The twilight of the twentieth century marked a turning point in the development of modern civilization. The advent of the personal computer was seen as a tool that would infinitely improve the lives of individuals who owned one. In 1996, Radiohead singer/songwriter Thom Yorke already had misgivings about how the implementation of this device would impact society. At the time, Yorke felt as many who were born into the Information Age felt–anxious, confined, and powerless. These feelings are what helped shape the narrative of the band’s third full-length release, OK Computer.
At the time of OK Computer’s release, the band had already begun to move away from the guitar driven, college rock sound which typified the early nineties. Radiohead’s sound improved dramatically between the release of their debut, Pablo Honey (a part of the band’s discography that isn’t viewed positively by fans and critics alike) and its follow up, The Bends. The Bends established Radiohead as a staying power in the music industry, despite being labeled a one-hit wonder by several critics after their debut single “Creep” received heavy radio rotation, while other singles from Pablo Honey were largely overlooked.
While many consider the group’s fourth album Kid A to be their Magnum Opus, it would be inconceivable to imagine the band transitioning smoothly from the radio-friendly sound featured on The Bends to the electronic, krautrock-inspired sound employed on Kid A–a career move which would have made little logical sense. Like everyone, artists need time to evolve and mature. And before reaching adulthood, Radiohead bade a fond farewell to their self-possessed, adolescent material with OK Computer–an album which not only signaled a change in Radiohead’s sound, but also a change in the development of society itself.
At its core, OK Computer is still a guitar-driven album. However, one wouldn’t need to listen past the opening track, “Airbag,” to discover that the band had dramatically changed their recording style and lyrical content. The track features a seconds-long sample of a beat performed by drummer Phil Selway. The beat is put on loop and is altered throughout the duration of the song in a manner resembling turntablism. The song’s lyrics are somewhat autobiographical, as Yorke had been in a car accident years before and an airbag saved his life. The accident had given him a new lease on life and he felt as though he had been re-born. Yorke felt that people often take the safety and convenience of modern life for granted. Even something as inherently dangerous as driving a car isn’t a risk many people consider in their day-to-day lives.
“Paranoid Android” is the album’s lead single, and is a six minute, multi-sectioned song that encapsulates the filth and chaos of living in a city. The song begins with drums and an acoustic guitar, followed shortly by Yorke’s distinctive falsetto and an eerie, jangling guitar arpeggio performed by Jonny Greenwood. The track continues to build until the distortion pedal kicks in and the tension in the song reaches a breaking point, culminating in a layer of guitar noise only to build back down again. The last verse in this song is sung in a round and concludes bitterly with the lyrics “God loves his children.” Once again, the distortion picks up only to finish abruptly.
“Subterranean Homesick Alien” deals with Yorke’s detachment from society, and his desire to be a casual observer rather than an active participant when observing human interactions. This track utilizes the wall of sound recording style that was popularized by Phil Spector in the sixties. This production style can also be heard on the track “Let Down.”
“Exit Music (for a film)” was, appropriately enough, recorded for Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. The song’s lyrics are a testament to youthful idealism and the tragic circumstances of the Shakespearean lovers.
The concept for the album’s second single, “Karma Police,” arose from an inside joke among the members of Radiohead that if one of the members did something disagreeable, the “Karma Police would get them.” The track begins with piano and acoustic guitar followed by Yorke commanding the Karma Police to arrest individuals whom he detests. Among them are a man who “talks in maths” and a girl with a “Hitler hairdo.” However, the song’s outro suggests that Yorke understands his own karmic accountability with the lyrics “for a minute there I lost myself.” This seems to suggest that Yorke understands that his feelings of abhorrence toward others aren’t something the Karma Police would take to kindly.
The next track, “Fitter Happier,” is a harrowing depiction of a healthy, happy life. A robotic voice describes actions taken that are important to the (then) modern human. While contemporary society has given us comfort and convenience, it has also lead to a state of controlled conformity where most individuals are striving for the same things. “Fitter, happier, more productive. Getting along better with your associate employee contemporaries.” These are all things that we’re told to value at the behest of those who control production. We live dreary, mundane, lives. Friedrich Nietzsche believed we should live dangerously, to “build cities on the slopes of Vesuvius.” Unfortunately, we’re dwelling in caves several miles away. Or, as Thom Yorke states in the last song’s last line: “A pig in a cage on antibiotics.”
“No Surprises,” the album’s third single, continues the theme of comfortable, contemporary conformity. The song’s melody revolves around a placid electric guitar lead, and also features a glockenspiel. Its lyrics detail a peaceful life in a quaint suburb. Despite the narrator’s peaceful surrounding (“a quiet life, a pretty house, a pretty garden”), he/she is wracked with inner turmoil (“a heartbreak, a job that slowly kills you”). The narrator considers their existence toxic as the line “I’ll take the quiet life” is followed by “A handshake of carbon monoxide.”
Furthermore, OK Computer marked the point in Radiohead’s career where its members (particularly Yorke’s) political leanings would come into focus. The lyrics “Bring down the government. They don’t speak for us” only hints at a vague political sentiment. However, “Electioneering” clearly takes aim at neoliberal economic policies. “When I go forward you go backwards. And somewhere we will meet.” These lines are a reference to politicians who implement policies that will help them advance their own careers, rather than improving the lives of the general population. “Riot shields, voodoo economics (Reaganomics). It’s just business, cattle prods, and the IMF.” Thom Yorke clearly has reservations about living in a free market society. The use of the words “cattle prods” suggests that we as humans (or “the herd”) are influenced directly by those who are more powerful and wealthy. Much like how a rancher influences his animals with an electric stick.
The final track on the album is called “The Tourist,” proposing a solution to all the woeful subject matter this record deals with. The solution: relax, slow down, and enjoy your life. Much like a tourist in a new city, many of us go through our lives in a hurry, trying desperately to experience or accomplish everything we set out to do. This song seems to suggest that despite existing within the confines of a corrupt societal structure, we can still choose to live on our own terms.
Even twenty years after its release, this album doesn’t sound the least bit dated. It’s considered not only a high point in the band’s catalogue, but also an achievement for popular music in general. While certainly not the band’s most experimental work, it laid the groundwork for future risks Radiohead would take with their sound. OK Computer is hugely significant socially. It seemed to predict many of the complications the Internet age has brought to our lives. Because of its significance to contemporary, western culture, it has recently been archived in the US Library of Congress and continues to serve as an influential, thought-provoking work of art.