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Radiohead Rorschach

An innocent fifth-grader's picture is worth a thousand-word critical analysis

You've absorbed the deified albums, quarreled over the rock critic pontifications, frowned at the guarded, combative interviews. Thom Yorke's ugly-stick-beaten mug has peered at you from the pages of every magazine known to man; his every word and every note has ignited its own individual Internet flame war. Mass media has bombarded us with Radiohead critique, rendering us unable to generate an unfiltered opinion of our own.

When you listen to Radiohead, you're no longer actually listening to Radiohead -- you're listening to everyone's opinion about Radiohead. It's impossible to separate what you hear from what you've read. You are betrayed by what you know, and you know way too much.

Thus, in order to solicit an honest, undiluted opinion about Radiohead, you'd have to find the proverbial People Living Under Rocks. As People Living Under Rocks are unavailable, let's use fifth-graders.

Adam, 10: Adam wins the coveted "Most Likely to Actually Be a Radiohead Album Cover" award. The ghouls, the ominous pipe organ, the cactus, the violent scribbles, the alien lizard, the McDonald's fries ... run away to art school now.
Adam, 10: Adam wins the coveted "Most Likely to Actually Be a Radiohead Album Cover" award. The ghouls, the ominous pipe organ, the cactus, the violent scribbles, the alien lizard, the McDonald's fries ... run away to art school now.
Maddy, 10: Radiohead: It's about scenes from Disney's Aladdin.
Maddy, 10: Radiohead: It's about scenes from Disney's Aladdin.
Chris, 10: Is this how Thom Yorke sees himself? A lonely figure sprawled across a piano bench as the faceless multitudes leer at and judge him? Does he want our love? Does he want us to leave him alone? Or does he want a thousand-foot ice cream cone?
Chris, 10: Is this how Thom Yorke sees himself? A lonely figure sprawled across a piano bench as the faceless multitudes leer at and judge him? Does he want our love? Does he want us to leave him alone? Or does he want a thousand-foot ice cream cone?
Kaiya, 11: Finally, the missing link between Radiohead and Ishtar.From left to right: "I'm tired," "I'm dying of heat," "I'm thirsty."
Kaiya, 11: Finally, the missing link between Radiohead and Ishtar.From left to right: "I'm tired," "I'm dying of heat," "I'm thirsty."
Earl W., 10: The dark, existentialist dread of Pokémon. Quote: "Mommy please come help."
Earl W., 10: The dark, existentialist dread of Pokémon. Quote: "Mommy please come help."
Willie, 11: It's storming outside, your friend next door has disappeared, and Thom is muttering the raindrops the raindrops the raindrops for fifteen minutes straight.
Willie, 11: It's storming outside, your friend next door has disappeared, and Thom is muttering the raindrops the raindrops the raindrops for fifteen minutes straight.
Stephanya, 10: Are fifth graders sarcastic?
Stephanya, 10: Are fifth graders sarcastic?
Hannah, 10: You're-going-to-hell panorama #2. The kid on the mountain is saying "I hate my life."
Hannah, 10: You're-going-to-hell panorama #2. The kid on the mountain is saying "I hate my life."
Jeffrey, 9: Easily the most disturbing of several you're-going-to-hell panoramas. The booth in the center reads "Free Suicides." Someone buy this kid a Coldplay CD.
Jeffrey, 9: Easily the most disturbing of several you're-going-to-hell panoramas. The booth in the center reads "Free Suicides." Someone buy this kid a Coldplay CD.
Mia, 10: Radiohead: It's about bummed-out dolphins.
Mia, 10: Radiohead: It's about bummed-out dolphins.
Daniel, 10: Fine, Thom: Here's a thousand-foot-high ice cream cone.
Daniel, 10: Fine, Thom: Here's a thousand-foot-high ice cream cone.

Specifically, Mitsi Kato's fifth-grade class at Roosevelt Elementary in San Leandro, California.

Mitsi has consented to a simple experiment: We will play a career-spanning selection of Radiohead songs; the kids, equipped with Sharpies and blank sheets of paper, will simply draw whatever the music suggests to them. We don't even give them the name of the band. They don't know anything about Radiohead, the mountain of criticism, the mythology. Their thoughts and interpretations are pure, unsullied, literally unique.

They are also extremely bizarre. (For more examples, visit houstonpress.com.)

The kids consent to this experiment, if only because Mitsi tells them to. They do, however, immediately request that we play Sean Paul or 50 Cent instead.

"This is not hip-hop," Mitsi says. "I'm not asking if you like it."

She doesn't have to ask. They don't.

We begin with Hail to the Thief, Radiohead's latest, a critically adored and hopelessly muddled platter of art-rock weirdness. The kids shift restlessly as "2+2=5" sputters into guitar-and-drum-machine gear.

When Yorke's famously tortured croon first surfaces, the whole room starts giggling.

Giggling.

For the first few songs, the kids hardly move, scarcely even changing facial expressions. One girl plants her head on her desk face first. The "hold your head in your hands and look completely confused" look is extremely popular.

But slowly, they begin drawing. One kid starts scrawling a guitar; the girl next to him immediately begins copying -- an apt metaphor for music criticism.

To dispel the room's chilly vibe, we switch to 2001's slightly less clinical Kid A; the warm keyboards of "Everything in Its Right Place" thaw the kids out a bit. The kid who specifically requested Sean Paul begins drawing what looks like a giant stalk of asparagus.

But let's not peek. So as not to lord over the artists, we snoop around Mitsi's classroom a bit, particularly the official rules for room 14. Thom Yorke would be in blatant violation of several of these, including "Don't fidget," "Be helpful," and particularly "Keep negative ideas to yourself."

After the droning, horn-blasted dirge of "The Natural Anthem," we throw caution to the wind and toss on OK Computer's truly psychotic guitar freakout "Paranoid Android," which leads to The Bends' far sweeter "High and Dry," which the class seems to like the best. We consider playing Radiohead's debut fluke alt-rock smash "Creep," but the kids might recognize it, and it's profane besides. Instead, perhaps "Anyone Can Play Guitar" will inspire them.

Unlikely. Returning to Hail to the Thieffor the grand finale, Mitsi's announcement that "Sail to the Moon" will be our last song earns a chorus of "Yes!"es and several robust fist-pumps. Thom has made few fans.

Ah, but the experiment yields about 30 stark, black-and-white Radiohead interpretations that represent the purest, most honest take on the band you'll find anywhere. The kids will now take over; for the rest of you, Radiohead is playing the Woodlands Pavilion Wednesday night. Call ahead before bringing art supplies. Music t is no longer possible to have an original opinion on Radiohead.

Radiohead appears Wednesday, October 1, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands. Supergrass opens. For more information, call 281-363-3300.

 
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