If someone told you 20 years ago that a stark, alienating sonic experiment about anxiety attacks and dissociative response told the future, would you believe them?
In so many ways, Radiohead’s fourth studio album was a prophecy. Eschewing guitars for modular synths and Cubase, the accidental rock gods forged a daring path. Kid A was tough to digest and not universally loved by critics, but its apocalyptic themes of heartbreak, desolation, global warming, and empty escape in consumerism struck true for fans and carries weight two decades on. As a soundscape, it’s incredibly visionary. Compositional changes almost broke the band, but it made them legends instead.
As we look back on this 20-year anniversary, Kid A is as experimental a statement as ever. It has not been followed like pop paint-by-numbers, too cerebral to be mass-produced by any other band. It’s a sonic lump in the throat, the first eye wet when you’re holding back tears. I mean, that’s 2020 in a nutshell.
My journey with Radiohead started on a train. OK, I was on a couch, but Michel Gondry picked up my 13-year-old brain and stuck it in a cardboard diorama so surreal, I could feel the bumps on the track.
In 2001, I spent most weekend nights stuffing my face with barbecue-flavored Fritos watching music videos. My dad had amped-up cable, so I had access to MTV, VH1, Much Music, and The Box. Sometime that August around 3 a.m., I stumbled on “Knives Out.” It was weird, dude; the weirdest thing I’d seen since Tool’s creepy “Schism” video, but quirkier. That life-size Operation game was so visceral, I might have dropped a corn chip. The guitar was so sad and warm. I was unsettled, and I loved it.
As soon as Thom Yorke’s strange little mouse face gave its last wink, I scrambled to the family computer to Ask Jeeves about Radiohead. To my surprise, I had seen that freaky modified bear face before.
Digital animals on my mind, I scrolled my cursor to the cool Napster cat and double-clicked. Some song called “Idioteque” had the most seeds. About 20 minutes later, my body splashed into an icy-cold ocean of computerized noise. By the time I heard the corrupted bounce at 0:12, I was hooked. Mobiles skwerking and chirping, I queued up the other eight songs (“Untitled” being a hidden track at the time) of this Kid A album and went back to couch surfing.
Yes, piracy is stealing, but I was far from the only cyber bandit pillaging Radiohead’s treasure. Released October 2, 2000, Kid A was famously forward-thinking with a digital market strategy that included “iBlip” Java applications fans could embed in their websites (GeoCities, anyone?). The band didn’t make any music videos for the album (“Knives Out” is from 2001’s Amnesiac), nor did they release any proper singles, but the LP was streamed 400,000 times via these weird little windows.
Then there were kids like me.
“The cool thing about Napster is it encourages bootlegging,” singer Thom Yorke told Time Europe 21 days after Kid A‘s release. “It encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do. I think anybody sticking two fingers up at … the whole f___ing thing is wonderful as far as I’m concerned.”
You hear that? Thom Yorke thought I was “wonderful,” and the feeling was mutual. When I woke up, Kid A was downloaded in full, so arranged the tracks in the proper order and burned it to a rewritable CD. I drew a hot bath and waded into what would be my first real avant-garde experience.
It was a different flavor of electronica than I’d yet experienced from Daft Punk or The Prodigy. It was more like Aphex Twin; colder, more mechanical, full of catastrophe and mortal suffering – all of which hit pretty high on my list of things to feel as a tweenage suburban weirdo.
There’s a certain kind of black-eyed stillness that comes with Kid A. “Everything In Its Right Place” is detached and yet incredibly emotional. Even 20 years later, the hit of that first crystal blue synth stirs me numb. Hypnotic, harrowing, and beautiful, the best parts of the album are often the stretchiest; where the sound twists out in warbling, meditative waves.
I used to love listening to Kid A to fall asleep, the tinkering-toy lullaby of the title track rocking my brain waves into eery, ambient bliss. “Standing at the shadows at the end of my bed,” Radiohead is the doomsday pied piper I followed right up to now.
I cover my heart with my hand when I sing “The National Anthem,” screeching coy over feedback and mud. When I need to escape the anxiety of global plague with a side of complete political breakdown, I close my eyes and remember “How to Disappear Completely.”
Life in 2020 is tragic. You have to go inward to find peace, like a hollow “Treefingers” interlude. “You can try the best you can,” and “the best you can is good enough.”
The world wants you to believe you can buy enlightenment; that you can fill the hole in your soul and the ozone layer with green tea, bamboo toothbrushes, and international travel package deals. That’s just being “Optimistic.”
Track 8 is the real enemy. I grew up in South Florida, and I’ve seen Miami flood on sunny days when the tide gets too high. Three months ago, I got a sublease in California. It wasn’t safe to go outside or breathe the air for four days, and the president said “I don’t think science knows, actually.” We’re not scaremongering, climate change is really happening, and Yorke’s ghostly voice has been crying that fate for two decades.
I’ve never been married and so I’ve never been divorced, but if I had, I’m sure “Morning Bell” would have been in high rotation. My 20s were littered with violent breakups and enough drunk encounters to make sense of “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” DSPs don’t honor the minute of silence between that song’s glistening chime end and “Untitled’”s tonal release, but that small break is a chance to gather the courage needed to walk into a post Kid A society.
I like to think I’ve stabilized in my 30s, but the world around me has not. That’s why Kid A and the band that wrote it feel so damn relevant. It’s still kind of hard to listen to, but not because our ears aren’t trained for electronic weirdness. Radiohead plays the creeping feeling of now, but thank goodness someone set that nervousness to wax. Rinsing our fears helps to alleviate the stress and lets us know we aren’t alone.
Kid A was a No. 1 album in the UK and the United States. Steven Hyden just published a whole book about the LP and its impact at the turn of a century. It is the screeching grind of humanity’s gears as we lurch toward whatever the hell this future is. Each day is uncertain and a little scary, but Kid A is a timeless classic no matter what.