Released in 1997 by “critical darlings” Radiohead, OK Computer has often been defined by multiple music publications as one of the greatest albums of all time. Music critic Barry Walters referred to the album as an “enigmatic masterpiece,” upon its release, similarly online music publication The Quietus recalled the album to be a “nerve-scathed translunar completely assumed third masterpiece”. OK Computer‘s ability to capture an honest and unrestricted mirror of the world around us, capturing the postmodern landscape we live in, is important to understand when both listening to the album and reading the theory that surrounds it.
Postmodernism, in small terms, follows the idea of subversion and anti-establishment rebellion via means of pop culture and politics. “Postmodernism is often viewed as a culture of quotations” (Palmer, Website, 2017). Questioning and critiquing is important to our current postmodern psyche; nothing can be trusted, and even the things that we do trust must be questioned. “Many deconstruct reason, truth and reality because they believe that in the name of reason, truth and reality, Western Civilisation has wrought dominance, oppression and destruction.” (Hicks, book, 2011). OK Computer falls directly in line with this way of thinking, manifesting itself in postmodernist ideology. Radiohead “analyses a post-modern, mechanized society”, using “their music to tap into such feelings and commentary as social fright, political disillusionment, digital paranoia and post-modern schizophrenia,” (Transcriptions-2008.english.ucsb.edu, 2017) and in essence capturing the tribulations of a 21st Century postmodern zeitgeist.
The postmodern belief of “digital paranoia” is evident throughout OK Computer, manifesting itself in a number of ways. The album title itself is reflective of technological submission, pacifying rather than utilising; “depicting a world where aspiration has given way to automation, where the pursuit of happiness has become less of a goal and more of a process,” (Berman, website, 2017). Take for example Fitter Happier, the 7th and most central track on the album. Narrated by an ever omni-present, computerised, and synthetic vocalist, the track is removed of any direct human presence, lending itself to the idea of “digital paranoia”, in which humans will become defunct, giving way to technology. Contextually this is important to note. Current estimates are that up to 6% of all US jobs will be lost to robots (Solon, website, 2017), whilst Professor Moshe Vardi, of Rice University claims that “the rise of robots could lead to unemployment rates greater than 50 per cent,” going further on to say that “that seems to me a dystopia.” (Knapton, website, 2017). The fear of the impending obsolescence of human labour to technology is understandable to the 21st Century postmodern thinker according to author Leo Marx (Marx, book, 2011). He states that the “abstract entity of technology” has been “implicated in a spectacular series of disasters: Hiroshima, the nuclear arms race, the American war in Vietnam, Chernobyl…” The pessimistic nature of the postmodern thinker stems from the historical destructive nature of technology; a destructive nature that can quickly become out of society’s control. This way of thinking goes back further than that of the postmodern era, extending to the early 20th Century when Sigmund Freud coined the term “uncanny” (Freud, book, 1911). Freud established the term uncanny to describe the psychological experience in which something familiar becomes unsettling. The 21st postmodern “digital paranoia” of OK Computer encapsulates the uncanny nature of technology; non-sentient creations mimicking the human form and replacing them in the process.
Additionally, OK Computer effectively manifests a postmodern social commentary of paranoia and fright through the use of temporal analysis of transport and the “sublime velocity” (Crawford, website, 2017), of life. “The history of human transport is also a history of new ways to die” (Crawford); this startlingly forward quote by Anwen Crawford of Pitchfork highlights the horrific juxtaposition of society’s ‘progressions.’ Society’s need for ease and stability has pulled humanity into a direction of high speed accidents and crashes. OK Computer highlights this lyrically, referencing the modern-day nature of crashes (“an airbag saved my life” in opening track Airbag and “pull me out of the air crash” in track Lucky). These constant references mimic the incessant paranoia and postmodern schizophrenic nature of the current 21st Century zeitgeist. “The fear of acceleration represents the onset of postmodern psychosis” (Virillio, Journal, 2010).
However, there is the argument that OK Computer represents the paranoid ramblings of somebody experiencing psychosis rather than a major representation of social zeitgeist. For example, the track Paranoid Android delves deeper into the idea that lead singer Thom Yorke’s thoughts and feelings regarding governmental and technological corruption is a psychotic outburst of paranoia and deranged conspiracies and does not actually hold any meaning. The lyrics “all the unborn chicken voices in my head” could well be referential to the idea that Yorke and the rest of the band are unhinged, hearing the voices of unborn domesticated and mindless animals. This is of course considering that there is a scientific proven link between psychosis and hearing voices. (Cook et al., Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia, 2016). Moreover, “I am paranoid but not an android”, is repeated in the background of the track, layered underneath the overriding lyrics of the song. Suggesting that any meaning gained through the surface level verse of the song is undone by Yorke declaring that he is ‘paranoid,’ and that ultimately anything purposeful said within the song is negated by that fact. And so, it begs the question, how can the seemingly meaningless ramblings of a paranoid individual reflect any cultural zeitgeist?
Furthermore, it could well be argued that the theme of paranoia displayed within Paranoid Android is very much reflective of a “a culture of conspiracy” (Barkun, 2013), that has swept across western politics in recent years and is thus completely coordinated with our current postmodern, subversive zeitgeist of “political disillusionment”. According to The New York Times, “conspiracy theories have replaced ideologies at the heart of politics,” (Krastev, website, 2017). Whilst Documentary Film Maker Adam Curtis has stated that “we have become lost in a fake world and cannot see the reality outside,” (HyperNormalisation, film, 2016). HyperNormalisation explores into the development of a ‘conspiracy state,’ in which governmental and financial legislators have given up on an absolute reality and are in fact pursuing a fake alternate reality to distract the wider public. This is displayed on a current level through the medium of “Fake News”. Fake news being is a social media phenomenon, manifesting itself in the binding of internet news, spreading misinformation and hoaxes. “This is simply extreme scepticism, another example of the pervasive influence of postmodernism; there are no facts, only interpretations–and one interpretation is as good as any other,” (Ernesto, website, 2017). US President Donald Trump assigns himself regularly to the liberties of “fake news”, fighting off criticism and inciting a postmodern inquisition into what is the ‘real’ truth.
OK Computer has extensively encompassed and captured the postmodern confusion of the 21st Century. By exploring the paranoia and disillusionment faced by the onset of technological breakthroughs and political conspiracies, Radiohead have created an album that perfectly mimics the postmodern landscape that is intertwined within the fabric of society. As Berman stated perfectly “each song actually yields a vivid premonition of life as it is lived now.”