April 9, 2013

I Don't Like Radiohead: The Problem with Consensus & Independent Taste

If you're a true music fan, someone who cares and really gets it, you love Radiohead; you think Deerhunter and everything Bradford Cox touches is gold; and you worship at the altar of indie heavyweights like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and My Bloody Valentine. For music nerds and the most respected music journalists, these bands are typically treated with an almost religious-like respect and sometimes even worshipped. I, of course, have a deep respect and admiration for all those groups. But do I consider myself a fan or personally enjoy their music? No, not really. Sure, I've probably put a Pavement song on a playlist once or twice. When I was younger, I'm sure I played Radiohead in the car a few times to establish my music credibility to a new friend (probably a girl). But do I ever actively seek out these band's music? Do I—a music-obsessed, band t-shirt wearing, vinyl hoarder—own a single one of their records? Do I ever listen to their music for fun or enjoyment? No, no, and nope.

So, now you're thinking, "This guy has shitty taste. He wouldn't know a good song if it hit him in the fucking face." Well, please read on.

In music, especially the world of music blogs and music superfans (like myself), there's this idea that certain groups are untouchable: that like Mt. Rushmore, they've been permanently chiseled and built into the landscape. That to like and admire great innovative music, means to listen to Radiohead. And if you don't like Radiohead, you obviously don't appreciate difficult or forward-thinking art. Now, I wholeheartedly agree Radiohead is an interesting and innovative band, but why do I have to like them?

There's really few things more personal and subjective in life than art and taste. While it might seem like everyone loves The Beatles—and I'm sure most everyone does—there's also plenty of us who prefer The Rolling Stones. Abbey Road and Rubber Soul are great and all, but personally, I've heard those records enough times in this lifetime. Now December's Children, Let It Bleed, and Exile on Main Street? That music puts air in my lungs. When those records play, I swear I can feel it in my bones, rushing up my spine, and tingling every hair follicle—it's my musical lifeblood.

It's wonderful when massively appealing songs and artists come along so that we can enjoy their music as a community: whether that community itself is a concert, a group of close friends, or even online on Twitter or in a comments section. But it's equally wonderful when a song can elicit two vastly different reactions from two seemingly similar people—it's almost magical. To one person, a James Blake song may sound like pure ecstasy, soft honey, and Jesus. But to another it could either be a snore-fest or unbearably physically acrid, like a surprise gulp of lumpy forgotten back-of-the-fridge milk.

Disagreements are what make discussing art so fun and interesting. I've written here before about my love for lists and list making: it's an opportunity to completely immerse yourself in another person's taste, and listen to artists you might never have uncovered on your own. But there's a down side to that practice: the peer-pressure of consensus building. To appear hip or informed, you might obligingly smudge your own list to fit in with a respected taste maker. When people continually put the same songs and albums up on pedestals it creates an almost historical hierarchy of what's important, which can be both useful and just a little bit dangerous. If everyone's in agreement about what the best ten records are in any given year, then that creates an exclusive environment that potentially leaves out 10 unaccounted for records that might be equally as fantastic. According to just about every major publication, Bon Iver released the best album of 2011; Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was unquestionably the best record of 2010; and Radiohead's Kid A was the best album released in the 2000's. According to Pitchfork, Interpol's Turn On The Bright Lights was the best album of 2002 over Beck's Sea Change and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If every important critic agrees on something, does that make it true? What about a majority of music fans?

Thankfully, taste isn't democratic—it's individual. What if you didn't like or weren't interested in those records? My favorite record from 2012 was The Tough Shits self-titled debut on Burger Records. It was popular enough to sell out it's first vinyl pressing, but outside of a small niche of fans, there's not a whole lot of folks that heard it. My proclamation that The Tough Shits released the best record of 2012 wasn't made to offer an alternative to the norm, it was just honestly the most fun and rewarding experience I had listening to music all year. Recently, I've had on Taylor Swift's Red and Parquet Court's Light Up Gold. I'm picky with my taste, but at the end of the day, I just like a great pop hook and a sharp sense of humor. By not limiting our collective listening to what's solely been celebrated both in the past and present, we're opening ourselves up to new, different, and unexpected discoveries. Sometimes I miss out on bands because they're too celebrated and over-saturated, and that's just as shitty. If everyone likes a song, it's probably worth checking out: just decide for yourself whether or not you like it.

Some music fans prefer humor and crunchy power chords, while others immerse themselves in harps and synth pads. Obviously, there's no one right or wrong answer in music. There is no equation for success. The problem with consensus is it suggests that there is an answer, and that's when the everyday fan or nerd becomes the snob. If a large enough chunk of people like an album, it's for a good reason. That's inarguable. But what's unnecessary is to look down on those that don't agree with you.

This is me: I learned what a verse, chorus, and bridge are from Tom Petty and Joe Strummer; Chuck Berry taught me how to play the guitar; I can't stand REM nor Death Cab For Cutie; I worship The Walkmen, Prince, Nina Simone, and New Order; The Replacements are my favorite band of all time; Kurt Cobain seemed like an interesting guy, but I can't stand Nirvana; I don't ever listen to soft jazz, post 1990s hip-hop, or heavy metal; I love old country and poppy punk; the top three most played songs on my iTunes are Plastic Bertrand's "Ca Plane Pour Moi," Garland Jeffrey's "Wild In The Streets," and Thee Oh Sees' "I Was Denied."

I'm obsessed with music. It soundtracks my every waking moment, and when it's not, I miss it. I'm writing this surrounded by guitars and a beat-to-shit drum kit. I've read and own music industry books like Mansion On The Hill; biographies on The Stones, Petty, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington; one of my favorite books is the oral history of The Replacements, It's All Over But The Shouting. And yes, I really don't like Radiohead. I tried to like it, I promise, but it just didn't stick.

If we're talking about indie, independent, or underground music, here's the deal: we all don't have to like the same records and bands. Independent means you can listen to whatever the fuck you want to. You decide what records are classic, and you crown your own heroes. Difficult or simplistic, analog or computer generated, melodic or dissonant, soft or loud, it doesn't matter—it's up to you.

The Tough Shits - "She's A Loner"

Mikal Cronin


  1. Great post. Just had a brief but similar conversation about Radiohead with someone. They never stuck with me either. I really like their poppier, hookier material but they've otherwise never done it for me. I do love Pavement and MBV, though (and Petty, The Clash, The Replacements).

    My favorite record of 2012 was River City Extension's Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Anger. A hometown favorite.

  2. Well said! That Plastic Bertrand tune is great.

  3. You, sir, are a goddamn boss.

  4. wanna know the perfect example to what you're talking about? The Velvet Underground. i love this band. yet i never listen to the first or second album. all i listen to are the live bootlegs they did from 1969. after cale left the band. with yule on keyboards and bass. one of the best rock bands ever live... ever.

    she's a loner's a really good song. never heard it. dig.

    1. I definitely hear where you're coming from. 'Loaded' is my favorite VU record, which I'm sure a few purists find offensive.

  5. Great article.
    I'm a fan of both the Replacements and Radiohead, but I have to admit not getting Television. I know they're supposed to be this godlike influential band and everything, but there's no connection for me there; my goosebumps remain unraised.
    My album of 2011 was Harbour by Olfar - way off pretty much everyone's radar, but lovely.

  6. this is an amazing post man. Good quotes in here.

  7. enjoyed this, never heard that Garland Jeffrey's tune before, any chance on a top 25 itunes played list or something to that effect?

  8. enjoyed this, never heard that Garland Jeffrey's tune before, any chance on a top 25 itunes played list or something to that effect?

  9. "There is no equation for success. The problem with consensus is it suggests that there is an answer, and that's when the everyday fan or nerd becomes the snob. If a large enough chunk of people like an album, it's for a good reason. That's inarguable. But what's unnecessary is to look down on those that don't agree with you."

    I couldn't agree more.

    Superb post!

  10. Hence all the reason not to make lists, or at least not make hierarchical lists. I remember going through the year end top 10 lists of as many respectable blogs and publications as I could find, and they turned out to be almost the same 20 or so albums placed in different orders. Every once in a while a particularly adventurous reviewer would place an album outside of the usual pile at #1 or #2 as their rebellion. Otherwise the same bands were recycled down to the wording of their acclaim. The consensus at which these publications arrived felt extremely artificial and forced. But the same consensus is perpetuated all the way down to the outsider through the most easily digestible content of all that are year end lists. No one would actually think Radiohead made the best album of the 2000s if Kid A wasn't actually placed on top of some comprehensive yet easy to read list years ago. Consensus building, good and bad start from lists. If you realize that taste is individual, then why the need to order everything you listen to?