Today, We Escape: Radiohead's 'OK Computer' at 20
  • MONDAY, MARCH 27, 2017

  • Posted by: Robert Steiner

I started listening to Radiohead for the same reason people watch horror movies: to be unsettled, to feel right on the edge of well being while fully knowing that you'll walk away physically unharmed. To make the comfort of your own reality feel like a grossly distorted and rule-breaking version of itself for an extended period of time, peering into a world of danger like a tourist behind a python's glass cage. In the case of horror movies, these experiences usually range from 90 to 120 minutes, but for me, Radiohead did all of that with the six-and-a-half minute video for "Paranoid Android." I saw that video for the first time when I was 12, and even though there isn't anything necessarily gory or violent about it, I remember feeling actual, gut-wrenching fear, and like morbidly curious onlookers driving past a flaming roadside pile-up, I couldn't help but watch.



As much as that video stuck with me, I didn't revisit Radiohead again until I was 17, when I finally had the courage to pick up OK Computer. Unlike the majority of writers who will likely be paying tribute as we near the groundbreaking album's 20th anniversary, I wasn't one of the many lost teenagers who found solace in the band's mutual alienation for the rise of technology and capitalistic materialism back in 1997. I was a little over four months old at that point, too busy with eating, sleeping, and keeping my parents up all night to be contemplating my self-worth in a society where net-worth was the strongest determinant. But that isn't to say OK Computer affected me any less when I found it years later. If anything, growing up in a post-90s setting, where you see babies in their strollers flipping through an iPad mini as their parents shop at the local strip mall, the album hit even closer to home than it did 20 years ago.

When I begin to really think about why I love OK Computer, what it really means to me at its core, all I can think of are contradictions. It's both spine-chillingly unsettling and disarmingly beautiful. The feedback, synth-produced screams, and machine-like bleeps and bloops scattered throughout make it feel noisy and chaotic, and yet it also sounds as if not a single detail is out of place. It's a time capsule of the decade it was created in, but also a modern critique of today's societal issues. It views our world in an exaggerated point of view, and yet it also feels chillingly accurate.



Most of all, back to the "horror movie" metaphor, the album is unsettling, dark, and at times disturbing in its themes, but there's also a deep beauty, and even some twisted optimism, within the darkness. It's that constant push-pull between giving into one's demons, both internal and external, while impulsively looking for a shred of a silver lining to cling to that makes this album such a endlessly compelling listen. Take the two songs about near-death experiences, the energetic opener "Airbag" and the soaring "Lucky": One about being "born again" by narrowly escaping a car accident, the other describing the invincible-like high fresh off of surviving a plane crash. Both are about the dark and painful end point of a person's life, yet both spin it as a beginning, a celebratory moment that's incomparable to anything else a person could experience.

It's these instances of strange positivity that counteract the moments that fully embrace the abyss, the songs where there's no other way to address the topic without getting dark. On "Let Down," Thom Yorke sings how he constantly tries to hold onto optimism only to be disappointed by reality time and time again. He wants to "grow wings from a chemical reaction," symbolizing the relentless false hope of finding freedom by playing the game, only to fall to earth and start over every time. The haunting "Karma Police" takes place from the point of view of someone in the midst of a mental breakdown, thanks to the over-stimulation of meaningless technology and words of so-called leaders, which compliments the longing for a life free of anxiety, noise, and lack of sincerity heard on "No Surprises." "Climbing Up the Walls" embodies the feeling of pure desperation to find a true, human connection as we become increasingly distant, and "The Tourist" is a literal last-minute plea to slow down and take in the world outside our computer screens. Lyrically, these songs are brooding, confrontational, even sinister at times, but instrumentally, they're mesmerizingly beautiful. This is probably one of the best sounding records you'll ever hear in your life, which makes its dark tendencies all the more complex. It's an uncanny stirring of emotions, but that's exactly what makes this record so powerful: It's confused about the world and where things are going, just like all of us.



In the hands of a less-capable group, these songs could come across as self-loathing dribble by overly angsty hippies who are afraid of MacBooks. But the band never makes these songs come across as complaints, nor as answers to the issues they bring up. Ultimately, OK Computer works because, like any good piece of art, its purpose isn't to help you sulk, but to make you think and ask questions about both yourself and the world you live in. You can drive around the winding and vast "motorways and tram lines," but are you really going anywhere? You can follow all the lifestyle tips coldly dictated by Macintosh's SimpleText voice on "Fitter Happier," but will you really be fulfilled? Are you really "moving up" in life by sitting behind a computer screen for eight hours a day? Maybe we're doomed to run in circles, but then again, like the unbeatable odds of walking away from a plane crash, maybe we can get lucky and escape to something better.

It's a bleak way to look at things, admittedly, especially considering how OK Computer feels like an affirmation rather than a warning sign now. Though it originally acted as an introspective contemplation of our place in an increasingly troubling world in 1997, in 2017, it plays like a confirmation of such a world existing, saying "Well, here we are" instead of "This is where we might be going." Still, even within that sense of resignation, I think there's still something beautiful to be found. Within the slow and heavy music that's often both intimidating and all-consuming, you can hear a faint sense of hope on every track, as if to say that maybe if you try hard enough, you can find something to cut through the noise and learn to find your circle among square pegs.



Like the "Paranoid Android" video shows, the world can be filled with scary, nasty, and confusing people and things, but if you find yourself overwhelmed, maybe there's a chance to be reborn and start over. But then again, maybe there isn't; it's hard to say when you look at the trajectory of recent world events, and it's frighteningly easy to indulge our inner demons. Regardless, OK Computer shows that at the very least, people are looking for something better, that even as some find comfort from screens and demagogues, there are others who still long for warmth, natural beauty, and human connection. In other words, there are those who still strive for something better than what we've got, and as long as that need for meaning exists within all of us, we won't become cold information machines. We'll stay human.
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