Last night I was walking on 34th street towards Broadway. It was pretty late, and a restaurant was closing up and, incredibly, blasting Radiohead’s Idioteque into the street.
So many times a day I’m force-fed some techno-pop diva’s vapid hit, or a new dance remix of an Adele song I’ve heard a hundred times (the mere concept of a forced techno beat over her songs absurd), or some tired old 80s hit.
But there it was, Idioteque pumping and reverberating down the street. I could hardly believe it. It was beautiful. For a brief moment, I was living in a world that made sense to me, and it was striking how rarely I hear music that interests me in a public context. I had a glimpse of a universe where people played interesting, sweet music in public places, and I pretended that it was normal. I started singing and bouncing a little in the street – I couldn’t help it. It transformed New York – the dark, pretty chords and ghostly drum machine vibrating off the buildings made the city shine brighter. Thom Yorke’s clever melody and sensitive vocals were the soundtrack to the universe in that moment. It had an obvious effect on everyone around – a random group of people walked by and we smiled at each other. Soon, our little group of strangers (including some Japanese guy on a business trip) were goofily dancing and giggling as we walked. We were outright laughing, immediately friends, with no words spoken.
I often gripe about the state of popular culture (my apologies to all my friends, ever). Sometimes, I doubt my own nerdy ideals. So often I hear “good music is a matter of taste”, “pop music is just fun music”, “simple songs are what people want”. And I agree with those things, but many many people define “fun” and “simple” as “lame” and “commercial”, respectively. But last night I glimpsed evidence in my favor. Radiohead does play simple songs. In fact, they’re outright minimalistic. Harmonically, they’re diatonic and refined. Rhythmically, they’re outright tribal and instinctive. But Radiohead’s songs are clever, and interesting, and sweet. They reflect the mystery and darkness of reality, with a glimmer of hope for optimistic measure. Idioteque’s melody is singable and “catchy” (can we destroy this term?), but it is also unique and meaningful. And people pick up on those things. Stupid people are surprisingly brilliant.
I don’t hate pop music, as many people assume. I just don’t understand why the great stuff isn’t being listened to. Where’s Pedro The Lion’s Second Best or Indian Summer? Where is Rufus Wainwright, Pinback, The Beach Boys? Do people really enjoy Ricky Inglesias over Tom Waits? But how is that even possible? I think it’s only possible in a society that has started to idealize conformity and emotional detachment (yeah, I know that sounds dramatic, but I’m worried I’m right). Not to mention – where’s the jazz? Where’s the classic country, where’s the Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash? If you just want background music that doesn’t require focus and attention, if you want a “vibe”, why not an energetic classical piece by one of the Russian Motherfuckers of the late 19th century? Why can’t the “vibe” be intelligence and brightness? Why some annoying, ethically offensive song about adultery? And seriously, are people still stupid enough to find songs about binge drinking on Fridays empowering or entertaining? Really? Where are these people, and how come I don’t know any?
If I ran the world, here are the “hits” I would force feed the masses today, and I say with 100% confidence, it would make the colors of the world more crisp for 24 hours. http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCA3C036806D6A86E