Are Radiohead Fans as Miserable as Their Stereotype, and Is That a Bad Thing?

For many years, being a fan of the English rock band Radiohead meant three little words: "True Love Waits."

That's the name of the sentimental ballad that long served as the Holy Grail of the band's unreleased tracks. First heard on 2001's I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings, it was used for years as an intro to the band's live performances of "Everything in Its Right Place," swapped out on different occasions with "After the Gold Rush" by Neil Young, "Unravel" by Björk, and others. Last year, however, came the coup de grace: The song finally appeared at the end of the band's ninth LP, A Moon Shaped Pool. For many, it was a miracle.

More than any other era — and owing to its mercurial style, Radiohead is certainly the one band that can be easily split into eras among albums — the time surrounding A Moon Shaped Pool's release has been especially geared toward fans. Of the 11 tracks on the album, at least five were previously known, either in fragments or as fleshed-out yet tantalizingly unrecorded songs. Opener "Burn the Witch" might have seemed timed to the paranoid political atmosphere of the past two years, but it's been bouncing around singer Thom Yorke's head since 2003, when lyrics appeared in Hail to the Thief's artwork. "Present Tense" was first performed live in 2009 at a solo acoustic set by Yorke. And "Identikit" was first performed in Miami, at the beginning of the band's 2012 tour, giving Radiohead's February 27 stop at the American Airlines Arena a claim to fame. Given so many gifts, hardcore fans couldn't interpret the album any other way: "This one's for us."

Unlike most bands' followings, Radiohead fans number in the hundreds of thousands, their fierce devotion to the group so extreme it invites ridicule from the uninitiated. Type "Radiohead fans are" into Google, and the top three suggestions are "pretentious," "smart," and "the worst." A Radiohead fan's persona can be seen in a Reddit thread where users describe someone by their favorite album. OK Computer: "You scoff at all the sheeple around you," "you like it when it rains because it makes everyone gloomy." Kid A: "You describe yourself as a music expert," "you're so much better than those kids in your high school that listen to Top 40," "you can always talk to me or talk to the lovely people at the suicide hotline."

According to these stereotypes, Radiohead fans are self-important, self-styled music aficionados who sneer at the masses who aren't quite as intellectual as they. They're also deeply depressed and lonely but think their grim disposition makes them special.

So what makes the band's fans so proudly obsessive?

For one, Radiohead excels at creating settings for its albums. From 1997's OK Computer on, each record has received cover art and packaging that both reflects the music within and stands on its own as art. The most ambitious projects also tell a story, whether through Kid A's apocalyptic paintings and comics, OK Computer's cold collage of modern malaise, or The King of Limbs' ghostly naturalism. Along with Stanley Donwood, the artist who produces all of the band's artwork and is considered an additional member, Radiohead is one of the few bands that strives to create a sophisticated visual world for its music to inhabit. Part of the appeal of collecting physical Radiohead releases is simply because they're art objects, things of beauty that look good on a shelf or a wall.

That artistic depth has made it easy for a community to spring up and maintain itself for as long as the internet has been around. Supplementing Radiohead's frequently updated website W.A.S.T.E. are several equally impressive fan-built destinations, from OG traditional fan sites At Ease and Green Plastic and databases such as Citizen Insane to message boards like the Radiohead subreddit. When I joined the subreddit in 2012, it was the place to go for updates on the band's world tour, bootlegs, and fannish miscellany such as art and photos of user collections. It was also much more intimate, with fewer than 15,000 readers; today the site has 50,000. With Radiohead, there's always plenty to talk about and more people than ever willing to talk about it.

Radiohead: For those with superior taste.
Radiohead: For those with superior taste.
Photo © Alex Lake

But what makes this infrastructure even more impressive is the band's participation in it. In the early days, the bandmates frequently communicated with fans on their own sites and message boards. They rarely seek legal action against fans posting bootlegs or leaks, and they've encouraged fans to produce art based on the band's music; last year, they held a contest asking for video vignettes paired with a clip of the song "Daydreaming" and posted the results on Instagram. Arguably, one of the group's most infamous acts — inventing the name-your-price payment structure for the 2007 album In Rainbows — was done with fans in mind. As Pitchfork's Jeremy Gordon wrote: "It proved Radiohead could release a record on the most secretive terms, basically for free, and still be wildly successful, even as industry profits continued to plummet. They were able to take that risk partly due to the fan sites and their communities."

But perhaps more than anything, Radiohead fandom is simply a personality trait. The stereotypes about the band's devotees — pretentious, depressed loners — may be cruel, but they can also be accurate. Those descriptions, for instance, easily describe me in high school. I was the only person I knew who listened to Radiohead, and I liked it that way. I was obsessed with having the good taste to cultivate a sense of superiority. I had no close friends and didn't go out of my way to make any. I spent most of my time on the internet. I wanted only to escape suburbia. I was also miserable, and even today I wonder how much of it was caused by my surroundings and how much was my unwillingness to adapt. I longed to be understood while retreating into sounds I considered obscure.

"Why don't you listen to some happy music if you're so sad?" people outside the bubble of depression might prescribe. But to me, Radiohead's music was not depressing, but affirming. It confirmed that, no matter how brightly the hot sun and false smiles of those around me shined, there was someone, somewhere who knew my isolation, be it Thom Yorke or the people on the subreddit. When I first heard the band, I knew I had come into contact with something higher, a form of beauty I couldn't comprehend. I understood its effect on me, but not its reason. It changed the way I thought of music: Finally, I had heard something in line with the way I felt. It was like a calling.

Radiohead will return to Miami this Thursday. Many fans at the show will anticipate "True Love Waits." But when I see the band, I'll probably flash back to sitting on a bus, iPod headphones in, listening to "There There" on the way to school.

Radiohead
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 30, at American Airlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 786-777-1000; aaarena.com. Tickets are sold out.

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