OK Computer at 20 VS the World in 2017
This coming May Radiohead’s 3rd studio album Ok Computer turns 20.
I’ll begin bluntly: its either the greatest record to come into my life, or the most important. If a certain cluster of Pink Floyd albums are normally seen within a similar light, aided by their shared university-town beginnings, then it is with OK Computer’s connection to our 21st century world that the hairs on the back of my neck are raised that little bit higher. I guess this is the loose reason I’m writing about OK Computer and not Oasis’s Be Here Now, for example – which is also 20.
But first of all, back to the future of 1997. The last future…
My first time with OK Computer was on a holiday journey by car taken in a wet July in 1997. Well, I say album; it was one of my sister’s travel tapes, a cassette which featured a mixture of OK Computer and The Prodigy’s The Fat of The Land, released a month after OK Computer. I was 13 at the time. Radiohead’s Karma Police and Lucky, and The Prodigy’s Climatize were truly new things to my ears.
This holiday journey, listening to this tape, and travelling by motorway past the Birmingham sprawl, was my final experience of what I would call a future moment. This was the final of a series of childhood moments where I envisaged a future substantially different from the present tense I was in.
The 21st century and ‘the slow cancellation of the future’
Somewhere between July 1997 and January 2000 that future disappeared into an inability to imagine anything but an eversame set of interchangeable circumstances, initially encapsulated by a pre-millennial malaise that seemed most evident in the bland music that saw out the 1990s, reflective of that wide open vulnerability to a reality waiting to arise in the dust of the Twin Towers.
Both an incorporation of the decade’s electronica revolution in their own right, The Fat of the Land and OK Computer were being seen as the major albums of the year by the culture media. In hindsight, ‘major’ is not the word: they were the last ‘landmark’ albums of popular music – or so everybody with who I speculate on this to seems to agree. There’s certainly been great music since, but could you name a truly landmark album post 1997? We are still reaping the outcome of the computer world, but one effect is the demise of cultural shifts.
The album as an artform belongs to the 20th century (walking around the remaining record shops will tell you this). The problem is the networked technology we now have to share and download music doesn’t seem an adequate progression from the CD, when much of the cultural product we share, even if only in musical style, seems to belong to previous century.
The recently late writer Mark Fisher never spoke about Radiohead in his brilliant essays on pop music that simultaneously diagnosed the wider predicament of life under what he called ‘Capitalist Realism’. However, the line “the slow cancellation of the the future” attributed to both him and theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, could well explain how despite the process of the ‘waning of historicity’ being well under way by 1997, there was still residual space for the imagining of a world significantly different from the present tense. Whilst we anticipated the millennium with an almost evangelical fervour in a world glad to see the back of the 20th, it has felt that the 21st century, to paraphrase Fisher, never arrived.
OK Computer, even whilst relying on a deeply mid-twentieth century 4/5 piece guitar band formation, seems to be about life in the time after it was made; a world gripped by the logic of “capitalist realism” (a diagnosis by Mark Fisher), which, mediated through a computer world, envelopes us in a ‘liquid anxiety’ (referring to another the recently-late thinker, Zygmunt Bauman), and as a highly atomisating society that doesn’t even believe in itself, persists under an umbrella title of ‘The Control Society’ (Guilles Deleuze).
In (Cyber)space nobody can hear you scream
Deleuze’s 1992 Postscript on Societies of Control describes a structure of “ultrarapid modes of free-floating control” replacing the older social structures of Discipline and Punishment in the late 20th century. Defined by Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment societies are territorial and entail “the organisation of vast spaces of enclosure” such as factories, schools, hospitals and prisons. Control societies are the evolution of a later stage of capitalism, enabled by network technology, where the social structures that formed around the old spaces of enclosure disintegrate into the ‘gaseous’ quality of the corporation, where community never existed, and “the brashest rivalry [is] presented as an healthy form of emulation…and runs through each, dividing each within”.
Although the older structure never died but became a substructure to deal those who’s ‘lumpen’ existence denies them access into the networked society, I’d argue that Pink Floyd’s iconic The Wall is the quintessential work of art on a Discipline and Punishment society, whilst Radiohead’s OK Computer is about control. I’d define OK Computer as the struggles of the human animal who’s behavioral patterns are encased in the binary systems of computers – something we can all relate to in 2017.
This is why I want to speak of OK Computer for its emotional reach, and how although it is wrongly defined as being ‘depressing’, is actually is a work of art that encourages us to fight off a pervading sense of hopelessness. And I think this message is so important today.
1999, and the pre-millennial malaise
I had to wait until spring 1999 to come back into contact with Ok Computer, when I bought the album from a retail chain now forgotten in time. I mention above about a pre-millennial malaise: it’s arguable that the buzz of the early to mid 1990’s was built on false promises of a liberal capitalist utopia (which is impossible, if not totalitarian in hindsight), but, comewhatmay it had blatantly been exhausted by the final year of the decade, wearily waiting for something else. It was the first year I can look back and honestly say I was experiencing anxiety and depression. Where that began and a wider cultural mood ends is arguable, but it is true that I bought Ok Computer at roughly the same time.
I was blown away by the album, but it also severely spooked me. It was too close to the bone for somebody young/naive enough to imagine that the future wouldn’t roll out smoothly like an album of Stone Roses riffs. I wasn’t prepared or equipped for what it had to say – I even remember taking the line “spend five minutes in the mirror each morning saying to yourself ‘each day in every way I am getting better and better'” from artist Stanley Donwood’s album sleeve artwork on face value as self-help to cull the first sprouting of anxiety, rather than realising its dark irony about life in a control society.
“I’m amazed that I survived, an Airbag saved my life”
We are awoken to the nightmare with Airbag. “I am born again” sings Thom Yorke as machine saves protagonist from machine – saved by an Airbag as he crashes his “fine East German car”. The words could easily be taken from an headline in a local newspaper; but whilst these words are so everyday, they exist within a science fiction soundscape that evokes a world where computers take over the means of control whilst the corporate zombies just sit back in ‘paradise’, only to be awoken by machine error.
“I am born again”
This existential ‘rebirth’ sounds very much like the heaps of ‘self-help’ language that provided the background noise that naturalised the ‘new’ capitalism in the 1990’s, where history ‘was over’, and all we could improve was our own standing in the world (a world which was, after all, subjective, and defined by what frame of mind we ‘chose’). Yet in a sea of sunshine music, perhaps Ok Computer was one of few popular records that sounded the warning bell in paradise at the end of history. And thus this ‘rebirth’ is possibly double edged: is Thom Yorke singing about finding oneself within this ‘paradise’ of the new capitalism, or has he just stared into its void, and is willing for a rebirth of the human spirit in resistance to its sirens of consumerism and career improvement, that lure us into a perpetually decentred self-hood – a life as a node in a network until the end of time?
This soundscape of distress within a seemingly mundane paradise should leave us rethinking where the future visions of science fiction went – are we within them? Ok Computer could never have imagined the Pandora’s Box effect that internet dependency has brought into everyday experience, but as we lead onto the epic track Paranoid Android, the feel of the album seems sufficiently contemporary to today’s disturbed running of human emotion through the ‘man machine matrix’ (a term used by Will Self).
“The emptiness of feelings, Dissapointed people, clinging onto bottles”
Unofficially the 21st century began not on January 1st 2000, but in September 11 2001. The fall out, for me at least, seemed to bring a regained occupation with the music of Radiohead. By this time they has released 2 more albums: Kid A and Amnesiac. The albums continued the conceptual experimentation with electronica as computer technology slowly became more present in our lives. They were of an even darker nature, yet contained a mood of defiance to a new century that was beginning shape itself into Orwellian ghosts from the past that had plugged themselves into a Brave New World evangelically promised by the 1990s. But perhaps until their 2007 In Rainbows, there was never a hint of acceptance about the ‘way of the world’.
I think this is important because Radiohead are all too often labelled as ‘depressing’. The two songs I want to predominantly focus on to finish this piece are songs that are joyous moments of defiance against despair.
“One day I am gonner grow wings, a chemical reaction, hysterical and useless.”
OK Computer plays out like an undulating journey of emotional breakdown and spirit resistance within a computer generated graph. There are a series of emotional powersurges that threaten to bring down the computer system. The first supermassive climax of emotional willing against the machine is Let Down. Thom Yorke’s words remind us not to get sentimental and be led astray into eternal disappointment by false promises of freedom and salvation. The lyrics seem to encourage deep cynicism, of the likes many of us cling onto like “bottles” after the initial horror of finding ourselves staring into the abyss. Yet why deliver such a message? As in Airbag, the words seem in conflict with the emotions trying to break through; like a forerunner for the struggles for help many of us see, or even act out, within our networked lives, as we become subsumed by the nihilising spirit of the age, feeling locked in painful misunderstandings in the confines of the binary code.
This is why this song is one of the few that can bring water into my normally bone dry eyes; its spirit resistance momentarily threatens to break the code, and to reach out into the lonely cyberspace of node-trapped-souls, creating (for me) one the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. And it is here where we sense the refusal of giving in to the ‘depressed spirit of the times’.
Mark Fisher wrote a collection of essays (featured in his 2014 Zero Book ‘Ghosts of My Life’) on one very important band from the late 1970’s in an attempt to look at the pervading nihilism of our times. Joy Division, or specifically the singer (or unfortunate and incidental protagonist) Ian Curtis, was trapped in a world of banal suffering. Fisher wrote “If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listening to JD now, you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channelling our present, their future.”
Joy Division remain the perfect painkiller for the present. Few works of pop music engage with the cloud of the nuclear winter of the soul that harangues the anxious contemporary human like the dead souls in Joy Division’s music still do. Ok Computer arguably never truly reaches the wastelands of Joy Division’s second and final studio album Closer. However, it is more structured on the pivot of existential struggle in a world that can often give one the feeling of drowning, rather than in depths of the oceans themselves.
Let Down is brought down slowly by the rainy singalong of Karma Police – arguably the album’s most radio-friendly. The next ‘build up’ begins with the chilling humanness that slowly oozes out of the computer-generated voice of Fitter Happier, which seems to crack under the strain of endorsing a perfectly balanced lifestyle. In the UK in 1997 such a health-freak, body-perfect, corporate lifestyle still seemed wholly Californian. But in 2017 it is arguable that many here in the UK find our voices being fed into the health-freak-machine as if against our will.
But the stage for the next build up is set by a song I’ve often heard described as the weakest on the album.
Electioneeting tells of the deep cynicism in political campaigns in a ‘post-history’ world where all major decisions have already been made – where politics feels more like a popularity contest. Often referred to as the soft underbelly of OK Computer, I see it as actually laying the foundations for what the human animal ‘born again’ into a ‘post-history’ control society is made to endure. Electioneering is the true point of nihilism in Ok Computer. Surely nothing evokes a dead horizon as much its last few bars, which are in anticipation of the second major powersurge: Climbing up The Walls.
Climbing up the walls is the end point of a seismic nervous breakdown, that conjures visuals of ripping the wires from out of ones flesh in some frenzied attempt at escape. It enacts upon us the catharsis of a moment many of us not only anticipate in some forever-delayed moment but possibly secretly long for.
“I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake with carbon monoxide”
If the album was to end with No Surprises – the deep point of depressive acceptance on OK Computer [brilliantly depicted in the music video that uses analogue technology to depict Thom Yorke slowly drowning in a tank] – then the album could be classed a pessimistic work of art. But, as in the video where Thom Yorke finally emerges for air, OK Computer shows itself to be too intelligent to be led astray by the false comforts of nihilism. The longing for that nervous breakdown, and the ‘quiet life’ with ‘no surprises’ that Climbing up Walls becomes a dark fantasy for, turns out to be an impossible dream.
“This is my final fight, my final bellyache with…”
“it’s gonner be a glorious day. I feel my luck could change”
Lucky – one of the most uplifting tracks ever…
After No Surprises you could think that there was no more horizons. The protagonist has been defeated, and will proceed to his physical death a numb depressive. Yet it doesn’t feel quite over…
An early version of Lucky was released on the 1995 charity compilation record ‘Help’, instigated as a way of raising funds for children caught up in the then-ongoing war in Bosnia. Now, it would be crude to make a direct comparison between depressive humans in a highly advanced capitalist economy and the horrors that went on in that war, yet when Yorke sings about being “pulled out of the plane crash, coz I’m your super hero” it’s connotations couldn’t be closer to Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘answer to the last humans’ caught in the abyss of meaning and morality.
Devon Lougheed relates Radiohead’s music directly to the philosopher most commonly understood (and misunderstood) in relation to the scourge of nihilism in industrial, and specifically post-industrial societies. His essay ‘Nietzsche, Nihilism and “Hail to the Thief”‘ features in ‘Radiohead and Philosophy’ (2009). Here he uses the words of a thinker most unfortunately caught up in the excuses for Nazi and extreme Social Darwinist ideologies in a way that neatly sits with the conditions that prompted Nietzsche to search for such answers in the early industrial times in which he wrote.
“The protagonist of “Lucky” foreshadows Nietzsche’s answer to the Last Humans… The ubermensch or ‘Over human’ stands on the edge of conventional morality, ready to pull the Last Humans out of the aircraft and refashion them into free beings with a new moral code”
Like Nietzsche’s answer, Lucky is about overcoming the despair that seeps in through the social conditions of this super-industrialised age. It easy to see how history has made such ideas dangerous, used in Nazi and Randian philosophies etc, but his ‘answer’ is only to find a new moral code, and that remains a crucial task as the codes that bound our civilisation get chewn into smaller and smaller bits in the mouth of the money machine.
I class Lucky as one of the all-time most important songs for my punch drunk idealism. For a soul weighed down by nightfall’s foul smell of depression-remedy-seeking, the morning bell of Lucky is not the beginnings of another dead day in the rat race but a potential ‘glorious day’ of new horizons, no matter how I succumb to the day in hand.
In 1992 Deleuze told us not to hope nor fear, “But only to look for new weapons”. However, the latent sentiment in the writings of Marxists (in the loosest use of the term Marxist) in the face of what then seemed like a terminal defeat to capitalism, was hopelessness – in fact many succumbed to the nihilist endgame. OK Computer is this ‘undulating journey of emotional breakdown and spirit resistance’ before it is anything else, but within the scream of the human trapped within the machine is an unwillingness to give up and allow oneself to be nihilized. Even in the computer-generated voice of Fitter Happier is an emotional rejection of the death of the human in a world ruled by computers, corporatism, and consumerism. To will against this is a small, but nonetheless real, resistance to the ‘ways of the world’. Only in Radiohead’s more recent albums do you get a sense that there’s ‘nothing you can do’.
Radiohead were perhaps the very end of the line of a succession of Postwar pop groups who were given time to experiment and develop. Around the time of the unofficial start of the 21st century (9/11) a band from apt-origin came to the fore with their debut Album Is This It? But The Strokes’ debut was almost their end point. They began as the final product, and like many bands that followed, simply fed back into the machine as a prepackaged musical style. I mean, this is why I liked the album so much at the time; the hits were already there, there was no need (or maybe even patience, from consumer and producer alike) to go through the trials and errors of finding something new. OK Computer, as one a few final landmark albums, was probably part of the end point of such a notion of musical development.
Perhaps this strand of lineage to the Postwar age is why the band’s critical response to our late capitalist world shouldn’t be dismissed from a classist perspective. Ok Computer is absent of the atrocious inequalities and injustices that have proven to accompany the reality of the nightmare world it depicts, but can we reasonably demand a pop group from a leafy upbringing in a university town to deal with class injuries? Is it not more reasonable to argue that in the Dystopian imaginaries of Radiohead rests the Utopian impulses of much post war art? Perhaps there was a benevolent pedagogy laced into the dreamings of Postwar bands, even as they actively rejected all pedagogy?
There’s a huge difference between a band such as Radiohead and much of the music made by the middle class in the past 30 years, even whilst Radiohead’s reaches into this period. Many bands since this point have existed in an environmental vacuum, where politics is seen as merely another career choice – thus the plight of the world has become irrelevant to there music.
The emphasis on environmental is perhaps more important than we think – or it at least deserves much appreciation: a university town band like Radiohead could’ve never recorded an album the likes of Joy Division’s brilliant Unknown Pleasures; but likewise, Ok Computer could never have been conceived within the confines of ‘Cottonopolis’.
But right now it is irrelevant whether this connection of sound to surface has died off in the 21st century: I finish this blog in arms of the record that makes me believe in the good in the ‘human animal’.
“…Show me the world as I love to see it”