March 01, 2011
This guest blog post comes our way from Keepaway's Nick Nauman. See our short interview with him here.
In the video for Radiohead’s new single, “Lotus Flower,” Thom Yorke dances. That’s it. He just wriggles and gyrates with an intensity that reminds me of the more physically engaged Buddhist practice I’ve seen in super-cool video esoterica and Indian monasteries. He looks like an art nerd doing his best impression of Charlie Chaplin as a lama dancer. Have you ever seen a really deep Tibetan start to fly? Thom Yorke’s twitchy boogie seems to go for that rigor-cum-spasmodicism.
The odds that the most famous alt-cerebral band in the world has heard a thing or two about “Buddhism” are high. I bet Mr. Yorke could even name the Four Noble Truths. Some of the lyrics of “Lotus Flower” read: “Tonight there’s an empty space inside my heart” and “All I want is the moon upon a stick/ Just to see what it is.” Maybe he’s also read the Heart Sutra, or the one about the finger pointing at the moon, right?
The thing is, whether or not Radiohead are trying to be specifically “Buddhist” with this song, they’re definitely working with ambient Buddhist bits and pieces in Western culture, and they’re absolutely hinting at the type of “ecstatic” physical practice we associate with “religion” in the video. That’s pretty much what pop stars can do—they can play with familiar images and tropes from popular formulations of religious practice, often in the service of vague glimpses of cool stuff like mystic truths. It’s a neat trick: arrange basic impressions of one part of someone’s identity, like the stiff-lipped and wholesome religion part, around the loose and dirty music part, and you can really get people to dig you. Everyone loves “Like a Prayer.”
Regardless of Radiohead’s intention (or Madonna’s), their real foxy maneuver is to create these words and images that allow such flexible ascriptions of meaning. That’s how the best pop stars work: they’re masters of manipulating forms, which are emptiness, which are forms, etcetera, etcetera. Everyone can dance to that.