What Radiohead and Porcupine Tree can Teach Us About Theology

I am a big fan of early Radiohead. “The Bends” (1995), while accessible to the pop music ear, offered enough innovation that made every song was an adventure. With “OK Computer” (1997), the band hit its zenith by progressing pop music into explorations of soundscapes and unexpected turns of mood.

But then came “Kid A” in 2000, on which Thom Yorke began his eleven-year journey away from pop music and into explorations of abstractness with more emphasis on minimalism, textures, and rhythms with less emphasis on guitar and standard musical structure. The recently released “The King Of Limbs” continues the experiment.

I truly appreciate what Radiohead is attempting to do. My inclinations lean heavily into the progressive rock genre, from which Radiohead obviously was heavily influenced in their early career. Progressive Rock is not “Progressive” unless it is “progressing.” And Radiohead should be applauded for attempting to progress. However, the results have been uneven and sometimes downright unlistenable. In spite of this, Radiohead continues to sell a lot of music – “Kid A” debuted at number one, and “The King of Limbs” is currently selling well.

But why? I think it has to do with the trappings of today’s pop music industry: Celebrity, marketing, and publicity. When “Kid A” was released, Radiohead was marketed as the cool band, the innovative band, the band that “you get, but the others out there are not sophisticated enough to get.”

While Radiohead got all the acclaim (Grammy Awards among many other commendations), there have been a number of other bands in the less-known Progressive Rock genre that have have been innovative while maintaining musical structure and storytelling.

For instance, Porcupine Tree took what Radiohead had started and progressed that by adding heavier guitar riffs, changes in time signatures, mood changes, as well as soundscapes and textures that were exceptionally produced.

Often times, the best of music provides emotional experiences because it is in a language that we understand, but then when it shifts and surprises us, we are taken off-guard and we learn new things, both experientially and cognitively. This is basic pedagogy: Start with something recognizable and accessible, but then introduce new things into the mix, expanding the horizons of learning and experience.

This provides clues for us as we engage the world theologically.

We need to initially connect with people in a language that is accessible, with experiences and ideas and emotions that are commonly experienced, understood, and affecting.

But then we don’t stop there: We progress into areas not expected, building on common emotions and thoughts, but expanding horizons. Progressive Rock is known for its storytelling (both musically and lyrically), for its depth of musicianship (intricately written and played), and its ability to touch the heart as well as the head.

Our theological interactions with people need to reflect this as well.


Bob Robinson said...

This video cracks me up. "Thom Yorke may feel like dancing about Radiohead's latest release, but it drove this fan into therapy." You Tube video: http://youtu.be/UHS3ci9H_Uc

Anonymous said...

Hi, what is the next step of progression after the relating and experience sharing, besides loving the person, without "evangelizing" them, or, bringing up spiritual things without an agenda.........even though my agenda always seems to be turning people on to Christ..........?

Prog-a-liscious said...

Hi. So cool to see a Christian site that discusses prog-a-liscious music! I just got into Porcupine Tree's In Absentia and Incident through the top prog album list on your site! THough I must confess, I'm a huge fan of Radiohead's post Ok-Computer sound!! LOL. :) I'm a Christian and a progressive-post-punk artist and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in taking a listen to some of my tunes. My albums can be streamed for free at www.reverbnation.com/filipherbst. I hope you dig! Thanks for the awesome website!!!! I'm planning on working my way through your top prog album list, as I'm unfamiliar with some of the groups:) All the best to you sir! Peace.