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Pop Rhetoric: OKNOTOK is not what rock and roll needs right now

Arts & Entertainment/Pop Rhetoric by

For all their talk about being so vehemently anti-capitalist, and–by proxy–true to their art, Radiohead loves a good gimmick. It was around this time last year, for example, just days before the release of their first album in seven years, that the British rock band effectively erased themselves from the internet. One by one, the band members deleted all of their social media pages. It was an obvious maneuver, but a clever one: An anti-PR-PR-stunt. It wasn’t the first time the band has attempted an exploit of that nature either.

In October 2007, Radiohead made the startling decision to self-release their album In Rainbows online as a pay-what-you-want download. While the album itself—in all its electronic majesty—was well-received, something about its release seemed to rub people the wrong way. Maybe it was the sense of gallantry that the gesture implied, or the glaring attempt to stay current. Regardless, it was a huge “fuck you” to the music industry, when it began to dawn on everyone that self-releasing an album meant that the band kept all the money that it earned, instead of paying a cut to the record company. Not that money was the issue, per say, but rather, as it so often is with Radiohead, it was more about the principle of the thing.

The band’s latest ballyhoo comes in the form of an extravagant reissue of their 1997 record OK Computer. In honour of the 20th anniversary of what many fans hail as their best album, Radiohead will release a box set entitled OKNOTOK-1997-2017. It will contain the original 12 track album as well as eight B-side tracks from past EPs—the kicker being the three unreleased songs that have been circulating since ’96. For a mere $130, fans will also receive a copy of frontman Thom Yorke’s 100-some page journal of handwritten notes—sure to contain some kind of historic marginalia—, a booklet of previously unreleased artwork, and a C90 cassette tape of demos and archival works. Discography junkies everywhere are losing their minds.

Album reissues are notorious for creating an undue amount of media attention for artists. They are a crafty way to manipulate obsessive fans into buying a record they already own with the promise of some elusive, long-lost demo and/or slightly “remastered audio.”

As Jessica Hopper wrote in 2011, regarding the 20th anniversary reissue of Nirvana’s Nevermind, “Does anyone imagine that kids deafened by two decades of increasingly shitty mastering and compression […] will be able to hear the difference?”

The unreleased tracks seem to be the only part of the reissue worth any fuss. One of them, Lift, has been a fan favorite ever since it was first performed in 1996, but has yet to appear on an album until now. It is a gorgeous song; full, soaring, and uncharacteristically uplifting. It deserves its own album—not to be tacked onto the end of the last one like an afterthought.

In this day and age, the act of challenging an artist’s moral integrity seems almost childish—there is a certain piousness to declaring someone a sellout. Still, Radiohead has a long history of being annoyingly self-righteous. They kept their music off of iTunes until 2008. For nine years they refused to play “Creep” live, and in 2013, Yorke called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” He also loves Naomi Klein and thinks the Spice Girls are the anti-Christ. And yet, the irony of reissuing the album that was once a symbol of anti-establishment and rebellion seems to have escaped the band.

If there was ever a time for another album like OK Computer to be released, it’s now. It was a strange and wonderful torch that Radiohead carried for the disenfranchised and the disobedient. It was bizarre and it was beautiful—and OKNOTOK will not do it justice.

  • John

    Radiohead was always commercial. They’re the most popular alternative rock band maybe ever and have always played by the rules. Don’t get your knickers in a twist over a fan-service reissue package.

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