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Why Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’ Is Deceptively Brilliant

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Even the most casual listener quickly understands that Radiohead‘s songs aren’t as immediately accessible as the pop music we all hear on the radio. But without a background in music theory, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what sets the band’s work apart from the mainstream.

In the first installment of the new Vox series “Earworm,” writer Estelle Caswell offers listeners an easily accessible gateway to the seemingly foreign territories charted by the group — specifically in “Videotape,” a track from their 2007 In Rainbows LP. Starting with archival footage of frontman Thom Yorke struggling to pin down the song’s time signature during a live performance, this “Earworm” video — which you can stream above — breaks “Videotape” down into its not-so-basic building blocks, explaining what listeners are hearing and why it may have always sounded a little off kilter.

It’s all well worth watching in full, but the primary focus of the discussion — mainly led by music teacher and Radiohead fan Warren Lain — is the song’s rhythm, specifically how the arrangement works to disguise its syncopated beat. As the video lays out with a glimpse of the song’s earlier incarnation, “Videotape” was initially a much more straightforward number with a far poppier hook. In an interview with Mojo (via Songfacts), Yorke recalled being “semi kicked out of the studio” during the band’s long struggle to wrest the arrangement into shape, and returning to find a piece of work that had been transformed — and so vastly improved that it brought him to tears.

“It completely blew my mind,” said Yorke. “They’d stripped all the nonsense away that I’d been piling onto it, and what was left was this quite pure sentiment.”

In Vox‘s video, you can hear Yorke point to “Videotape” as his favorite Radiohead recording — and whether you’re a musical scholar or a complete novice, you can also gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the band’s thoughtfully subversive approach to songwriting. Watch the whole thing above.

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