BOOK REVIEW: Steve Hyden’s “This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century”

At the end of the first decade of the current millennium, Pitchfork named Radiohead’s 2000 album Kid A the best record of the aughts. In his book This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Steven Hyden recalls that Pitchfork had originally given the album a perfect score, approvingly quoting the review written by Brent DiCrescenzo: “Comparing this to other albums is like comparing an aquarium to blue construction paper. And not because it’s jazz or fusion or ambient or electronic . . . It’s the sound of a band, and its leader, losing faith in themselves, destroying themselves, and subsequently rebuilding a perfect entity.”

This Isn’t Happening appears 20 years after the release of Radiohead’s landmark fourth album, which Hyden styles a 21st-century touchstone in the book’s subtitle. The author, an experienced music journalist, is a devoted Radiohead fan, and his love for the band shines throughout this slim volume.

Where this book succeeds best is in planting Kid A within the cultural-political milieu of the turn of the 21st century. Hyden notes that the album, with its hard-to-classify, electronic-infused sound, and its isolation-ridden lyrics (“I’m not here / This isn’t happening”) has come to be associated with 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial meltdown and the dizzying rise of social media—despite it predating these events. Hyden likens Kid A to the movies Fight Club, The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, films released between 1999 and 2001 that “were infused with deep apprehension about modernity and how technology disconnected people from one another.” The album, he writes, is a “doom-laden overture for our modern times.”

Hyden’s probing of the album’s musical content—the hard-rocking, jazzy “National Anthem,” the opening synthesizer of “Everything in Its Right Place”—will have fans queuing up their favorite streaming service. He covers much Radiohead lore, including the band’s desire to transcend its early hit song “Creep.” The author notes that frontman Thom Yorke, in the lead-up to Kid A, listened consistently to the electronic acts Aphex Twin and Autechre, which had a significant influence on the album.  “Kid A,” he writes, “reinforced a narrative that’s become a key stage of development for legacy rock bands—the pivot to ‘experimental’ music that occurs somewhere between your fourth and sixth album, in which the guitar is deemphasized and electronic elements are prominently integrated.”

Though the book is clearly a labor of love, sometimes Hyden’s enthusiasm overwhelms his narrative. At one point he provides his own tracklist for a “super” album combining material from Kid A and its 2001 follow-up Amnesiac. (He strangely refers to the latter as “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift of Radiohead albums.”) The book probably could have done without it. And he takes a gratuitous shot at Beck’s 2006 The Information—an album, he says, “that I, along with most people, have played exactly once.” Well, I thought it was pretty good!

Kid A is this book’s primary subject, but some of its most interesting insights come in its third section, where Hyden examines the years after the album’s release. The author reminds us that Radiohead released its 2007 album In Rainbows—probably their most “beloved” record, he claims—through a “pay-what-you-want” model, where fans could name their price to download it, choosing to pay nothing if they wished. It was a dynamic re-imagining of the artist-audience relationship in the digital age, the one so ominously prophesied in Kid A seven years previously.

This Isn’t Happening, like Meet Me in the Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s recent oral history of New York’s rock scene during the first decade of the 2000s, ought to be on the shelf of anyone who listened to and loved the music of the aughts—even when that music wasn’t always shiny and happy. Hyden returns throughout his book to the “bleakness” of Radiohead’s fourth album: “When I think about the world that Kid A evokes,” he writes, “I don’t feel envy for the past, as a nostalgist does. I think about rigged elections, terrorist attacks, phony wars, and the Internet devolving into a misinformation network.”

And the future? Albert Camus, in a passage from  his 1951 book The Rebel, wrote of turning an apocalypse into a renaissance. Steven Hyden sounds a similar note in lauding this singular album and the era it heralded: “I . . .feel a rush of gratitude that we survived it all. Which means we might just yet survive whatever . . . looms on our present horizon. Kid A is no longer an album about how scary the future is. It is now an album about how scary the past was, and how we found a way to make it to where we are now.”
Check out Hyden’s book This Isn’t Happening Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century at Hatchet Books and watch a live performance of “Kid A” below.

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