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Artistic, Political and Philosphical References in OK Computer

OK Computer: Analogue Death, Digital Rebirth, and Radiohead’s Electronic Turn

OK Computer: mort analogique, renaissance numérique et le tournant électronique de Radiohead
Kwasu David Tembo

Résumés

OK Computer marque une rupture et témoigne de la fin d’une époque dans l’œuvre de Radiohead. Il est clair, en effet, que les thématiques qui irriguent l’album, ainsi que les paroles de Yorke, les expérimentations sonores et le design même de la pochette constituent, en un mot, un dénouement. Cet article examinera le thème du dénouement en lien avec les qualités sonores, thématiques et esthétiques de l’album. Notre argument est que le titre même de l’opus fait référence à l’acceptation et à l’adoption de nouvelles manières de faire de la musique, de l’enregistrer et de la distribuer, qu’il signale une rupture avec les méthodes analogiques traditionnelles, employées par le groupe jusqu’à The Bends (1995) inclus, et qu’il inaugure une période d’expérimentation numérique radicale et assumée, confirmée avec l’album suivant, Kid A (2000). Afin de proposer une analyse aussi holistique que possible du thème du dénouement, cette contribution s’appuiera sur les questions, concepts et idées suivantes : le leitmotiv du dénouement dans les thématiques abordées, avec l’exemple du titre « Exit Music (for a Film) » commandé par le réalisateur Baz Luhrmann et son influence sur les autres morceaux, la place faite à des expérimentations analogiques radicales inspirées de l’album de jazz fusion avant-gardiste Bitches Brew (1970) écrit par Miles Davis, le thème de la démission, de l’interstice, de la liminalité et celui du transfert et de la création en lien avec le « syndrome informatique » décrit par Michael Heffernan dans l’article « Fin de siècle, fin du monde ? » (2000). Notre but est d’explorer en quoi OK Computer représente à la fois la mort analogique de Radiohead, sa renaissance numérique et sa complète adoption de l’ordinateur.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 David H. Green, “OK Computer Box Set: Not OK Computer”, The Daily Telegraph, March 18, (...)

1Radiohead’s third studio album, OK Computer, has been both lauded and criticized by consumers and commentators since its release in 1997. Notable publications ranging from NME, Spin, Alternative Press, Time, to Pitchfork have all referred to the album as either one of the best albums of the 1990s or all time. Equally and opposing the seemingly universal acclaim garnered by the album are critics such as The Daily Telegraph’s David H. Green who have been vocal about the album’s allegedly undeserved status as seminal, instead referring to it as a “sacred cow” whose acclaim sacralized the band, thereby obscuring critique on the quality of the band’s future work.1 Regardless of how one appraises the album, OK Computer marks an important volta in the band’s œuvre; that is, the album marks the moment in the history of the Oxford quintet when their sound irrevocably changes. OK Computer not only encapsulates an end of an era in terms of the band’s sonic and technical sensibilities, but reflects many of the extradiegetic issues and debates concerned with the then new millennium which find expression in the diegesis of the album’s sonic and aesthetic world. Over the course of this article I will argue that the thematic leitmotif running throughout the album, influencing everything from Yorke’s lyrics, the sonic dynamism and experimentation on show, to the album’s artwork, is, in a word, denouement. The album’s title refers to the acquiescence, acceptance, and transition from more traditional analogue methods of making, recording, and distributing music adopted by the band up to and including The Bends (1995), to an inauguration of the band’s conscientious pursuit of radical digital experimentation in Kid A (2000).

  • 2 Michael Heffernan, “Fin de siècle, fin du monde? On the Origins of European Geopolitic (...)
  • 3 Dai Griffiths, OK Computer, New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 20 (...)

2This paper’s analysis will be predicated on questions, concepts, and ideas including the following: the theme of resignation, interstice, liminality, and transference/-formation in relation to the “computer syndrome” as discussed in Michael Heffernan’s “Fin de Siècle, Fin du Monde?” (2000).2 While published only three years after the album’s release, both Heffernan’s theorization of the sociopolitical and cultural issues and debates concerning the turn of the millennium, and the sonic and lyrical content of the album overlap. This overlap has been examined by other scholars as well. For example, according to Dai Griffiths’ Radiohead’s OK Computer (2004), the strength and macroscopic value of the album inheres in its ability to capture and express the existential angst of a particular historical and social moment, so much so, in fact, that OK Computer “might in time be a focal point for historians of life at the close of the twentieth century. ‘This is what was really going on.’ You want to know what 1997 felt like? OK Computer: tracks six–eight [‘Karma Police,’ ‘Fitter Happier,’ ‘Electioneering’]. Pushed for time? — track seven [‘Fitter Happier’].”3 Therefore, referring to Heffernan and others, the goal of this paper is to explore how OK Computer simultaneously represents Radiohead’s analogue death, digital rebirth, and embracing of the computer. Through close reading of the lyrical and sonic content of each song on the album, this paper also aims to argue that OK Computer, among other things, can be best interpreted and described as a work of art concerned with and marking the end of an era.

On Radiohead

  • 4 Nathan D. Hesselink, “Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’: Ambiguity, Rhythm, and Participation”, (...)

3For nearly three decades, Radiohead has been comprised of Thom Yorke (lead vocals, guitars, piano), Ed O’Brien (guitars, backing vocals), Phil Selway (drums/percussion), and brothers Jonny (guitars, keyboards) and Colin Greenwood (bass). The band formed in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in 1985. Since their formation up to and including 2013, Radiohead has released eight full-length studio albums, six under Parlophone/EMI and two released independently on the label XL Recordings. The band’s sound over its first three albums – Pablo Honey (1993), The Bends (1995), and OK Computer (1997) – led to Radiohead being defined as a so-called “alternative rock” act. However, such a classification is insufficient in representing the band’s myriad sonic influences ranging from classic rock, jazz, post-punk, avant-garde to electronic music, which includes techno and post-serialist studio work. While being lauded by consumers and critics alike as one of the greatest bands of the 20th and 21st centuries, Radiohead has received numerous awards and prizes for their work, including three Grammy Awards for Best Alternative Music Album. While the sound of Radiohead’s releases has undergone numerous, and in some instances, radical alterations, throughout the band’s history, Nathan D. Hesselink notes that there is a noticeable thread or collection of themes pervading the band’s oeuvre, namely “the prevalence of anxiety spanning the output from The Bends through to Hail to the Thief (2003), a catchall that includes the recurring themes of broken relationships, paranoia, powerlessness, fear of technology, mistrust of government, physical and emotional brutality, suicide, death, hell, and alien abduction”.4

4Radiohead’s first two albums, Pablo Honey and The Bends, are clearly indebted, sonically and thematically, to the style and lyrical content of grunge-rock acts associated with the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. While loud and aggressive, the sonic profile of the band’s early sound reflects mainstream apprehension and stereotypical formulations of alternative, rock, and pop music. As such, Radiohead’s first two albums appear so devoid of the high degree of avant-garde experimentalism, sonic esotericism, and musical acumen they are now almost inextricably associated with as to seem pablum to the rest of the band’s post-The Bends corpus. If one were to listen to all Radiohead albums back-to-back, then listening to OK Computer will be the volta of that session. This all ties into the album being a work that marks the end of an era, which in many ways mirrors the end of Romanticism, the anxieties surrounding the rise of technology, the obfuscation of nature by techno-capitalist global policies, and the radical secularization of ideology and world view. Simultaneously, however, the radical shift in the band’s sound OK Computer represents can and has been read as a reaction to the contemporary Western state of rock music in the mid- to late 1990s.

  • 5 Marianne T. Letts, “How to Disappear Completely”: Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album(...)
  • 6 Tim Footman, “Hyperreally Saying Something”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), (...)
  • 7 Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom: ‘OK Computer’ 20 Years Later – Thom Yorke & Co (...)

5In terms of the album’s relation to issues and debates concerning the end of an era, Marianne Tatom Letts notes that “although popularity and historical importance do not necessarily coincide, the longevity of OK Computer’s appeal has undoubtedly contributed to the perception that it marks an important moment in musical history”, namely the approaching millennium.5 Following the release and success of Pablo Honey (specifically its chart-topping single “Creep”), Radiohead were associated and compared with popular grunge acts of the time including Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Following the release of The Bends (1995), Radiohead were subsequently identified with Britpop acts such as Oasis and Blur. However, as Tim Footman notes, with OK Computer, “the band seemed to be striving for a bigger picture, concocting a critique of modern society stumbling towards the new millennium, dazzled by the banal neon of global capitalism”.6 Radiohead’s then new (and later permanent) sound engineer Nigel Godrich confirms Footman’s supposition, recalling that OK Computer “was not Neanderthal rock & roll. It was very high-level thinking, conceptual, moving forwards in terms of sonics, and beautiful songs”.7

  • 8 Brad Osborn, “Rock Harmony Reconsidered: Tonal, Modal and Contrapuntal Voice-Leading System (...)
  • 9 Lindsey Fiorelli, “Fitter Happier Rolling a Large Rock Up a Hill”, in Brandon W. Forbes and (...)

6Both OK Computer and the entirety of Radiohead’s œuvre more broadly have received incisive and illuminating musicological analysis. Examples include Brad Osborn’s “Rock Harmony Reconsidered: Tonal, Modal and Contrapuntal Voice-Leading Systems in Radiohead” later included in his monograph on Radiohead’s analysis Everything In Its Right Place (2017), Drew Nobile’s “Form and Voice-Leading in Early Beatles Songs” (2011), Allan Moore’s “The So-Called ‘Flattened Seventh’ in Rock” (1995), and Allan Moore and Anwar Ibrahim’s “Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Identifying Radiohead’s Idiolect” (2005).8 Commentary on the band’s successes, longevity, and cultural impact has also been more widespread, drawing on a multitude of disciplines. Lindsey Fiorelli suggests that the difference between Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer is the fact that in the former two albums, Radiohead confront the issues and debates surrounding isolation directly. In the latter album, however, “Yorke wasn’t writing about separation from other people – he’s separating from the world itself.”9 This pervasive sense of separation is polyvalent in that it refers, simultaneously, to the band’s separation from the preceding era in macroscopic global social and political terms, but also microscopically from itself in terms of its pre-OK Computer sound, as well as from its preceding techniques of production, instrumentation, subject matter, fanbase, business model and praxes.

  • 10 Ibid., 345.
  • 11 Alex Ross, “The Searchers: Radiohead’s Unquiet Revolution”, New Yorker, August 20/27, 2001, (...)
  • 12 Edward Slowik, “Radiohead and Some Questions About Music”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George (...)
  • 13 An “absolute break”. See Alain Badiou, “Who is Nietzsche?”, Pli – The Warwick Journal of Ph (...)

7It is also important to recognize this self-separation as, ironically, self-motivated. It was a choice. As Fiorelli notes, on OK Computer, “Yorke & Co. plainly chose these sounds. And they chose, for OK Computer, to embrace technology in a big way. So how can they want escape from technology while simultaneously becoming a part of it?”10 This paradox creates an interesting philosophical profile for the album in that technology, as a source of existential alienation and musical anxiety, is overcome precisely by rigorously incorporating it into the very fabric of the band’s sound from OK Computer onward. It is for this reason commentators like New Yorker columnist Alex Ross suggest that with OK Computer, Radiohead “caught a wave of generational anxiety” and created an album that “pictured the onslaught of the information age and a young person’s panicky embrace of it”.11 An inverse logic is therefore at play as the escape Yorke’s lyrics speak of and pine for throughout the album is located in its source, namely by having technology become part of Radiohead itself. As a direct result, therefore, both the band’s sound and approach to production becomes more complex and experimental. OK Computer marks the band’s abandonment of familiar melodic strategies and song structures in favor of the sonically and structurally unexpected.12 It is for this reason that OK Computer can be described as the band’s electronic turn, a deliberate choice, a moment – a Badiouan event13 – that clearly delineates Radiohead’s sound before and after it.

  • 14 Phil Rose, “Radiohead and the Media Fallout of OK Computer”, Explorations in Media (...)
  • 15 Jere O’Neill Surber, “New Shades”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.) (...)

8My discussion of Radiohead’s digitization on OK Computer is part of a broader conversation concerning the sociopolitical and cultural status of technology in Western society during the mid- and late 1990s. Phil Rose describes OK Computer as a “[representation] of the accelerated conditions of life in contemporary culture”, inherent to the numerous disruptive moments that appear throughout the album.14 The broader implication here is that human beings in global late capitalist society not only have their experience of modern life mediated but also accelerated by its various technological constituents. As such, the delimitation of human and machine, organic and inorganic, grows increasingly indistinct and, at the turn of the new millennium, was a transitional inevitability that caused much anxiety and dread. According to Jere O’Neill Surber, the notion of liminality, interstice, and the sonic hybridity between acoustic and electronic burgeoning on OK Computer finds its clearest expression through the figure of the android. An android is a liminal being, neither fully mechanical nor fully biological. It is a creature that disrupts the familiarity of the latter and the impersonality of the former, thereby disrupting our compartmentalized views of the world and lifeforms therein as categorically distinct. In this sense, the sonic and lyrical content of OK Computer brings together the familiarity of the purely acoustic with the possibility of the digital much in the same way an android explodes and expands the possibilities of life as we have understood it heretofore. The combination of traditional instrumentation and digital augmentation of sound similarly opens up an entirely new sound for the band.15 Simultaneously, however, themes and experiences of fragmentation, self-splitting, disintegration, and obfuscation broadly form, ironically, the foundation of the album’s lyrical content. The figure of the paranoid android serves to encapsulate not only the existential experiences of the split subject carved up into fractional self-impressions vibrating in a quotidian middle mediated by technologies that engender biopower and surveillance, but also the fragmentary nature of the lyrics that convey said experience are only intelligible in pieces both sonically and lyrically.

Fin-de-siècle, OK Computer: The end of an era, and anxiety over the shape of things to come

  • 16 Michael Heffernan, “Fin de siècle, fin du monde?”, op. cit.
  • 17 Ibid, 31.
  • 18 Ibid.
  • 19 Ibid.

9In his article “Fin de Siècle, Fin du Monde?” (2000), Michael Heffernan notes that the original French expression fin-de-siècle, which denoted the “end of century”, morphed into a widespread term that brought together under its aegis a range of disciplines including architecture, art, fashion, design, and technology – all the while superimposing upon these disciplines issues and debates centered on their past developments, present experiences, and possible futures.16 One of the key aspects of fin-de-siècle thinking Heffernan draws attention to is the view that the end of century marks a radical break from the eras preceding it. He states that most fin-de-siècle scholarship or broader cultural debates reflect “the anxieties, fears and hopes of the last fin-de-siècle and [are] highly – sometimes wildly – speculative”.17 Taking the example of 19th-century fin-de-siècle-sensitive authors, theorists, philosophers, economists, and politicians, Heffernan states that they tended to view their own fin-de-siècle as representing a “fundamental historical discontinuity, a clear break with the past [marked by a] conviction [that] reflected a deeper cultural conviction that centennial endings must, by definition, be accompanied by profound upheavals”.18 Heffernan notes that in the Christian world, this phenomenon takes the form of what he calls the “syndrome” of fin-de-siècle, a syndrome which in and around the year 2000 took the form of “computer” syndrome, the term/concept of “computer” here being a synecdochical standee for the apparatuses and forces of technology. Therefore, while “the 1890s, a decade of ‘semiotic arousal’ when everything, it seemed, was a sign, a harbinger of some future radical disjuncture or cataclysmic upheaval”, so too did the pre-Y2K era of the late 1990s engender both premonitions of technological dystopia and utopia.19 In America and many parts of Europe, many people worried that the turn of the millennium would initiate the changing of all digital clocks to zero which would lead to banking automated systems erasing customers’ savings, and other knock-on effects including foot shortages, riots and so forth.

  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Ibid., 32.

10In terms of the 20th-century fin-de-siècle, Heffernan notes how this particular turn of the century was marked by a belief that unlike those preceding it, said century should be countenanced in its entirety, a global political, social, economic, ecological, and cultural whole. The impetus behind this conviction was the emergence of then radically new, efficient, and popular technologies. According to Heffernan, “the twentieth century’s own fin-de-siècle would achieve its maximal expression with the advent and increased globalism of the Internet”.20 Therefore, much in the same way Y2K brought about a global phenomenon of mass hysteria, panic, and future-shock anxiety, Heffernan notes that in the fin-de-siècle marking the transition from 19th to 20th century, optimism regarding the future was not predominant. Instead, the pervading sentiment was one of fearful ambivalence. “While some welcomed the prospect of a new age and saw rapid change as energizing and liberating”, Heffernan notes, “many others worried about the dislocation and disorientation these imagined upheavals would create and lamented the destruction of cherished traditions and values that seemed destined to ensue”.21 It is my contention that a similar tension, between optimism and negativism concerning the future and the role of technology therein, is the source of the sonic and lyrical experimentation on OK Computer.

11Such tensions between the past and the future, the organic and the mechanical have only deepened in our era. In our time where machines are having sexual relationships/relations, debates, and interviews with humans, making art and films, it is clear that current audiences are in the throes of the burgeoning age of pseudo-independent creative mechanical production. These themes were addressed both sonically and lyrically on OK Computer via a tense merger and antagonism between the acoustic and the digital. In so many ways, the entire album is caught between warring with a corrupt system and escaping or being trapped in it by an increasingly technologized future. In the unknown of the future, is couched paradoxical themes such as dystopian fear and disappointing familiarity. There is a constant tension between staying (that is, in the past, in the nostalgic comforts of acoustic music) contra going (that is, the uncertainty, and radical possibility, of the digital future). I will now explore the manifestation of the theme of fin-de-siècle in relation to the album’s sonic and lyrical content by offering close readings of said theme in each song on the album. Moreover, this section will track interrelated themes and concepts including merger of acoustic and electronic sensibilities, as well as the expansion of the band’s tonal vocabulary through the addition of digital processes to augment their previously primarily acoustic sound.

OK Computer, technology, and the mechanical turn

  • 22 Nadine Hubbs, “The Imagination of Pop-Rock Criticism”, in Walter Everett (ed.), Expression (...)
  • 23 Lindsey Fiorelli, “Fitter Happier”, op. cit., 335.
  • 24 Allan Moore and Anwar Ibrahim, “Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Identifying Radiohead’s Idiolect”, (...)

12The sonic and lyrical content of OK Computer has led to a critical consensus concerning the album’s nature and goals. In “The Imagination of Pop-Rock Criticism” (2008), Nadine Hubbs calls OK Computer a “concept album that immerses the listener in images of alienated life under techno/bureau/corporate hegemony [in which a] vivid flavor of alienation and disaffectedness [...] is built up by layers over the course of twelve album tracks”.22 According to Fiorelli, with OK Computer, it seems that the listening experience is predicated on the album’s desire to speak, that “each track [has] something different and important – it [wants one] to hear”.23 What one hears when listening to the album is a recursive albeit often indirect meditation or engagement with themes of paranoia, anomie, socio-political, cultural, and psycho-emotional ennui. Aside from the album’s cover, which features a paradoxically divergent and looped road, which may symbolize at once the deviation in the band’s sound but also the seeming futility of difference and/or change within a post-capitalist sociopolitical milieu, this sense of fragmentation is further expressed in the technical sonic character of the music throughout OK Computer. Allan Moore and Anwar Ibrahim note that OK Computer “gain[ed] its ‘age-defining’ status through a combination of both musical and sonic exploration, with lyrics concerning the themes, simultaneously universal and personal, of alienation, information overload, and fear of an imminent new millennium. It is both a timely and a timeless record, unmistakably Radiohead but still managing to express sentiments shared by people in all walks of life”.24

Airbag

  • 25 Selway’s drumming was recorded and then sampled electronically on a computer (to mimic DJ (...)
  • 26 Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom”, op. cit.
  • 27 While Greenwood has been an outspoken critic of prog rock in, for example, the band’s 199 (...)
  • 28 Nathaniel Emerson Adam, Coding OK Computer: Categorization and Characterization (...)

13Nowhere is this more seamlessly articulated on the album than on the opening track “Airbag”, which clearly declares the album’s fin-de-siècle concerns. In the repeated refrain (“I am born again”), the use of hyper-compressed drums that sound more mechanical or sampled than Selway’s percussion reflects a sensitivity toward the oncoming importance of processed percussion across the genre spectrum.25 The last third of the song is left sonically “open” for manipulated sounds, whirs, bleeps and other digital textures including turntable scratches – techniques from all genres and epochs – including breakbeats preceding classics to follow such as Goldie’s 1998 Saturnz Return. As Godrich notes, “the drum loop on that song was inspired by DJ Shadow. It’s a departure from a rock band. What happened was, I told Thom and Phil to sit there for a couple of hours and create a drum loop. And a day and a half later, they were like, ‘OK, we’ve got it.’ But it wasn’t very exciting sounding, so I ran it through Jonny’s pedal board. And we just did three takes of him just like doing all sorts of shit to it and we put it all in.”26 The theme of fin-de-siècle is largely present from the outset of Greenwood’s opening guitar refrain, a quintuple riff of three notes backed by processed drums which glitch and whose mid-range has been all but muted, giving the song’s secondary percussive profile a digital, albeit also hollow quality. This mechanicity erupts in-between the more traditional ensemble of instruments (that is, voice, bass, drums, rhythm guitar, lead guitar). The song also features prominent percussive and synth pads that add to the song’s sci-fi sensibilities in conjunction with the band’s previous prog rock influences.27 This amalgamated sonic profile can itself be viewed as a marriage of retrospective musical stylistics with modern production techniques. The song’s last third or coda features turntablist scratching, synth bleeps and whirs that introduce the section which, ironically, is cradled by the sound of a vinyl hiss. Here again we see the praxiological and thematic instantiation of merger of past and present; that is, the digital contra the analogue.28

14In this song, two epochs of sound are brought together, with the digital inaugurating its own broader arrival on the rest of the album to follow. “Airbag” in this way seems a particularly relevant opener for such an album in that it announces its own sonic and production shift toward the digital, without frightening off listeners familiar with the band’s earlier, more traditionally rock, prog, and/or grunge sound. Nor does the fear of such an outcome impel the band to obfuscate the “digitalness” of their new sound. Instead, the digital and the acoustic stand side by side, simultaneously complementing, interrupting, annulling, propelling, and ultimately re-creating not only the band’s sound, but how the band functions as such in praxis. In this sense, the electronic turn inaugurated by “Airbag” and OK Computer more broadly represents the end of Radiohead’s sound, but also the simultaneous rebirth of the band’s sound as well.

  • 29 Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Rei (...)
  • 30 Idem.

15In “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” (2009), Mark Greif suggests that Radiohead had felt, so to speak, electronic on OK Computer with much less actual electronica. And they did something very rudimentary and basic with the new technologies. They tilted artificial noises against the weight of the human voice and human sounds.29 Their new kind of songs, in both words and music, announced that anyone might have to become partly inhuman to accommodate the experience of the new era.30 The implication here in terms of the relationship between OK Computer and the band’s outlook and approach to the relationship between music and technology, as well as the essential hybridity of “Airbag” that initiates the entire project both suggest that there is no time to deliberate the merits and demerits, the philosophical interstices between acoustic and electronic forms of music and music production, or the electronic experiential disorientation contra the familiarity of traditional rock-pop arrangements. “Airbag”’s jarring introduction into the band’s sonic exploration of these themes suggests that the machine has already taken over, that the machinic turn in the band’s sound has already been made.

Paranoid Android

16The presence of digitized techniques and sounds is interestingly far less obvious on “Paranoid Android”. The arrangement of instruments, acoustic guitar, piano, voice, shaker, and other percussive elements does not immediately sound odd. However, in the chorus, a text-to-speech vocoder voice can be heard reciting lyrics. The juxtaposition is stark in that, while Yorke and the rest of the band produce music of varied pitch and harmony, the voice of the machine does not sing but speaks in a non-deviating pitch. These effects are further compounded by lyrics such as “I may be paranoid, but not an android” veiled by Yorke’s imploring “what’s that?” seeking an answer for the paranoid circumspection of what is to come, the dirge-like second section in which Yorke and the Gregorian/Spiritual-esque backing vocals seek redemption through lyrics like “rain down on me”, all of which occurs against the backdrop of Greenwood’s processed guitar solo. The latent suggestion here is that the machine music to come will not so much sing out emotively but rather will convey data at tempo non-affectively. The tempo switch halfway through the song marks an ironic death of harmony in the mode of a dirge with solemn wordless harmonies which Yorke embellishes with pseudo-funerary cadences and denouements. The combination of a dispassionate digital second voice and Yorke’s imploring vocals turn the preponderance of the second half of the song into a symbolic lament, one that marks the passing of old familiarities and the necessary paranoia that results.

17Interestingly, when the aggressive chorus refrain re-emerges, re-energizing the entire song by returning to the previous tempo, Greenwood’s guitar is digitized; that is, the notes that he repeats in his second solo are digitally pitch-shifted. In this sense, not only does the song tempo return revivified at the song’s end, but the instruments themselves, as well as the sounds they are able to produce, are equally and literally re-energized by digital processes (filters). This makes the digitized sounds of the same notes somewhat uncanny in that one still recognizes the sound of a guitar, the style of the guitarist playing it, and even the same notes played earlier in the song. However, the frequency of sound bends, climbs, falls, and phases in a way unheard before the intercession. The phrase is repeated exactly albeit mechanized by the augmentative process of the digital filter. Here, the tension between the past and the future is therefore the same tension that exists between the productive and the augmentative.

  • 31 Radiohead, OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997; René Rusch, “Crossing Over with Brad Mehldau’s (...)

18Lyrically, the song touches on many themes that recur over OK Computer such as paranoia, insanity, and scathing sociopolitical critique and commentary on the nature of Western society at the turn of the 21st century. Lyrics like “I may be paranoid, but not an android” speak to the paranoia inaugurated by the increased mechanization of human life, bodies, and thoughts. Similarly, lyrics like “When I am king / You will be first against the wall / With your opinion which is of no consequence at all” refer to the futility of opinion and subjectivity more broadly in the face of the empiricism of the algorithm. However, also included in this seeming affirmation of ultimate resignation is a defiant, angry, and scathing critique of capitalism and rampant mindless consumerism found in lyrics such as “Ambition makes you look pretty ugly / kicking, squealing, Gucci little piggy” and “the yuppies networking (on me) / The panic, the vomit”.31

Subterranean Homesick Alien

19These themes are carried over into “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, whose lyrics are about being isolated and shunned through the metaphor of an alien abduction. Lyrically, themes of separation, isolation, and active participation contra passive observation pervade: “Up above alien hover / Making home movies for the folks back home / Of all these weird creatures who lock up their spirits / Drill holes in themselves and live for their secrets”. I argue that one can also read the theme of alien abduction symbolically. From a fin-de-siècle perspective, the lyrics can address post-abduction (into the future by technology) isolation: “I’d tell all my friends but they’d never believe me / They’d think I’d finally lost it completely I’d show them the stars and the meaning of life / They’d shut me away but I’d be alright, alright, I’m alright, alright”. Sonically, Greenwood’s guitars, replete with delay and tinny reverb, echo, and a slow phaser casting sound left and right, creates a very science-fictional atmosphere reflecting the song’s title. This effect is compounded by the equally ethereal qualities of Yorke’s Rhodes electric piano. The irony engendered by the song’s sonic profile here is the conspicuous lack of digital elements in a song ostensibly about a homesick alien. However, this is extremely fitting in its latent suggestion that to an alien, all human music, regardless of how complex or digitized in its production, is comparatively acoustic to a creature with, one assumes, vastly superior technology with which to explore near infinite sonic possibilities. As such, even the most avant-garde mercurial music offered on Earth would “sound” “folksy” and simple to a creature who had mastered interstellar travel.

Let Down / Climbing Up The Walls

20Sonically, the theme of fin-de-siècle is all but absent from the traditional ballad sound of “Let Down”. Lyrically, however, it shines. For example, lyrics such as “The emptiest of feelings / […] Disappointed people clinging onto bottles / And when it comes, it’s so, so disappointing”, “Don’t get sentimental / It always ends up drivel”, “Let down and hanging around”, “hysterical and useless” all speak to crushing futility and disappointment. Here, themes of interstice, existential displacement, being let down figuratively and literally (both as a person and as a living being), also being, in all senses, let down by a future that appeared backward/uninteresting/dystopian when it arrived at the end of the century form the crux of the song. The recurrent theme of technology, mechanization and genetic manipulation of human life (as suggested by the line “one day I am gonna grow wings – a chemical reaction”) and the desire for escape are also present in the song’s lyrical content. Similarly, while “Climbing Up The Walls” ostensibly sounds like a smoky ballad, the song does feature anthemic qualities. The only presence of a digital element can be found in the processing of Yorke’s vocals and the thick heavily distorted bass line that supports it. The song’s lyrical content presents a horror-infused meditation on the nature of paranoia itself. While none of Yorke’s words speak directly to the onset of an increasingly technological society, they do speak to a similar fear and pervasive paranoia that the thought of cyberization of human bodies, for example, necessarily engenders. This comes through most startlingly and disturbingly in lines such as “I am the key to the lock in your house”, “And if you get too far inside / You’ll only see my reflection”, “Do not cry out or hit the alarm / You know we’re friends till we die”.

Exit Music (For a Film)

21“Exit Music (For a Film)” was composed for Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). The song was meant to serve as a soundtrack for some of the film’s scenes (which Luhrmann had sent to the band for inspiration). But when the band saw how good the song was, they decided to save it for their album and asked Luhrmann to play it only over the end credits, and not to include it on the official soundtrack (which featured “Talk Show Host” instead). The song’s focus on escape and ending serves a double purpose. On the one hand, it provides the sonic accompaniment to Luhrmann’s project in a way that both buttresses and supplements the pathos of the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers it commemorates. On the other hand, however, the song also thematizes the notion of OK Computer more broadly, being Radiohead’s exit music for itself, a soundtrack to the band’s self-escape, a denouement dirge, a song to play the pop-rock/grunge sound of their previous efforts off stage. As such, “Exit Music (For a Film)” not only encapsulates the coda of the couple for which it was written (Romeo and Juliet), but also encapsulates the sense of dread, exigency, and hopelessness in the face of a seemingly insurmountable task of changing – the tinny choir pads, the textured field recordings: “Today we escape, we escape.”

22The use of a synth choir pad on the song, in conjunction with a background sample of a crowd, possibly a schoolyard, brings the digital and the mundane together in ways relevant to the theme of fin-de-siècle. The fact that the sound of the crowd is actually reversed suggests 1) that there can be no progressing beyond the retrospective as well as retrograde atmosphere of the zeitgeist captured, warped, reversed, and re-created by the machine – ultimately, this seemingly subtle sonic touch suggests that there is nothing beyond the machine – and 2) that there can be no escape back into the nostalgic familiarity of the purely acoustic, as if standing on the precipice of the new millennium where even the mundane sounds of quotidian life can be perfectly reproduced, digitized, or altered by the machine.

Fitter Happier

  • 32 Nathaniel Emerson Adam, “Coding OK Computer”, op. cit., 79.

23Even at a cursory listen, “Fitter Happier” is an ostensible misfit when placed alongside the rest of the songs on OK Computer. In effect, this song disrupts the listener’s expectation both in terms of form and genre and even track listing, being more akin to the band’s work on Kid A and Amnesiac to follow. Adam describes the song as “an experimental-sounding track for instruments, sound effects, and computerized spoken text, ‘Fitter Happier’’s musical content is minimal and purely peripheral, not organizational”.32 Beyond the explicit manifestation of the theme of technology, mechanicity, and artificiality on OK Computer, namely the use of the robotic voice on “Fitter Happier”, anxiety over the then increased presence of technology, its mediating/surveilling apparatuses, its substantive aptitude in all spheres of human activity on a then increasingly global scale, can be said to be a leitmotif running throughout the album. That said, “Fitter Happier” can be described as a sonic distillation of anxiety that encapsulates the issues and debates surrounding the fin-de-siècle anxiety surrounding technology expressed on the album.

24Initially parodic, the robotic voice ruminates on the importance and inevitable inter-relationship between self-improvement, the contrivances of societal mores, paranoia, and despotic techno-organic dystopian government and technology. At first, these robotic diagnostics appear disjointed enough to seem banal and inconsequential. However, as they progress, the diction shifts toward a more sinister, nihilistic, and mordant predictions of the future of techno-capitalist society, concluding with the dystopian vision of humanity, symbolized as “a pig in a cage on antibiotics”. More broadly, the track symbolizes a radical anonymizing through the machine, and a loss of individuality, roles in the band, and of the human voice itself. As such, the song’s lyrics

  • 33 Ibidem, 123.

betray the song’s macabre cynicism; technology, and even harmless-seeming self-empowerment, is not necessarily to be trusted. The way that the text is produced mechanically, by a computerized method emblematic of the deceptively dehumanizing technology the song’s lyrics ironically warn against, emphasizes the point through its reflexive reference, and tangibly provides a level of self-awareness that helps place Radiohead’s voice or tone on the album on the scale of sincerity-to-irony.33

25The digital voice delivers its prognostications of the late 1990s Western global zeitgeist flatly, as if to suggest that the programmer’s fears mean nothing to the machine that speaks them forth. Nor does the vacuous uncanny voice of the machine offer anything in the way of advice, help, solutions, or succor to the threat of an emotionless future it, ironically, heralds and embodies. The voice is set against again another mournful dirge, a mixture of morose pseudo-Gregorian harmonies in low minor registers, mixed with a digital soup of buzzes, hisses, clicks, minor strings arrangements and heavily filtered pianos. This gives the track the quality of feeling like a lament. While I argued earlier that “Airbag” brings its themes together most seamlessly, “Fitter Happier” is the obvious choice in terms of a textual representation of the theme of fin-de-siècle on OK Computer.

Karma Police / Electioneering

  • 34 The song is also heavily influenced by the political context as the band were writing (...)

26“Karma Police” deals predominantly with accountability, as much as with attempts to escape it. Lines such as “Karma police, I’ve given all I can / It’s not enough, I’ve given all I can / But we’re still on the payroll” and “For a minute there / I lost myself, I lost myself” grapple with the loss of individual identity and agency, as well as collective apathy. “Electioneering” is far clearer in its allocation of blame for such a sociopolitical and cultural situation. The decidedly human anti-establishment rock anthem condemns the anti-human machinations employed by State apparatuses in order to secure the votes of the populous and therefore maintain both its power and the depredations of the very system it defends and reproduces. This critique comes through somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the following lyrics: Riot shields / Voodoo economics / It’s life, it’s life / It’s just business / Cattle prods and the I.M.F / I trust I can rely on your vote”. The implication here is that at the advent of the new millennium, Radiohead viewed the sociopolitical, economic, and cultural quality of the global Western zeitgeist as cynically, disappointingly, infuriatingly unchanged. In this sense, the future regimes of humankind, aided by technology, promised nothing but more of the same at the turn of the 21st century.34

No Surprises

27Themes of resignation clash with resistance on “No Surprises” through lyrics such as “A heart that’s full up like a landfill / A job that slowly kills you / Bruises you / Bruises that won’t heal” and “You look so tired and unhappy / Bring down the government / They don’t speak for us / I’ll take a quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide”. The lyrical content also suggests that the song is in part about the nightmare of suburbia in the digital age: “Such a pretty house / And such a pretty garden”. Ultimately, this ballad evokes termination and finality. The lack of surprise implicitly suggested in the song’s title could also refer to the desire for a future that is, ironically, un-futuristic. While predictable in certain ways, the future is always already surprising. In this sense, the lyrical content could be argued to present the song as a ballad to the arrival of a disappointingly familiar and negative future.

Lucky

28“Lucky” is another ballad in which the lyrics imploringly sing of being extracted from the hyperreality of the era. Here again the theme of exiting, escaping, as well as the notion of a hazardous sociopolitical, economic, technological, moral, ethical, and cultural precipice upon which the collectivity stood at the time is reinforced. This theme is explicit in the repeated refrain “We are standing on the edge”, while the lines “pull me out of the air crash / Pull me out of the lake” set up a juxtaposition of the mechanical and natural phenomena which forms the central tension explored throughout the album. In contrast, lyrics like “I feel my luck could change” and “It’s gonna be a glorious day” gesture to notions of anticipation, trepidation, futurity, historicity, the new, the old, and the fear and optimism inherent in each concept. In the last instance, the song questions whether or not Western societies were collectively lucky to see the arrival of the new millennium, whether or not were we the witnesses of a paradigm shift akin to a dramatic advantageous reversal of fortune. Or were those who died before the exponential rise of communications technology preceding the advent of the new millennium the lucky ones. The song’s lyrics leave both possibilities open.

The Tourist

29It is fitting that the interpretive variability offered by “Lucky” should manifest in the album’s concluding song “The Tourist”. Consider Yorke’s comments during an interview for Rolling Stone:

  • 35 Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom”, op. cit.

Everything was about speed when I wrote those songs […]. I had a sense of looking out a window at things moving so fast I could barely see. One morning in Germany I was feeling particularly paranoid because I hadn’t slept well. I walked out to find something to eat, but I couldn’t find anything, and this fucking dog was barking at me. I’m staring at this dog, and everyone else is carrying on. That’s where “hey, man, slow down” comes from. It sounds like it’s all about technology and stuff, but it’s not.35

30Yorke’s insights into the prehistory of the song dissolve any possibility for interpretive insularity and show, in fact, that in essence, meaning is malleable. While the song may not have originally been intended as a commentary on technology, it has interesting resonances when thinking through the album as a comment on the sociopolitical and cultural issues and debates of 20th century fin-de-siècle. I contend that the variances of meaning between the creators and the critics can also refer to people’s ideas about the future, namely the fear and desire that the future will not be dangerous or glamorous, but in fact disappointingly mundane and quotidian, just like the provenance of the lyrics to the song. In this respect, misinterpretation of the lyrics reflects the misinterpretation of the future and humanity’s relationship to technology at the eve of the millennium. Therefore, while the loungy jazz-inflected piece seemingly slows the entire album down to a halt, as if in answer to the lyrics that implore the listener to “slow down”, the line “slow down” can refer to our often overzealous desire to find a serviceable if not concrete meaning, be it in a lyric or date.

Conclusion

31Throughout the album, there is a sense of resignation, of the inescapability of existential circuitousness, and sociopolitical and cultural denigration due to the increased mechanization of human life. It is my contention that the most interesting thing to note about the album is that despite the fact that it expresses a sustained anxiety, suspicion, fear, paranoia, and distrust regarding technology, it simultaneously expresses the band’s acquiescence to it, its embracing of it, its affirmation of it. In the last instance, OK Computer’s importance goes beyond its macroscopic predictive power with regard to the current sociopolitical and cultural issues we experience with regard to technology and alienation, surveillance, capitalism, and the end of the lingering traditionalism and modernism of the 20th century. Instead, the album marks an important microscopic choice made by the band to embrace technology, despite its myriad problems, issues and debates, and in so doing, the album stands as a headstone, cairn, and/or death note that marks the analogue death and digital rebirth of Radiohead. As such, the strength of OK Computer is that it expresses its anxieties regarding the transition and role of technology in popular music post-millennium, the excitements, the foreboding, and the fundamental anxiety of the limit experience of fin-de-siècle.

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Bibliographie

ADAM Nathaniel Emerson, Coding OK Computer: Categorization and Characterization of Disruptive Harmonic and Rhythmic Events in Rock Music, PhD Dissertation, Michigan: University of Michigan, 2011.

FIORELLI Lindsey, “Fitter Happier Rolling a Large Rock Up a Hill”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2009, 334-348.

FOOTMAN Tim, “Hyperreally Saying Something,” in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2009, 253-254.

GREENE Andy, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom: ‘OK Computer’ 20 Years Later Thom Yorke & Co. reveal how endless tours and recording in a haunted mansion informed their 1997 classic ‘OK Computer’”, Rolling Stone. <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/exclusive-thom-yorke-and-radiohead-on-ok-computer-w484570>, accessed January 15, 2019.

GREENE Andy, Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’: An Oral History – Thom Yorke and the band look back at their 1997 masterpiece in honour of its 20th anniversary”, Rolling Stone. <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/radioheads-ok-computer-an-oral-history-w485753>, accessed January 15, 2019.

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OSBORN Brad, “Rock Harmony Reconsidered: Tonal, Modal and Contrapuntal Voice-Leading Systems in Radiohead”, Music Analysis, vol. 36, n° 1, 2017, 59-93.

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RUSCH René, “Crossing Over with Brad Mehldau’s Cover of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’: The Role of Jazz Improvisation in the Transformation of an Intertext”, MTO – Journal of the Society for Music Theory, vol. 19, n° 4, 2013, 1-14.

SLOWIK Edward, “Radiohead and Some Questions About Music”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2009, 62-81.

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Notes

1 David H. Green, “OK Computer Box Set: Not OK Computer”, The Daily Telegraph, March 18, 2009.

2 Michael Heffernan, “Fin de siècle, fin du monde? On the Origins of European Geopolitics, 1890-1920”, in Klaus Dodds and David Atkinson (eds.), Geopolitical Traditions, New York: Routledge, 2000, 25-51.

3 Dai Griffiths, OK Computer, New York and London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004, 114.

4 Nathan D. Hesselink, “Radiohead’s ‘Pyramid Song’: Ambiguity, Rhythm, and Participation”, Society for Music Theory, 2013, 11-12.

5 Marianne T. Letts, “How to Disappear Completely”: Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, 33.

6 Tim Footman, “Hyperreally Saying Something”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive, Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Company, 2009, 253-254.

7 Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom: ‘OK Computer’ 20 Years Later – Thom Yorke & Co. reveal how endless tours and recording in a haunted mansion informed their 1997 classic ‘OK Computer’”, Rolling Stone. <https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/exclusive-thom-yorke-and-radiohead-on-ok-computer-w484570>, accessed January 15, 2019.

8 Brad Osborn, “Rock Harmony Reconsidered: Tonal, Modal and Contrapuntal Voice-Leading Systems in Radiohead”, Music Analysis, vol. °36, n° 1, 2017, 59-93; Drew Nobile, “Form and Voice-Leading in Early Beatles Songs”, Society for Music Theory, vol. 17, n° 3, 2011, 1-11; Allan Moore and Anwar Ibrahim, “Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Identifying Radiohead’s Idiolect”, in Joseph Tate (ed.), The Music and Art of Radiohead, London: Ashgate, 2005, 139-158.

9 Lindsey Fiorelli, “Fitter Happier Rolling a Large Rock Up a Hill”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, op. cit., 335.

10 Ibid., 345.

11 Alex Ross, “The Searchers: Radiohead’s Unquiet Revolution”, New Yorker, August 20/27, 2001, 115.

12 Edward Slowik, “Radiohead and Some Questions About Music”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, op. cit., 65-66.

13 An “absolute break”. See Alain Badiou, “Who is Nietzsche?”, Pli – The Warwick Journal of Philosophy, vol. 11, 2001, 1-11. Geoff Pfeifer compares the “Badiouan event” to the Žižekian/Lacanian act as both have “the power of disrupting the normal flow of static time in such a way as to radically reorganize it” and have “the effect of reorienting the subject as well as the world in which the subject finds herself”. Geoff Pfeifer, The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek, London: Routledge, 2015.

14 Phil Rose, “Radiohead and the Media Fallout of OK Computer”, Explorations in Media Ecology, vol. 10, n° 1-2, 2011, 76.

15 Jere O’Neill Surber, “New Shades”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, op. cit., 88.

16 Michael Heffernan, “Fin de siècle, fin du monde?”, op. cit.

17 Ibid, 31.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 32.

22 Nadine Hubbs, “The Imagination of Pop-Rock Criticism”, in Walter Everett (ed.), Expression in Pop-Rock Music: A Collection of Critical and Analytical Essays, New York: Routledge, 2008 (2nd ed.), 225-226.

23 Lindsey Fiorelli, “Fitter Happier”, op. cit., 335.

24 Allan Moore and Anwar Ibrahim, “Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Identifying Radiohead’s Idiolect”, op. cit., 144-145.

25 Selway’s drumming was recorded and then sampled electronically on a computer (to mimic DJ Shadow’s style).

26 Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom”, op. cit.

27 While Greenwood has been an outspoken critic of prog rock in, for example, the band’s 1997 interview for Q, he has expressed admiration and influence for and by acts such as Genesis and Tangerine Dream. See Rolling Stone’s “Oral History of Radiohead” (2017).

28 Nathaniel Emerson Adam, Coding OK Computer: Categorization and Characterization of Disruptive Harmonic and Rhythmic Events in Rock Music, PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2011, 25-26.

29 Mark Greif, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop”, in Brandon W. Forbes and George A. Reisch (eds.), Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter, Happier, More Deductive, op. cit., 35.

30 Idem.

31 Radiohead, OK Computer, Parlophone, 1997; René Rusch, “Crossing Over with Brad Mehldau’s Cover of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’: The Role of Jazz Improvisation in the Transformation of an Intertext,” MTO – Journal of the Society for Music Theory, vol. 19, n° 4, 2013, 3.

32 Nathaniel Emerson Adam, “Coding OK Computer”, op. cit., 79.

33 Ibidem, 123.

34 The song is also heavily influenced by the political context as the band were writing “Electioneering”. Radiohead toured the US with Alanis Morissette in the summer and fall of 1996, with the US presidential election campaign in full swing. Back home, the UK was also preparing for the 1997 general election.

35 Andy Greene, “Radiohead’s Rhapsody in Gloom”, op. cit.

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Référence électronique

Kwasu David Tembo, « OK Computer: Analogue Death, Digital Rebirth, and Radiohead’s Electronic Turn », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVII-n°1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 12 novembre 2019, consulté le 14 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/10764 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.10764

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Auteur

Kwasu David Tembo

Kwasu David Tembo is a PhD graduate from the University of Edinburgh’s Language, Literatures, and Cultures department (United Kingdom). His research interests include – but are not limited to – comics studies, literary theory and criticism, philosophy, particularly the so-called “prophets of extremity” – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida. He has published on Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, in The Cinema of Christopher Nolan: Imagining the Impossible, edited by Jacqueline Furby and Stuart Joy (Columbia UP, 2015), and on Superman, in Postscriptum: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Literary Studies (2017).

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