The year 2000 was great for Santana, who won eight awards at the 42nd Grammys that year, tying a record held until that point by Michael Jackson. Supernatural was named Album as well as Record of the Year, and his single Smooth walked away with Song of the Year. On the other side of the world, members of the English rock band Radiohead were putting finishing touches to their fourth album, presumably ignoring what Santana’s win meant in terms of expectations.
They must have had a fair amount of pressure on their shoulders already, after the world-conquering success of OK Computer–their last album in 1997. Everyone had an opinion on what their new work would sound like, because this was a world where streaming services had yet to be born and where the concept of an album still mattered. When Kid A arrived that October, it first seemed like the soundtrack to a documentary the band had released in 1998. Titled Meeting People Is Easy, it documented the misery with which they embraced fame and fortune, creating a caricature of themselves that persists to this day.
Over time, though, Kid A grew into something other than a mere follow-up album. It was studied, embraced, and pored over, resonating with a generation just beginning to come to terms with the Internet and the alienation it left in its wake. There were rumors about the title, said to reflect singer Thom Yorke’s belief that this was what the first human clone would be called. The music reflected the world in which this clone would appear.
Writer and rock critic Steven Hyden looks back at that moment in time, armed not just with the benefit of hindsight but an awareness of just how influential Kid A was even then. In This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, he tracks its impact on culture and shows how the album was prescient about where our world was headed. Writing about the opening track, he says: “When people hear ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ in the future, it won’t sound alien or cold or difficult … It will eventually seem logical — even the parts that aren’t supposed to seem logical.”
This Isn’t Happening isn’t the first immersive study on the album. It found a place on the acclaimed 33 1⁄3 series, for instance, despite Radiohead drummer Phil Selway’s insistence that, “We don’t want people twiddling their goatees over our stuff.” What Hyden does is far removed from dry criticism, though. He brings his skill as a journalist to these pages, mixing it with personal reflections. The result of This Isn’t Happening is an enjoyable study that is never pedantic, encouraging readers to revisit the album and hear it in a new light.
There are interesting parallels drawn in This Isn’t Happening, between the otherworldly sounds put together by Jonny Greenwood — encompassing everything from modular synthesizers and the Ondes Martenot to the influence of jazz and ambient music — and the state of the world in 2000. Radiohead exploited the Internet thoroughly, using it to connect with fans as well as alienate themselves from the industry they were ostensibly a part of. They were arguably always a political band, but Yorke used the aftermath of 9/11 to delve deeper into concerns that have stayed with him in the years since.
What Radiohead did was stump everyone who tried to predict the sonic turns they would make next. At the same time, they revealed their powerful ability to tap into the zeitgeist and draw the unease of our collective subconscious to the surface. “Try the best you can, the best you can is good enough,” sang Yorke on “Optimistic,” a track that could have been written for a pandemic.
Twenty years after they predicted the end of a world, it seems as if they were right all along.