This summer marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of OK Computer , Radiohead’s epochal album about technology and alienation; a reissue of the album, OKNOTOK 1997 2017 , was released this past June. I’ve since experienced a sharp existential pang regarding my own mortality. Twenty years? I really am getting old. But do I feel old? Depends on the day, honestly. But watching the groundbreaking cultural touchstones of one’s youth become historical artifacts is one of the universal experiences of our media-saturated culture. Who hasn’t winced upon hearing the anthem of their youthful rebelliousness in an SUV commercial? Sometimes, however, you’ll listen to the music that defined your adolescence with wistfulness, as if your teenage enthusiasm prevented you from hearing what it was really about. This is what I feel when listening to OK Computer today. Now that I’m an adult and know a little something about pain and disappointment, I can appreciate what the album is saying.
When OK Computer came out, I was fifteen, an ideal age for falling under the sway of the album’s moody, paranoid grandeur. Combine that with the fact that I was a bookish kid in a small town and you have a recipe for obsession. The lyrics depicting loners and depressives trapped in vast, impersonal systems of intimidation and control mirrored The X-Files and Thomas Pynchon, two of my other favorites at the time. I loved tracking conspiracies and cover-ups, tearing at the edges of everyday life, pulling them back and seeing what was really going on beneath. This is what my life would be, I thought. I would get out of my small town, move to the city and become a writer, creating stories and characters that, like the best Radiohead songs, pointed toward the nearly imperceptible forces that dictated their every movement and choice.
Much of rock music has a distrust of middle-class life and those who aspire to it. Those are the squares, the normies, who can’t handle living life on the edge. That stance never really appealed to me, however. It sounded forced and dated, like trying to fight the cultural skirmishes of Woodstock all over again. That’s what was so compelling about OK Computer . It viewed suburbs and office jobs with suspicion, but not because it tried to define the band and its fans as superior to their staid ambitions. Rather, it was skeptical of the forces—economic, political, cultural, sexual—that molded human beings to fit into cubicles and mid-size sedans. Like many of the critiques of contemporary life that I find most resonant, it wasn’t personal. It was structural.
Perhaps the most succinct statement on the impersonal forces that atomize individuals is “Fitter Happier,” a spoken-word track that comes right at the album’s midpoint. A synthetic computer voice, much like the one used by Stephen Hawking, intones strange little koans about suburban mediocrity: “A patient, better driver/ A safer car, baby smiling in back seat/ Sleeping well, no bad dreams/ No paranoia.” It’s depressing in a way that’s sure to appeal to moody teenagers, that’s for certain, but the way it relates to middle-class malaise is unusual for rock music.
Historically, rock has been devoted to excoriating those know-nothing squares for their empty lives of plenty and compromise, finding in rock music a different path of rebellion and subversion. But OK Computer portrays suburbanites with something like sympathy, and not just as an exercise in human kindness. There’s the sense that the band, as much as they live the life of rock stars, see themselves as not that different from mid-level office workers. They live in the same world, bombarded by the same advertisements.
All throughout the album, we hear from characters feeling lost in the modern world, unable to connect to others. The protagonist of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” can’t stand his life in a backwater town, and longs for aliens to take him away from this dull world. “The Tourist” finds an average citizen experiencing some sort of breakdown without being able to say why, casting off sparks and frightening dogs on the street. These aren’t the rock-and roll-heroes of yore, casting off the chains of society and hitting the road; these are regular people leading, as Henry David Thoreau described their existence, “lives of quiet desperation.”
The most poignant song, for me, is “No Surprises.” This song shows that the cages office drones were trapped in weren’t wholly of their own making. “A heart that’s full up like a landfill/ A job that slowly kills you/ Bruises that won’t heal.” Listen to this approximately five thousand times when you’re fifteen and you will feel that you’re inoculated against the virus of modern life in all its strands and mutations. Nothing will dissuade you from remaining outside of the system so you can lob grenades at its foundation.
Now it’s twenty years later and I’m married with two children. I look and sound an awful lot like the protagonist of “No Surprises.” Actually, that guy has a nicer place than me. “Such a pretty house/ And such a pretty garden,” Thom Yorke sings, itemizing the bourgeois accoutrements that supposedly deaden one’s soul. My wife and I live in a cramped apartment with two small kids and the closest thing we have to a garden is a plastic bag in the freezer full of used coffee grounds. Nothing would make me happier than to possess a few more of the trappings of middle-class existence.
But it’s not just the desperation of OK Computer that rings true with me today. There’s a latent sense of hope tinged with rage—or maybe it’s the other way around—tucked away in the corners of the album. I’m tempted to call it political, but this is such an inward album that the label seems inaccurate. Maybe you could say it’s “protective,” safeguarding elements of human nature from the onslaught of broadcast signals until a better future arrives where they can take root. Mark Greif gets at this inwardness in his essay “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop,” which originally appeared in n+1 and now can be found in his essay collection Against Everything . Greif writes:
You can see a closed space at the heart of many of Radiohead’s songs. To draw out one of their own images, it may be something like a glass house. You live continuously in the glare of inspection and with the threat of intrusion . . . We’ll all have to find the last dwellings within ourselves that are closed to intrusion, and begin from there.
I find one of these closed spaces elsewhere in “No Surprises.” Early in the song, Yorke’s exhausted protagonist sings, “You look so tired, unhappy/ Bring down the government/ They don’t, they don’t speak for us.” He can barely say the words, their meaning so ludicrous that making the joke doesn’t even seem funny. When I was fifteen, these lines sounded like an admission that politics was the wrong place to look for meaning. It was only in art that you could find truth and significance.
But today, what I notice is less the tone he uses to say these words, and more the fact that he is saying them at all. He may not mean what he is saying, but he’s still saying it. The words are in the song, and the song is out in the world, where it can acquire new meanings, such as the one I find in it in the year 2017.
Bring down the government? They don’t speak for us? You’re goddamn right they don’t. And I don’t mean that in the sense of any of the false dichotomies spouted by cable news. Republican vs. Democrat? Red state vs. blue state? No, the problem is far larger than that. It’s the capitalistic economy that sees humans as numbers on spreadsheets. It’s the billionaire class that profits off the squabbling of the global corporate peasantry. It’s the health care system that leeches profits from so-called patients like a multi-tentacled parasitic organism. Bring all of that down, ASAP.
This sense of political urgency is something I never would have expected to find in Radiohead’s music. They weren’t, say, Rage Against the Machine. As radical as the politics of the actual members are—Thom Yorke has been outspoken about issues such as austerity and climate change, for example—that sense of directness has never really translated to their music. Nor should it. The band’s strength has always been their ability to externalize, through sound and mood, the inner turmoil of life in global capitalism.
But maybe, twenty years later, we have more vocabulary and resources for communicating that sense of turmoil among one another. Maybe the social media platforms that giant corporations use to monitor our consumer preferences are also allowing us to voice thoughts and feelings that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise, much like Radiohead used the vehicle of the pop song to communicate truths about what it’s like under the deluge of media emissions such as pop songs. In a time of crisis, you make use of the tools available to you.
“The politics of the next age, if we are to survive, will include a politics of the re-creation of privacy,” Greif writes. Listening to OK Computer at the age of fifteen was a means of recreating some privacy for myself, my own closed space. Listening to it today, it feels like there are others in that space with me, and we’re getting ready to break out and make demands.