Do You Prefer to Talk About Meaningful Issues? Radiohead’s Conceptual Aesthetic from Hail to the Thief to the Present
This essay explores the album artwork of Radiohead. In particular, I close read the band’s recent album art and its relation to the changing images populating their official web site. Created by Stanley Donwoodâ€”whom some call the band’s sixth memberâ€”and Tchockâ€”a pseudonym for the band’s lead singer, Thom Yorkeâ€”these web images are developing in directions that complement and sometimes infiltrate the band’s album artwork. In short, the web imagery is not a supplement per se but what Derrida might call a dangerous supplement: artwork in its own right that perforates the boundaries of conventional album art, demoting the CD insert to one distribution method among many.
For example, eight painted maps comprised the CD insert art for the 2003 album Hail to the Thief. Using what he called “the colours of LA”â€”black, white, red, green, blue, orange, and yellowâ€”Donwood painted aerial maps of cities including London, Grozny and Baghdad that mimicked capitalism’s deployment of language: seen from above, all space is strictly delimited by capitalized words and phrases like “RETIREMENT,” “LUBE,” and “BEEF.” Whether England, America or Iraq, each map juxtaposed words in vivid colors, regimenting and homogenizing each city via an oppressive sameness of style and color that parodies globalization’s reduction of difference. At the time of the album’s release, the band’s web site was updated with still images and Macromedia Flash movies that expanded on the paintings but also challenged them, converting them, for example, into flashing signs and unplayable games. Since this album, the band’s web site has become a virtual repository of visual ideas, many of which are direct critiques of America’s international military actions and England’s role in those actions.
In closing, the essay examines how the band’s visual influencesâ€”Jean Dubuffet’s critique of capitalism, Jenny Holzer’s axioms, Cy Twombly’s combination of gestural abstraction and text, and Takashi Murakami’s iconic figuresâ€”compete to form a consistent, conceptual aesthetic, one unique in the history of album art.