Radiohead, Vacation Bible School, and the Definitive Listen

If you can think of a better description for Yorke’s dancing, I’d like to hear it.

1. I Might Be Wrong

Two nights ago, I sat at the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio and watched Radiohead’s Thom Yorke dance around like a spastic marionette for two hours. There was a time, not too long ago, where a lot of what I heard coming from the enormous speaker stacks framing the stage would have scared the crap out of me. I own every album Radiohead has ever put out, but I haven’t always had an easygoing relationship with their music. Usually, the process goes something like this: I get their newest album, listen to it with a frown on my face for two or three days while I try to come up with a coherent critical opinion, and then I give up. From there, I’ll listen periodically, trying desperately to make the record make sense. But I usually find that, like going to sleep on Christmas Eve, the more effort I put into it, the harder it is to make happen. Weeks, months, or even, in some cases, years will pass, and I’ll get no closer to that warm, familiar connection – the one that makes our favorite music resonate so deeply with us. And then, out of the blue, while I’m mowing the yard or on a long drive or sitting on my front porch with my iPod plugged into some old computer speakers, it’ll happen: The Definitive Listen.

The Definitive Listen happens when you play to an album that you’ve listened to often, but never really heard. When it’s over, the album sounds entirely new; it just makes sense in a way that is nearly inexplicable and cannot be manufactured. The album instantly stops being forgettable or inaccessible or whatever it was that kept it from really capturing your interest and opens itself up to your mind. This has happened to me with The National’s Boxer, Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz, TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, and Pedro the Lion’s Achilles’ Heel, along with every album Radiohead has ever made (save Pablo Honey). The point is it happens a lot, and so now I’ve started to relax when albums don’t hit me in the gut right away, because they’re so often just biding their time.

What didn’t make sense before ends up making sense later. The only thing I haven’t figured out is whether it’s the music, or whether it’s me.

2. Down is the New Up

When I was a kid, I went to Vacation Bible School at a small Baptist church that my grandmother had attended for decades. I didn’t go there regularly and so I knew very few of the other kids, and the whole experience usually ended with my silent, impatient (and I now realize, ironic), pleas for time to speed up so that the whole thing could be over and I could go home and watch a baseball game. Time, however, only ever seemed to move more slowly. The only thing that I remember clearly about the four or five weeks over the course of as many summers – besides the slowness of time and the faint impressions of bible verses being chanted in unison – is a brief sermon delivered by the church’s head pastor to the entire group of VBS attendees.

The pastor’s message centered around the story of a hypothetical man named Frank. Frank, as he told it, was a kind man whom everybody liked, who was kind and funny and even came to church every Sunday. Frank was happy. Up until this point, I thought that we kids – all ages six to twelve, mind you – were being given an exemplar, someone whose existence we might aspire to. How very wrong I was. Instead of: ‘You should all aim to be kind and well-liked and happy like Frank and the way to do that is by making popsicle stick bible-verse bookmarks until your fingers bleed,’ we got something very different.

After describing at length what for all the world sounded like Frank’s wonderful existence, the pastor looked up at us and said, “Frank’s happiness doesn’t matter. God doesn’t care about Frank’s happiness. What God cares about is whether Frank has surrendered his heart to Jesus. If he hasn’t, then no matter how kind or well-liked or funny or happy Frank is, it won’t matter.” He kept talking, I’m sure, but this is the kernel that has stayed with me for all these years, mainly because of how much it unsettled my barely budding worldview. His intent was obviously to make us understand that many of the things we traditionally associate with a “good” person are all well and good, but they are not equivalent to faith or salvation. All it did to me though, was make God sound awfully cruel. If what the pastor said was true, then I could no longer use my happiness as a genuine barometer for how things were going in my life, because underlying every smile would be the nagging worry that I was fooling myself into thinking that things were great, while God knew the truth. This stuck with me for years.

Actually, it’s still with me, but it no longer worries me. At some point, as I started to grow up and realize that happiness – despite what the Declaration of Independence or our culture at large would have us believe – shouldn’t actually be my life’s sole focus. Happiness is just a temporary emotion (and a pretty flimsy one, at that), and one bad thing can happen that wipes out a whole lot of happiness. It’s just too susceptible to life’s slings and arrows. Joy is stronger than happiness. Joy isn’t a temporary emotion; it’s a personality trait, a state of being. Or what about self-improvement, greater compassion, a heart for justice? None of those things will necessarily make me happy, but they will make me better. I’m much more concerned about being better, getting sharpened into the instrument God would have me be, than happiness. These things were revealed to me as I got older; they occurred as a kind of Definitive Listen unto themselves.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that I live my life like this every day. In fact, I’m terrible at submerging my own immediate happiness in the interest of self-improvement. But at least I know what I should be doing, and I try to keep that thought at the front of my mind as often as possible. Really though, this is all beside the point. My goal here isn’t to convince you that I have anything figured out. My goal is just to point out that what made no sense to me when I was eight or nine years-old, what was downright frightening at that time, made a whole lot of sense later. On top of that, the VBS example answers my question about Radiohead: the problem is definitely with me, not with the music.

3. Jigsaw Falling Into Place

What didn’t make sense before, ends up making sense later. Why? Well, for one, I’d like to think that as I grow older, I get smarter. In fact, if there’s ever a time when I look back at the version of myself from five years prior and don’t think, “Man, that guy was an idiot,” then I’ll know something has gone wrong. The things about which I am totally certain today will tomorrow be the things that surprise me and flip my view of the world upside down. That’s okay. I’ve gotten used to it by now.

We strengthen, we mature, we are humbled, we see and hear and think differently, and so the music that yesterday sounded like noise will one day reveal its clarity.

I could have written off Radiohead all those years ago as pretentious or deliberately obtuse (and millions have), but I would have missed out on so much that I now love and understand if I had blamed on them my shortcoming. This is the great warning against dismissing that which we initially don’t understand or connect with, whether it be a film, an album, a book, a sermon, or simply a stray thought. So often, when something doesn’t strike us as immediately revelatory, we leave it behind. We do this at our own peril, however, because The Definitive Listen is out there waiting for us to meet it.

It’s no accident that most of my Definitive Listens have happened while I was wearing headphones, because very often we have to block out the noise swirling around us to really concentrate on figuring out what’s most important. The more I’m able to do this, the better off I know I’ll be.

If this doesn’t make any sense, just give it time, and maybe it’ll all be clear later.

Do me a favor and name some of the things that only made sense to you after a period of waiting in the comments section. I’ll be fascinated (and probably relieved). Thanks.

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3 Comments on “Radiohead, Vacation Bible School, and the Definitive Listen”

  1. Steve Kuhn
    June 7, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

    “name some of the things that only made sense to you after a period of waiting”…

    God’s Grace, what it means to love someone unconditionally, and that being a man has nothing to do with what our world thinks it does.

  2. Chuck
    June 8, 2012 at 11:47 pm #

    This is so funny, I had just this week been thinking of a Radiohead CD a friend had lent me. I liked a few songs, hated one and really didn’t like the album, I thought it was kind of a week attempt to be Jeff Buckley. I never told her that, nope, she loves them and… well I will give them more tries for sure.

    I think so much of what we don’t like, can’t see, hear our understand is like you say, because of our shortcomings not the CD/sermon. I am certain there will be many things out there I never get but hopefully I’ll be a bit slower to judge and I will be listening again to that CD and see if I can find what others others have.

    And as for happiness, joy yes, joy is deep, it is spiritual to me and meaning and purpose and things of real value are so much more important than a fleeting moment. I’m really glad I’ve found this blog, it’s helping me to grow up.

    • joshacorman
      June 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

      You’re warming my heart, Chuck!

      The big thing I’ve (finally) picked after years of “getting” things later rather than sooner is that being slow to judge is incredibly helpful. First impressions are valuable too, but the slower I am to write something off, the more benefit to me it usually is.

      As for Radiohead, try THE BENDS to start, then OK COMPUTER or IN RAINBOWS. The most accessible 3, for me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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