Art of any kind is first and foremost a representation of the era that produced it. When you take a step back and look at it all together it forms a readable tapestry of not just what was happening in history at that moment, but what was happening in our collective unconscious. Looking back on the late ‘90s, OK Computer is one of the most integral pieces of that tapestry, a rosetta stone that gives us profound insight into what is shaping up to be one of the most crucial turning points in human history.
There’s a reason Thom Yorke is known as a visionary artist. Similar to how a chess grandmaster is said to see several moves ahead, or how a great point guard can see exactly how a play is going to develop and change his tactics accordingly, Yorke has repeatedly demonstrated an uncanny ability to not only predict where music is heading, but where culture in general is heading. He’s one of a select handful of artists who have mastered this precognitive ability—David Bowie is another great example—and OK Computer was the moment when he first put it into effect with iconic results.
With the benefit of hindsight we can now see how at that moment in time, we were all teetering on the edge of a vast abyss, with everything we had once taken as a given about to be turned on its head, from the way we interact with technology to the way we communicate with one another, and above it all the political system that was governing our lives. Philosopher and political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously dubbed this period of neoliberal globalisation the “end of history,” and it turns out that he was actually correct, though not at all for the reasons that initially led him to this conclusion. It’s clear now that we weren’t living on some endless epoch that was destined to stretch on for centuries, but were really just about to collectively step over the edge and embark on a terrifying journey into the unknown. This idea permeates OK Computer and has been a dominant theme in all of Radiohead’s subsequent work.
Before diving into the various ways that OK Computer dealt with these complex themes, it’s also worth pointing out how it was the first Radiohead album to significantly incorporate electronic sounds and textures into the songwriting. They rose to popularity as part of the post-grunge revolution, a relatively uncontroversial guitar rock act that, while not a one-hit wonder, would most likely never surpass the heights they achieved with their debut single “Creep.” So it’s clear that with this album they were consciously making an effort to widen the scope of what they were capable of on a sonic level. This experimentation would subsequently kick into overdrive, as OK Computer would essentially be the last Radiohead album that could be called ‘rock’ for many years ,and would ultimately serve as a bridge from their fairly conventional beginnings into their new era, as their follow up Kid A would completely reinvent the band’s sound for the new millennium.
Album opener “Airbag” sets the table brilliantly, as it’s really a song that’s about both fear of technology and also the notion that it can be our salvation. It was written following a car accident in which Yorke’s life was spared thanks to the car’s safety features, and just as he was able to transcend death thanks to technology, so too would mankind—when he sings “In a jackknifed juggernaut, I am born again,” there’s a sense that while technological advancement may seem intimidating or destructive, it could very well lead us to deliverance.
“Electioneering” represented Yorke’s fundamental disgust with Tony Blair, New Labour, and the “Third Way” form of liberal governance popularized by Bill Clinton that dominated the politics of the day; it was outwardly hostile to traditional leftist ideas, such as organized labour and industrial regulation (and incidentally, set us on a direct path to our hopeless modern day hellscape where we’re all subject to the strange whims of the orange TV show host with dementia who rules the world). In 1997, the idea of “centrism” was that it was a post-ideological series of pragmatic compromises, but Yorke seemed to take a different view, which has since been proven to be more accurate, inhabiting the role of smarmy politician and singing, “When I go forwards, you go backwards, and somewhere we will meet.”
“Let Down” shows us the ennui of postmodern life; people crammed into a subway car, starting and then stopping, but still somehow completely disconnected and alienated from one another. As the song progresses, Yorke seems to be suggesting, or possibly just hoping, that mankind will eventually evolve past our current state; that we won’t be trapped by the rigors of everyday existence, but will grow wings through a chemical reaction; that we will transcend our physical and spiritual selves, and no longer be shackled to our banal, Earthly desires.
Spoken word interlude “Fitter Happier,” seemingly performed by Stephen Hawking’s voice-synthesis software, speaks to Yorke’s unease with the self-improvement lifestyle trends that had reached their zenith around this period, promising us salvation and happiness but often having the complete opposite effect. As the self-affirming incantation continues, something sinister slowly builds underneath, until an almost comical contrast forms that emphasizes how the lengths we were going to improve our lives—primarily through rehabilitating our self-image—was in fact a way to symbolically stuff our fingers in our ears and deny the cost our lifestyles were taking on both our souls and the world at large.
“No Surprises” follows a protagonist that has played by the rules, meekly accepting the reality of a distant, unaccountable government in exchange for a job that slowly kills you, a quiet life and a pretty house with no alarms and no surprises. He repeats the mantra several times as the song comes to a close despite a persistent subconscious urge telling him to get away from it all. The voice says to “let me out of here” but his choice has been made. He’s trapped in a prison of his own design.
These are but a few examples of what is essentially a concept album that is a perfect distillation of what it meant to be alive at the end of history. We had peace. We had prosperity. We had technology to make our lives easier. So why were we so miserable? Yorke tapped into the malaise and angst that lay just behind the optimism we were projecting. He could see the cracks in the facade and instead of recoiling, set about with a hammer and chisel, widening them into a chasm large enough that we could all peer through it.