Radiohead Rorschach

A fifth-grader's drawing is worth a thousand-word critical analysis

You've absorbed the deified albums, quarreled over the rock-critic pontifications, frowned at the guarded combative interviews. Thom Yorke's ugly-stick-beaten mug has peered at you from the pages of every music magazine known to man; his every word and every note have ignited Internet flame wars. Mass media have bombarded us with Radiohead critique, rendering us unable to generate an unfiltered opinion.

When you listen to Radiohead, you're no longer actually listening to Radiohead -- you're listening to everyone's opinionabout Radiohead. It's impossible to separate what you hear from what you've read. You are betrayed by what you know, and you know way too much.

Thus, to solicit an honest undiluted opinion about Radiohead, you'd have to find the proverbial People Living Under Rocks. As People Living Under Rocks are unavailable, let's use fifth-graders.

From top to bottom: Maddy, age 10: Radiohead: It's about scenes from Disney's Aladdin. Jeffrey, age 9: Easily the most disturbing of several you're-going-to-hell panoramas. The booth in the center reads "Free Suicides." Someone buy this kid a Coldplay CD. Hannah, age 10: You're-going-to-hell panorama number two. The kid on the mountain is saying,  "I hate my life."
From top to bottom: Maddy, age 10: Radiohead: It's about scenes from Disney's Aladdin. Jeffrey, age 9: Easily the most disturbing of several you're-going-to-hell panoramas. The booth in the center reads "Free Suicides." Someone buy this kid a Coldplay CD. Hannah, age 10: You're-going-to-hell panorama number two. The kid on the mountain is saying, "I hate my life."

These fifth-graders agreed to participate in a simple experiment: We will play a career-spanning selection of Radiohead songs; the kids, equipped with Sharpies and blank sheets of paper, will simply draw whatever the music suggests to them. We don't even give them the name of the band. They don't know anything about Radiohead, the mountain of criticism, the mythology. Their thoughts and interpretations are pure, unsullied, literally unique.

They are also extremely bizarre.

We begin with Hail to the Thief, Radiohead's latest, a critically adored and hopelessly muddled platter of art-rock weirdness. The kids shift restlessly as "2+2=5" sputters into guitar-and-drum-machine gear.

When Thom Yorke's famously tortured croon first surfaces, the whole room starts giggling.

Giggling.

For the first few songs, the kids hardly move, scarcely even changing facial expressions. One girl plants her head on her desk face-first. The "hold your head in your hands and look completely confused" look is extremely popular.

But slowly, they begin drawing. One kid starts scrawling a guitar; the girl next to him immediately begins copying -- an apt metaphor for music criticism.

To dispel the room's chilly vibe, we switch to 2001's slightly less clinical Kid A; the warm keyboards of "Everything in Its Right Place" thaw the kids out a bit. The kid who specifically requested Sean Paul begins drawing what looks like a giant stalk of asparagus.

But let's not peek. So as not to lord over the artists, we snoop around the classroom a bit, particularly the official rules for Room 14. Thom Yorke would be in blatant violation of several of these, including "Don't fidget," "Be helpful," and particularly "Keep negative ideas to yourself."

After the droning horn-blasted dirge of "The National Anthem," we throw caution to the wind and toss on OK Computer's truly psychotic guitar freakout "Paranoid Android," which leads to The Bends' far sweeter "High and Dry," which the class seems to like the best. We consider playing Radiohead's debut fluke alt-rock smash "Creep," but the kids might recognize it, and it's profane besides. Instead, perhaps "Anyone Can Play Guitar" will inspire them.

Unlikely. Returning to Hail to the Thief for the grand finale, the announcement that "Sail to the Moon" will be our last song earns a chorus of "Yessss" and several robust fist-pumps. Thom has made few fans.

Ah, but the experiment yields about 30 stark, black-and-white, Radiohead interpretations that represent the purest, most honest take on the band you'll find anywhere. The kids will now take over; for the rest of you, Radiohead is playing Sound Advice Amphitheatre on Saturday night.

Call ahead before bringing art supplies. It is no longer possible to have an original opinion on Radiohead.

 
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