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 SpinÂs 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
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?