'OK Computer': The album that predicted the future

The warnings and lessons of Radiohead's 1997 album, 'OK Computer,' are still relevant today

“OK Computer,” the 1997 album by the English rock band Radiohead, is collectively understood as a commentary on the overpowering sense of alienation that results from living in an increasingly self-indulgent and technologically-dependent society.

Listening to the record in the pandemic-ravaged world of today might conjure up the image of donning a mask and walking alone down Palm Walk, an apocalyptic scene juxtaposed with the fierce midday rays of the Arizona sun. 

It might also bring to mind the scene of sitting in your bedroom, accompanied only by your laptop, as you prepare to log on to an endless string of Zoom classes.

"OK Computer" is profoundly applicable to life in 2020. It's difficult to fathom that its haunting vocals and spastic guitar riffs were written in a time before iPhones and Zoom. 

The name of the album itself seems to predict the idea of having robot servants — Alexa, Cortana, Google, and Siri — at our beck and call. In fact, Amazon Echo devices have the option to make Alexa respond to the words "OK, computer."

Shaun Hillen, who holds a doctorate in musicology from ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, says that in "OK Computer," he hears a sense of alienation and a desire to escape from the world that we've created, which is especially relevant during the current pandemic.

Hillen, who in 2018 designed and taught a course at ASU about Radiohead in the context of modern social issues, added that "By and large, our general mood is down. It's not just economic depression, but it's psychological, and that's all over this album in terms of the lyrics."

Here's a look at each of the record's 12 tracks in the context of our world today.

Airbag

Setting the mood for the rest of the album, "Airbag" interpolates the menacing sounds of Jonny Greenwood's guitar, digital record scratch noises and Thom Yorke's simultaneously optimistic and pained lyrics. 

"In a deep, deep sleep of the innocent, I am born again," Yorke wails, desperately trying to convince himself that he's been reborn as an innocent child after a traumatic car crash. He wants to be blissfully ignorant of the horrors of the world he's helped create.

Paranoid Android

A three-part epic akin to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Paranoid Andriod" starts as an internal monologue for the song's subject, a robot, as it contemplates the paranoia, anxiety and materialism associated with modern urban life. 

Then, the rest of the band comes in as the lyrics and timbre become violent with rage due to the paranoia. The third movement slows things down and becomes reminiscent of a church choir as the android asks for God to let it "rain down" and destroy everything.

"There's this idea of the noise of the world and all of the pain being caused by greed and ambition," Hillen said of the track. "There's an idea for a cleansing thing to just burn it all away. It's a morbid and cynical thing to think, and a really sicko person might think that that's what viruses are for. A reset button for the world."

Subterranean Homesick Alien

According to Hillen's interpretation, "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is about Yorke's longing to have the aliens abduct him and whisk him away from life as he knows it. 

"If you listen to the sounds that they employ, there's these mystical electronic sounds that I think clearly conjure up an image of outer space for most people," Hillen said.

Surely, with everything going on in the world today, many of us have just wanted to escape the fear and anxiety.

Exit Music (For a Film)

Originally written to be included during the end credits of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 movie "Romeo + Juliet," "Exit Music (For a Flim)" follows "Subterranean Homesick Alien" with more on the theme of escaping from fear and anxiety. However, this track climaxes in anger with powerful vocals accompanied by the lyrics "We hope your rules and wisdom choke you," referring to Romeo and Juliet's anger toward family members who tried to prevent their escape from Verona.

Let Down

One of the more conventionally structured tracks on the album, "Let Down" talks about using music to satisfy our emotional needs. Throughout the pandemic, music and art have been pathways of escape from reality for many people.

Karma Police

Probably the most well-known song from "OK Computer," the lyrics of "Karma Police" speak of Yorke's desire for karmic judgment to be inflicted on those who have wronged him before Yorke realizes that he, too is subject to the karma of the universe. 

Amid a pandemic and a strange political reality, it's easy to become quick to anger and to rush to judgment of others. However, it's important to remember not to lose yourself in these emotions.

Fitter Happier

"Fitter Happier" is unique in that a person does not voice its vocals, but instead by the text-to-speech engine in the band's Apple Macintosh computer.

It's a collection of statements that detailed the direction Radiohead thought technology would take society, and it has aged surprisingly well. As the song progresses, the lyrics become darker, and the background music becomes more ominous.

COVID-19 has caused our society to become entirely dependent on technology, which has not led to us becoming more "empowered and informed" members of society as the robot narrator promises. 

Electioneering

By far the most explicitly political track on "OK Computer," "Electioneering" is a song from the point of view of a politician who will say anything to attain money and power, even compromising their values to do so. 

"The song generally applies to any democracy that is controlled by money interests," Hillen said. "(Yorke) talks about money at least a few times with the lyrics 'It's just business' and 'Voodoo economics.'"

While the track was originally in reference to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the New Labour movement of the 1990s, it is still relevant today.

Climbing Up the Walls

"Climbing Up the Walls" is sung from the perspective of paranoia itself, something that's always in the back of our minds even in the modern world. 

Paranoia is bred when our lives change, and the pandemic has done so in the form of conspiracy theories seeking to place blame for the virus on someone else.

No Surprises

"No Surprises" circles back to the theme of longing for escape from the anxiety of the modern world. With everything going on, many of us are yearning to live in a place with no surprises.

Lucky

"Lucky" talks about a plane crash instead of the car crash mentioned in "Airbag." The two songs are similar in that the music and lyrics manage to be simultaneously optimistic and dreadful, imagining being reborn. With our world in the shape it is in today, some might say it would be nice to start anew.

The Tourist

"The Tourist" is sung from the perspective of a tourist begging the people around him to slow down and smell the metaphorical roses.

The final song on the album reminds us that with how fast-paced our society has become with all of the innovations in technology, it's important to slow down and not allow paranoia and anxiety to take hold, even as the current news cycle makes a day seem like a year.

Even 23 years later, the warnings and lessons of "OK Computer" continue to stay relevant. 

"I think there's little gems that relate to our modern world all over (Radiohead's) discography," Hillen said.


Reach the reporter at bdoemel@asu.edu or follow @brockdoemel on Twitter.

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