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Friday, March 24, 2006

Thom Yorke: Profiles in Courage

Let me first say that I really like Radiohead. In fact, I consider OK Computer to be one of the ten greatest albums of my lifetime. It's a gorgeous, transcendent concept album (intentionally or not) about the dehumanizing effects of increasingly omnipresent and invasive technology. I like The Bends, Kid A and Hail to the Thief as well. Amnesiac? Not as much.

I bring this up because I just heard that Radiohead is working on a new album. The article in which I read this was about lead singer Thom Yorke, who had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Tony Blair on behalf of the charity Friends of the Earth. You would think that Yorke, as an ambassador of this group and its causes, would gladly meet with the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Sounds like quite the opportunity, right? But Yorke couldn't be bothered. He accuses Blair of having "no environmental credentials" and dismisses the prospect of a meeting as a waste of time.

There are a couple of ways to analyze this. First, perhaps you shouldn't be an ambassador for a group if you're not willing to roll up your sleeves and commit to the political work required to get things done. Second, if celebrities (even reluctant ones like Yorke) are to expect people to listen to their political views, they should be willing to do the nitty-gritty, detailed, and unglamorous labor required to make things happen. This goes for all of us, does it not? It's a challenge to live up to our beliefs, to match our words with actions. Resting in presumptuously pristine pretentiousness is an easy out. Third, contrast Yorke with Bono, who has done the political hard work and necessary diplomacy. He meets with people all over the political spectrum and appeals to their respective values in an effort to make things happen for Africa.

Instead of castigating Blair for having "no environmental credentials," wouldn't it make sense for Yorke to persuade Blair to adopt some? Yet Yorke said that the whole experience has soured him on activism: "I came out of that whole period just thinking, I don’t want to get involved directly, it’s poison. I’ll just shout my mouth off from the sidelines." While I don't doubt that politics is a wretched business and can understand Yorke's antipathy, I'm thinking it may be best if he resists the megaphone if he's not willing to back his words with action. Talk is easy for all of us, but so is abstaining from action, particularly in the name of purity or safety. Perhaps Thom Yorke should tone down his sideline banter and focus on making another great album.

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