So, where were you when Kid A was released?
Whoever said that only tragic events can be the only items we use as cultural reference points? For every September 11th or Hurricane Katrina, there has to be an equivalent, positive occurrence that balances our world. And more often than not, for those of us immersed in popular culture, those times were marked by the music, film, and novels that grant and shape our identities.
Cultural touchstones like Taxi Driver, On the Road, and Kid A are markers for our lives; each break our routines and pop brightly against an otherwise drab background, long enough to remind us of what it’s like to encounter brilliance. But these markers aren’t always exact; time can be delicate and problematic. I don’t remember reading Shakespeare for the first time or purchasing Kid A at the record store, but I do remember the cold nights in college I spent absorbing both, and I remember the exact location of the rip in my gray comforter in my dorm.
It’s this notion of time, this inherent stubbornness in how we choose to identify, consume, analyze, and, ultimately, catalog the invocations of music that can be alternately frustrating and rewarding. Now, imagine distilling those concepts, and more, into a slim 147 pages as Marvin Lin does in his discourse on Kid A.
For a ridiculously daunting subject, Lin does an extraordinary job of engaging the reader in the labyrinth of excursions and theories that Kid A offers. Traversing topics as varied as Dadaism, Krautrock, and the creation of Greenwich Mean Time, Lin anchors his text by circling around the thematic qualities (and quantities) of time, and creates a particularly engrossing text.
When examining subjects such as how Western culture chooses to define and consume music, Lin proves inherently adept with his subject. “What is it about Western culture that continually reinforces the notion of music as a thing rather than an activity?” he asks, and then, in part answer to his own question, Lin states with rare clarity, “By conceptualizing music as a thing, we assume that albums like Kid A should be judged not in a cultural context but according to its own value system, self-contained and removed from social relations.”
And if the explorations to the questions that Lin poses start to sound like a Master’s thesis on a literary text, well, that’s kind of the point. Kid A merits this type of deep, multi-layered research and exploration. To dismiss its inherent philosophical and socio-political qualities is to do the album, and Lin’s text, an injustice.
Lin takes special effort to delve into the science behind music, too. How it relates to Kid A and how our aural experiences can be altered by our ears is particularly intriguing:
Apparently there is a group of neurons in the corticofugal network of the brain whose sole purpose is to figure out these more difficult, challenging patterns [of music]…So for those of us who found Kid A challenging at first but kept listening anyway, our brains were literally being reshaped by the music.
It’s one of a handful of revelatory, pure “wow” moments in the text, where research, theory, and music come together to create something larger than the sum; something that we may never have understood otherwise about our sense of musical consumption.
Each of the nine chapters is divided into a thematic subjects beginning with the letter “A” (e.g., Kid Acclaim, Kid Ascension, Kid Apocalypse) and it’s a smart tactic, a way of breaking down the barriers that usually stop up expository writing. Lin could have opted to break the chapters into the various songs on the Kid A or even to break the chapters into a year-by-year cycle since the album’s release (the album turned ten in October of 2010). But like the record, Lin pours an assortment of ideas and research into one pot and sorts through them meticulously, eventually arriving at a dynamic narrative.
Lin smartly avoids too many personal anecdotes opting instead to allow an army of sources and band interviews to dictate the direction to pursue and which questions to pose (“What is Kid A supposed to ‘be’?” and “Why should we trust newer critical opinions?”). When he does indulge in a personal recollection, as in the book’s Introduction, it’s for great effect and illuminates his role as more than just a passive critic of music, but as an active fan of the record, as well.
And that’s what makes Lin’s slim volume so worthwhile; he asks a combination of all the right questions that music critics and theorists should ask but never becomes muddled by the highbrow concepts and myths of Kid A. Because, like most of us, when the day is over and there’s nothing else to discuss, we’ve still got our memories that connect us closer to the music than words can manage.