This multimedia presentation explores how Radiohead, an English experimental music group, critiques America’s global socio-economic influence in the twenty-first century. In their music, videos, cover art, and web sites, the band elaborates this indirect but incisive critique via complex visual, sonic and lyrical allusions to the work of novelists George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon; painters Anselm Kiefer and Jean Dubuffet; and musicians John Cage and Charles Mingus. In this way, Radiohead’s critique differs significantly from those by many English and American music groups and musicians. While Blur, Wilco, Ben Folds, Jimi Hendrix and others condemn post-industrial Americans’ isolation, apathy and consumerism, Radiohead targets America’s current world situation as an instance of a trans-historical, trans-cultural problem famously articulated by Lord Acton: power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Though this critique is a prominent part of the band’s music and art, Radiohead consistently denies that their work is anything but escapist. Using Adorno’s writings on lyric poetry, this presentation will clarify the band’s escapism as a tortured pastoralism where protagonists desire escapeâ€”from personal and private societal pressures, from impotent technologiesâ€”but never finally achieve it. This desire for escape plays an integral role in how the band imagines American political power. On their web site in December 2004, for instance, images of miniature crying minotaurs form a collage with an oil-well pump photograph and pictures of George W. Bush and his first-term cabinet members. In this digital piece (with the file name “nicepeople-1.jpg”), the crying minotaurs, supreme mythic symbol of impossible escape, manifest the band’s escapism as an exaggerated pessimism concerning America’s occupation of Iraqâ€”or as their 2003 song “2+2=5” argues, “There’s no way out.” In conclusion, this presentation argues that Radiohead’s pessimistic aesthetic is a pastiche, one masking a serious call for committed political activism.