Radiohead's lyrics as tools of guidance
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Radiohead, and specifically Thom Yorke, speaks in fragments. The band's songs, especially after The Bends, are dense collections of thoughts and notes that collaborate to form a loose narrative. It’s the fragments that serve as a hook, though not in the traditional sense.
I tend to despise artists that rely on “hooks,” those earworm-infectious pieces that cause traditional labels to salivate, getting worked up over the next disposable piece of pop to invade the airwaves. Writing a “hook” is, obviously a rare talent. The Black Eyed Peas can write a hook exceptionally well. They’re also complete drivel. Should they be admired for it? To each his own.
But I digress. Radiohead has had a number of lyrics over the years burrow themselves into my subconscious. In high school, a line from OK Computer’s “Paranoid Android” hung with me, one with at least two meanings that left me scratching my head, wondering if it was a condemnation or a clever play on a premise:
“AMBITION MAKES YOU LOOK PRETTY UGLY.”
For a kid who was too wired to be a slacker but too self conscious to make any sort of real leap to the head of the class, this became a personal rally call to keep myself in check. Ultimately, I might have held myself back, as the narrator of the song surely did before … well, to be honest, I don’t know what “Paranoid Android” is about. I’ve been listening to it for 14 years and I’m still not positive.
By the time college came around, I started to come into my own and find myself. I started to really make decisions with my own personal happiness in mind for the first time. The clothes I wore were what I wanted to wear, the people I hung out with were people I liked and not people I just wanted to be seen with, and I focused on the classes I took with the idea that it would be beneficial to me down the road. On top of that, I really liked all the ideas that were floating up and down the lecture halls, passed between equally excited students in common areas between sessions.
Through college, I got in the habit of buying one gigantic Mead Five-Star notebook, with the durable cover and plenty of folder pockets inside. There was always enough space to fit everything for the semester, and it was easy enough to just throw that in my bag and lug it around campus. I was also in the habit of writing on the cover in marker or a whiteout pen, with doodles, logos and lyrics.
I’m prone to frustration, and frustration grew by the time my senior year rolled in. I’d had enough of taking classes I didn’t want to take to fulfill requirements outside of my major, and I wanted to be able to get out, get a job, and start feeling like an actual adult.
This was 2003 and 2004, but 2001’s Amnesiac was still very much in rotation, especially the opening track, “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box.” Across the cover of my main notebook my senior year, I’d written this:
“I’M A REASONABLE MAN
GET OFF MY CASE.”
As the college notebooks suggested, I look for little ways to motivate myself in life. I keep baseball cards on my desk at home and at work to remind myself that I’m not far removed from the excited little kid who lived for them. I keep my iPod and headphones with me at all times. Most of the time, I carry a notebook (or two) with me, to encourage myself to jot down ideas as they come.
Song lyrics serve a big role in keeping myself sharp. I keep fragments of songs around me most of the time, or reminders of something I’m trying to focus on. I don’t have ADD, but like anyone else, I can lose focus.
The first time I travelled to San Francisco, I was bombarded with ideas and inspiration. Everywhere I turned, there were talented people displaying their art. There were bookstores bursting with thoughts and movements. There was thrilling music being played and sold on every corner. There were movies playing that, not only had I not seen before, but I didn’t realize were being made.
The rhythm of the city was infectious, and I wrote quite a bit over the course of that week. Every morning, I was in a different cafe filling my notebook with new experiences and thoughts. I felt like I could do anything.
I wanted to preserve the moment. For most of that week, I’d been wearing my Red Sox hat, a fitted wool cap I’d had for a few years before, one that remains my cap of choice in those circumstances where I feel the need to wear a hat. Sitting on a subway car, I wanted to preserve a refrain from “Where I End And You Begin,” a track from 2003’s Hail to the Thief that I had listened to, with little pause, for three years straight.
I wanted a constant reminder of that inspiration. I wanted to reassure myself of my own capabilities, and I wanted a sly threat to the rest of the world that, when properly motivated, I can be a dynamo and a prick.
Ambition is only as ugly as its creator’s intentions.
March 1, 2011
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com