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On December 12, 1920, artist Tristan Tzara wrote a manifesto on behalf of the international cultural movement called Dada. Divided into 16 parts, Tzara’s manifesto contained mostly illogical but occasionally incisive prose, vacillating between the odd (“I prefer the poet who is a fart in a steam-engine”) and the odder (“the page was taken to the barbaric country where humming-birds act as the sandwich-men of cordial nature”). But there was one section that stuck out: wedged between a rant on “selfkleptomania” and another on autobiographies “hatching under the belly of the flowering cerebellum,” Tzara, in his most lucid state, provided instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem:
● take a newspaper
● take a pair of scissors
● choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem
● cut out the article
● then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag
● shake it gently
● then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag
● copy conscientiously
● the poem will be like you
● and here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
With the last line, Tzara hoists the poet atop a pedestal as a unique but misunderstood personality. The joke, of course, is that the preceding instructions almost entirely remove personality from the process: can a poet truly be considered “original” in the context of randomness, chance, and appropriation? Here, the artist is held accountable for technique, not for any autobiographical connotations, with the Dadaist poem sharing more aesthetic traits with auto-generated spam emails than with labored-over sonnets flaunting perfect semicolon placement. With a playful sense of irony and wit, Tzara was really critiquing the notions of celebrity, uniqueness, and craft, providing a subversive getaway authors could use to create distance between themselves and their work.
Ninety years since these instructions were first published, the Dadaist poem is still relevant to the silly mythologies we have of the modern musician: original, full of personality, and of course misunderstood.
* * *
So what about Thom Yorke?
While he’s decidedly full of personality, he’s certainly not winning any awards for affability. In a Kid A-era interview with the Observer, he admitted to still receiving hate mail from fans he upset during the OK Computer tour (one letter said it was a pity Jeff Buckley died instead of him), and during the Kid A recording sessions he posted on Radiohead’s official website, “I got beaten up in the middle of Oxford last week by someone who recognized me and saw me as an easy target.” Just try to find an interview with Thom that isn’t prefaced with a jab at his personality. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, and they were often high profile too: Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics called him a “miserable twat”; Noel Gallagher said he was a “cunt”; and Ronan Keating of Boyzone not only called him a “muppet” but also said he’d love to throw him off a mountain (metaphorically). At 2009’s 51st Annual Grammy Awards, Kanye West “sat the fuck down” during Radiohead’s performance after supposedly being snubbed by Thom, while Miley Cyrus claimed she was going to “ruin [Radiohead]” and “tell everyone” after the band refused to have a “sit down” with her. (Perhaps Cyrus should’ve had a “sit down” with West since he “sat the fuck down” anyway.)
And these are only the criticisms that made headlines.
Thom is clearly no stranger to having his personality stretched out and laid bare, but nowhere was this character examination more overblown than during OK Computer’s “Running From Demons” world tour. The press wasn’t concerned with the album’s commentary on the speed of human interaction in a hyper-capitalist technological landscape. It wanted to get to know him, as if the lyrics were purely autobiographical, as if they came from a tortured artist, a visionary, a depressed outcast on the brink of self-destruction who — hey, what do you know — just so happened to be artistically “brilliant.” How many times have both Radiohead’s music and Thom been described as “moody”? How many times have both been described as “paranoid”? To many, including me, OK Computer’s lyrical content and Thom’s psychology were one and the same.
But, ironically, not only were OK Computer’s lyrics overtly skittish but also they were purposefully designed to stray from The Bends’ introspection and to function more like Polaroids. As Thom told Q magazine in 1997, “It was like there’s a secret camera in a room and it’s watching the character who walks in — a different character for each song. The camera’s not quite me. It’s neutral, emotionless.”
However, Thom’s intent with OK Computer was immaterial to an industry that masqueraded as “neutral” and “emotionless.” As depicted in Meeting People Is Easy, the indelible 1998 documentary directed by Grant Gee, the media’s insistence on marketing a downtrodden yet noble artist in fact engendered the very conditions of alienation, disconnection, and simulacrum that OK Computer was lambasting, kick-starting a vicious downward spiral: Why is Thom wallowing in despair? Why is he always so angry? Perhaps it stems from the lingering trauma due to his drooping eyelid? Thom’s aversion to celebrity culture was mistaken for misanthropy, and the journalistic cheap shots aided in part to a nervous breakdown after OK Computer. He had trouble even speaking. As Thom admitted in a Rolling Stone interview,
“I came off at the end of that show, sat in the dressing room and couldn’t speak. I actually couldn’t speak. People were saying, ‘You all right?’ I knew people were speaking to me. But I couldn’t hear them. And I couldn’t talk. I’d just had enough. And I was bored with saying I’d had enough. I was beyond that.”
The industry, as it tends to do, reduced Thom to a manufactured personality, to the point where fictitious storylines seemed to coalesce out of thin air, where consumers could hardly separate the value/function of the band from any other packaged goods on the shelf.
But as the lens focused more vigorously on his personality, Thom was already devising ways to increase the distance.
* * *
It wasn’t surprising, then, when I discovered that Radiohead had actually posted Tzara’s instructions for a Dadaist poem on their official website in the fall of 1999, roughly a year before Kid A’s release. It also wasn’t surprising to find out that Thom in fact employed a similar poem-making technique during the Kid A sessions to combat a two-year case of writer’s block. As he stated on a Dutch television show,
“What I’d went off and tried to do with the writer’s block thing was just basically have all the things that didn’t work and stopped throwing them away, which was what I’d been doing before, and keeping them and cutting them up and putting them in this top hat and pulling them out.”
If one of the benefits of the Dadaist poem is the removal of personality and the distancing it provides, then randomly drawing cut-up lyrics from a hat seems like a reasonable reaction. With this new lyrical technique — influenced in part by David Byrne’s like-minded approach to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light — Thom was able to mount a critique that couldn’t be mistaken as autobiographical, couching his lyrics in obfuscation and ambiguity in order to distance himself from rock’s self-important mythologies. It was a lateral technique that provided links, however tenuous, to Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, to John Cage and the I Ching, to Guy Debord’s Mémoires. “The vocal parts are really interesting,” said guitarist Ed O’Brien, “because it’s the first album that we — as a band — haven’t been aware of what Thom’s singing about. He didn’t talk about his lyrics.”