Life as Art: What Radiohead Can Surprisingly Teach You About Confidence

By Virgil Munteanu

In the summer of 2021, I signed up for a short course in directing held at a well-known film school in London. One day, as we were all watching our short films, we eventually came to an evil cop-noir made by a fellow attendee. It started out rather unconventionally with a descending shot of a pair of chimneys in Covent Garden which eventually reached street level, where a chase was about to happen. I say “unconventionally” because our films generally started with introducing the characters right from the first frame, whereas her’s, in a way, set up the atmosphere and the general somber mood of the story without filming any people whatsoever.

If there would be any one lesson that stuck in my mind from that programme, it would be found in what a tutor said to that fellow attendee, a lesson which I consider to be of great philosophical importance. Namely, one of our tutors remarked that the starting shot of her film showed the audience that they were in the hands of a very confident director. 

This remark stuck in my mind for a while and still somewhat intrigues me. It seemed quite natural for the tutor to applaud the girl’s choice of shot. After all, her film turned out really great and that was largely due to other bold shot choices similar to the one I mentioned. It also seemed that her being confident in her shots was an essential component of her being an artist in the first place. Even though we were all novices at directing, it seemed that she somehow came closer to the essence of filmmaking; that is, closer to the essence of proper art. In this way, one can say that her being confident was a condition for her doing art in the first place. Arguing for the impossibility of the artist expressing their ideas without boldness or confidence, without being willing to put their entire being on the line in favour of trying something new, is one of the objectives of this article. 

Furthermore, I argue, the confidence in one’s creative output goes far beyond a short film course and constitutes a vital component of life. It seems that there are strong parallels between the development of one’s private life and the artist’s development. I hope it will reveal a certain truth about trusting oneself, reasons for why I shall later discuss. 

It may be objected that the artist is not the most reliable indication for a non-artist’s development, since the former may be thought to be a person who was “struck by genius” or who is a “natural”, whatever those expressions mean. In other words, the artist’s confidence can seem to be too far removed from one’s daily experience of life to contain any essential life lessons for the average person. Showing that this conception undervalues our potential as individuals is the other objective of this article.

But first, one must make clear what they mean by the artist’s evolution. The artist has, from the outset, a body of work. When one looks through the entire output of an artist’s career, be it in cinema, painting, or any other art form, one is, I claim, taken by a persistent charm of the whole collection which is equally found in each individual work to some extent. In other words, their artworks are almost always found to hold particular canonical features such that relate either to form or content. For example, a painter may be distinguished by a particular brush stroke form, whereas a filmmaker’s signature may consist of tackling certain topics and developing them through their entire career, reaching new conclusions. The viewer, attentive to the entire work of an artist, discovers pieces of the artist’s identity in each work, or a persistence of certain aesthetic motifs. But there is still a long way from simply observing a process which distinguishes the artist from an ordinary individual to making any claims about what is truly driving an artist’s entire career. In order to reach those claims, we will have to elevate this body of work to a concept; namely the evolution of an artist’s confidence.

The image of the blooming flower has not eternally preoccupied mankind for nothing, and it is with this image in mind that we will further approach understanding an artist’s evolution. In the case of the flower, something small (the bud) gradually turns (or blossoms) into something greater through time (the fruit). However, the fruit presents the same biological make-up as the bud and is even capable, itself, of producing buds. This can be seen as the flower’s evolution being a process of making explicit what was before implicit. Since the flower “looked into” itself (that is, towards the bud) throughout its development, its evolution implied a process of making explicit what was before implicit. In other words, the flower itself in its last stage of development is nothing more and nothing less than the full explicit outcome of what was implicitly present in it from the very beginning in the bud. These two opposites emerging from one another has been the object of dialectics.

The key takeaway of a dialectical development, as we have seen in the case of the flower, is that the end result is in a relation of unity but also of difference to the origin. In other words, evolution consists of a furthering of something which was present in a latent form from the very beginning. Returning to the case of the artist, it remains unclear what exactly is present at the origin of their development. In the next part, I will analyse the discography of Radiohead with the hopes of revealing the artist’s confidence as the zero (origin) level of development which is, in turn, in constant dialectical motion throughout one’s career.

Like with Radiohead essentially ushering Western music into a new era, we too, as people aware of who we truly are, can become something new

Before venturing into over-intellectualising Radiohead’s work, I would like to make the crucial disclaimer that reading this part of the text on its own can in no way carry my main point across unless one also listens to the songs and albums I mention. Writing about music is already like 20 blind men describing a horse as it is.

Their first album, Pablo Honey is a somewhat uninteresting standard alternative rock album filled with crunchy vocals, distorted guitars, and typical drum beats. One song, however, (in)famously stands out as characteristic of the band’s sound at the time: Creep. The song begins with an unsurprising combination of hopeless vocals describing a sad romantic situation paired with a clean guitar riff arpeggiating a few chords. Towards the end of the chord progression, we hear C minor, which, due to its being out of key, provides the song with a melancholic and eerie mood.

The song is said to have repeated that chord progression for its entire length in its earlier versions before Jonny Greenwood, arguably Radiohead’s instrumental genius, decided to add a very distorted guitar in the chorus. As those who are familiar with the song very much know, his guitar punches through the entire mix, reaching above the vocals with its rapidly picked octave chords. This interesting and characteristic addition to the song is said to have been influenced by Greenwood’s interest in classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki.1 The latter’s avant-garde music is notable for its rapid chromatic (that is, dissonant, out of key) crescendos which usually culminate in very high notes that strike the listener as very similar to an ultrasound pitch. Such notes seem alien to the rest of the auditory universe around the listener and make for a peculiar musical choice.

We have therefore seen that even though Radiohead’s debut album arguably remained at the contingent, status-quo level of 90s alternative, it still contained the bud of radical experimentation that eventually came to solidify Radiohead as one of the greatest bands in history. While their next album, The Bends, expanded upon the themes of their first album, it didn’t present the listener with anything groundbreaking both in terms of album concept and execution.

Their two subsequent albums, OK Computer and Kid A present a major development point for the band. The former brings the (at the time) novel themes of isolation and AI takeover to musical form, with the band venturing into jazz and electronic music. Paranoid Android, the album’s lead track, regarded as the band’s highest achievement, captures all this experimentation- carrying through three different sections without any actual chorus before breaking into computer-generated and arguably unmusical noises. Transitioning to Kid A, the opening track — “Everything In Its Right Place” — takes such wild experimentation to new levels with an interesting electronic keyboard riff supplemented by electronic drums and looped vocals; something which was unimaginable for an alternative band back in the day. Five out of the eleven subsequent tracks do not even feature vocals at all. 

Both albums seem to portray something which has carried through all the band’s future albums, namely a deeply confident trust in their experimentation. The main reason, I claim, for the band’s success is their refusal to remain on the level of the music around them and their persistence in consciously putting their own vision forward. Looking back on their discography, one thing is clear: that experimentation, that trust and that confidence were present in a nascent form from their very first album. As with the flower, Radiohead radically changed on the external level, meaning that their music as of 2021 is incomparable from the shy alternative sound of 1993. However, the only way the band could have evolved in the first place is, paradoxically, through remaining true to their essence. That is to their trust in implementing new sounds at the risk of losing intelligibility, to their confidence which was at the seed of Pablo Honey. As I stated before, such a development was only made possible by rendering explicit what was already implicit from their debut album, thereby playing on their original experimental strengths and moving away from the alternative scene of the time.

I will end this text with a few supplementary considerations regarding confidence which the example of Radiohead reveals. We have seen that confidence implies a negation of contingency- a shedding of those parts of oneself which are external to one’s essence. This is strikingly different from the “mainstream” concept of confidence, which almost always entails a process of advancing an untrue image of yourself through a constant but unsatisfied need to trample over others. This inauthentic treading, I claim, is wildly different from a negation of contingency. The very need to use others towards one’s own selfish satisfaction implies that one is still stuck in a rapport to others. Instead of doing away with contingency, such forms of asserting oneself achieve the exact opposite: they internalise the contingencies of their social environment, thereby forming their essence in an inauthentic and dishonest way. Just as wine cannot age if it is mixed with water, so the self-help-minded individual cannot flourish unless he or she turns their eye away from those around them and into their essence, towards what they truly are when, say, no one is around. That often coincides with what they would be most willing to risk everything for.

It may be objected that this introspection into one’s essence qua individual is fictional and that “what one truly is” is incredibly hard to track, or even non-existent. Though I agree that very often in contemporary culture our selves are, as it were, projected onto us by various cultural and political factors, one cannot ignore the fact that humans still retain a sense of their private life. I use “private” in its most radical form, with one’s “private life” concerning only the deepest non-quantifiable parts either of their psyche or of their romantic, parental, or aspirational lives. 

Notice that our approach towards personality reveals that such a center need not be revealed by explicitly pointing towards it. Judging by our earlier discussions, it should appear rather straightforward that the self, as I see it, is in constant evolution, both internalising and externalising itself. Therefore, one’s private life, one’s essence, can only be seen through their “public” lives, while one’s external influences come and go in setting priorities for the self’s hopes, thereby affecting one’s private life. What the artist’s confidence reveals is that one mustn’t put too much emphasis on their public life, at the risk of getting lost in the ever-flowing river of contingencies. Sure, one’s public life still concerns their actual output as an artist or non-artist; now made explicit, though, such a development in confidence was only made possible by a deep introspective conduct of life.

The interesting result of this process is that, like with Radiohead essentially ushering Western music into a new era, we too, as people aware of who we truly are, can become something new; something which is true to our own essence, which was there from the very beginning. What the blooming flower, the example from my film course, and Radiohead all have in common is that they reveal something crucial to navigating life. They reveal that the exclusion of contingency (be it of how your peers do films, how the other band does music, or how the other lives in genere) is essential to becoming oneself, something which would interest not only the philosopher, but every lover of life — an exclusion which, for lack of a better word, but also with the hopes of subsuming it under an intuitable feeling, I choose to call confidence.

  1. How Jonny Greenwood was Influenced by Penderecki”:

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