Radiohead and “The American Radiohead”: Filling the R.E.M. void
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Wilco and Radiohead are in the news this week, for reasons that highlight the differences between two of contemporary rock music’s longest-running and most respected bands, and subtly underscore why they continue to be linked in the public consciousness.
On Tuesday, Wilco released The Whole Love, its eighth album. The group promoted the record by doing interviews with various media outlets and blogs and performing a special hour-long “Live On Letterman” concert last week. Wilco is also in the midst of a world tour in support of The Whole Love that presently runs through mid-December and—if past tour cycles are any indication—will likely pick up again in 2012 and visit a market near you, perhaps more than once.
Radiohead, meanwhile, suddenly announced last week that it was appearing as the only guest on a special one-hour edition of Monday’s The Colbert Report, a surprise extra TV performance to go along with Saturday’s spot on the season première of Saturday Night Live. Both gigs are intended to push The King Of Limbs, the band’s eighth album, which came out back in February. Radiohead also bum-rushed New York City fans with two concerts this week, the band’s first American shows since the Haiti Relief Concert in January 2010 in Los Angeles. (Which was the band’s only Stateside show of that year.) A tour is expected in 2012, but judging by Radiohead’s past tour cycles, the concerts likely will be scarce and concentrated in only the biggest markets.
As per usual, Wilco is reliable, accessible, and comfortably classic-rock; Radiohead is elusive, unpredictable, and stubbornly esoteric. This is the Betty/Veronica-style dichotomy that defines the bands’ public personae, but the diverging styles yield the same results. People continue to care strongly about Wilco and Radiohead, both of which originate from the ’90s alt-rock era (and yet aren’t saddled with that baggage), have members who are on the north side of 40, and are trying to sell albums this year that are solid, worthy but hardly Earth-shattering efforts. No matter how different their methods, Wilco and Radiohead are excellent at using the media to reaffirm their own stature and importance. Whatever they do, people still pay attention.
It’s a valuable skill, even more so now that R.E.M.’s recent breakup has created a void at the top of the venerated rock-band food chain. In the ’90s and ’00s, the members of R.E.M. acted as honorary big brothers for rock bands struggling to navigate the music industry’s myriad pitfalls. Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Thom Yorke famously turned to Michael Stipe as an advisor for how to cope with rock stardom, creating a support group of sorts for beleagured frontmen. With R.E.M. out of the picture, the role of elder statesmen now falls to Wilco and Radiohead. (I’m discounting U2 here, because U2 has become an industry—nay, a whole galaxy—unto itself. Lots of groups might ape the dynamics and grandeur of U2’s boilerplate sound, but few actually aspire to play stadiums and rub shoulders with world leaders because it’s not a tenable model for anybody that’s not U2. Setting out to become the next Bono is like filling out a job application to become the new Easter Bunny. A fun fantasy, yes, but not a viable career plan.)
Wilco and Radiohead arguably were already in the standard-bearer role long before R.E.M. called it quits. Looking at the most important indie-rock bands of the past decade, many of them can be classified as either a Wilco or a Radiohead. Bands that play around with American music forms and arena-rock influences (My Morning Jacket, Band Of Horses, The Hold Steady) in a somewhat off-kilter (Spoon) or moody (The National, The Walkmen) fashion are Wilcos. Bands that deconstruct their songs and piece them together in ways both beautiful (Grizzly Bear) and anarchic (Animal Collective) in order to challenge the traditional rock-band format (TV On The Radio) while at the same time pointing toward new possibilities for that set-up (Deerhunter) are Radioheads.
Wilco and Radiohead have been connected in the public eye since the early ’00s, when rock critics started referring to Wilco as “The American Radiohead.” The descriptor nodded to Wilco’s reputation for sonic experimentation and studio fussiness in the wake of 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a record that many saw as the rootsier, somewhat more humanistic response to Radiohead’s Kid A, which was released two years prior. If YHF had come out before Kid A, people might’ve started referring to Radiohead as “The British Wilco.” But the suggested pecking order here makes sense: Radiohead has long been deliberate in downplaying its level of prominence, while Wilco has always scrapped to maintain it.
One person who has shuddered over the “American Radiohead” tag is Jeff Tweedy, who’s been periodically asked about it in interviews for years. In 2004, he used “American Radiohead” as an excuse to take a jab at lazy music journalists, calling it “critical shorthand for ‘I don't know what to tell you it’s like, but trust me you’ll like it.’” Earlier this year, in an interview with the Honolulu Weekly, he seemed more accepting of that shorthand, even while admitting, “I don’t really see it. I don’t really hear it. I know that when people say it they’re saying it as a compliment… I think?”
It’s understandable that Tweedy would cringe at “American Radiohead”; by now, Wilco has distinguished itself enough where using another band from the same era to validate its existence can only be read as an insult (or at least a backhanded compliment worthy of a pointed question mark). And yet the term still occasionally appears in features and album reviews about the band, even if Wilco and Radiohead no longer sound much like each other. In fact, King Of Limbs and The Whole Love might be the least like each other that these bands have ever sounded. Limbs is a pared-down glitch of chopped-up rhythms and subliminal melodies; it’s meant to be pored over, though even then that feeling commonly known as “enjoyment” might be a long time coming. The Whole Love, in comparison, is like musical comfort food, presenting Wilco at its most likable and straightforward on a collection of songs based in feel-good power-pop and easygoing country-rock, among the most digestible of all rock subgenres.
And yet, when looked at more broadly, King Of Limbs and The Whole Love might as well be the same album. They both have their merits, but they’re essentially placeholder records; they refine what each band does in small ways, but they aren’t all-that surprising coming from their respective creators. They tell us nothing new: Once again, Radiohead is “difficult” and Wilco is “classicist.” Unless you find either group “boring”—and there’s a good probability that if you dislike one, you probably dislike the other—neither record can be credibly described as tiresome. But they likely aren’t going to be anybody’s favorite records by these bands, either.
What really unites Wilco and Radiohead at this point is how they conduct their careers. Both bands have been celebrated for publicly bucking the music industry; Wilco did it in the wake of being dropped by Warner Bros. over YHF, and Radiohead’s moment came several years later with the pay-what-you-will In Rainbows. In the process they’ve established a level of corporate independence most artists envy and few can realistically attain. Wilco and Radiohead are set up to put out records, launch tours, and do whatever else they want for as long as they want, thanks to strong fan bases they’ve spent years cultivating.
When I interviewed Tweedy recently, he laughed when I suggested that other bands now look to Wilco as a model for how to make it long-term as a rock band. “If anybody wanted to model themselves after us, they better be fucking be patient,” he said. You hear that, other bands? Jeff Tweedy says patience is important. You might want to write this stuff down.