I spent the summer of 1999 the way I spent most summers as a kid: bored, on the swing set in our backyard, waiting by a boombox. When the right song came on the radio—“All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, or maybe “Fly” by Sugar Ray—I pressed record on the tape deck. It got me high, to capture a fleeting moment like that on tape. I’d rewind it and swing, listening to the music Doppler back and forth in my ears, drunk on the melodies. It’s hard to describe the pleasure I’d get from this without resorting to cheesy drug metaphors. These tapes made me feel good, plain and simple, like some god of my backyard-size universe.
I don’t remember how NOW That’s What I Call Music Vol. 1 entered this picture. I know that it wasn’t always there, because it eliminated the need to wait by the radio. All my favorites were now on one handy compact disc: “Together Again” by Janet Jackson, “I Will Buy You a New Life” by Everclear, “As Long as You Love Me” by the Backstreet Boys. It had one undeniable classic (“MmmBop”), the weirdest one-hit wonder of the decade (“Sex and Candy”), and the high water mark of the swing revival (“Zoot Suit Riot” by the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, a band whose repulsively bone-headed name I never understood until now). It was truly a slice of late-‘90s radio; the only thing missing was a Third Eye Blind song. I loved this stuff. Passionately, indiscriminately, in a way that only a child with one CD probably could have.
NOW 1 had some dead weight though: K-Ci & Jojo, Imajin, “Barbie Girl,” by Aqua. Usually I skipped over these, but if my older brother was around, we let “Barbie Girl” play out. We thought it was funny to parody the lyrics in an affected, girly sing-song. I’m a Barbie Girl, in a Barbie World. It’s fantastic, dressed in plastic. You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere. In a way, it was funny: two boys with a prepubescent grasp of irony, parodying a parody. The song that followed was less fun. It was sluggish, full of eerie piano chords. The singer sounded like he was moaning the way you do when you’re sick and you want someone in earshot to feel bad for you. As the youngest, it was my job to descend from the swings, walk over to the radio, and press my index finger on the skip button. That song was “Karma Police” by Radiohead.
What Radiohead, the face of anti-corporate art rock, was doing on a record that could be accurately described as the essence of a Wal-Mart music aisle, is a good question. I don’t remember hearing them on the radio. “Karma Police” might have been popular on college stations, but on the Billboard charts that determined what I listened to, it peaked at a lowly 69. Even to my ears now, it doesn’t meet NOW 1’s accommodatingly broad definition of pop music. It has an interesting melody, but it lacks momentum and charisma—the stuffing of any decent pop song.
For a long time I never realized that Radiohead was on NOW 1. Like the other duds that weren’t “Barbie Girl,” “Karma Police” never made enough of an impression to register. It wasn’t until I was a full-fledged Radiohead fan in college that I rediscovered the jewel case and realized what I’d been skipping over all those years. A weird moment of cognitive dissonance followed. On the one hand were my childhood musical inclinations; on the other was my collegiate fixation with Radiohead. Somewhere in between my music taste did a 180. What happened?
During the early half of high school, I was into “screamo” music. “Screamo,” for anyone who didn’t attend high school in the mid-2000s, sounds like what you think it does. Imagine a sentimentally-charged punk song (an emo song) jacked up on drop-D metal riffs for dummies, punching a hole in the wall of a suburban basement. This was music written by and for intense teenagers, most of them white, male, and dressed like myself: tight jeans and band T-shirts. The one key I owned (to my Mom’s house) dangled from a neon green carabiner over my right butt pocket. I’d never been drunk or high, but I Sharpied black Xs on my backpack to let everyone know I was above all that. The shows were weird, comic affairs: angsty teenage boys screaming about girls and death (like they were synonymous) in traditionally hushed settings—a church, a library, occasionally a suburban back yard.
I met Andrew in the parking lot of a Baptist church after one of these shows. I recognized him from geometry class, where we sat near each other, but had never spoken. Andrew was not a “screamo person.” I was surprised to see him in this crowd. I was even more surprised to learn we had bands in common. Emo bands, for sure, but not the kind my brother and his screamo cohort went for. These were bands who chose to sing instead of scream, to employ chords and melodies in lieu of dissonance. Andrew knew them all, and then some. He couldn’t believe I hadn’t listened to Radiohead. We made plans to hang out and burn each other’s CD binders.
Andrew turned me onto a slew of bands in the years that followed, but Radiohead was not among them. He burned me copies of OK Computer, Kid A, and Hail to the Thief. Amnesiac, too, I think. It doesn’t matter; none of them stuck. I skipped through them in a desultory haze, hunting for that dizzy high I expected music to deliver. That was back when I had a job cleaning preschools on the weekend. I didn’t have access to the internet. I definitely didn’t read music blogs. The only context I had for these Radiohead records were the toilet bowls I scrubbed while listening to them. I remember thinking I’d stumbled onto an apt soundtrack for doing that.
The song that finally kicked down the doors to the kingdom was “There There (the Boney King of Nowhere).” It took a while to find it. It’s buried deep on Hail to the Thief, where it emerges from a cloud of glitchy studio wonkery, riding an actual analog drum beat. I can’t think of another Radiohead song that grooves this urgently. Every time I hear it, it takes a saintly act of self-restraint to not drop what I’m doing and start banging air toms. I was hooked even before the chorus, which featured the first complete sentence in a Radiohead song I actually understood: “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.”
How Radiohead, that use of a vague pronoun. Just ‘cause you feel it? Just ‘cause you feel what, exactly? Love? Anxiety? Hope? My teenage ear understood that it to be the feeling you get when a song guns it to your core. Maybe you get chills down your spine, or maybe your head goes weightless. I tend to get goosebumps on the back of my forearms and a cold tingling on the back of my neck, like someone has placed a damp cloth there. Whatever it is you feel, I had the impression that Radiohead was saying it didn’t mean shit. This was a decidedly anti-emo thing to sing. From a screamo standpoint, this was blasphemy.
It feels a bit contrived to hold one line in a Radiohead song responsible for a sea change in my music taste. The truth, of course, is that it happened gradually, for a lot of reasons. I made more friends like Andrew, with CD binders of stuff I’d never heard of. One of them introduced me to Pitchfork, where I discovered sarcastic takedowns of my favorite emo bands alongside fawning reviews of Radiohead records. Pretty soon the old me, the screamo me, was buried under a mountain of cultural detritus. By the time I left for college, screamo was an embarrassing phase best left unmentioned, like a LiveJournal account you forgot to deactivate. Real art, I might’ve told anyone who had the misfortune of talking to me around this time, was more than just a vessel for emotion. It had something important to say about society. It was inherently difficult, and if you didn’t get it, well, you didn’t get art. I remember listening to that robot voice in “Fitter Happier” talk about “getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries”while I walked to the campus dining hall to eat food I wasn’t even paying for. That was the same year I paid $80—a small fortune in undergraduate expenses—to see Radiohead play a huge amphitheatre show. I literally called them “the greatest band on Earth” in my campus newspaper.
Looking back on my life as a music listener is a good exercise in embarrassment. From about middle school onward, I was—to borrow a popular word from middle school—a poser. The music I liked said more about who I wanted to be than who I actually was. Consider one of my favorite songs, “Title Track” by Death Cab for Cutie (more girls and death!), which has a line about tasting a girl’s lipstick on the filter of a cigarette. I was 14 years old when I heard this song. My lips had never tasted a cigarette filter, nor a girl’s lipstick. But something about that line left a profound mark on me. I wanted to identify with it, more than I actually did. It was this same yearning that drew me to Radiohead, I think. I liked the cover of Hail to the Thief more than I liked most of the songs on it. I wanted to care about the dehumanizing effects of modern life, long before I’d even filed a tax return.
The funny thing about these postures is that by the time my actual identity caught up with them, the music had lost its luster. My affinity for screamo dried up quickly after my first girlfriend. Those songs were all histrionics and emotional fireworks; they had little to say about the day-to-day banalities of an actual relationship. Graduating from college had the same effect on Radiohead. Songs about the soul-sucking corporate world, it turned out, weren’t that great a soundtrack to actually work to. I currently spend the 9-to-5 hours of my week in a windowless cubicle of an office building; the last thing I want to listen to is a record about it.
If I go back to Radiohead at all, I go back to In Rainbows. In Rainbows is not an experimental record about the demise of western civilization. In Rainbows is a pretty basic rock record for adults with feelings. I like to think of it as OK Computer Lite: “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” with all the “Fitter Happier” bullshit stripped away. When it came out, many critics noted that Radiohead had put out a love record. That seems like a lazy generalization to me, but “House of Cards” is a love song. “Reckoner” has some of the most emotive moaning of Thom Yorke’s career. “Videotape,” a piano ballad about an old timer pulling out old VHS tapes of his life, might be the most sentimental thing they’ve ever recorded. Even “There There,” with its skeptical chorus, wouldn’t sound out of place on In Rainbows. Because that’s the weird thing about Yorke’s knock on feelings: it’s dripping with feeling. Each time Yorke sings it, he stretches the syllables out a little further, loading them with all the sentiment they can handle. Juuuuusst ‘caaaaause yoouuuuu feeeeel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.
I could go on, but the basic gist of it is this: In Rainbows still puts goosebumps on the back of my forearms, and their other records don’t. I’d say there’s even a chance that tiny, ten-year-old me might not have skipped every song on it. But that’s hard to say. Sometimes I pretend I can still regress back to being that little kid on the swing set, communing with the angels over “MmmBop,” but I don’t think it works that way. Once you’ve handed over your music taste to older siblings, or friends, or the internet, it’s a bit like a faustian bargain. You don’t get to take it back and start over. A part of me, I suspect, will always be like that one-key carabiner guy at the screamo show, trying to prove something to somebody. When a song like “There There” totally bowls me over, the best I can do is tell that guy to shove it, and wait for the tingling in my forearms. That might be the only way you know it’s not another posture, that it’s actually there. Just ‘cause you feel it.