Radiohead’s 21st Century Soundtrack

Countdown to destruction

Back in the summer of 1967 — the much mythologized “summer of love” — the first rock album that REALLY MATTERED hit the scene: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Of course, plenty of other rock and roll albums had mattered before, but not as a larger cultural phenomenon that the chin-stroking intellectuals were forced to reckon with.[1] Thirty years later in the banal summer of 1997, a season no one would ever bother to mythologize or remember, Radiohead released the last rock album that REALLY MATTERED: OK Computer.

Both are loose concept albums that are tied together more by theme and mood than by any kind of plot. In Pepper it’s a sunshiny surface with intimations of darkness in songs like “A Day In The Life” and a reference to domestic abuse in “Getting Better.”[2] With OK Computer it’s heavy gloom with moments of optimism, like the lifesaving titular airbag of the opening song.

The Boomer hippies in 1967 consumed Pepper as a harbinger of the coming harmony of the Aquarian Age, while Gen Xers in 1997 heard in OK Computer an arresting prophecy of an ever-more alienated, inhuman modern world. Only one group was correct.[3] 

Perhaps more than any other popular music act, Radiohead is the soundtrack to the 21st century. I find myself coming back to it time and time again, especially in this time of crisis. I established this habit after 9/11, when I listened to OK Computer, Kid A and Amnesiac on repeat. It was the only thing culturally at the time capable of matching the dread that I was feeling. While others were finding hope in televised concerts and Toby Keith shoving his boot up someone’s poop shoot, I felt like the titular character in “Paranoid Android.” All three albums came out before 9/11, but seemed crafted in its aftermath. They had prophesied a scary new reality. 

It’s fashionable to think of the period from 11/9/1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall) to 9/11/2001 as a period of peace and relative tranquility. One history of the period is called A Bubble in Time. After all, there was a growing economy, increased global connection, and the end of the Cold War — aka “The End of History.” Radiohead managed to see in this the vast emptiness and spiritual barrenness of the victory of global capitalism. The promise of the end of the Cold War feels like it was a million years ago now, but Radiohead knew the score already.

For example, the song “Lucky,” the oldest on OK Computer, was composed for a Bosnian War benefit album in 1995, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. The supposedly peaceful 1990s saw genocide in the Balkans and Rwanda, and the beginning of a bloody civil war in Congo. “Lucky” was the song that bridged Radiohead from the straight-ahead Britpop guitar rock of The Bends to something far more challenging.

Radiohead smashed other totems of 90s optimism. The Labour party winning Parliament in 1997 was meant to be the death knell of Thatcherism, but Tony Blair ended up being Thatcher Lite, just as Bill Clinton maintained the neoliberal order in the United States. “Electioneering” on OK Computer puts it well, the politician of the song sneering “I go forward/ you go backwards.” By 2001 the liner notes (remember those?) of Amnesiac had a caricature of Blair as a nasty figure along with “You And Whose Army,” a swipe at the prime minister. This was done two years before Blair took the UK along on Dubya’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq. Again, Radiohead knew what was up.  

More than politics, the music on the band’s classic trifecta engaged with the failures of consumer capitalism to fulfill human needs and provide contentment.  “Fitter Happier” from OK Computer with its uncanny computer-generated voice intoning self-improvement bromides is certainly the most obvious example. Kid A’s absolutely creepy “Morning Bell” tells of a divorce where the husband with calm mania asks to “cut the kids in half” as if they are just another consumer good. 

A lot of it had less to do with direct commentary, and more to do with mood. 2000’s Kid A went far beyond even the progressive moves of OK Computer, indulging in feel over hooks to a greater extent. A song like “In Limbo” with lines about “trap doors that open” is tailor-made for our current century of uncertainty and disaster. Above all there is an abiding sense of dread, of unseen forces putting you in a vise grip, and you can’t even begin to figure out how to get out.

After some fans (not me) complained about the supposed obtuseness of Kid A, Radiohead dropped Amnesiac the next year, mostly made up of stuff recorded in the earlier sessions and even denser and less accessible. I admired their willingness to follow their muse, the charts be damned. The dread factor broke the scale, especially on stuff like “Pyramid Song” that imagined the transcendence of this awful modern life only coming in death. I listened to that album non-stop in the summer of 2001, not realizing that it was about to take on a very different context.

For a band that was so important to defining our era, Radiohead has surprisingly few followers. Their road is pretty unique. That makes sense since in the Britpop 90s Oasis was trying to be the Beatles and Blur was trying to be The Kinks. Radiohead simply decided to go off into uncharted waters.[4]

However, on 2003’s Hail To The Thief they went in a more “rockist” direction and also honed in on the political issues of the time far more explicitly. It was a capitulation to the fans, and we have learned through hard experience to never listen to what the fans want, at least if you want to make art. 

The album opened with “2 + 2 = 5,” a reference to Orwell and the lies told to instigate the war in Iraq. Guitars and more traditional song structures abound, at least by Radiohead standards. Nowadays I think it’s a good record, but back in 2003 I was disappointed, since Radiohead seemed to have given up on pushing the envelope. Instead of prophesying the future they were merely reacting to the present. 

Radiohead had one more great prophecy up their sleeves, however, one that had more to do with how they presented their music than in what it contained. In 2007 the band decided to release In Rainbows as an exclusive on their website, and allowed people to pay whatever they wished.[5] As record labels were desperately trying to sue and squeeze anyone involved in file-sharing, Radiohead eschewed the labels completely and decided on the radical act of asking their listeners what they thought they were worth. Streaming has eliminated the need for that model, but as in so much else Radiohead detected which way the winds were blowing.

Today in 2020, with a global pandemic raging and malevolent leaders such as Trump, Xi, Johnson, Modi, and Orban making us long for run-of-the-mill careerist slime like Tony Blair, Radiohead’s trio of turn-of-the-century albums still feel relevant. The new global order, presented as a boon at the end of the Cold War, has turned nightmarish beyond anything we could have imagined in the summer of 1997. Everything isn’t in its right place. The world is burning, but at least we have a good soundtrack for it. 


[1]  The hype around it has obscured how it is one of the weaker Beatles albums of their stellar 1965-1969 run.

[2] When I later found out that John Lennon was indeed an abusive partner, I should have seen it coming. He shouldn’t be anyone’s favorite Beatle.

[3] Talkin’ ‘bout my generation, baby!

[4] They were thus the Pink Floyd, but don’t ever tell the band members that!

[5] I thought I paid them twelve bucks, but it was actually twelve pounds. That was pretty brutal in the exchange rate at the time, but I thought they’d earned it.