Since June, a lot of ink has been spilled over Radiohead’s July performance in Tel Aviv, an almost three-hour show which by all accounts ranks as one of their best gigs in years. During the lead up to the show, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke became the latest target of the anti-Israel BDS movement’s public shaming routine. Over the course of several weeks, BDS mouthpieces used their trademarked combination of credibility blackmail and reputational extortion to try to force Yorke into joining their campaign.
Never one to follow the herd, Yorke refused to be used as a cog in the BDS machine, which churns out highly questionable propaganda and actively opposes honest discourse. Yorke’s response was reminiscent of electronic music pioneer Moby’s reaction to BDS several years ago. Moby explained to Israeli media at the time that “the intensity of [the BDS movement’s] attacks” caused him “to suspect that this wasn’t an objective movement that was concerned with people’s welfare, but with something dark and dubious.”
Did Yorke have a deeper reason for a difficult decision?
While Yorke specifically denounced BDS’ condescension and hypocrisy, his reaction may also have been motivated by genuine feelings of loyalty to Israeli fans. Even though rejecting BDS meant immediate forfeiture of cultural currency, Radiohead simply refused to forget the fans that nurtured their development so many years ago when few others rated them.
Radiohead’s connection to Israel blossomed back when the band was still discovering itself, and was far from finding a warm reception internationally. When Radiohead released its debut single “Creep,” a slow burner combining stabs of guitar and a message of alienation, the world was hardly ready for them. The Britpop of Oasis sat poised to explode internationally and American grunge acts like Nirvana had already barged onto the scene. Radiohead’s sound and look left them in no man’s land, and at risk to slip through the cracks and into the cutout bins.
At that point, an Israel Army Radio DJ started giving “Creep” heavy burn in the Holy Land. The song tells the story of a misfit, a “weirdo” and “creep,” who longs for acceptance, belonging, and love in a world in which he simply does not fit. The message resonated with Israeli kids immediately, and the tune became an anthem for the disaffected. Before they knew it, Radiohead were huge in Israel, playing large venues and being treated like the rock stars they would soon become. Israel gave Radiohead an early push during a formative period, and it seems Radiohead has not forgotten that.
The saga of Radiohead’s early popularity in Israel would be an interesting footnote in a storied career had the band not taken its recent stance on BDS. To detractors, the band’s decision turned them back into the “creeps” of their first single, sticking out like a sore thumb among the Israel bashers of the world. While Yorke has provided ample support for his defiance of BDS, one can’t help wonder what role loyalty played in the decision. Perhaps Yorke identifies with his fans in a nation that is perpetually treated like the proverbial “creep” on the international stage.