It smelled like blood, trash, and Panda Express. The guy next to me was surreptitiously trying to fit his bloody tissue into an empty can of beer, his face still swollen and wet from the heat that had caused the nosebleed. It was ACL weekend and I was part of a throng of people standing en masse for Radiohead to come on stage. There was a huddle of human bodies engaging in sin to either side of me; residents of Sodom to my left and of Gomorrah to my right. Several other doe-eyed minors and I seemed to have formed the precinct line between the two, as we awkwardly stood around with no beer or blunt in hand.
Noticing me staring, the man smiled at me and we began casual, so-so small talk. He and his friends were tech-hub programmers from DC who had flown out to Austin to work on a start-up venture. Slowly, several other concert-goers formed a ring around us and I was able to speak to some more people at the event. Even when drunk and high, the audience’s IQ distribution was overwhelmingly skewed to Einstein-ian proportions. Some yuppie to my left was walking me through Goldman Sach’s discounted cash flow while the person to my right was showing me a cool way to light up a bong using radiation. It seems that at a Radiohead concert, one arrives with business cards stuffed in a pocket and jolly ranchers for spritzing cognac, as the audience was comprised largely of millennial professionals who liked to have a good time.
Although the air was torrid with a throbbing heatwave and musty clouds of weed, it was buzzing with fans sharing an incredible breadth of knowledge on rock. A younger guy beside me spent a solid fifteen spraying my face in saliva as he spat out dizzying facts on Jonny’s Fender. And by the end of the night I had learned the middle name of every band member of The Pixies just through small talk. This behavior was in stark contrast to the other ACL crowds who fanned across the venue in groupie mentality, surging like waves to a stage where they might only know a song or two. And unlike the other crowds at ACL, Radiohead’s audience members had a very un-noteworthy sense of style, with many simply mirroring the stilted Thames Valley fashion the band had popularized.
Our chit-chat was violently interrupted by the sound of 800 watts’ worth of dyspeptic moaning flooding the grounds as Thom entered the stage, mic in hand, singing a short riff of what was to come as the other band members filled the stage behind him. The crowd went up in a roar, and just like that, I found myself at a Radiohead concert. The band managed to play a two-hour show that spanned twenty years of rock. The performance was scaffolded around the new album A Moon Shaped Pool that the band had released months prior, but the concert was skillfully intertwined with several songs from the eight other albums the group had made. In a high falsetto, Thom Yorke careened across the stage in a dance that could only be described as a milder version of David Bowie’s peanut butter-lathered body flopping around the stage. Jonny Greenwood’s bobbing, side-swept bangs kept time beside him as drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood hammered along to “Burn the Witch,” while Ed O’Brien flashed an easy smile to the throng of women who had naturally gravitated towards his side of the stage.
The band switched gear with the speed of a Nascar pit crew, and with little adieu to the audience waiting below with bated breath. When a member did decide to address the crowd, it was usually just a curt thank-you; the band didn’t care much to invoke any sort of sentiment in the crowd. The only transition the band gave was a warbling line from The Smiths before Thom launched into the Kid A era of the setlist.
Throughout all of this, the audience remained disappointingly placid. The crowd merely swayed along to the music or stood stone-still and focused intently on the stage like they were listening to an NPR podcast. I didn’t get the memo. Within twenty minutes I was encircled by a wide radius of abandon as my neighbors slowly inched away from the hopping rituals and sky-grabbing I was doing on my patch of the lawn. That wasn’t the only thing that had parted our short-lived camaraderie, however. Before the show began I had been ganged up by several fans when I shared my plans to head into investment banking. Horrified, they quickly shot a slew of flogs against corporate America and a parable about how I should fight Wall Street. I had become the hors la loi simply by not echoing the anti-capitalist sentiment Radiohead had so masterfully tuned its fans to.
The relationship Radiohead has with money is ironic and a mere shaft into the complex relationship rock music has had with big business. No one cries misery guts about Western capitalism better than Thom; that is, brightly and with some swirling synth tonalities broken only by a clunking piano syncopation. 1997’s Ok Computer was an elegiac vision of yuppies networking, a suburban mom’s still kisses with saliva, and a stray line about kicking, squealing Gucci little piggies. A decade later the narrative remained strong in the band’s highly-praised decision to make In Rainbows a pay-whatcha-want gig, offering their entire work for a mere penny if so pleased. Nearly a decade after that release came the highly anticipated A Moon Shaped Pool where the malcontent was again repackaged into a score featuring “Present Tense,” which raises the concern of a global-capitalist market treading upon the environment.
But, to quote the band in their own words, their efforts against capitalism’s infringement on values is “hysterical and useless.” The story is stale, their efforts half-hearted at best. Markets and politics are merely thematic catalysts in their work, but the band remains “. . .unwilling or unable to divert time and energy to real political activism beyond an impassioned soundbite or appearance at a climate-change concert” (Niven). Despite Radiohead imbuing skepticism into snot-nosed punks across the country, the postwar era had already seeped into America’s living rooms years before. Capitalists had already reinvented the concept of protest using alternative-lifestyle marketing. EMI had no other message than to tell its listeners to keep buying music, but to listen to Radiohead instead. It was pseudo-protestation at its finest, and any real change was hindered by the ploy because listeners felt fuzzy inside that they had already done their part (Monroe). Radiohead was able to capitalize on capitalism like the scores of rock stars had done before them, but in such blatant terms that it is amusingly unsettling. The interests of big business “. . .made Radiohead an international phenomenon, and capitalism gave Radiohead a platform from which to remove exploitation from the capitalist equation” (Forbes, 182).
After the concert I tried to explain to my friend my concern over Radiohead’s swampy capitalist philosophy, my ears still ringing with a looping refrain of “this is what you get when you mess with us.” He stopped walking to look at me, the embers on his Parliament glowing stronger than his eyes which were dulled and glazed over by several beers. Laughing, he dismissed me as just being a paranoid android all over again.