Friday Morning Download – "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead

This past decade can surely be labeled the “decade of top 10 lists”. In order to spike periodical and broadsheet sales (as well as Nielson ratings in the US to attract advertising dollars), the forming of top 10 lists continues. One of the recent additions to listmania is the current addition of Spin magazine put out its 20th anniversary issue and listing the top 100 albums of the past 20 years – from 1985 to 2005. (an aside – if you haven’t heard Bowling for Soup’s pop-punky “1985” – go to check out their MySpaces site… pretty fun). As a bit of a surprise, Spin gave top honors not to Tupac or Nirvana, but to Radiohead’s OK Computer. With this nod to greatness, it seemed fitting that the FMD turn its attention to the Boys from Oxfordshire and their paranoid vision of things to come and things that are.

Released in 1997 to raised eyebrows with critical rants and raves, Radiohead’s sonic postcard to the coming millenimum was certainly a departure from their earlier albums “The Bends” with its melancholy “Fake Plastic Trees” (a staple for ubiquitous chill out collections) and the slacker army anthem “Creep” from “Pablo Honey.” OK Computer, feeding on the angst of the Y2K and apocalyptic vibe of the late 90’s. The bubble of the dot.com rush was beginning to rise, the carpe deum worship of techne as a salvific balm for the God-shaped void in all of us seemed to be evident as people spent more time on the web than in person with each other. With the conviction of a mad prophet, lead singer Thom Yorke breathed his lyrics into the cybervoid of OK Computer as both blessing and curse. Akin to Bruce Boxleitner’s character in Disney’s Tron, Thom Yorke makes more sense as a Geist in der Maschine than as a flesh and blood human and finds his salvific vocation raging from within the machine rather than merely against it. Falling somewhere in the paranoid spectrum between the vocal angst of Lindsey Buckingham’s jilted lover on Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 Rumours and Michael Moore’s ‘everyone is against us and they are coming NOW’ ethos, Thom Yorke is certainly the voice of for Area 51 and Grassy Knolls everywhere. As Spin’s Chuck Klosterman wrote about choosing OK Computer:

“Between Thom Yorke’s orange-alert worldview and the band’s meld of epic guitar rock and electronic glitch, (OK Computer) not only forecast a decade of music but uncannily predicted our global culture of communal distress”…the album “manages to sound how the future will feel. … It’s a mechanical album that always feels alive, even when its words are spoken by a robot.”

There has been a rash of writing on this topic of loss of humanity amidst the technological undertow. The Gothic paranoia whereby that which we create will ultimately destroy us is as old as Babel (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, unlike the contemporary reimaginings on film, was a deeply theologicaltreatisee). Have we lost our humanity amidst our dependence on technology? Further more, akin to the Sci Fi channel’s reimagining of “Battlestar Galactica”, has God’s favor shifted and now technology (i.e. Cyclons are called by God to eradicate the human race) have the palce as the chosen people of God given that machines only adhere to their primary programming and are not distracted by the low hanging fruit on Trees of Knowledge? You can follow this line of thinking in the closing anxiety of “Paranoid Android” as God, not Elvis, is the last to leave the building of creation and humanity is abandoned to not to a garden, but a wasteland, of its own tending:

That’s it, sir
You’re leaving
The crackle of pigskin
The dust and the screaming
The yuppies networking
The panic, the vomit
The panic, the vomit
God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah!

Where is God amidst the machine? OK Computer seems to honestly yearn for some form of answer even though the malaise of the lyrics remains doubtful of God’s response or even return. It is unfortunate that the blow of OK Computer’s panic and anxiety around our increasing need for technology has been softened by films like the Matrix and Dark City – films that provide easy answers before the big questions can take hold and challenge us to our core.

Almost a decade later, OK Computer has legs to run and is certainly worth listening to again. It is a testimony to its artistry that jazz artists like Brad Mehldau will cover “Exit Music for a Film” off OK Computer – when is the last time a jazz artist took on a rock song rather than the other way around?

7 Comments

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  1. Dang, if MWD doesn’t respond to this one, I will kick him in the shins for you.

    I will do everything thing I can to make him: a) listen to OK Computer all the way through, and then b) reply to this post.

    And by everything I mean up to and including hijacking his iPod, clearing everything off it and loading only OK Computer.

  2. Also, I appreciate, and concur with, your reflections about how dystopian films like Dark City and The Matrix kind of anesthetize the horrific future we all-too-likely face. I mean, I’m not sold on the “robots take over the world” narrative, but the fact is that we’re probably going to end up destroying ourselves, devastating the planet that gives us life, and it probably will look just like the “overground” realm of the Wachowski bros. vision, sans squiddy robots.

    And by the way, at the risk of exposing myself as a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging liberal, I very much believe that Christians have a reponsibility, in word (prophecy) and deed (including, but not limited to, worship), to stand against and fight against and try to prevent such devastation. But that’s another post…in short, I think Thom and the boys are right to want to scare the shit out of us about the future. We need to take a shot of this, straight up, not watered down. In fact, for Christians to simply begin to acknowledge the above would be rather radical, don’t you think?

    On an unrelated note, did you know that Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood did an English degree and wrote his dissertation about American short-storyist Raymond Carver? Dig that funky cat. I love Carver – so bleak and depressing. And an interesting complement to Radiohead’s desolate vision of the wasteland of the future of the planet: Carver’s wasteland is the desolation of the soul, and not one deferred to the future, either.

  3. hmmm… went to your blog, Ben Franklin… my thoughts at first blush:

    1. we are here to help
    2. The dollar bill is worthless (just ask any Ex Pat in the UK)
    3. If you are going to ‘go crazy for coco puffs’ over Nick Gage movies, do a double bill (no pun intended with your ‘national treasure’ thing)of “Leaving Las Vegas” (for acting cred) and “Air Con” (to feed the Jerry Bruckhemier thrill)
    4. John Turteltaub (the director of National Treasure) should have stopped making movies after ‘3 Ninjas’
    5. back to point 1 – we are here to help…

    go buy OK Computer… enjoy the paranoia that matters…

  4. JFK – It’s Con Air, and “coo-coo” for cocoa puffs…but I’m certain Nick “Gage” (Cage?) was just a typo. (I’m just being contrary since you responded to that wierdo’s comment and not my thoughtful one…that’ll teach you.)

    BFG – did you realize your initials are same as a Roald Dahl title, “The BFG” (Big Friendly Giant)? So, I gather what you’re doing is like “blog-spam”, eh? I say, contribute to the discussion or go away.

  5. just got up Brannon – always nice to awaken to a would-be editor going for typos rather than content 🙂 I guess I need to watch Con Air again to get it straight!

    Yes (getting back to your earlier comments) I believe (credo…credo)that followers of Christ should indeed ‘rage against the machine’in all its forms – cyber, religious,hyperhuman, what-have-you. The challenge – being a bleeding-heart, tree-hugging liberal or trying to be – is to ground the revolution in something other than reaction or revultion because cyborgs aren’t my cup of tea. Is it the Imago Dei that supports our angst? Are we that ‘garden guilty’ that we romantically argue for a return that the blood of Adam killed off in Eden? In some respects, I think the latter drives the children of Cain to the suburbs – rather than flight from the urban centers, we are trying to find Eden with Mexican workers tending the hedges. As for Thom Yorke and Co., I need to listen to the angst and get behind the fear. There is still something Theology doesnt get about ‘techne’ – is it the DJ move that (akin to Syndrome in the Incredibles) “if everything is techne, then nothing is’? Hmmm… I need to puzzle in my puzzler about this somemore.

    Thoughts?

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