a lexicon, a translatable language. And if there is nothing outside the text, then we can connect it to anything we want—but that doesn’t always mean we should. Continuing to look at one pop culture artifact through the lens of another pop culture artifact filtered through irony can leave the original text as a worn palimpsest: unrecognizable, unreadable.
Despite my gripes, I find Hyden to be an engaging, entertaining writer. One of the pleasures of This Isn’t Happening is that I feel like I’m having a conversation with Hyden—even when I don’t agree, or question the comparisons he is making. Hyden is at his best when he is an active agent in the meaning-making of Kid A. Hyden and I are about the same age, and we listen to much of the same music. I feel most free when Hyden allows me the space to engage with my own experiences of and with Radiohead, and music in general—when he sticks with a personal and experiential approach to the album.
It’s then that This Isn’t Happening acts as a reminder as to why Kid A was, and remains, so important, “a doom-laden overture for our modern times.” If nothing else, this book reminds me how important it is to walk into my local record store, to hold physical media in my hand, to talk to the people who work there. It reminds all of us too of what it is, or was, to be excited and confused, to want to share that excitement and confusion with others. It reminds me that I was in Chicago, when Kid A came out, on a two-day drunk sitting in a Mexican restaurant somewhere near or in Lincoln Park waiting for the record store across the street to open. It reminds me that I spent a large part of that same early afternoon talking to the clerks about The Sea and Cake, a Chicago band whose album Oui had also released that day and was playing over the house speakers. But it was Kid A that I played on repeat during the three-hour drive back home to Indianapolis. Over and over and over at turns excited and confused. I drove to a friend’s house and said, “Man, you gotta hear this.”
This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century
By Steven Hyden
Published September 29, 2020