"How to disappear completely": Radiohead and the resistant concept album

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Letts, Marianne Tatom

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The band Radiohead has consistently articulated an anxiety about capitalist culture, despite producing its own commodity for mass consumption. In this dissertation I examine in detail Radiohead’s two “experimental” albums, Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), and investigate the ways in which the band’s ambivalence toward its own success manifests in the albums’ vanishing subject. I review the analytical attention paid to the concept album in popular music, which can be broadly categorized as either narrative or thematic. An additional category of concept album is the resistant album, which expands the boundaries of the traditional concept album by subverting expectations of narrative. The global popularity of Radiohead’s first three albums created an ambivalence within the band members of trying to duplicate their known formula for success or striking out in a new direction. Kid A and Amnesiac were released within six months of each other and have been taken for the most part as companion pieces. Contrary to earlier concept albums, Kid A presents a tentative subject that is finally given full voice on the album’s fourth song but is immediately erased by the other instruments. This existential “death” of the subject, halfway through the album, presents a problem in constructing any narrative. Because the subject is consumed by the instrumental texture, he must be reconstituted for the second half of the album and begin his struggles anew. The conflict the subject of Kid A feels is a mirror of the band’s own feelings toward its success. The subject ultimately “dies” again at the end of the album, in a theatrical enacting of suicide. Amnesiac has been described as a companion piece, a synthesis of musical influences, and a possible antidote to Kid A’s alienation. Rather than tentatively building up the subject and then erasing him, Amnesiac presents a subject that, although present from the beginning, is spiritually dead. Ultimately this image stands as a symbol for the commodity itself, and for Radiohead’s failure to exist outside the corporate record industry.