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Radiohead and the Post-Modern Society

Although childhood schoolmates, Radiohead officially formed in 1991 in Oxford, England. In 1992 the band was completed with the addition of drummer Phil Selway. Breaking through with their 1993 debut Pablo Honey, Radiohead prematurely rose to stardom. With the critically acclaimed release of The Bends (1995) and OK Computer (1997), the band has been pushed into the forefront of avant-garde pop-rock, drawing comparisons to Pink Floyd. OK Computer was voted album of the year by Rolling Stone and Spin magazines, while British Q magazine named it "the best album ever recorded," topping the Beatle's Revolver. Ok Computer went on to sell 4 million records (on top of a previous 4 million copies sold of the band's prior albums) and won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. Labeled "the saviors of rock'n'roll" by the media, Radiohead has gone on to receive countless superficial commendations--for example, the praise of frontman Thom Yorke in Entertainment Weekly as "being in contention for the title of Rock's Premier Tormented Pre-millennial Genius" (October 24, 1997).

The music that propelled Radiohead into such acclaim has little to do with the glamour and appraise it has received. Ironically, Radiohead has developed into an anti-commercial outfit, quickly debunking myths of fame and focusing on the dehumanization of an overly mechanized society. "If its about anything, it's about dealing with noise and fear," says frontman Thom Yorke.

Dealing with it, and finding "something beautiful" out of that is largely what OK Computer is about. The "noise and fear" cited by Thom Yorke can be seen in his work that both mocks and analyzes post-modern, mechanized society. Functioning as artists within the present state of global capitalism, the members of Radiohead use their music to tap into such feelings and commentary as social fright, political disillusionment, digital paranoia and post-modern schizophrenia. They are hyper-aware of the shiftings of society into a dehumanized capitalist conglomeration where every aspect of life can be manipulated into a profit for somebody else. In the song "Polyethylene" lead singer Yorke squeals, "If you don't believe me, sell yourself." He preaches of the banalities of modern life in the song, "Let Down", singing, "Transport / Motorways and tramlines / Starting up then stopping / Taking off the landing / The emptiest of feelings / Disappointed people / Clinging onto bottles / When it comes its so so disappointing." The band also eloquently identifies that people presently will settle for a life of mediocracy, as the song "No Surprises" rings, "I'll take the quiet life/ A handshake/ Some carbon monoxide."

All feelings of being removed, or alienated because of the present state of society, as shown in previous lyrics, can be seen as a direct reaction to the 90's checklist "Fitter Happier." Within it, a gender neutral computer that stumbles over words and doesn't get the pronunciation or the inflections right goes through a routine of modern day society filled only with business concerns, truths taken from advertisements, and modern self-maintenance for a healthy life. The emotionless computer begins by stating, "Fitter happier / More productive / Comfortable / Not drinking too much / Regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week) / Getting along better with your associate employee contemporaries," and later continues, "At a better pace / Slower and more calculated / No chance of escape / Now self-employed / Concerned (but powerless) / An empowered and informed member of society / - (pragmatism not idealsim) / Will not cry in public / Less chance of illness / Tyres that grip in the wet (shot of baby strapped in back seat." The apathy within the song conveys the numbing down of feeling within a reality over-saturated with media, which paralyzes people due to the constant repetition of daily occurances, whether harmful or not.

The beauty found in all of this is in the music itself, which is genuine and meaningful, unlike so many MTV-plastered bands today. The sentiments found on the band's albums are extended even further on the Official Radiohead Website. This site is maintained by the members of Radiohead themselves in order to keep it from becoming another "souless-corporate-slick-net-investment-balloon-about-to-burst site" maintained by someone they've met only once in the record company. Along with this site, around 150 unofficial sites have sprung up on the web dedicated to the band's purpose. This internet involvement, in which Radiohead uses the web as a carrier or microphone for their voice, correlates directly with the band's rise in popularity over the past five years.

On the official website lies a shizophrenic collage of post-modern images, poetry, and social/political commentary. Take the consumer survey, for example, which begins by mocking a multi-national corporation, and then within the survey itself it asks questions which show the potential emptiness of today's society. It states, "NO DATA is a division of Anonymous Industries, which in turn is a part of a huge transnational corporation that you don't need to know about, apart from the fact that it's more powerful than a Government, but less accountable, unelected, and possibly even more unscrupulous." It then goes on to asks questions, in which a visitor must either agree or disagree, such as "I'd rather watch a blockbuster movie than have a passionate argument," or "If politics is the blind leading the blind, then entertainment is the fucked up leading the blind." The NO DATA component of their website demonstrates the informationless data that is suffocating our society. The endless numbers and surveys compiled in data bases and mainframes continually drown us with empty un-applicable information, possibly overloading our society to the brink of non-sensical. If a visitor tours the NO DATA gallery, the person will wind deeper and deeper into a maze of drawings, phrases, poetry, and comic strips that supply no answers or meanings and is difficult to retrace a path out.

All of this seems quite ironic for a band like Radiohead who's been labeled as a band working within the vein of anti-technological themes. How is it that a band that possesses such resentments towards hyper-modernity can be so active in the internet and other mechanisms of culture information? The answer is the audience. Radiohead is a band that takes information in today's society and turns it into music, which is bounced back to the listener in common feelings of questioning where today's informational and media saturated society, dubbed the "New Economy," is going.

It is the media, paradoxically, that labels the band as anti-tech, and not the band themselves, which then turns around and praises their music. Radiohead merely create genuine sentiments of feeling lost within the schizophrenia created in today's society, that leads to the feelings of rountine, and loss of meaning. A recent documentary made about the band and its music, titled Meeting People Is Easy, deals with this as its premise."Radiohead's music is the last thing that anyone in the music press, at EMI records, at any of the stadiums, at the after hour parties, is thinking about as the band journeys to the center of the star machine" (Film Review, Michelle Aguilar). But to them, it is all about the music, and how they offer a look at the possible problems arising within our society. However, the band only poses questions, and never offers any solutions. The solution isn't their interest, it is the music and the number of listerners they can reach. If they have to use the record labels who are solely fixed on their value, so be it. This enables them to reach the largest possible audience, saving their resources and using those of the corporations to finance their "voice."

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