Part of Radiohead's appeal lies in finding an answer to that question. The search can be a purely academic pursuit, which is fitting, considering the band hails from the city that enshrines the world's foremost scholastic mecca, Oxford University (though none of the band members attended the school).
Virtually the entire cult surrounding Radiohead reeks of academia. Fans lauded their dissertation on the dangers of a technology-aided society (1997's OK Computer) and hung on for dear life when their next offering rode in on a laptop (2000's Kid A). This year's model, Hail to the Thief, thinly veils Thom Yorke's personal beliefs about the current era's most powerful leaders.
Meanwhile, students of the band discuss the meanings of Yorke's cryptic lyrics as voraciously as graduate psych majors quibble over individual dream interpretations. Distressingly comprehensive fan sites such as www.greenplastic.com and www.ateaseweb.com have transcribed the lyrics to all of Radiohead's songs and provide notes from band members that hint at a track's meaning. Still, the debate continues.
In the case of OK Computer's "Airbag," both literal interpretations and Yorke's comments to the press indicate the song is about the realization that "whenever you go out on the road you could be killed." However, in a 1,258-word mini-thesis on Greenplastic.com, one listener argues that the track is about the establishment and subsequent ruin of the universe.
Joseph Tate, a University of Washington Ph.D. candidate in English literature, defends via e-mail the protracted discussion of Radiohead's lyrics: "I'm not interested in Thom's intention -- or the band's intention. Once the song is in the hands of the public, that song will mean something different to every person who hears it, depending on what contexts (personal, historical, etc) we bring to bear." Tate's obsession with the lyrical content of Radiohead has led him to solicit band-related essays from other academics for a forthcoming book, The Music and Art of Radiohead, to be published by Ashgate Press sometime next year.
Scholarly analysis is not just something thrust upon Radiohead by its fans. Band members themselves are unapologetic practitioners. Multi-instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood, the band's only member with advanced musical training, is one of fewer than 100 people in the world who are skilled with the ondes martenot, an obscure, early-generation electronic instrument. His brother and the band's unofficial spokesman, bassist Colin Greenwood, is married to a literary critic and is apparently a voracious reader. Yorke has an extensive knowledge of Dante, gleaned from his girlfriend of more than a decade, and seems to inhale information on social issues and theories, regurgitating them in the form of rants about globalization and world politics. (Yorke is quite deft at determining what's wrong with society, but he's never offered much insight on how to fix it). Said Spin staffer Chuck Klosterman: "Hanging out with Radiohead is kind of like getting high with a bunch of librarians."
Classically trained musicians -- those performers most connected to academia -- also have embraced Radiohead's work. Most recently, pianist Christopher O'Riley, an alumnus of the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, released an album titled True Love Waits, which consists entirely of 15 solo-piano interpretations of Radiohead tunes.
O'Riley's work -- along with all the academic attention -- has vaulted the band into a scholastic/crossover elite populated by the likes of the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Like those other artists embraced by the intellectual elite, O'Riley says, Radiohead "leave themselves open to all kinds of input between themselves, among themselves, and from the outside world. So something very childlike [musically] like 'No Surprises' at the same time has lyrics that are just wrenchingly heartbreaking. It sets up sort of a dichotomy that makes the song work. And also, it makes it possible for everyone to argue, 'Well, is it about suicide, is it not about suicide?'"
Radiohead's work is so hyper-analyzed, in fact, that it actually serves as a convenient baseline from which to judge other British bands. Spin (again) published this description for a host of acts born in the wake of Radiohead's departure from the guitar-driven, verse-chorus-verse structures of The Bends: "Travis (Radiohead but nice), Coldplay (Radiohead but sincere), Doves (Radiohead but vaguely funky), Muse (Radiohead but not that good), David Gray (Radiohead for your mom), Clinic (Radiohead for Radiohead)."
For many, Yorke's lyrics -- highly metaphorical and disjointed enough to leave room for listeners to inject personal meaning, and delivered in his lilting tenor --are the hallmark of the Radiohead sound. For others, it's the unexpected sounds that members pull from their collective ether -- a guitar twang, a misplaced blip, a lyrical phrase repeated ad nauseum. Still others find a deep interest in the perceived technical difficulty of the music.
For O'Riley, the music fascinates him, not as a simple arrangement of intricate parts but as an intricate arrangement of relatively simple parts. "We're not talking Van Halen-style guitar playing in Radiohead," he says. "Each one of them is contributing a certain amount to the harmony. And it's layered in a horizontal way, as opposed to most rock bands, which are just kind of chord-chord-chord, just chunking away. There are actually lines, voices, countermelody, things like that -- and not terribly complicated, but integral to the texture."
Like a college curriculum, Radiohead's discography begins with basics, influences and theory (Pablo Honey); moves through seminal concepts, weighing pros and cons (The Bends and OK Computer); and opens its scope into innovation (Kid A and beyond). Each album finds the studious Brits progressing in their path to musical enlightenment: precocious young adults producing a melange of the Pixies and the Smiths; surprise purveyors of two of the finest mortality- and technology- fearing albums of the rock era; trailblazers into an unfamiliar territory of sound and space.
This studied progression hasn't been without its compromises and obstacles. A decade ago, Radiohead was trying to break its single, "Creep," off its Pablo Honey debut (an album the band barely acknowledges anymore). Back then, the eager-to-please lads lip-synched their breakout track at the MTV Beach House, while Yorke sported long bleached-blond hair. And upon the release of Kid A, disgruntled rock purists cried heresy at a band they had nearly canonized a couple years before.
But even distinguished scholars were hungry teenagers at one point. Fans argue that in order for Radiohead to reach its current state -- where the band basically has carte blanche to do whatever it wants on record -- it had to pander to commercial demands at one point. And as for their foray from guitar rock into technology-aided rock-tronica, the band had already gone summa cum laude in guitar rock. Kid A was the beginning of graduate studies.
For all its mystery, opacity and occasional contradictions, Radiohead delivers what a lot of people around the world want: a soundtrack to self-discovery via music that presents the full emotional spectrum. Even more, people no doubt like the way Radiohead's music just feels intelligent and important, like the work of Kafka or William Burroughs. Or, it's the audio equivalent to a prize-winning dissertation -- high art in a fast-food culture. And in relation to Kid Rock -- whose 11-page feature in The New Yorker has yet to be published -- it is pure genius.