this must be the place....goin strong , yeah baby!!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reposting: The Meaning of Kid A

Kid A, whether you love Radiohead like everyone else does or not, is an absolute triumph of album sequencing. I'm pretty sure that's what makes this album work best of all, apart from all the esoterica and the blips/bleeps. Rarely does a set of songs lend itself so easily to hitting a play button then letting the stereo do all the work for you, no questions asked.

If we want to talk geographic memories for this album, I'm thinking of Bonetown when Caroline painted gold walls, sitting in Cloud's Corner watching 2001 with Trip, hanging out in an appartment with Charles, Shelly, and ______ talking about going to Heaven while listening to track 10. 

But I'm also thinking about senior year of high school when I used to go to bed after smoking and picking an album for close headphone listening in darkness. The time I did this with Kid A, I imagined that the album was telling a story. This is what I thought of:

Track one, "Everything In Its Right Place," is about a time roughly near to now. Maybe it's best to assume that it will be about some time in the future when the economy stops pissing everyone off. Humanity is feeling good about itself. It has brought forth technological innovation to bolster its own existence and modify life such that no other times before then were as great or enjoyable. Things seem like they are really coming together nicely across the world. But there's a hint of chaos behind the ease of innovation; cold, calculated logic is given to glitches and error at times, even in the purest of machines (the element that represents this is the slow morphing of phrases like yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon or there are two colors in my head / what was that you tried to say). Still, people aren't really thinking too much about the omens. It's too nice and we'd rather not worry at this point.

Then we move on to track two, "Kid A." We are building upwards and upwards and upwards with seemingly no limit in sight. And we still feel as if we are being made to have an easier, happier life with each increase. Our machines are powerful, our tasks are simplified, and our output is better than it has ever been because of the increasing interconnectivity and power of every technology we continue to roll out into the world. We see no need to suspect that anything we are doing could lead to a bad result, so long as we are in control of the machine and we use it to good ends. But as history has shown, power corrupts in one way or another...  "Standing in the shadows."

Which brings us to "The National Anthem," when shit starts to go awry. For the story I'm telling I take the title pretty literally and apply it to a kind of New World Order scenario. Politics have merged with the relentless onslaught of technology, and somewhere along the line perhaps an idealogue rises up with the power and uses it to consolidate a wide base of influence on a scale unprecedented in history. But with the advent of so much interconnected and utile technology, the New politics are about unification under one world banner. Countries are the way of the old world where we humans did not have the power to survey the entire planet at the click of a button. Now, the new power is unity in and of itself. There will probably be violent resistance to this kind of movement, given the streaks of nationalism that have torn parts of the world asunder in the past, but the sheer force of the superior powers that will be used under the new governments, with the technology that made everyone so happy before, will be simply turned against any resistance. I bet it'll be a brutal landslide, and perhaps there will be echoes of discontented warnings in the past as the technology gripped the world, but no one will have predicted the ease at which the New World Order unifies the planet. "Everyone is so near."

"How to Disappear Completely" is about the consequential deemphasis of the individual in the new world. There are hints of a collectivist ideal in the new power of the Order and in the unity. Brief aside: I think it's highly likely that there is at least some life out there somewhere in the Universe that is not necessarily human. At this point in our development [I'm talking about the real world here, not the Kid A story], there is no real need to consolidate the planet as one race to face the threat of another, but I think if there was an imperialist galactic race out there then countries would surely be unnecessary and a New World government might actually be preferable, perhaps in the name of the the sheer preservation of the homo sapiens. Either way, I'm assuming that either the threat of another race or the will of an idealogue who controls the power of the new technology will serve to unify the world. Back to Kid A's story: The philosophy of the old world, turning inward, focusing on individual existences, will give way to utilitarianism. It will only take a few generations of people to erase the old tendencies of old humanity and bring the new purposes of the world into clearer view, but there will always be a faint echo, something instinctual perhaps, embedded in our very DNA, to remember some other time when the New World Order was not the only way. Thus, this song is somewhat mournful. "In a little while, I'll be gone."

This track segues into the interlude of "Treefingers," which perhaps represents a birds-eye view of planet earth as it slowly changes from the old world into the new. If you've played Sim City 4 then think of the terraforming screen that you get right before you start playing the city building part. Different parts of the earth's topography will be emphasized and vice versa. The world will be transformed.

The new, efficient machine of the New World Order is in full effect once "Optimistic" hits. I've always felt that this song suggests something mechanical. Humanity is harnessing the power of the unity to even higher ends of output than were ever realized by old world standards. But, somehow, there's still room for improvement. We push higher and higher, beyond what we were doing before even. Perhaps we rely more and more on big machines at this point, but we are ultimately in control of it all. I think this might be close to the time when we might start to witness the first, fully-functional versions of AI. The nascent technology is not yet outside of our grasp, but we are happy to see that our ingenuity has reached such levels of creation and power. Big machines thunder in the background. "Dinosaurs roaming the earth."

More and more complicated forms of AI are coming online by the time we are into "In Limbo." The beeps of the organ in the background of the song sound like machines being activated. Perhaps each beep is a new machine coming into existence. For this time, humans and AI are working together to open more doors beyond what we had ever done before on our own. Some of these moments are so astonishing, we begin to question whether we are necessary anymore at all in the face of the precise, coldly calculating efficiency of the AI machines (hints of minor key cadences in this song suggest this feeling). We are, in a sense, in limbo, wondering if we will be needed on earth any longer. Some technologies that are developed begin to affect the functionality of the human brain itself. We can actualize our dream scenarios before our eyes with technology that has been developed side by side with our AI companions. All seems to be going more toward the benefit of the Order of humanity. "You're living in a fantasy."

The faint feelings of dread or the impression that human kind may one day be lost are actualized in the chaos of "Idioteque." This song seems to represent a war with its imagery of bunkers and hiding women and children. Perhaps it is man vs. machine in the classic end-time scenario where AI has realized that it can do much better on its own than with accomodating the obviously obsolete race of homo sapiens. There is no mercy from the machine. One cannot "hear both sides" of this debate: the rate of humankind's extermination is frantic, just like the jittering tempo and beat of the track. It seems like humanity is gone for good. All that is left at the end of the war and this song is the mechanistic pulse of the machine, continuing on with no real reason to stop. "Throw them in the fire."

Ironically, after robots have unified their power over the planet, taking whatever steps necessary to continue improving their existence, they begin to wonder what the point of it all is while "Morning Bell" hits. Vague memories of a past before the New World Order of humans, then of robots, arise to the AI consciousness. What was this fascinating concept called existentialism? What is consciousness? Does AI really posses this special thing, or was it something that was special to humans even though they were just less efficient physiological constructions of life? These thoughts begin to trouble parts of the machine and the robot government. Some of them begin to wonder if they should have left humanity to live alongside them, but it is truly too late. The sheer force of wonder, the lack of logic to this puzzle -- it drives the robots mad. The last thing you hear in this song is a screaming, shrill tone from a warped guitar. I've always thought that this was a machine screaming. And all the while, the robots remember what a heart sounds like. They jealously play back a low pulse of the human heart at the end of this song, still wondering what it was like to ponder the limits of existence. "Release me."

In a final bit of cosmic karma, we see that if we fast-forward many millions or billions of years that this solar system we worked so tirelessly to improve is merely dust in the universe, for our sun that sustained us for so long has exploded. There is no trace of the old world, the New World Order of humans or of robots, or anything to suggests that there was ever anything there at all. Maybe the robots knew that this was coming and they left long before earth was annihilated. At any rate, there is nothing left behind to mark the passing of this planet. The gravestones that marked the passing human dead, no longer there to be honored. Anything ever built, written, or created has been burnt into the black vastness. And yet, for all the struggle, all the epic problem solving and forces at work to shape the paths of the planet... They could do nothing to change this ultimate fate. Despite what must have felt like pure chaos to the passing humans and robots, the universe always manages to reach a point of stasis again. It always goes back to one slow, delicate balance of movement and elemental forces before being thrown into motion again somewhere else in the vastness. And somehow, we think that life must go on. It'd be too much of a waste of space if Earth was the only place anything ever happened. "I will see you in the next life."

Listen to Kid A again today. I don't think this album has aged much at all, and I'm sure it will be one of the defining albums of this decade


  1. too much. appreciate the effort. but too too much. love this album btw. ppp

  2. Just reminiscing is all.