Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

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by Tom Johnson

It’s hard not to think about Radiohead’s In Rainbows as a test of one my favorite quotes – “Expectation is a prison.” The intention of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp was toward music, of course. Listeners tend to make assumptions based on their previous experience with music about what will soon be coming to them from an artist, and then are disappointed when what they expected is not delivered, rather than leaving themselves open to the possibility of surprise.

However, in a way, it’s easy to see that perhaps some of us expected too much from Radiohead when they announced that they would offer their album for pretty much any price you were willing to pay (aside from a 90-or-so cent service fee.) Given absolutely no information of what to expect, I, and many others, expected that Radiohead was thinking along the same lines as I was — that we’d get high-bitrate mp3s, and some artwork of some kind. Alas, the reality, to many of us, was a bit of a “let down,” to use a Radiohead song title.

The secrecy, it seemed, lead many of us to get bigger ideas than the band had planned. It is this that takes me back to a project at my first major job, just out of college, where I’d been given free reign with my division’s website.

It was all mine to do with as I pleased, and I planned on blowing everybody away with something huge, complex, and beautiful. So I kept it all quiet, and when asked in meetings about it I would politely, but excitedly related that I couldn’t reveal much, but that it would be big. It took a while — hand-coding the HTML in notepad (because WYSIWYG editors barely even existed at the time,) cutting all the images in Photoshop (and these were the days before Photoshop came packaged with tools to help you do anything for the Internet,) and a lot of trial and error finally yielded a beautiful website that boasted the company colors (the vivid corporate scheme of blue and white) and many changing photos of the aircraft we proudly built.

It was gorgeous — rollover images everywhere, all kinds of eye-catching crap all over the place. The team was going to go nuts.

I sent out the email announcing the launch of the new site. I waited and waited for the praise, but little was forthcoming but from those I worked immediately with. The proverbial crickets scraped their legs in sympathy at me. Shortly after this, my manager pulled me into his office and quickly set me straight. “Mr. Johnson, you don’t do this. You don’t surprise people in places like this. What people want is to be informed and to be a part of every decision. It’s a very nice site, but some of the people who work around here feel as if important input has been left out of the final product.”

As frustrated as I was, I would grow to understand what he meant. My ego got ahead of me. I wanted to be the focus of a lot of praise and good attention. Like any young kid out of college, I thought I had all the answers, I was certain of it, and I was equally certain everyone else would know it too. I was wrong.

I can’t help but look at the two situations — Radiohead’s In Rainbows launch and my floundering website launch — and see something similar. Radiohead kept details about the album quiet because it made it more exciting and mysterious that way (much as I hoped it would with my coworkers) and that mystery would drive people into a frenzy, wanting the album so bad they couldn’t wait to pay something, whatever amount, even if it was some piddling amount, just to be a part of it.

And it worked for them. People talked, people speculated, and the news certainly paid attention. Of course, the band revealed a day before the downloads were to begin more details — and many of us balked. It wasn’t the hope-for, speculated, hyped-up, paradigm shift we’d wanted: It was just some middlin’ quality mp3s, not the higher-bitrates we’d hoped to see. Obviously, I, just a young web designer at the time, simply didn’t have the notoriety or fame to pull off something big. But Radiohead did.

Expectation is a prison. It holds us back and prevents us from truly seeing what can be. It goes both ways when it comes to music, however. As fans, we can’t expect our favorite artists to turn out exactly what we want, and the artists can’t expect that we’re going to understand or agree with their every move or decision. But fans eventually settled in and listened to the new music and, based on the music alone, In Rainbows ended up being a great album. After all the pre-release hype, it has been in heavy rotation for me, and for many of you, for ages.

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