One night in the summer of 2011, I piled into the steamy kitchen of an on-campus apartment with a group of academics and pastors for a home-cooked steak dinner. We had been away from our homes for weeks attending a seminar and we wanted to enjoy a meal in an atmosphere of conviviality without commerce. We were tired, in other words, of eating out.
As the sweet smell of roasting carrots rose and the room grew almost uncomfortably close, I found myself—a first-year English grad student from a secular research university—at a table with an established liturgical theologian from a divinity school. In the background, someone’s iPod pumped out the clanging, ghostly opening bars of “Optimistic” from Radiohead’s Kid A. The theologian remarked how much he loved the album, which surprised me. He was closer in age to my parents than to me.
The theologian, I later learned, was writing about how the notion of “offering” in Christian worship—which once referred to the Eucharist—had come to mean merely the act of giving money. How had cash supplanted the body and blood of the lamb of God? As I’ve learned more about how Radiohead conceived, created, and especially toured Kid A, I’ve come to see why a theologian concerned with the intrusion of money into worship might resonate deeply with the album.
Kid A was an attempt to short-circuit the mechanisms of commodification set upon Radiohead’s art in the wake of the massive success of their 1997 album OK Computer. Their 2000 “Tent Tour” strove to carve out a utopian space of pure music, in which to play their songs away from market pressures. I’ve come to suspect there’s something profoundly sacred about the band’s pursuit of sonic purity during the period.
A Circus All in Black
The icy digital soundscape and Mad-Libs-from-Hell lyrics of Kid A would seem to render it the least likely of Radiohead’s albums to express anything as earnest as an idea of the sacred. One writer surmises that the record laments the evacuation of spirituality in a technological age. But I see something a bit more complex at work, analogous to what Christian mystics call the via negativa—the negative way, the pursuit of God’s presence by enumerating his endless absences.
The austere style of Kid A and its tour emerged from the band’s political concerns, as the tour designer’s website records. Reading No Logo, the anticapitalist polemic by journalist Naomi Klein, inspired the band. The book traces the evolution of the modern multinational brand (e.g., Nike, McDonald’s, Starbucks) and the consequent colonization of public and mental space by corporations. It goes on to champion the rise of a new anti-corporate activism pursued by students, workers, consumers, and hackers.
The Kid A Tour partook of the style of the new activism Klein chronicled. Radiohead commissioned two 10,000-capacity plain black tents in which to play their shows. The portable venues allowed the band to avoid the advertising plastered all over the usual concert spaces and sports arenas. Their jet-black color scheme might also recall the uniform of the “black bloc” anarchists who smashed up Starbucks properties during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
Yet the Kid A Tour wasn’t an affair of grim protest. The Victorian-style ticket stubs for the tour called the audience to come see Radiohead “Under the Big Top,” like a circus or a revival meeting. One journalist called the portable venue “The Magic Kingdom,” and the band’s guitarist Ed O’Brien acknowledged the concerts’ atmosphere was “very Disney.” The toothy, goggle-eyed teddy-bear face the band emblazoned on the tent even looked like a deranged Mickey. The tour’s brandlessness parodied branding. Such mockery was typical of the activism Klein celebrated in No Logo, as in the “culture jamming” billboard campaigns of the Canadian group Adbusters (later famous as the instigators of Occupy Wall Street).
Joy in the Severe
But how did Radiohead manage to cram such festivity into their austerity? The great dark cowls of those tents of meeting create a space in which to encounter something wild and precious. When speaking about the tour, the band always joined two concerns: avoiding advertising and controlling sound quality. It’s almost as if the former implied the latter—without billboards and beer signs, you really could hear the music better, more purely.
In Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard defines the essence of sin as distraction: The sinful heart’s attention is divided, as by a thousand different simultaneous webverts on autoplay. Only the Good is truly one thing—only God is one—so deviating from the Good looks like multitasking. (Jesus says to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”) For Kierkegaard, confession of sin restores singleness to a split mind. Confession leads us into quiet: “To strip oneself of all that is as full of noise as it is empty, in order to be hidden in the silence, to become open. This silence is the simple festivity of the holy act of confession.” Confession is a festival of silence, a carnival in mourning, a big-top tent in black. Perhaps a Kid A Tour show felt like a sort of confession, too. There you named your entanglement in the multifarious web of brands, abjured the principalities and powers of multinational capitalism, and trained your will upon a single object—music distilled to its very kinship with silence.
For Kierkegaard, even if you don’t will the Good wholeheartedly, you can be led towards the Good by a lesser-but-single-hearted devotion. “True love,” for instance, “is an education toward the Good.” I think pure music, which much exist if true love does, might work the same way. When I listen to Kid A now, that’s what I hear in its pulsing beats, warped vocals, and fried instrumentation: a kind of aural anti-gravity tugging me upward by the ears, away from all lesser objects of attention and nearer to the Good.
Cover image by Nicola Fioravanti.