Radiohead DeCal: Kid A – Concept Album?

Radiohead circa 2000

Radiohead circa 2000

The past couple of weeks at my Radiohead DeCal, we’ve been listening to and discussing one of Radiohead’s most critically-acclaimed (and most “out there”) albums, Kid A. To add in some perspective, Radiohead were at the peak of their commercial and critical success when they decided to just stop playing rock music. They turned to electronic effects  and drum machines, computer-altered voices, and abstract lyrics. The result changed the landscape of alternative music for years to come by making electronica-influenced sounds an acceptable part of the genre.

I hope discussing the first half of Kid A was as enjoyable for you as it was for us. For your third homework assignment, we want you to discuss why (or possibly why not) you think Kid A is a concept album. It’s totally fine to go along with the already established 9/11 theory or clone concept, although it would probably be pretty fun to create your own insane story behind the album.

Many great works of art, be it paintings, literature, film, or music, achieve lasting influence because they have ambiguous meanings. This results in profound discussion and debate where people bring in their own subjective experiences to make meaning. After all, that’s what makes art, art.

Radiohead’s works are no different, especially the one-two punch of Kid A and its follow-up Amnesiac. These types of sounds and lyrics were quite uncommon in the alternative rock landscape at the time, and fans and critics responded to them in three steps: (1) Initial confusion (2) Possible anger or happiness, depending on how they liked the new direction (3) An insatiable desire to decipher just what the hell Thom and crew were trying to communicate.

From there, we see some crazy theories pop up over the years, as people prescribed their own interpretations of Kid A. Many believed it to be a concept album, with a coherent message somewhere in the chaos. I read over two of the most popular theories (9/11 theory and clone concept theory), and I have to say – very interesting and quite plausible! I could especially see the 9/11 theory working, since so many elements match up eerily well.

Still, I tend to interpret things in a more literal, realistic fashion, and given that Thom himself has refused to dub Kid A a concept album, I have to somewhat concur. To me, Kid A is a concept album in the most general sense. It’s an album that takes many of the biggest fears people have and ask, “What if they actually happened?” It’s an album that expresses a lot of angst, confusion, and nihilist feelings. Many of the songs evoke an end-of-the-world vibe, whether through the lyrics (“Who’s in a bunker…Ice age coming”) or the music itself (Thom’s quivering voice, the horn section cacophony).

I think a great way to get to the essence of this album is to approach it starting from the last song, “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” This song is the final goodbye of someone who has suffered much in life and is going to a better place. All the songs in Kid A lead up to this one, and it’s a great parallel to this person’s life – much of the songs express fear, hurt, and confusion, but now is the end, and we’re going to a better place.

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