Radiohead’s black mirror

In retrospect 1997 was a transitional year for music. New artists like Erykah Badu and Maxwell were leading the neo-soul movement in R&B, while at the same time pop stalwarts Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson released albums that were not only extremely personal, but that were pushing mainstream music in a more urban direction. Puff Daddy helped make urban music an industry unto itself. Country music, meanwhile, was headed in the direction of AC pop music with crossover success by the likes of LeAnn Rimes and Shania Twain. Not to be outdone, rock music underwent its own transition as “Britpop” had replaced grunge as the trend, but it was more a longing for the past than it was anything innovative. Out of that nostalgia came an album that reverted to the concept of an album as a cohesive piece of work, but also looked forward in its soundscape. U2 has released their electro-rock album Pop in March, but as the title suggests, it came across as a rejection of rock music instead of an extension of it. So, when Radiohead’s moody Ok Computer was released a couple of months later, it was viewed as a surprising and ambitious release. Not only had Radiohead been grouped in with “grunge” bands as a result of their 1992 debut single “Creep,” but previous album The Bends had taken them to new commercial heights so why wouldn’t they continue in that vein?

Lead singer Thom Yorke has stated that the feeling of the sound of the album was meant to be that of background noise/fridge buzz. The background noise rose out of the lyric themes of consumerism, alienation, political apathy. There is a sense of needing to escape monotony and societal control in order to connect to the world. Janet Jackson explored a similar theme on The Velvet Rope that year, and in particular the song “Empty” showed how technology can be both a solution and part of the problem. There were subtle and sly references to technology in other releases (Mariah relaying how the ease of cell phone access can make someone feel even more rejected, Shania Twain telling a man technological items don’t impress her much), but this concept that Ok Computer explores wasn’t really happening in rock music, and more so not on albums as a whole. As a result, the album drew comparisons to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. In the 2014 world of mp3s, online shopping, texting, etc. the concept of alienation and a need for human contact is maybe more relevant now that it was in 1997. It’s no longer just the ‘yuppies’ mentioned in “Paranoid Android” who hide behind the black mirrors of computer screens and cell phones, it’s everyone.

In other words, lyrically Ok Computer is about the impact of technology on humans, and it’s almost romantic in the way Yorke yearns for connection. As people there are many things that block us from happiness, so in Yorke’s lyrics there is recognition that technology isn’t the problem as much as it’s a reality humans are facing. Hell, the dense musicality of Ok Computer, which includes electric instruments, computerized voices, and synths, relies on technology. This aspect gives the album a sense that, like for most of the human experience, progress can be one step forward, two steps back. In album opener “Airbag,” the lyrics depicts technology both taking and rescuing life. The band is thus both isolated and captivated by technology. That same sense of duality is present in a different ways in tracks such as “Let Down,” which has the polish of Byrds-like pop in its ‘jingle jangle’ guitar but the lyrics of a modern-day “The Waste Land,” and “No Surprises,” which sounds like a lullaby but features lyrics that allude to suicide.

Lead singer Yorke told Launch that Miles Davis was a heavy influence on the album, with Bitches Brew in particular being “dense and terrifying.” It’s easy to see that feeling being brought to the sound of Ok Computer. Both albums use electric instruments to heighten the atmosphere of their respective genres, and while that atmosphere can be dark, there is a visceral sense of freedom. Davis and now Radiohead were pushing the boundaries of their respective genres, if not music as a whole, and it allowed the listener to run free. So even where a song on Ok Computer like “Subterranean Homesick Alien” has a message of wanting to escape, it’s really about hope; hope in the form of an alien, an angel, or just the release found in music.

The influence of Ok Computer in the music world has been extensive. Coming out of the “grunge” phase of the preceding few years, Ok Computer opened the door for new soundscapes. It became common for rock music to be atmospheric and melancholic. Coldplay, Muse, Travis, Snow Patrol, The Antlers, and TV on the Radio (whose “Ok Calculator” was a direct nod) are examples of bands whose style of music can be directly traced to Ok Computer. And make no mistake, Ok Computer is a rock album. Johnny Greenwood’s stellar guitar work on songs like “Lucky” and “Paranoid Android” give credence to that statement, but so does the influence the album had on rock music. Dillinger Escape Plan’s Ben Weinman wrote for The Skinny that the album “influenced absolutely everything that people are hearing in music at the moment.” Nathan Willett of Cold War Kids told Stereogum: “It is the single most important album to be released during my youth.”

Radiohead would go on to use technology for a unique album release a decade later with In Rainbows. The band put the album online, and fans could purchase it for whatever amount they chose. So again, the band never directly rejected technology. In fact, the closing track on Ok Computer (“The Tourist”) is telling people to slow down so they can see the chaos around them. The message is a perfect closer for an album attempting to peer into an uncertain future.

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