Progressive music (or, how to annoy Radiohead fans)

My Twitter feed is a funny thing. I can mention something important in soccer or the other sports I cover, and no one responds.

But this morning, I made an offhand Tweet triggered by a dreary Radiohead song I heard yesterday: “Anyone else think Radiohead has spent 10 years desperately trying to drive away its audience?”

I didn’t think it was so controversial. Radiohead’s releases through the past decade, starting with Kid A, have been either “challenging” or “infuriating.” Abruptly shifting from searing, tuneful guitar rock to electronica is perilously close to Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, of which Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, “There has never been a clearer attempt to shed an audience.”

Like Dylan, Radiohead seemed to struggle with the burden of expectation. Like Kurt Cobain, they didn’t ask to be the voice of a generation. Exorcising a few demons with some electronic experiments isn’t the worst way to deal with the situation.

Some artists come back from the experience and fare well — Dylan released his masterpiece Blood on the Tracks just five years after Self Portrait, and he rebounded from a confusing religious phase in 1983 with Infidels.

Other artists haven’t destroyed their old popular image quite so dramatically. I once told a friend of mine that Indigo Girls “rock.” He was surprised to hear that, being more familiar with their old two-guitar, three-chord music. But he changed his mind after hearing a few songs from their 1997 album Shaming of the Sun, which includes the cranked-up Scooter Boys and Caramia, which sounds like the Great Lost Yes Song. (Another recommended download: Tether, from 2004.)

Some of my Twitter friends agreed with me, including some who never agree with me about anything. The best comment was from Steve Sirk: “They know that whatever they do will generate a tidal wave of rote fawning, so why bother being good anymore?”

Others weren’t so pleased, accusing me of wanting bands to stick with “palatable rock for the mainstream.” GingeFC: “so you’re saying that a band should never evolve or grow musically? That’s boring.”

In my defense, I immediately tossed up the argument that I’m a Rush fan who stuck with them through various keyboard experiments that drifted far afield from their power-prog roots. I’d also point out that I’m still buying Suzanne Vega music, and she’s not doing anything as commercial as Luka or Left of Center anytime soon.

And these days, what is “palatable rock”? I’m not sure where to find actual rock on the radio or even on these 200-channel Web-streaming services. I’d have better luck finding a Web radio station that plays Nigerian folk music than I would finding a station that plays Paul McCartney’s 21st century work. If Radiohead released The Bends today, would it get any airplay, or would some Adult Alternative radio programmer gripe that the guitars are too loud at the end of Fake Plastic Trees?

Given the state of rock radio, I’m not sure being experimental is any less risky than being traditional. If you’re not U2, you’re not getting played today if you’re over 40 and play electric guitar. (Dave Matthews usually plays acoustic. See, I anticipate counterarguments.)

So what’s my problem with Radiohead? I suppose, as I hear their 21st century output, I hear more pretension than melody. Rush kept writing musical hooks, no matter how convoluted the arrangement got. Radiohead seems to think they’re too commercial.

And lyrically? Yeah, you’re alienated. We get it.

So I’ll give the new one a chance, just in case they’ve done a Yes-like turn back into interesting musical and lyrical territory. And ultimately, I admire Radiohead for taking risks. But the audience has to realize that, sometimes, those risks don’t pay off.