Being and Nothingness in 1997: Looking at Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, 25 years hence
In his falsetto, Yorke compresses a lot of emotions that often take their time to seep into your consciousness. There is an impending sense of doom, and certainly a tinge of disillusionment, as the band navigates us through a complex maze that seems to unravel itself, and we, as the audience, experience this auditory landscape with a certain uncertainty. How does one really experience the music of this British rock outfit who have been described as “depressing”1? Charlie Thompson, in his blog, tries to deduce the saddest Radiohead song – to quantify the subjectivity of each of Radiohead’s songs into data, and utilises the same to unravel the mystery. He employs parameters such as “lyrical density”2 and “gloom index”3 and emerges with a result.
I think Yorke would have been disappointed. This strange fascination with quantification, the heavy dependence on technology, of consumerism, of digital lives being consumed by digital minds, the odds of every Radiohead song pointing towards the future, ominous in their prophecy and disillusioning in its ethos, seem to grow more real every single day. Yet, in 1997, when Radiohead released their seminal OK Computer to critical and commercial acclaim, few had the idea that the British band were pointing their fingers at the times that were to come. Here we are, in the third decade of the 21st century, and what makes this band more enduring is how they have managed to stay increasingly and horrifyingly relevant.
To understand Radiohead, it is important to explore their transition from an alternative-rock outfit to their more experimental present. While the political undertones in their work are not explicit, they somehow seem to merge seamlessly into the tapestry of our times. A discussion on that warrants a separate essay on its own, but if there is one idea that Radiohead has explored time and again in its various avatars, and in its changing forms, it is the idea of ennui.
The Fear of Being
Ennui is not simply “boredom”. It is nearer to “world-wariness” or “tedium” and drives closer to its counterparts in other languages such as the Russian toska or the German word Weltschmerz. It might bear many meanings, yet the emotion is one of indifference – a distance that one experiences from the world around them. This is a concept that would find a voice in the domain of existentialism, and would feature prominently in Camus’ novel, The Stranger, where humans have been perceived as beings who only respond to “external stimuli”4.
However, in Radiohead’s discography, these stimuli are absent. There is something mechanical about the world that the characters of Radiohead’s songs inhabit. Nothing seems to drive them, and yet these unnamed, yet not unsung, heroes move ahead with their lives. One can certainly notice this strange theme in the song titled “Let Down”:
“Transport, motorways, and tramlines
Starting and then stopping
Taking off and landing
The emptiest of feelings
If there is nothing to look forward to, what drives the modern human being forward? It is this strange question of evolution that Radiohead tackles. An unlikely adaptation it must be. However, the answer can be found in the discography itself. It is the modern force of capitalism, the desire for competition, and the strive to be better in terms of numbers. OK Computer tackles this question creating a statement that is vehemently “anti-capitalism”, as Tim Footman notes in his book Welcome to the Machine. If one looks at the words enshrined in “No Surprises”:
“A heart that’s full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won’t heal
You look so tired, unhappy.”
The embodiment of these emotions emerges in how the album progresses as well. As mentioned earlier, the release of OK Computer was a statement: Radiohead was breaking from the shadow of alternative-rock and Britpop that had accompanied them ever since the release of their first album, Pablo Honey. Something about this oddly prophetic album made it interesting, not only thematically, but also from a purely sonic aspect. These were the sounds of the future.
In 1997, the world was not yet comfortable with the strength and pace that the internet would bring in the future. Now, information is available in the fraction of a second, there is white light on our eyes for the greater part of the day, and certainly, there is a greater sense of accessibility that comes along with it. There is a certain relaxation that comes with availability, and the sense of uneasiness that accompanies something when it tips over the saturation point.
Imagine yourself now. You are sitting in the comfort of your room, and you are perhaps a bit too lazy to turn on the fan. Now, imagine that you have an artificial intelligence that can fulfil the command. So, you clear your throat and say the name of your AI software assistant, whatever it might be. “OK (insert appropriate name here)”, you say, and like the digital, encoded genie that it is, your wish is fulfilled. There is no limited validity of three wishes here, only the fear of having the unlimited voucher of wishes taken away from you if there is a power cut, or if your internet goes kaput. This is your paranoia: the fear of losing a carefully constructed life on the digital sphere that is now often interchangeable with who you really are. In “Paranoid Android”, the band goes,
“I may be paranoid, but no android.”
This fear translates into the auditory core of the album. It often appears confused, bemused – yet the sounds stick together like this globalised world that we inhabit, and is a coherent whole. OK Computer marks the journey of a band, creating a distinct identity of its own as well. It is their fear too. Yet Radiohead’s audacity would be rewarded, as this album would ascend to popular and critical stardom, and Yorke would complain about the stagnation of modern-day rock music – an idea that he would explore and dismantle to create the equally phenomenal Kid A (2000). The instrumentation is in no way secondary: they are not here to create the fabric on which the song-writing weaves a tapestry. The music is here to further accentuate the tone of the album. Anwen Crawford notes:
“All those painterly, semi-abstract sounds – guitars that ping and squawk and melt, the wavering Mellotron choir, the glockenspiel, the shimmering cymbals, the quarter-tone violins – create a sense of a world in which human beings are irretrievably tangled inside systems of our own making.”5
In a way, the album challenged other conventions as well: blurring the lines between what has typically been considered as “rock” a la the use of guitars, drums, and bass more extensively with a more bombastic, popular appeal, and “art-pop”. It is true that in music, genres often seem to blend into one another and encompass the very genres that they want to categorise themselves into. Yet, here was a band, that was not only challenging it, but also pointing at the direction that they would embark on in the future: the heavy reliance on elements of electronica, the fusion with what has been classified as art-rock, focussing on autotune and, more importantly, creating more and more abstract lyricism to accompany that as well. There is a sense of confusion that accompanies the lyricism in Radiohead’s works in the 21st century, and all of it has its root in OK Computer.
By breaking away from the established conventions of rock music, Radiohead was also questioning the very idea of the record labels, of creating music that is commercially viable and profitable. This brings to mind a certain anecdote about the progressive-rock band, Rush. When the members of Rush were asked by the record companies to create a song that would be radio-friendly and thus, subsequently profitable, the band decided to stick to their progressive-rock roots and experiment with their sound, creating a 20-minute odd opus about a dystopia where music was outlawed. In the course of their career, Radiohead would express their concern over streaming services, and even release an album for free to the public in 2007, titled In Rainbows, following a pay-what-you-want model. If the idea of anti-capitalism was so prevalent in their lyricism, it became more apparent in their actions as well.
Sartre, in his work, Being and Nothingness, spoke of the idea of nothingness, as an objective reality – one can perceive this state, and express their ideas about it. This, in turn, connects to the idea of ennui, that Radiohead was going to drive home with in this record. What is this ennui if not a state of nothingness? The French existentialist stated that existence precedes essence, or to explain it in simpler terms: our personality is not governed from the very beginning by what is around us, but it is our acts that make us so. In the world that Radiohead inhabits in 1997, and was also predicting about, existence often seems to exist in a pre-determined state, where everything around you is already at work to determine who you will be. The forces of production are already at play and you step into it, acclimatising yourself with it along the way. It is almost eerie: man is no more in control of his own destiny. He is now the modern Frankenstein: he has created the very force, the very void, the very sense of nothingness that he has now succumbed to. Nothing exemplifies this situation more than the song titled “Fitter, Happier”, where the checklist to a supposedly content life is read out in a sardonic, sarcastic way:
“Fitter, happier, more productive
Comfortable (Not drinking too much)
Regular exercise at the gym (Three days a week)
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
Eating well (No more microwave dinners and saturated fats)
A patient, better driver
A safer car (Baby smiling in back seat)
Sleeping well (No bad dreams)
Careful to all animals (Never washing spiders down the plughole)
Keep in contact with old friends (Enjoy a drink now and then)
Will frequently check credit at (Moral) bank (hole in wall)”
Our “being” is now governed by trivial objects that haunt every day in our life. It is no idea, or emotion, but materialism, at its prime. A few minutes later in the same song, these words appear:
“Concerned (But powerless)
An empowered and informed member of society (Pragmatism not idealism).”
Yet, this sense of ennui or tedium was not only emerging from the rapidly changing geo-political space, but the uncertainty which comes with the end of the century. While the term fin de siècle is often used to denote the end of the 19th century, the term is often used to connote the sense of dread that finds its way into the minds of the people as they approach a newer age, and a newer time. Radiohead’s work at the end of the 20th century was certainly tapping into that sentiment. With respect to the fin de siècle vis a vis at the end of the 19th century, Zeev Sternhell notes how the ideas of materialism or positivism were being criticised, and were replaced with the idea of subjectivity and a focus on emotion.
It was the End of Times, It Was The Start of Times
As an album that sounded from the future, and pointed in that direction as well, OK Computer falls, very interestingly, into the domain of media produced or consumed during the fin de siècle, echoing the sentiments that have been usually associated with this period of time. This particular moment in our history, has been associated with a sense of uncertainty, as if it were to be “a harbinger of some future radical disjuncture or cataclysmic upheaval”6. Indeed, in 1997, we were closer to the year of Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, and even closer to the idea of an AI: sentient, intelligent, and devoid of emotion. Artificial intelligence, and a look at its possible repercussions where it gains an upper hand over humanity itself leading to our doom, was a theme that had been explored very much during this time, most notably in James Cameron’s 1991 movie, Terminator 2: Judgment Day featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Moreover, we were also looking at solutions to tackle the problem of climate change and global warming, trying to emerge with more sustainable ways of development without hindering human progress. The Rio Summit took place in 1992, and at the core of that conference, was sustainable development. In “No Surprises”, the following words are sung:
“I’ll take a quiet life
And a handshake of carbon monoxide.”
In the 1990s, especially in the context of India, the change was happening largely in a socio-political and economic context. P.V. Narsimha Rao and Manmohan Singh would initiate the LPG reforms as a means to recover from the balance of payments deficit. The US economy would bloom around the same time as well. Globalisation was the way to go, and the world would gradually be connected in a fine and complicated mesh of economic and diplomatic relations, and pretty soon, with the magic of internet connectivity and subsequently, social media.
It’s just business
Cattle prods and the IMF
I trust I can rely on your vote.”
It seemed that with OK Computer, Radiohead had hit upon an unlikely oracle. In more ways than one, the album seems to fall in line with the very idea of “degeneration theory” that has often been associated with the idea of fin de siècle. Max Nordau in his book Degeneration points to this idea of moral depravity and decadence with respect to the end of the 19th century. The sense of competition, as Radiohead unabashedly declares, contributes to this adamant focus on materialism and our focus on objects. In a particularly tongue-in-cheek moment of the song, “Paranoid Android”, the band plays along to the words,
“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly
Kicking squealing Gucci little piggy.”
If technology becomes the bane in OK Computer and emerges as the dominant force of the 21st century, it also becomes the key factor behind the album’s enduring status. Indeed, this discordant relationship with technology lies in the production of the album itself. In “Fitter Happier”, a song that has been discussed earlier in the essay, there is no vocalist. Indeed the “vocalist” or the “singer” in that particular song, is nothing but a Macintosh computer that is reading out the text that is being fed into its system. Like the times that they were living in, Radiohead was also hovering on that uncertainty of whether they should embrace it or simply abandon it.
With the end of the century, it would be the end of an era for Radiohead as well. The uncertainty and the lack of any creative drive would force the band to take a sabbatical, and they would emerge three years later with an album that has often been regarded as seminal in its own right – a perfect blend of the modern and the classics. That album, titled Kid A, became one of the greatest left-turns in the history of music: Radiohead would retain their ethos as the key existentialists in the halls of rock music, and yet they would step up to change the idea of what rock music stands for, and what it could possibly be.
OK Computer is thus that perfect transitional record in the band’s discography. It stands at the core of the band’s creative output and it stands at the crossroads of their music. This album stood as a testimony to mark the movement from one century to another, and would mark a musical movement as the British rock outfit would change sonically as well.
No Alarms and No Surprises, Please.
Twenty five years hence, and many records later, it is oddly eerie about the doom that hangs like a sword in the background of OK Computer. There is a strange sense of disorientation: both in its instrumentation, and in the way that the band oscillates about the fulcrum of a changing world. When one looks back at the nineties, with its plethora of grunge and punk rock records, raging and rising against the world, Radiohead seems like an alien entity. If grunge was the spirit of a person screaming hoarsely at the establishment, the spirit of Radiohead was that of quiet dread: anticipating with terror, crumbling with the noise around them, and hoping against hope. As the years progressed, Radiohead’s thematic structure opted more towards a personal touch, without losing any of the bitterness that it felt towards the hyper-capitalist society within which it existed.
If one looks at the album art for OK Computer, made by Radiohead’s long-time collaborator, Stanley Donwood, the white and blue landscape dotted with squiggling intersecting lines, of a road that seems to diverge into the distance, haunted by a spectral figure in the landscape, one cannot help but place oneself there: a mere fragment on the information superhighway. The words “lost child” loom in the background: a stark reminder of our place in the macrocosm of existence.
As we stare at our screens, white light resplendent on our tired faces, there is no surprise at what we have stepped into. There is no existence for us as individuals, but more as a macrocosmic collective. “Karma police, arrest this man / He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge”, sings Thom, about a man who is disconcertingly different from the world around them. For the band, the greatest alienation is one from reality. To us, human interaction has ceased to be meaningful, and we have created our worlds in the digital spaces, where we are reduced, like Radiohead’s songs themselves, into quantifiable bits of data. Our tastes are catered by the algorithm that haunts us; our ideas are governed by the text on our screens: the domination is subconsciously complete.
When the band was inquired about the origin of the title, the band stated that it is a quote by Zaphod Beeblebrox from the 1978 radio adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “Okay computer, I want full manual control now.”7
The legacy of OK Computer lies not only in its apocalyptic foreboding, but also in the very manner in which it influenced the British alternative-rock scene paving the way for modern bands in that scene such as Muse. In fact, Muse would go on to emulate the very themes of dystopia and thought-control in many of their tracks, but rather than bear the subtlety of Radiohead, they chose to be more overt about it.
In their many interviews, the band has often been vocal about how the process of creating this record was one that burdened them to speed up their process, and resulted in a burnout, that would force the band to take a sabbatical from producing or creating another album. “You ask where the hell I’m going? / At a thousand feet per second”, reads the final song from OK Computer, titled “The Tourist”. This emotion slowly disappears, as the words change to “Hey man, slow down” in the final half of the song. Perhaps, the band is urging us to halt and pause lest we crash and collapse. If you were a fast car, you were slowly tuning down, and moving away from your recklessness.
Now that you have rested and have slowed down, maybe you want the full manual control. It is perhaps impossible. You whizz past all the lives, part of the race that you have stepped into. There are no alarms and no surprises here.
1 Veix, Joe. “The Quest to Find the Most Depressing Radiohead Song.” Newsweek, 16 Mar. 2017
4 “Ennui.” The Modern Novel, www.themodernnovel.org/movements/ennui/#:~:text=Ennui%20is%20the%20French%20word,called%20Weltschmerz%20or%20even%20Angst
5 Crawford, Anwen. “A Thousand Feet Per Second: OK Computer’s Sublime Velocity”, Pitchfork, 23 Mar. 2017, pitchfork.com/features/ok-computer-at-20/10037-a-thousand-feet-per-second-ok-computers-sublime-velocity/
6 Michael Heffernan. “Fin de Siècle, Fin du Monde? On the Origins of European Geopolitics; 1890–1920”. Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought (eds.Klaus Dodds, & David A. Atkinson, London & New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 28, 31
7 Greene, Andy (31 May 2017), “Radiohead’s rhapsody in gloom: OK Computer 20 years later”, Rolling Stone, archived from the original on 31 May 2017
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As a student of English Literature at Jadavpur University, Sayantan Bishnu was fascinated by two things: the incorporation of narrative theory into popular music, and espionage thrillers. He worked briefly as a content editor, for a sports blog, before shifting his attention to writing. His love for Indian classical music and the rock band Radiohead, is interconnected with his love for sports fiction, travelogues, and of course, author John Le Carré. Sayantan’s sporadic writings on music can be found in his blog titled 'Pencil in a Loop'.