If you know me, then you know that I’m a big fan of The Legend of Zelda games. In 1998, Nintendo released what would eventually become the blueprint for 3D Zelda titles, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It is one of the most critically acclaimed video games of all time with a score of 99 on Metacritic, and it’s consistently praised as one of the greatest games ever made. Two years later, as the world shifted into the 21st century, Nintendo released Ocarina of Time’s utterly strange sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Shigeru Miyamoto and Co. followed up one of their most beloved games with one of their most divisive; they took the conventional framework of Ocarina of Time and completely subverted it with Majora’s Mask. Where Ocarina is straightforward and classic, Majora’s is dark and foreboding.
This same trajectory can be applied to the British rock (?) band Radiohead’s third and fourth albums. In 1997, a year before Ocarina of Time released, the quintet put OK Computer out into the world to critical acclaim. It was more complex than 1995’s The Bends, but it took the Brit-rock foundations of their first two records and further expanded upon them. Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Phil Selway made one of the most revered records of all time, replete with chaotic guitar solos, disquieting ballads, and arena rock songs with clear-cut, delineated choruses.
Mere months after the release of Majora’s Mask, Radiohead released the once-polarizing Kid A, a frigid album laden with isolation and fear. Although those motifs are prevalent on OK Computer, as well, Kid A explored those themes in the forms of free-jazz outbursts, modular synth odysseys, and vocal manipulation. This was not the album fans expected after the immense success of OK Computer. Ocarina of Time is to OK Computer what Majora’s Mask is to Kid A, nearly down to the times of their releases.
This is the long-winded analogy that continually resurfaced in my mind while I was reading This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A and the Beginning of the 21st Century by Steven Hyden. As a fan of both Radiohead and Hyden, this book seemed right up my alley, and it largely was, as I finished it in three days. Kid A turned 20 on October 2 (the same day that I turned 24, and that feels only slightly eerie), and Hyden’s 228-page exegesis is well worth reading. He dives deep into the context of Kid A in both the history of Radiohead and the general rock canon, exploring how this record was initially tossed aside by the British music press, such as NME and Mojo, and only came to be adored over a decade-long span.
I loved reading how Radiohead started testing fans’ responses to material ahead of the release of Kid A, but the band was originally showing some apprehension. During the first set of tour dates, they would cushion the new music in between popular OK Computer and The Bends cuts. The band would mostly opt for “safer” tracks such as “Optimistic,” but subsequently mustered up enough confidence to debut songs like “Everything In Its Right Place,” “The National Anthem,” and “Idioteque,” often performing the majority of Kid A during the later dates.
My favorite component of Hyden’s book, however, is the way he threads Kid A through the larger narrative of entering the new millennium. I was only 3 in 1999, so my lived experience is insufficient for an accurate account of that time, but I know full and well that Y2K fear was notably prominent. Hyden even goes so far as to provide his own anecdote about driving out to the middle of nowhere with his then-girlfriend before it struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, armed only with a Built to Spill CD. He connects this fear of the new century to the macro-scale anxieties surrounding advanced technology and the Internet.
Kid A unintentionally foreshadowed the travesties that would soon wreak havoc on the world, including the Bush election, 9/11, and the Iraq War. Yorke’s lyrics for Kid A may be collages of opaque phrases, but it’s difficult to not draw connections between his uneasy delivery and the increasingly looming presence of fascism, between Jonny Greenwood’s cold, mechanical compositions and burgeoning, morally vacant capitalism. Kid A released on the brink of myriad tragedies, mere years, or even months, before historic, global events. Yorke and Co. were wholly unaware of what would soon transpire, but Kid A summed it all up in a portentous package.
This brings me to one of my favorite sections from This Isn’t Happening, where Hyden discusses how meanings can exist without artistic intention. Radiohead may not have intended for Kid A to be this type of record, but it’s what it has come to signify throughout its 20-year lifespan (Also, I’m sure Yorke is happy to make new music where bearded dudes in flannels won’t scrutinize each minute detail to unearth some far-fetched conspiracy). Just because the artist didn’t “mean” to do something doesn’t mean it isn’t there in some capacity. On 2003’s Hail to the Thief, Yorke sings, “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” He’s both right and wrong. It may not actually be there, but you can still feel it. Who’s to say that feeling that something’s there doesn’t have the same effect altogether?