Kathryn Watson

Kathryn Watson is a writer and developmental editor based out of New York City that believes the Internet has reached peak levels of witty bios. You can find her on Twitter (@whatkathrynsaid) and on Instagram (@katewatsonwrites), where she does not wax postmodern.

Chance the Rapper & the Joyful Noise of Desecration

It’s hailed as “Music’s Biggest Night” but in reality, it’s a very, very long afternoon that turns into a glamorous dusk. Outside of the Staples Center, the Los Angeles sun was finally setting. Women wearing millions of dollars worth of jewels, men in custom-tailored bespoke suits, all of them intoxicated by their own beauty and the world’s best champagne, turned their eyes to the stage for one of the final performances.

A song begins, and a female voice belts out from the darkness. The tune is familiar to many in the audience and those watching at home. The rich, pitch-perfect vibrato grows in strength as it continues singing in the distinct and unmistakable style of down-home, Sunday-go-to-meeting worship. A spotlight clicks on, and a slender, impossibly young-looking man dressed in a tribal patterned sweatshirt and jeans appears. He looks humbled, honored to be here but also steady, self-assured. His body rocks with energy as he directs his fingers upward. Pre-recorded vocals cascade out from the speakers, an authority speaking from above. Scoffing at, obliterating the vanity of all those who sit before the stage, the voice speaks with a smirking, palpable sense of irony: God is better than the world’s best thing.

And then Chance starts rapping, with the speed and intensity of a seasoned professional performer; with all of the ambition and revelation of a prophet before his king.

That was how much of the country met Chance the Rapper. It was the perfect introduction.

Chance’s medley stands in contrast with the performance of A Tribe Called Quest during that same awards show, just moments earlier. ATCQ chose pointed satire and polarizing, hyperbolic statements to accompany their songs, memorably referring to our current president as “Agent Orange” and inviting a parade of hijab-clad dancers on stage alongside them. While it’s demonstrable that this particular brand of criticism greatly aggrieves the White House’s occupant (source: Twitter. His own.), there’s also proof that political satire rarely motivates change within societies. In Heather LaMarre’s study, “The Irony of Satire,”  she brings to light the connection between confirmation bias and performances like ATCQ’s and recent Saturday Night Live sketches; these acts of theater leave just enough ambiguity that viewers can absorb what they want to absorb, find amusement in what they agree with, and leave the rest for someone else to interpret.  

But Chance’s national debut didn’t abandon politics, and neither does Chance himself. A strong proponent of the successful “My Brother’s Keeper” mentorship program, Chance also led voter-registration drives at his concerts and championed the democratic process throughout election season last year. Chance’s lyrics incorporate political references that sincerely question systemic marginalization and tend to reference role models, not enemies. The only antagonist Chance seems threatened by is Satan himself.

There’s been some commentary that “joy is an act of resistance.” Watching Chance brings us to the inverse question, “Can resistance itself be an act… of joy?”

In the Byzantine Empire, the long-suffering peasants supported a government-sponsored campaign of iconoclasm. They sought out and destroyed religious and political iconography, which they had come to see as symbols not of faith and prosperity but as representations of class barriers and bloodshed. They saw destruction as the only way forward for themselves. Destruction of artifacts has been an oft-repeated sign of resistance and a society in tumult ever since.

Part of what makes Chance so special, so significant to the moment we are in is this: while many seek to deconstruct the broken systems of our divided political classes, Chance remains a true egalitarian. He’s an iconoclast that doesn’t seek to behead the ancient statues of our shared past. He embraces religious symbolism, treasuring them, all the while his very existence desecrates the system he’s escaped. “The people’s champ must be everything the people can’t be,” he declares in the reprise of his song, “Blessings.” In that same song, he remarks that it “seems like blessings keep falling in [my] lap.” He sees his seemingly magical avoidance from the snare of the music industry bureaucracy not as a conquest of war, but a charming accident.

Chancelor Bennett still owns the rights to all of his original recordings. In his own words, he’s “In his own words:  “pre-currency, post-language, anti-label, pro-famous.” He’s such a successful streaming-only artist without label representation that the Grammy’s literally rewrote their own rules so he’d qualify to win one. The natural outcome of Chance’s forever free, forever thankful way of thinking is an infectious magnetism that would be impossible to duplicate.

Whether it’s rooting for the Chicago Cubs in the World Series despite his lifelong White Sox affinity, or working to get tickets back from scalpers so that more fans can attend his sold-out shows, Chance inhabits his own charisma with an earth-bound humility that only serves to enchant his audience even further. Chance celebrates without being self-congratulatory, and elevates others with a graciousness that reads as ever-authentic. His lyrics speak to a running interior monologue; one that reflects an awareness, a deprecation, an amusement; but never an ego.

Conservatives will say that our culture has been pulled apart, thread by thread, and that the center cannot hold our country together anymore. Liberals will say that there’s no common ground to stand on when the other side of the aisle has abandoned intellectual honesty in favor of populism. Both positions would indicate that there is no hope, no way forward, no way to delight in each other across the boundaries of race, religion, and politics. Chance proves these people wrong just by existing. If there was no hope left for our shared culture in the Trump era, hope couldn’t have resonated in the Staples Center late on Sunday night. If we were all out of hope, how could hope have brought the house down?

Anger points to anarchy. Satire stares back at us in the mirror. But hope points us toward each other.

Radiohead in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

After the enamored guitars and driving, straightforward vocals that characterized their first trio of albums (Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer), and the menace of digital angst that haunted the second three (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief), Radiohead has brought their third (and, many speculate, their final) act to a close. Following up to the manic, disjointed and, at times, accusatory albums In Rainbows and King of Limbs, they give us Moon Shaped Pool—a complicated, ethereal offering that just might be the coda that unlocks it all.

At turns groaning, oblique, and painfully aware, Moon Shaped Pool leaves us with a legacy of what it has meant to be Radiohead. A band unearthed by their audience in message boards and discussed in chat rooms, whose music was downloaded on dial-up and burned onto treasured mix CDs before one day, in an industry shake-up, Radiohead gave In Rainbows to the public for whatever listeners felt like paying. With this act, one could argue that Radiohead transformed into something more than a “band,” becoming an artistic instrument of novel invention, forged in the fires of a technical revolution, echoing with brush percussion and a flourish of strings.

In the late 2010s tumult of personal branding and the headline economy, Radiohead has been steadfastly not that. Their “anti-media” campaign, during which they stealthily deleted all of their social media in anticipation of Moon Shaped Pool‘s’ release, reminded us that they are the last bastion of reluctantly successful rock stars, a team of destiny, the kind of talent that can’t help but loathe themselves a little bit.

Listening to one of the album’s standout tracks, “Daydreaming”, it almost feels like every glowing review and sold-out stadium has been a twist of the knife for York, et al. “Dreamers / they never learn / they never learn,” the song laments, as if accepting at last that the audience will always be an other—a bemused, entertained observer. The listener can never be the knowing, nodding sage in the political theater that is Radiohead’s existence. “This goes / beyond me, beyond you,” the words implore.

But it’s too late. Across the scope of our grating earnest youth, our disillusioned adolescence and now, our tired cynicism, Radiohead has been giving us fair warning of what lies ahead. Moon Shaped Pool is the abyss of Narcissus, the logical conclusion of our subterranean (homesick alien) lifestyles. The audience is fixated upon themselves, seeing in the performer only a reflection of self. Moon Shaped Pool is not a two-way mirror, but a reminder that you can drown in self-reflection.

How can a reflection of a thing, like an album copy, or any object for that matter, belong to everyone, and no one, all at once? It kind of …can’t. Walter Benjamin wrote about it in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Benjamin goes on, “This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.”

If there is one protest that runs through the Radiohead canon, it is a continual dismay at the state of modern unreality. The band’s music speaks to the suspension of the body’s organic functions in favor of a grinding, duty-bound consciousness facilitated by technology. “My Iron Lung,” “OK Computer,” “Fitter Happier,” and “There There” are just some of the most cut-and-dry examples. But Radiohead takes the concept to its final, most desperate destination in Pool’s “The Numbers.” In direct address to the sarcastic, side-eyed imagery he’s past invoked, Yorke emphatically reminds the listener that he was only kidding when he praised the life robotic, singing, “We are of the earth/ to her do we return/ the future is inside us/ it’s not somewhere else.”

These lyrics might as well be a direct nod to the core of Benjamin’s signature thesis. “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.”  And in the span of Radiohead’s career, the “authenticity” of objects has taken on a novel conception.  If the reality of a piece of art is connected intrinsically to the object’s tangible form, that means the story it tells is related heavily to the physical history of that object. But what about objects (and artists) that lose their physical history to a digital existence?

Most of my Radiohead collection lives in a server that I cannot locate, written in a language I cannot interpret, using technology I cannot operate. Though the music is tangible—through more venues of cloud-based technology that recreate the sounds of Radiohead recordings—the art is not something I can physically handle, or touch. I cannot inspect the condition in which it arrived in my possession. I cannot document the history or tradition in which it came from. Neither can I make my mark upon it; no matter how many times I listen to Moon Shaped Pool, it will be none the worse for wear. It will always sound the same. The same as everyone else’s copy of it.

If “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” and even the original lives somewhere in a server, location immaterial, what is the source of all of our replicas, the parent of Moon Shaped Pool?

It is, of course, Thom Yorke himself.

He knows it, too. Moon Shaped Pool is the performer, at last, dissolved at our feet. A man who doesn’t want to live as a machine anymore. A man who must be on his way. In “Desert Island Disc,” the machinery is again cast aside in favor of a life reincarnate. “Waking up/ waking up from a shutdown / from a thousand years of sleep,” he sings—not as much an announcement as a plea for leniency. How painful it must be to exist only as bundle of sounds.

In you/I’m lost/In you/I’m lost,” he tells us. We know—but we don’t want to let this—Thom’s voice, Radiohead, any of it—go. He has to make the audience us let go, by alienating them severely.

And he does. Using the weapons at his disposal, the disembodied songwriter turns the knife on the listener. In what would appear to be a parting gift for the Radiohead faithful, Moon Shaped Pool fades out with the a living, breathing, studio recording of “True Love Waits.”

Both mythic and inescapable, live recordings of “True Love Waits” have long existed in various iterations, with Thom’s voice sprawling over and caressing every word. The defiant, stunted vocal reach he clung to in later years vanishes in these live recordings, which led fans to conclude that Thom had a heart that beat for them after all. That he did want them watching. That he was happy to be the man, the myth, the disembodied voice of the digital landscape. He rejoiced to exist as Benjamin’s “artifact.”

But now, even this fantasy of Radiohead is destroyed. Moon Shaped Pool presents “True Love Waits”, dirge-ified. The newly recorded version is a dehydrated one; relying on a halted, mourning keyboard. “I’m not living/I’m just killing time.” Thom reverts to his digital self, his voice dehumanized and clouded by reverb. The chorus resonates as it always has, only this time we wonder if anyone meant it to begin with. “Just don’t leave/don’t leave.” It is a grinning challenge, one last wink. Don’t leave, he suggests, while reminding listeners that they can’t make him stay.

Radiohead knows that once the listener walks away, there is no more entrapment inside of their object. The abyss of Narcissus is left behind, both for the musician and the audience. No more self-reflection. No more digital prisons, and no more idioteque. The band’s time and place will cease to be, its meaningーlost on so many of us, all alongーgone for good. Replaced by copies of copies, echoes of echoes, dust upon dust. That’s the best that they can hope for, anymore.

Moon Shaped Pool asks us to look, one last time, and see ourselves before we go.