On Radiohead, genetics, and bringing up children.
(This is the type of Father’s Day certificate you get
when you’ve been playing too much Radiohead.)
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Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Radiohead.
This might be because there is an anniversary of sorts – the epic O.K. Computer was released just over 15 years ago, and so is finding a renewed presence in various media outlets. But it’s also because I’m simply a fan: I find their musical compositions, instrumentations, and Thom Yorke’s heart wrenching vocals a compelling mix; although admittedly, I do sometimes miss the days when some of their material was a little less challenging to radio ears.
Truth be told, I’m such an admirer that I sometimes bring up Radiohead in my role as a science educator. Here, I might play a specific song of theirs and then project the below statement on the screen:
“The song you are listening to is the title track of a Billboard number one CD. The song and CD appear to have been specifically written and dedicated to the first putative human clone.”
Then I ask my students, “Is this true or false?”
Inevitably, the students will concentrate on the song coming over the speakers, and they will note that what they are hearing, sounds somewhat unconventional. It’s distorted in many places, and doesn’t adhere to any semblance of common chord progressions. It definitely does not sound like an obvious reflection of a Billboard number one CD.
And then the reveal: yes, the statement is true. The song is the title track of the CD Kid A, and on October 21st, 2000, it did chart at number one. Not on the Alternative Billboard chart, or the Electronic Billboard chart, but on the whole-freaking-thing Billboard chart. Furthermore, it does apparently connect with the topic of cloning. At least, that is what you might surmise when you read what Thom once said on the subject:
POSTED BY Thom ON JULY 30, 2000 AT 23.39:21:
IN REPLY TO: Thom, why Kid A?
dedicated to the first human clone.
i bet it has already happened.
In any event, I tend to use this little activity as an excuse to talk about science perceptions, and how topics like genetics can be quite pervasive in popular culture. Not only pervasive, but often with a negative connotation. Think of all the movies where genetics plays an integral part of the conflict in the plot; be it biological warfare in spy franchises, clone armies in science fiction sagas, or even battle scenes between Pokemon characters and their angry identical copies (Yes, there is a central cloning plot to the movie, Mewtwo Strikes Back). In its own way, the song Kid A also presents a certain kind of tone that is both foreign sounding and haunting. Maybe Radiohead did this to add their own criticism of technology to the mix, or maybe it’s more to do with simple representation. Think of how strange an episode of human cloning might be in the here and now, to the clone in particular. Of course, maybe the song just came out that way because the band thought it sounded cool.
Interestingly, the idea of coolness also brings up a strange thought I’ve been considering.
That is: let us assume that Radiohead were right – that they were right about the first putative human clone being produced, or say, conceived roughly in the year 2000. This would mean that their sonic ode would be temporally, fittingly, and perhaps even devastatingly relevant. Furthermore, it would mean that somewhere out there, on our busy little planet, is a child who is technically the song’s point of inspiration, and also a child who is now probably around 11 years old.
What if this child found out? What would it think when it learns that an iconic British band wrote a song for him/her. Would the child write a letter? What would the letter say?
Perhaps, he/she would comment on the science?
“To be honest, I’m not even sure what “human cloning” means, since right now, the science I’m learning at school, is mainly to do with habitats, and food chains and why the sun is super important. Someone did once try to explain the cloning thing to me, but I just got confused.”
Or maybe there would be mention of Radiohead’s popularity
“My parents tell me that you are famous. In fact, they tell me that you are very famous. I have to admit that this is surprising to me, since I have never even heard of you, or even seen you on TV. As well, I tried to listen to the song Kid A, but I think the song was broken since it sounded strange…”
Which, not surprisingly, might culminate in a request to meet, or possibly something more selfish:
“I’m wondering that since you are super famous musicians, that maybe you can introduce me to some of your friends. For instance, have you heard of One Direction? My friends keep playing their CD – it’s really good. It would also be cool to meet Katy Perry or Jay-Z. Even chatting with Justin Bieber might be interesting…”
Which leaves us with an idea that is so deliciously meta. What kind of music would the real Kid A actually listen to? Here, having kids of my own (and despite my best attempts at steering them away from the Disneyfied pop that fills the current musical landscape), I’m pretty sure that this Kid A is not going to be listening to Radiohead. Which is actually very sad – although the glimmer of hope is that maybe it’s sad enough for Radiohead to write a song about.