Loving Radiohead: Enlightened Musical Taste or Irrationality?

Is loving Radiohead irrational? Maybe, but that's alright.

Posted Oct 05, 2011

Radiohead's new album, The King of Limbs, was releases a couple weeks ago. The remix of the album, which is longer than the original album itself, will be released on October 10. I'm a huge Radiohead fan; I already like the new album, am delighted that they are releasing new material and to see them promoting it in so many places. For example, The Colbert Report devoted a special hour-long episode to Radiohead that featured many performances from the band, and Radiohead was the musical guest on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. Many think that their love of Radiohead stems from their sophisticated and enlightened musical taste. It probably does. I have discovered, however, that my love of Radiohead is a bit irrational. Interestingly, though, it may be one of the very few exceptions where irrationality is acceptable.

My love of Radiohead started with their song "Creep," from their 1993 album Pablo Honey. If Radiohead were a one-hit wonder, "Creep" would be their one hit. It sounded like the typical grunge-alternative songs of the time—quiet melodies interrupted by loud sustained distortion—and it is the only Radiohead song that you are likely to hear on mainstream radio stations. But my affection for Radiohead grew as I listened to the other songs on the album—which, in my opinion, are quite unlike "Creep." At first I didn't like the rest the album all that much, but it grew on me. I experienced the same thing with their next album The Bends; I thought it was different than Pablo Honey, but I grew to like it. I continued this pattern every time a new Radiohead album came out; the pattern was especially obvious to me when the band took an entirely new direction in their 2000 album Kid A. But by the time that album came out, I was already in the habit of "growing to like it," and the fact that I wasn't thrilled with a first listen was no surprise. Thus I developed my "Radiohead Method." I'd listen to a new album over and over, sometimes until I was sick of it, and then return to it in a few weeks—each time realizing that I now loved it. I have repeated this process for every album. In a hurry to "appreciate" The King of Limbs, I literally listened to the album five times in a row (while doing yard work) right after I downloaded it. I already like it, but expect that I will love it in a few weeks time.

I have come to realize what I am doing and why I am doing it, and it tells us a bit about philosophy and the human condition. Familiarity breeds affection, and this happens because of something known as the "status quo bias." Studies have shown that you are likely to prefer familiar attractive faces to equally attractive unfamiliar ones. Similarly, you are likely to prefer what is given to you first, when compared with an equally valued alternate, simply because it was given to you first. (For more on these studies, see Dan Weijer's chapter in my forthcoming volume Inception and Philosophy: Because It's Never Just a Dream.) This bias can often lead us astray, making us refuse to consider other alternatives or to dismiss them out of hand, even when they are right. It's not surprising that most people not only prefer the food, television, music and movies they grew up with, but they also think the political, religious, and even metaphysical beliefs (e.g., belief about ghosts) they grew up with are obviously true. Of course, some people are rebels, and reject what their parents teach them simply because their parents taught it to them; but most often people stick with what's familiar. This is part of the reason religious and political affiliations are regionalized; people who live together think alike because the way other people think is familiar.

Although finding certain music aesthetically pleasing is not the same as finding faces attractive, or preferring one object to the next, I think the status quo bias plays a role in my affection for Radiohead. Once an album becomes familiar, I like it. And the more I listen to it, the better it seems. So, instead of worrying about whether or not I like a Radiohead album the first time around, I just listen to it a bunch of times first expecting to "develop a taste" for it. (I personally think the status quo bias may have also played a role in keeping the Beatles popular as their musical style often changed drastically from album to album.)

Succumbing to the status quo bias is irrational, particularly if you are aware of it. This is especially true if you refuse to consider competing philosophical, religious, or political views simply because they are not familiar. In fact, since such views affect your actions, and thus affect others, you have a social and moral responsibility to have informed philosophical, religious, and political views. You don't get to just believe what you want (what is familiar), with no good reason, free of moral responsibility. But, given that my "Radiohead Method" only informs my musical tastes, I'm not too worried about charges of irrationality or immorality. After all, I also had to fight the status quo bias every time I gave a Radiohead album with a new unfamiliar sound a chance. So I'm not being completely irrational. I've just learned to use my own innate irrational bias to my own aesthetic advantage.

Let me be clear, however. I'm not saying that Thom Yorke (the lead singer of Radiohead) and crew are talentless hacks that I only like because I force myself to be familiar with their music. I've tried to develop a taste for other bands and albums I didn't initially like, and failed. And, without trying, I know that I could never develop a taste for Brittney Spears. So, Radiohead fans, don't read me wrong; I still think there is a unique musical genius to what they do. And if you are not already a fan, don't think I'm saying you definitely would be if you just gave them a chance—it may not be your cup of tea. But you also might be surprised.

If you do decide to give them a chance, I suggest starting with "Creep" and Pablo Honey, and working your way forward in chronological order—there is a development there that may be necessary for a full appreciation of Radiohead's music. At the least, I think that just jumping right into The King of Limbs may not be the most effective way to overcome your own status quo bias.

(A special thanks to my friend and colleague Mike Little for his helpful comments.)

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