The sounds of the future

Ok Computer

You are reading this on a computer. I typed this on a computer. We use computers every day of our lives, because they allow us to be more productive and to enjoy our entertainment more efficiently. Yet, decades after hippies being concerned over personal computers, the rise of the world wide web, Y2K and integration to the point where nearly all of us carry a computer with us everywhere, there is something empty, impersonal and antisocial in constantly having a screen in front of you.

Radiohead was one of the first bands to warn against the direction in which humanity was heading in their critically acclaimed 1997 album OK Computer. Music has changed hugely not only in terms of how it actually sounds but how it is distributed and consumed as the result of computers. Removed from its fantastical predictions of the future, human music brings us closer to our integration with machines and losing our contact with reality by allowing us to truly imagine the sounds of the future.

Almost 18 years before today, Radiohead’s iconic album OK Computer was released. OK Computer was one of the most influential albums of the 90s and is at the top of many lists of the best albums of all time, demonstrating Radiohead’s shift in tone from its connections with grunge and rock to ambient and melancholic alternative. Throughout OK Computer, Radiohead front man Thom Yorke criticises societal shallowness in the face of the then rising new technologies of computers.

Yorke’s lyrics were heavily influenced by Orwell’s classic 1984 and other dystopian novels, a message of societal apathy resounding clearly throughout the album more so than traditional visions of totalitarian and destruction of individual freedoms. The album’s second single, ‘Karma Police’ could be interpreted as a conversation between a man and the Thought Police from 1984 and a social commentary on our tendency to judge others based on appearance and sense of righteousness.

Yorke’s detached falsetto is one of his most distinguishing features as a vocalist, lending itself to this criticism of society’s apathy while simultaneously sounding non-argumentative and subdued. It is one of the album’s greatest criticisms, however, that Yorke sounds like he is moaning, and is occasionally not fully in tune.

Single ‘Karma Police’ is one of the most well-known tracks off the album. Beneath the calm piano and acoustic guitar chords, Yorke defames society’s development of its morality and criticism of others. The opening line, suggests that we find those who we are unable to comprehend due to their higher level of understanding annoying. We have our own internal ‘karma’ that we use to judge others, even for matters that are seemingly trivial.

Yorke later asks for the karma police to ‘arrest this girl / her Hitler hairdo / is making me feel ill.’ The phrase ‘Hitler hairdo’ is evocative of symbols that are historically offensive, possibly through being defiled by others. In many places in the world today, the swastika is considered offensive, and people remain unaware of its connotations as a Hindu peace symbol. Yorke suggests that many of the things modern society finds offensive are not intrinsically so.

Throughout ‘Karma Police’, Yorke’s vocals seem detached from the underlying harshness of his message, namely the repeated line ‘This is what you’ll get when you mess with us.’ The trademark airiness of Thom’s voice is suggestive of a state of detachment and withdrawal, reinforced by the final line of the song ‘For a minute there, I lose myself.’ Yorke is warns against becoming too judgemental, and allowing external appearance of others in shaping our opinions of others.

My personal favourite track, ‘No Surprises’, is a song that many consider to be concerned with suicide. Its introductory high-pitched guitar is somewhat unsettling at first, but the song develops into a calmed, moderate tempo overlaid with acoustic guitar chords and peaceful xylophone. The song is a scathing criticism of apathy prevalent within our modern society, which has only been exacerbated by the increasing usage of computers and new technology.

Yorke’s voice is similarly detached when talking about ‘a handshake of carbon monoxide’, as long as there are ‘no alarms and no surprises’. Although we as a global society have grown more interconnected and interdependent through globalisation, we have also become apathetic and desensitised. ‘No Surprises’ also has one of Radiohead’s greatest ever music videos, showing Thom Yorke singing the first verse and chorus in a helmet slowly filling with water before becoming submerged, and remaining underwater for a minute before bursting out and singing the remainder of the song. It is chilling to see Thom’s calmness despite remaining underwater for such an extended period of time.

Although many regard music as a medium primarily associated with happy themes, countless artists use sound in different ways to evoke human emotions and discuss themes in ways that differ significantly from the written word. It is a world that I have only recently discovered, with Radiohead as its starting point, but it is a world dense with meaning and understanding on an almost unimaginable scale.

Since its release in 1997, OK Computer has prompted significant questions about our attachment to computers that are more relevant than ever. Although our relationship with computers is different from how it is often envisioned in science fiction films, there is no denying that technology has hugely influenced the way that we work and interact with each other over the past decade. Yet at the heart of our changing lifestyles, there is the reality that we are spending more time alone with devices that do not have real thoughts or feelings, preferring entertainment through videos and movies to novels.

Radiohead suggested that we were becoming more self-centred, impatient, even less human due to computers, and this has only become more evident over time. However, it is important to remember that it is our individual choices about how we use computers change who we are as humans, not them computers themselves.


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