In an age of technology and discontentment, Radiohead’s studio album OK Computer (1997) attempts to discuss the relationship between people and their digital lives. While some think that the album consists of overrated and manufactured sounds that solely criticize people for their lifestyles, I believe the album is instead a musical composition reflective of the current age. The precise combination of electronic rhythms and immersive lyrics create an introspective piece, which manifests through the observations of a relatable protagonist who loses himself in the confusion. Thus, the real accomplishment of the band with this album is their ability to connect to individuals in an authentic way, while still raising awareness of the present consequences of technology.
OK Computer as a conceptual album is unique from most other albums. Radiohead organizes and unifies the thematic elements meticulously in a way that most artists struggle to achieve. The best way to ensure this continuity is the inclusion of a character that exists throughout each part of the album. Most bands do not even attempt to do this, but those who do so successfully are often renowned for their efforts. Notable examples include Green Day’s American Idiot (2004), which falls the triumphs and downfalls of St. Jimmy and his alter ego, as well as Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979), which follows Pink and his encounter with loneliness and suppression. However, neither quite reaches the focused depth of OK Computer, which unapologetically and almost ruthlessly probes the mind of the unnamed narrator. However, since the narrator is nameless in this case, a more personal level of association is possible between the listener and the music.
An album is arguably an effective way to discuss any topic, as music in general “allows a particularly intense form of identification: singing along. We can literally deliver the lines of the tragic characters, and to that extent become the characters in a more immediate, visceral way” (Lott 73). In other words, by engaging the listener through what is fundamentally a combination of intuitive sounds, the band hopes that OK Computer can be more poignant. Another aspect of this album that distances itself from others is the use of overwhelming sensations as the main method for criticizing that same medium. In context, “it might seem contradictory for Radiohead to yearn to escape from the alienating world while choosing to be musically immersed in it, but there’s nothing paradoxical about working within the technology that alienates us from the world in an effort to overcome that very alienation” (Fiorelli 237). After all, their open-minded listeners particularly enjoy the combination of electronic and alternative rock music that closely complements the lyrics.
Accordingly, the song entitled “Let Down” has a musical style reminiscent of its own name, with sounds that create an aura of sadness and disappointment that eventually leads to an utter and anti-climactic breakdown within the song. Initially, the slow, rhythmic guitar riffs and drumbeats paired with an overpowering and electronically synthesized keyboard pattern create a surprisingly steady pattern and flow. Further, the lyrics indicate a severely desensitized and depressed individual who describes, “The emptiest of feelings,” and offers the advice, “Don’t get sentimental…It always ends up drivel” (Radiohead). After this structure breaks down, the “let down” occurs and the song takes on a markedly different tone. The protagonist continues to describe disjointed feelings of confusion and insecurity, such as “Floor collapsing…Floating, bouncing back,” but in a more frantic way than before (Radiohead). However, the song quickly returns to the original pattern that was set in the beginning of the track. In this piece, the protagonist builds himself up only to be broken when he finds that his efforts were all for nothing. In response, he desperately pledges, “One day, I’m going to grow wings,” but within a few lines he concedes that he knows this promise is, in fact, “Hysterical and useless” (Radiohead). His return to the mundane structure shows that he believes there is nowhere else to turn, but he still expects to find a life that he knows is unrealistic, if not impossible.
The same protagonist exists in the similarly composed song “No Surprises,” which combines a stellar musical composition and introspective lyrics to create an equally thought-provoking and heavy track. The rhythmic structure takes on a form similar to a lullaby, but with a decidedly darker and more complex message. The use of the symphonic guitar rhythms and hesitant drumbeats construct an immersive and hypnotic experience that reflects the overwhelmed feelings of the protagonist. He describes “A heart that’s full up like a landfill” and “Bruises that won’t heal,” which shows how his life is grossly over-stimulated and at emotional capacity (Radiohead). The music evokes the song’s title, and thus seldom overtakes the initial tempo and complexity initially established. The narrator constantly begs for “No alarms and no surprises,” showing that he is sick of anything that interrupts his pursuit of an undisrupted existence. He pleads at one point, “I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide” (Radiohead). By pairing together his desire for a quiet life and a brief encounter with a gas that could cause fatal suffocation, the narrator indicates that he wishes to be numb to any more feelings. As the final part of the song approaches, the protagonist adds a note of desperation to his pleas when he includes “please” at the end of each of the last choruses of, “No alarms and no surprises” (Radiohead). His apparent obsession with maintaining his own vision of stability is further indicated by his superficial observation, “Such a pretty house, such a pretty garden,” which demonstrates that his priorities are shallow and not ultimately concerned with what could actually give him his desired internal peace (Radiohead). These two songs are representative of the type of music prevalent throughout the album, which create the ambiance needed to reach their intended audience and attempt to broaden their perspectives. The deep and complex lyrics and musical components serve to establish the credibility and authenticity of the band.
The protagonist that Radiohead places in the midst of these songs is their representation of how they intend for their music to affect an individual. Much like this character begins to realize, I also feel that overstimulation has become an increasingly pressing issue in my life. Between the expectations, social pressure, and distractions that manifest due to these inventions, I often wish I could get rid of them entirely. The alarming aspect is that I willingly allow this bubble of information and stimulus to undermine my emotional stability. OK Computer does not soothe the sensations by itself, but rather makes me more aware that I have the anxiety in the first place. Part of me is even hesitant, if not completely averse to listening to the album, as I do not enjoy anything that intends to provoke such an intense discussion of self-criticism. These personal emotions relate to those found throughout OK Computer since “the world has become as monotonous as it is structured, as empty as it is electronic. Dominated by the Internet and electronic communication, industry and modern transportation, the world has no place for human spirit. And this is what Yorke [the main vocalist] screams out in various tracks—how technology alienates us from ourselves” (230 Fiorelli). Without anything substantial to reach across this digital abyss, I have found that the music has the ability to create select moments that allow me to bridge this gap between my current state of being and my actual self. Accordingly, I have no doubts that other people feel as equally lost in their lives as I do, and would appreciate anything that could re-establish their sense of humanity.
Somehow, a common expectation for individuals to improve their lives until they reach a point acceptable to the rest of the community has become prevalent. When only a small percentage can recognize the harmful effects these standards have, common sense dictates that even fewer can escape these pressures. Similar ideas are discussed quite ingeniously in the song “Fitter, Happier,” which is essentially a monologue of what seems to be the voice of society. The song consists of a track of spoken phrases such as “at a better pace, slower and more calculated,” “no longer empty and frantic,” and “fitter, healthier and more productive,” which play over a series of fleeting electronic scratches, and supposedly depict how the perfect life should be lived (Radiohead). To Radiohead, this method serves as an open attack on how ambiguous and shallow the community’s standards are, in relation to the complexity of an individual. However, once we have already reached this point, we can plausibly “achieve a measure of control, precisely by articulating how out-of-control we are. Moreover, we can feel less alone in confronting our own weakness” (Lott 79). When something overwhelms a significant number of people, a natural reaction is to try to categorize and define that feeling. However, I do not think we will ever actually find anything that is universally relevant to both the individual and the public. Instead, we find ourselves caught in an endless loop of baseless and vague suggestions, much like those found throughout “Fitter, Happier,” which further convolutes the issue. Only after this method exhausts itself, can we begin to see the importance of separating the individual from the society, as the current process will further ostracize each individual. In a most basic sense, a community should be a collection of people rather than a consolidation. When people create and reinforce overarching constructs, disguised behind developments such as technology, a loss of identity occurs and the sense of individuality disappears. Accordingly, this new ideology becomes the only definition of normality that matters. And when that inevitable discrepancy occurs between what is and what is not actually obtainable, we become lost and disappointed in ourselves.
With that in mind, one must consider the implications of removing the individual from his society, particularly one dominated by technology. Paul Miller, who works as an editor and writer for a tech culture blog called The Verge, decided to write about his personal experience about leaving the internet in his article entitled “I’m Still Here: Back Online After a Year Without the Internet.” His goal was to find out who he was offline, and whether or not the Internet dramatically affected his emotional well-being. He provides a good foil for the protagonist found in OK Computer, and opens up the discussion as to whether the technologies themselves, or the individuals who create and use them, are to blame for users’ personal issues. Unlike the narrator though, Miller realizes the extent of its negative aspects. In his written synopsis, Miller reaches the depressing, yet insightful conclusion that his problems were with himself, rather than with the technology that he used. He admits when discussing the experience:
And when I’m bombarded with information and stimulation and I can always fill that need every time. When I feel like I’m becoming bored and I’m kind of not happy, I can go and do something real quickly to fill that need. I think I kind of confuse the issue and confuse the subject and that I just can’t quite understand that the feeling was deeper than I was just bored right now and it has something to do with the fact that I’m deeply distressed. And some of the loneliness and boredom that came from leaving the internet was really instructional because it just let me know that my problems were much more internal than external. (Miller 1)
Miller is undoubtedly part of the target demographic of OK Computer. He is young, technology dominates his life, and he can begin to recognize how he has changed as a result. He is a prime candidate to empathize with the narrator. However, he is at a place beyond where the protagonist of the album ever reaches because he begins to realize his role in his unhappiness. If anything, narratives like this single out the individual as the problem, while other attempts to establish culprits only mask the issues we face.
OK Computer’s last song, “The Tourist,” attempts to address this question of blame. The slow and meandering melody contrasts nicely to the protagonist who feels alarmed by how rushed and convoluted his life has become. He admits, “Sometimes I get overcharged…That’s when you see sparks…You ask me where the hell I’m going…At a thousand feet per second” (Radiohead). This brief interaction with a second character, who is human, advises, “Hey man, slow down, slow down. Idiot, slow down, slow down,” offers the only condolence found in the album (Radiohead). However, the seemingly simple advice to “slow down” is significant. For the protagonist to live in the current age, he must set a realistic and individualized expectation of himself to avoid drowning in the almost unavoidable emotional and psychic turmoil. When the second character amusingly refers to the protagonist next as an “idiot,” the word’s connotation indicates that this advice should be obvious to the protagonist. This is Radiohead’s way of telling their audience to look at themselves introspectively and to evaluate their current states. As evident by this song, the band seems to be confident that the solution is simpler and more attainable than most realize.
Radiohead’s OK Computer brings to light an issue of that most artists or individuals are unwilling to discuss. By embedding the message of the albums within lyrics and distinctive sounds, the band creates a means to engage their reluctant audiences. The album combines feelings of distress, over-stimulation, and confusion, which converge to form a singular solution that should have already been obvious if not for our apparent flaws. I hope that more people, myself included, can now realize what has become unrealistic to expect from humans, as we are so much more complex than androids.
Firoellis, Lindsay. “Fitter Happier Rolling a Large Rock Up a Hill”: Radiohead and Philosophy. Peru: Carus Publishing Company, 2009. Print.
“Fitter Happier.” AZ lyrics. Musixmatch. 2000-2013. Web. 3 October 2013.
“Let Down.” AZ lyrics. Musixmatch. 2000-2013. Web. 3 October 2013.
Micah, Lott. “Why such sad songs?”: Radiohead and Philosophy. Peru: Carus Publishing
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Miller, Paul. “I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet.” The Verge.
Vox Media Inc., 1 May. 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
“No Surprises.” AZ lyrics. Musimatch. 2000-2013. Web. 3 October 2013.
Radiohead. OK Computer. Parlaphone and Capitol Records, 1997. Digital file.
“The Tourist.” AZ lyrics. Musixmatch. 2000-2013. Web. 3 October 2013.