The Thom Yorke School of Leading Worship

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This past week Radiohead released their ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. I still have not figured out how I will inevitably purchase the album (there are so many choices!), but all the mystery and hype surrounding the album's release got me thinking about the season in my life where I pretended to be Thom Yorke when I led the worship music in the church I grew up in. 

I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but yes, in the early 2000's I used to evoke the mannerisms of Radiohead's evasive, effusive, and nearly always disgruntled (as well devoutly non-religious, except for a smattering of Buddhism and Gnosticism) lead singer while I led God's people in worship on Sunday mornings. I wanted to be Thom Yorke and the church sanctuary was my "stage", and it thus became my outlet for sycophantic mimicry. I do not believe I have given this (rather absurd and nearly sacrilegious) confession before, so consider this essay my apologetic and nostalgic explanation.

The first and really only essential component to the Thom Yorke Style Worship Leader needs to perfect is the Thom Yorke head shake. If you get this one move down, most people will think you are a pro. While singing, you must shake your head frenetically. And that's about it, except it needs to be almost seizure-like in its twitchiness. Singing Radiohead songs needs to work you up into a frenzy. You are, after-all, singing about the paranoid malaise of modern life, the corruption of global politics, unstoppable environmental catastrophe, various ice ages coming, cutting the kids in half, and a general all-pervading nihilism ("don't get any big ideas, they're not gonna happen"). As a worship leader, you need to embody the songs you sing for your church with the same kind of frenzy. The more violently your head shakes back and forth, the more the people will know you're truly worshipping. Or at least that is the assumption I made when I sought to emulate Radiohead in everything I did, including in how I led my congregation in worship. For reference, please note the following examples:


When Radiohead finally became My Band in 2002 through the influence of a few friends (and the band Delirious who listed them as an influence) they were like these strange anonymous gnomes making music in some underground embankment located in a remote undisclosed region of the former Soviet Union. In other words, their music seemed otherworldly to me and they remained all the more strange because I had no idea what they looked like or who they were as people. I soon became obsessed with finding out as much about them as I could. Remember, this was about a year after Amnesiac came out, about two years after they exploded rock and roll and made everyone either incredibly irate or overwhelmingly joyous with Kid A. I have a distinct memory of the video for "Pyramid Song" debuting on MTV 2. It was one of the most bizarre and entrancing pieces of music I had ever heard/seen. I purchased and listened to OK Computer, Amnesiac, and Kid A in that order. None of the albums had any pictures of the band.

In the dark times before Youtube I took to the illegal download sites, going nuts on Kazaa at some youth groups kids' house who played in my worship band (this would be Jess, Dustin, and Keith Brown). I made them download every Radiohead music video, live songs, and b-side we could find. I remember agonizingly watching the long list of files in the status window, the percentage bars slowly filling up to completion. I remember getting worried when a more obscure song or video was only shared by a few people, since it would take forever to download or perhaps never download at all, and remain forever hovering at a tortuous 73%! It was from these many .mov and mp4 files (of which I still have many of in the form of burned CD-ROMs) that I was able to glean and perfect my own version of the Thom Yorke head shake, adapted for the worship stage. Now Youtube is readily waiting for you with its abundance of Yorkeian whiplash inducing maneuvers.

Related to the Thom Yorke head shake, though not as essential, is learning to dance like Thom Yorke. This part of the Yorkeian technique may only be relevant to worship leaders who lead without instrumentation and are thus freed up to kick out some wicked dance moves. Personally, I have never implemented Yorkeian dance choreography into my times leading of corporate worship—I am too self-conscious to Let It All Out like Yorke does. I reserve these kinds of outbursts more for times of personal devotion where I am not inhibited by people's watching eyes. 

In my mind, the Thom Yorke School of Dance reached its apex during Radiohead's visit to Saturday Night Live in promotion of Kid A. Here, in performances of "National Anthem" and "Idioteque" Yorke's frenzied moves are on fully display. He was a man possessed (of the Spirit?). Also note the exquisite and unabated usage of the head shakes. If we were to give Yorke's dance a name (like "The Twist" or "The Macarena") we would be best to dub it "The Bee Swarm." (see below for a great example). I too, alone in my room as an early twenty something, was known to put on a stunning "The Bee Swarm" while listening to "Idioteque".

Others might rightfully quibble with my assertions, claiming the apex of Yorkeian dance actually occurred a decade later during the "Lotus Flower" video, from King of Limbs. This is certainly a valid claim, as Yorke's technique took on a much more sensual and some might say skillful manifestation. Even so, I would claim The Bee Swarm could not help but make an appearance in the video, thus proving it is the more compelling and prominent move in the Yorkeian dance style. It is his staple. Please note the third image in this sequence.

Yes, he puts on some killer dance moves, but we all know where his motivation really comes from:

No matter how we look at, Yorkeian dance is not an essential component to the Thom Yorke Style of Worship Leading, though this has been a fun detour. For the most part the head shake covers lots of ground on its own and fully embodies the spirit of Yorke's manière d'agir. Perhaps others should give further study and consideration as to how churches might incorporate Yorkeian dance into their liturgical and worship dance teams.

The final and absolutely necessary component to leading worship like Thom Yorke is to develop a permanent rage-filled scowl accompanied with a smug glare of condescension while leading the people in song. The scowl/glare accomplishes many tasks at once. First, it lets the people know you are serious about leading worship. But then it also lets them know you are angry with them. They will never know the actual reason for your rage, but the guessing game will keep them intrigued. Perhaps you are showing them that your worship of God is superior to theirs and are thereby shaming them through your scowl. Or perhaps more positively, your scowl is an invitation for everyone to take worship as serious as you, and that if your life is right with God this is how you are going to look. Or maybe your scowl embodies the brokenness of the universal repentant sinner before God. Then again, your scowl might be saying "The world's a broken, corrupt mess and we're all doomed anyway, so what's the point of singing songs!?" Or perhaps your scowl is saying to everyone "The worship leader has some real anger problems. Maybe he/she shouldn't be in church leadership," but they'll keep you on anyway because you sing real nice no matter how you look. Whatever the reason, to be a worship leader in the tradition of Thom York you need to look like this:
The writhing

The raging

The aloof condescension

The smug disappointment

Addendum: as a disciple of Thom Yorke, one last component you should consider adding to your repertoire as a worship leader is to fill all your music with an all-pervading paranoia accompanied by a claustrophobic, existential dread. Even though this is worship music and is sung to God, you still want the people to feel to the core of their beings the isolation and desensitization our post-industrial, technologically saturated, morally bankrupt post-modern age. We should feel alone and hopeless, or "hysterical and useless" as Thom would say. Panic attacks (even low flying ones) should be expected. One simple way to avoid a panic attack is have them fly into The Bee Swarm, which you would already be teaching through your own example.

In my earlier days as a worship leader I was able to inject Radiohead's form of musical hysteria in some of the songs I led. One example I am particularly proud of is the mashup my youth worship band came up between the repeating bass line in "National Anthem" and the Charlie Hall Song "Salvation". My bass player Tyler Lowe, who is now a hardworking and prolific Nashville artist and musician, perfectly played Collin Greenwood's bass line along to the verses of the song. I also know that Zach Lee, who was on guitar, very much enjoyed it as well every time we played this version of the song. Listen to Charlie Hall's original version of "Salvation" and try to imagine "National Anthem"s base line grafted onto the arrangement during the verses.

If you cannot hear how it would go, perhaps you need to become a better disciple of Thom Yorke. It's OK, it's not too late even if you haven't been paying attention—there is still time to immerse your soul in the fullness of Thom Yorke. Just trust me though, our version of "Salvation" sounded awesome.

That about completes everything you will need to become a graduate of The Thom Yorke School of Leading Worship. I hope you are feeling equipped and ready to go out and completely unsettle your church this coming Sunday morning. I know I am!

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