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The road to music snobbery is paved with the music of Radiohead

Wednesday, Sep 10 2003
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It was freshman year of high school that I became a creep. There were these study guides we had to do for biology, unforgivably tedious and assigned as homework each week by the amicable yet rigid Mr. Morgan. Like most kids, I listened to music while I carried out the task.

At the time, I was just beginning to take an interest in music. I really had no idea what was brewing inside me. I had a friend -- a senior, no less -- who seemed to know all the bands, all the songs. He would introduce me to obscure, older acts like the Smiths and the Jam, and I would listen intently, trying to appreciate Morrissey's detached vocal purr, but not really having the tools or the context to do so. When I did find music I liked, I would share it with my mentor, hoping to turn him on to something for a change, but he always beat me to every stupid punch. How did he always know everything before I did? Wait. Did he have ESP? That brand-new thing called the Internet?

No. The answer was much simpler: He was a music snob.

As everyone who went to high school knows, groups like jocks and cheerleaders have instant status based on physique, athletic ability, etc., but most of the rest of us have neither of those things. We have to sift through the dregs of status symbols -- some choosing debate, some choosing hard drugs, and others, like my senior buddy, choosing music, which I quickly chose, too.

One night, while I was highlighting the term "chlorophyll" in green and its definition in yellow, Tami Heide of KROQ-FM in Southern California came on the air and announced that evening's buzz clip, the song that would make its big radio premiere in moments. It was Radiohead's "Creep."

While the advanced music snob I became would know that it was a mishap (Johnny Greenwood had accidentally flicked his guitar pickup on at the wrong time), the ch-chung right before the chorus of "Creep" was a bolt shot through my brain. It's one of the most amazing mistakes in all recorded music. Among other things, that ch-chung is a warning (ever notice that it sounds surprisingly like those infamous two notes in the Jaws theme?). It prepares you for the song's chorus, infectious and pathetic at the same time: "I'm a creep/ I'm a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?/ I don't belong here." Has there ever been a more direct expression of adolescent angst? I knew this was my band.

The next day I went to school on a mission: Radiohead would be the group I had heard of first. I would tell everyone -- casually, of course, never in such a way as to indicate that I cared about what that person did with my valuable information, and nonchalantly, as if I'd been listening to the band for ages, had finally made up my mind that it was worthy of recommendation.

The best part of all of this was that when I mentioned Radiohead to my friend, the senior, he hadn't heard of it -- nobody I knew had. For weeks the group was mine and mine alone. Only the true music snob can appreciate such an honor.

And thus was I born such a snob -- a special kind of creep -- someone on a first-name basis with the guy at the used record store (Scott); someone who made it his business to know every band before you did; and, most important, someone who made sure you knew that that was the case. By the time I finished high school, I was 10 times the snob my mentor ever was. And I owed it all to Radiohead, a band that came to remind me, with each subsequent record, exactly where I was in my relationship with music.

Loving Radiohead as a snob was simple at first, since the group was dismissed as a one-hit wonder following the success of "Creep." See, the tricky thing about any kind of elitism -- fashion, cars, academia -- is that the elitist must keep a close eye on his status symbols: He must champion only those things that are popular among the few and ignored by the many. When Pablo Honey was declared a wash, "Creep" its only high point, it was easy to like Radiohead: I was the only one who understood its genius.

In 1995 (junior year, for those of you keeping track) The Bends came along, and two more time-stopping singles with it, "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry," as well as the somewhat less popular "Just" (the true harbinger of things to come). Radiohead made it easy with this album, too. Because Pablo Honey was all but forgotten by this point, all an aspiring music snob had to do was buy The Bends when it came out and play it for his know-it-all friend.

"Seeeee," the aspiring snob might say.

"Hmmmm," his now college-age friend would say, scratching his newly stubbled chin, exerting his own snobbery against Thom Yorke's tangled wail on "High and Dry," a song no one could resist.

That appeal had its own problems. The Bends was released in April, and by the end of summer Radiohead was playing huge concert halls. It was getting harder to like the group because, after all, everyone else did, too.

Then came OK Computer, a near-catastrophe on my radar. It was this record that prompted critics and fans to vote Radiohead the "best band of the '90s." Hell, the readers of England's Q magazine went so far as to call the album the best of all time. Suddenly the band wasn't selling out mere concert halls, but stadiums; its songs were being transposed and performed by classical musicians. I bought the album, of course, cherished it for about 10 minutes, then set it aside as some kind of symbol -- to myself -- that Radiohead was no longer something I wanted to have anything to do with. By the time the band surmounted what may have been the highest expectations ever with OK Computer's follow-up, Kid A, I was officially boycotting Radiohead. But watch this:

In college I had a friend who enjoyed accusing me of being a music snob, but who was, in truth, an aspiring music snob himself. He would arrive at my door with new music he'd bought and try to stump me. He always failed. In the fall of 2000, however, he invited me to his apartment, sat me down on his couch, handed me a joint, put on Kid A, and forced me to listen to it all the way through.

"Hmmmm," I said, scratching my newly stubbled chin. Then I asked him to play the record again.

Today I can say, and will happily argue, that Kid A is my generation's most vital album, that it's every bit as important as Nirvana's Nevermind, Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, and so on.

This past May, Radiohead released its latest record, Hail to the Thief, in my opinion not its best work. While critics have widely praised it as the union of the grating-yet-accessible OK Computer and the grating-yet-inaccessible Kid A, citing its freshly upbeat tone, I see it as a collection of half-baked arrangements that don't support Yorke's caustic worldview. Sure, I listened to the release occasionally throughout the summer, but it didn't change my life.

But that's not the point. The point is that I listened to it. Shit, I even listened to the new Dashboard Confessional album last week (it sucks). Granted, I still go to record stores and quiz the clerks on obscure releases, but I'm also not afraid to dabble in Top 40, to do something that had previously seemed as taboo to me as voting Republican: hop on the bandwagon. Because what I've finally realized after all these years -- what Radiohead ultimately taught me -- is that art thrives at all levels of pop-culture strata, and to ignore something just because it's popular is, well, as dumb as dating a cheerleader just because she's got a nice rack. Life is short, art is sparse, and we've got to take our transcendence wherever we can get it. So please forgive me if you hear the new Strokes record blasting out of my car: My name is Garrett, and I am a recovering music snob.

If you can find a ticket, you can catch Radiohead on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, 1 Amphitheatre (at Rengstorff), Mountain View. Tickets are $40.50-47.50; call (650) 967-4040 or visit www.shorelineamp.com.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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