Gen X needs a nap: Thom Yorke's sleepy-time playlist speaks to a greater need for rest

With the world getting shrill and noisy, musicians are producing music for slumber

Published July 26, 2016 6:20PM (EDT)

Thom Yorke; Moby   (AP/John Davisson/AP/Rich Fury)
Thom Yorke; Moby (AP/John Davisson/AP/Rich Fury)

It’s not quite right to announce, as one prominent politician has, that violence crime is spiking and the entire United States is about to be consumed by darkness. But the mood of Anglo-American life has certainly gotten tense lately, at least, for urbanites or anyone who follows the news. Between Brexit and the resignation of Britain’s prime minister, the rise of Donald Trump, constant anger between Democrats on different sides of the party, murders of unarmed black men, the killing police officers, and a series of mass shootings that seems unstoppable, our world has been in pretty raw shape over the last few months.

What’s the best way to respond? Some seek solace in pop culture. Others simply tune it out. Still others think that making real social or political change is the only way to go.

Several musicians seem to agree with Arianna Huffington: It’s all about sleep. When life gets harsh, the best thing to do is to turn in.

The latest musician to embrace the idea is Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who has just released a BBC playlist that includes an eerie piano ballad of his band’s song “Bloom” along with soporific songs by Laurie Spiegel, James Holden, William Winant, and others. But the 31-minute “Radiohead Bedtime Mix,” dropped on Phil Taggart’s BBC1 show, does a pretty good job of sounding musically off the mainstream and bringing the brain closer to a point of rest.

Given that Radiohead is usually associated with a paranoid kind of awareness rather than outright slumber, this is a little weird. But it’s also in the air. Kanye West’s controversial “Famous” video showed a dozen famous people sleeping in various states of undress.

And in May, Moby released an extended composition, “Long Ambients1: Calm. Sleep.” "Over the last couple of years I've been making really, really, really quiet music to listen to when I do yoga or sleep or meditate or panic," Moby wrote on his website. "I ended up with four hours of music and have decided to give it away… It’s really quiet: no drums, no vocals, just very slow, calm, pretty chords and sounds and things for sleeping and yoga, etc.”

And the British classical composer Max Richter has been performing his eight-and-a-half hour composition, “Sleep.” The piece, which came out in September, is one of the best and most-celebrated classical works of recent years.

It’s probably not a coincidence that these musicians are all Gen Xers — a generation deeply immersed in a digital culture it did not grow up with, and whose aging parents often take up the the time that Xers don’t devote to their careers or children.

This isn’t, of course, brand new. In the '70s, Brian Eno began making ambient music like “Music for Airports,” and the genre has not ever really gone away. Minimalist music — the style that Richter grows out of, mostly — is based on repeated phrases and drones, and much of it has a lulling quality. A composer who long predates Philip Glass — J.S. Bach — was long thought to have written an important musical piece for a count who could not sleep. Though some doubt that “The Goldberg Variations” were really inspired by insomnia, the rumor has persisted for centuries.

Whatever the roots, the importance of sleep is something many people seem to be, um, waking up to. Despite the all-nighter/ workaholic culture of Silicon Valley, or the CEOs who boast about how little sleep they get, it’s just not healthy. The way our laptops and cellphone stimulate our brains also doesn’t help — even after turning our devices off, we often keep revving, sometimes for hours.

The notion that many of us are depriving ourselves from sleep, and that we need a “sleep revolution,” is one of Huffington's more solid ideas.

Sleeping to songs selected by Thom Yorke may lead you to wake with visions of insane robots or malevolent townspeople burning wooden figures. But it’s better than staying up all night.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arianna Huffington Moby Music Thom Yorke