Recently, I attended my second Radiohead concert. Perhaps my experience echoes what everyone feels at a Radiohead show, but for me it felt singular, revelatory. In fact, up until this concert I assumed that Radiohead concerts were only at best tantamount to listening to their records. I never felt any tension in choosing between a live performance or a studio recording. I always opted for the meticulously crafted, sonically perfect versions of their compositions over the slightly more feral live versions. The only aspect of the live show which pulled me in was watching Thom Yorke dance like some demented marionette.
Then I saw them from about 50 feet away, in a stadium, and everything changed. I now understand why people swear by their live shows, but more importantly, I gained a new appreciation for them as performance artists. We often say that despite an imperfect, or boring record, a band can resuscitate the songs live. I never fully understood that concept. In my naivete, I thought that if the songs are good enough to translate into great live material, then they should sound good on record. I attributed the gap between the recorded and live sound to laziness. I didn't comprehend the qualitative difference between a live version and a recorded version. I simply assumed that a concert allowed for more spontaneity, more variation, perhaps more energy, but never the actualization of the true potential of the song, which connects back to the revelation of Radiohead as performance art.
I don’t intend to convey that they wrote unfinished songs simply to allow forpolishing during touring. Rather, the songs in the first place were originally crafted as pieces of performance art. Without the live spectacle the songs do indeed sound ambient, ethereal, murky, ungrounded, almost unimportant because a simple listen through doesn’t allow for the full blooming of their potential. This concert redeemed King of Limbs for me not because they now sound more ferocious (they do), but because the songs only make full sense in context of the live spectacle, of the performative aspect of their show.
I think we might tend to shy away from this description of performance art because it carries with it some considerably dorky baggage. Performance artists either remind us of Marina Abramovic, the eccentric artist, who last year sat herself down in the Moma to sit and just stare at you, for whatever length you choose. In the same exhibition you could choose to walk in between two stark naked people as you, clothed, rub up against their genitals.
On the other hand, when we think of performance art in terms of music, we think of gaudy show tunes, melodramatic operas, or the awkward mixture of rock operas or rock infused Broadway shows. In contrast, Radiohead creates a piece of haunting, sensual, enveloping performance art that deserves attention as such. First some contextualization.
Performance art, like all art, defies easy categorization. It abounds in arguments in regards to definition that only academics or performance artists tend to care about. As a fluid working definition, we will not try to define it, but speak to some common elements that tend to get spoken about. Critics usually refer to performance art as that which contains an interdisciplinary performance, or at least a multi-sensory performance of a live experience that eludes reproduction. Each performance presents a unique performance. The idea developed in contrast to theater - it signified a more fleeting, spontaneous singular experience between audience and artist often involving visual art. With time it came to include the idea of conceptual art, a non-linear narrative, or a performance that evokes emotions, ideas, and thoughts through non-conventional means. It shirks the regular form of a linearity or fully developed characters and instead attempts to create its experience through tones, images, challenges and even riddles. It is a type of investigative art in the sense that it usually involves some subversive exploration of what art actually means.
Given this hasty list of components, I don’t see how we cannot view Radiohead’s live show as anything but performance art. Remember in School of Rock when Jack Black explains to his students that an epic rock show needs an excellent light show? I laughed when he said that because I thought he referred solely to some over the top Journey concert. The only real show that felt affected by lights was a Phish show, and the lights simply created a psychedelic, playful effect, but the lights felt like an add on to the songs. Radiohead’s light show, more an artistic display of video, scenery, and lighting, integrated fully to create a multi-sensory performance complete with artistic camera views, a film reel on top, gesticulative dancing, top hats, performative voices, and visual drumming through pulsating alternating lights that often looked like Tetris patterns.
Radiohead’s new light show looks likes a traveling Modern Art installment. The light show, besides using lights, obviously, makes use of about 12 large TV screens attached to cables that allow for manifold configurations. For instance, an easy one, they displayed the screens in a staircase during the song “Staircase,” which despite the obviousness felt entrancing. More impressively, during “You and Whose Army,” a plangent and haunting song that crescendos into a crash of sound, the band used the screens to break up Yorke’s face in a Cubist representation. We saw different angles of Yorke’s face in scraggly black and white images that defy the boundaries of our human vision. It not only accentuates the intimacy of just Yorke on the piano, but creates a different type of intimacy, of relationship between artist and audience. Yorke feels exposed in an uncharacteristic way that evokes haunting tenderness, if not shades of sensuality. Not only were the screen configured in ways that overwhelmed our senses, presenting new ways of thinking about the song, art, and music, but the images on the screens never simply projected standard visuals from a concert. We usually expect either facial or instrumental closeups in concert video. Instead, the cinematographer created either static images of the side of a drum, the back of a head. Or the cinematographer opted for flitting digitized images, images that one coked up person in the audience correctly referred to as the Matrix, and other images that look like the artistry of a Richard Linklater movie.
Often we credit Radiohead with popularizing less conventional styles of songs: songs less focused on verse/chorus and more focused on buildup, or creating a symphony of different parts, almost a story in the form of a song, something we might associate with classical music.Basically, movement in the song and not in a simple crescendo, but given this context of performative art, they do not simply shirk verse/chorus to create new songs, a soundtrack to a more complex spontaneous performance that engenders a transcendent meditative state of non-thought.
Besides the obvious artistry of the lighting/video show, it creates a multi-sensory overload that essentially attacks the listener. Sonic violence takes over your body;you move without thinking. The mediums create a circle of sound that envelops every part of your being. The lighting choreographer literally changes the tone and tenor of the song, it creates a different level of experience, just pure intensity.How many experiences take up or instigate most of your senses. Anything else besides sex, perhaps? What emerges from this piece of performance art contains all the elements of a drug experience: Altered consciousness, sensory enhancement, a full body experience, the feeling of flow, a complete letting go of inhibition, almost like a club scene which provides a sensory onslaught, but without all of the shadiness. (This video captures at least shades of the spectacle, but obviously you need to experience this in person.)
All of the credit goes to Andi Watson, the stage designer since Radiohead’s club days. Last year, Chronicle Books published a book from the Director of the University State Museum at California State University, Christopher Scoates, entitled Bullet Proof...I Wish I Was: The Lighting and Stage Design of Andi Watson that displays and analyzes the inventive style of Watson in the context of Art history. We barely know anything about this unsung hero of modern music and art, but as Scoates aptly explains, “Watson’s synesthetic work completely alters the way we feel music.” Watson’s latest installments in conjunction with Radiohead’s propulsive latest album only builds on their masterful partnership in create unparallelled pieces of performance art.