Tuesday, 24 August 2010

33 1/3: OK Computer

Dai Griffiths - 33 1/3: OK Computer
published 9 September 2004 by Continuum

Type “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” into Google and you get well over 800000 results; not bad for a quote that’s patently untrue. It’s a sound bite that’s taken on a life of its own, principally due to its inflammatory nature and “quotability”, rather than anything remotely fact-based. At its finest, writing about music is a wonderful thing; a great review, article or opinion piece can be persuasive, invigorating, challenging and entertaining, much in the same way music itself can be. One of the great things about music is that it’s near-indefinable and certain tracks mean different things to different people. This means that music doesn’t lend itself too well to academic appraisal, yet that is what Oxford Brookes lecturer, Dr. Dai Griffiths, seeks to do in his book on Radiohead’s OK Computer.

This isn’t at all to suggest that academia and pop music can’t be bedfellows - for instance, analysing a particular album and its place in the canon of the history of recorded music would be a more than valid study. However, OK Computer was only released in 1997, and while Dr. Griffith’s thesis is as engagingly written as you’d expect, it’s debatable whether breaking down each song into its constituent parts with details on bars per section, tempo and key signature is going to advance anyone’s appreciation of the album.

The books in the 33 1/3 series examine “classic” albums in detail and tend to be written by journalists or musicians rather than academics. I find it difficult not to take issue with the style of the OK Computer book, as the music I love is all about the way it makes me feel, and while I’m keen to know more about the making of a record and the circumstances around it, dissecting it as if it were a scientific experiment seems impersonally anodyne and leaves me cold. The fact that the average song length on OK Computer is greater than that of The Bends is immaterial; the reasons I like OK Computer are likely to be different to the reasons you like (or dislike) OK Computer and grouping the lyrical themes into nine distinct headings isn’t going to alter that one jot.

That said, Dr. Griffiths’ prose is very readable, and the section on the difference between CD and vinyl albums is incredibly interesting. Unfortunately, the conclusion he draws is incredibly sweeping and rushed, and his over-confident tone can be grating and smug. It’s a decent enough book and worthy reading for OK Computer obsessives, but it ultimately comes across as the wrong approach to take. With a style like that, you may as well be dancing about architecture.

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