On release, OK Computer was both celebrated and derided. Some declared it a seminal work; others labelled it a sacred cow. Despite the varying reviews the album recieved, it endures not only as one of the most pioneering albums of the 1990s but as the perfect encapsulation of a specific moment in social, historical and political time. In other words: if you want to know how it felt to be alive in 1997, listen to OK Computer. Indeed, some have gone so far as to assert that the album could end up being the focal point for historians analysing the digital era. It’s all there in the title: OK Computer implies submission to the realm of the digital – an acceptance that music-making and life itself are already intimately bound to computer technology.
As Radiohead’s best-selling album, OK Computer has had a remarkably positive afterlife. The 1997 studio effort is frequently labelled one of the best albums in rock history and, in 2008, ranked higher than both Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road on countless lists collecting the greatest albums of all time. The record has also recieved a great deal of analytical attention over the years, with some arguing that it is more successful than Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon in its exploration of technological alienation, something Radiohead have always rejected. “It’s not really about computers,” Yorke once said. “It was just the noise that was going on in my head for most of a year and a half of travelling and computers and television and just absorbing it all.” From Yorke’s comments, it would seem that while OK Computer should not be seen as a commentary about technology, it can be viewed as a product and a reflection of the digital age. If Yorke absorbed the “noise” of the computer age, then maybe OK Computer did too.
Since the 1950s, critics have applauded artists who have used their music as a form of social commentary. Bands that pinpoint the anxieties of contemporary society are lauded as voices of their generation and tend to achieve dizzying levels of success as a result. As Marianne Letts notes in Radiohead And The Resistant Concept Album, there are two ways artists tend to respond to such success. Either they go the way of John Lennon, Sting and Bono and use their fame as a platform to talk about issues such as world hunger and deforestation, or they go the way of Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse and express ambivalence toward their success. Radiohead are among those artists who conform to neither model. With their first two albums Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995), the Oxford alt-rock outfit managed to reap the rewards of enormous success while simultaneously exploring the negative sides of living in a society based on mass consumption. This paradox defines OK Computer. The album sees Radiohead simultaneously embrace a digital model of music-making and explore the alienation, dislocation and fragmentation engendered by those same digital technologies. Such contradictions are a large part of what makes the album so fascinating. Radiohead, like the rest of the society at the time, were both fearful of the information age and mesmerised by it. This anxiety seemingly resulted in an album that seeks to escape the modern world while being absorbed by it.
One of the most obvious examples of Radiohead’s anxious embrace of the digital era on OK Computer is its opening track ‘Airbag’. Jonny Greenwood’s opening guitar riff could have been plucked from the grungey pool of The Bends, but Phillip Selway’s hypermetric breakbeat reflects a new desire to warp and manipulate organic instruments. “The drum loop on that song was inspired by DJ Shadow,” Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich told Rolling Stone. “It’s a departure from a rock band. What happened was, I told Thom and Phil to sit there for a couple of hours and create a drum loop. And a day and a half later, they were like, ‘OK, we’ve got it.’ But it wasn’t very exciting sounding, so I ran it through Jonny’s pedal board. And we just did three takes of him just like doing all sorts of shit to it and we put it all in.” But even with the track’s various bleeps and scratches, ‘Airbag’ is strangely nostalgic. Indeed, the synth glitches in the track’s final coda are nestled in a bed of vinyl static, revealing ‘Airbag’ to be something of a chimaera in its merging of past and present.
The hybridity of tracks like ‘Airbag’ was also noted by Mark Grief, who, in his 2009 piece Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop, argued that OK Computer saw Radiohead use digital technologies in a very rudimentary but profoundly affecting way. Rather than making out-and-out electronica as they would on Kid A, Yorke and company juxtaposed artificial voices with human voices, as is the case with ‘Paranoid Android’, in which a text-to-speech vocoder voice can be heard reciting lyrics. As Greif notes, “Their new kind of songs, in both words and music, announced that anyone might have to become partly inhuman to accommodate the experience of the new era.” It would assume too much of Radiohead’s members to argue that OK Computer is about the dehumanisation of the modern world. On the other hand, the band’s simultaneous incorporation and rejection of modern technologies can be seen as symptomatic of the disorientation and fragmentation essential to the information age. In this way, OK Computer is less a warning of things to come and more a reflection of a process already underway.
The fragmentary influence of the early information age is made even more apparent in ‘Fitter Happier’, one of the album’s more outlandish and extra-curricular offerings. The track seems to have been designed for the set purpose of upsetting the listener’s expectations of the album’s trajectory, taking us off into a new lane with no warning. In this way, the very structure of OK Computer seems to foreshadow the internet’s fracturing of narratives into disjointed shards. Unlike the traditional concept album, which tends to feature a fixed cast of characters, a raft of themes and a cohesive sonic pallette, OK Computer sees Yorke use his lyrics to enter the lives of an infinite number of people, occasionally speaking for an entire generation, as is the case when he sings “I am born again” in ‘Airbag’. Like some musical Wikipedia page, the listener is tossed from speaker to speaker – never able to form a concise picture of what Yorke is trying to tell them.
As the album progresses, it becomes clear that there is no turning back from this new era. ‘The Tourist’, for example, brims with the sense that time is accelerating, that the world is spinning faster and faster. But rather than excitement, there is only anxiety and confusion. “Everything was about speed when I wrote those songs,” Yorke said of ‘The Tourist’. “I had a sense of looking out a window at things moving so fast I could barely see. One morning in Germany I was feeling particularly paranoid because I hadn’t slept well. I walked out to find something to eat, but I couldn’t find anything, and this fucking dog was barking at me. I’m staring at this dog, and everyone else is carrying on. That’s where “hey, man, slow down’ comes from.”
OK Computer may not have been intended as a comment on the digital age, but it might well mark the moment the analogue world gave way to the digital. Lyrically, musically and structurally, the album can be seen to predict the many ways in which computer technology has altered our psychology, painting a picture of a world in which human minds bare more resemblance to circuit boards than lumps of organic matter. At the same time as Radiohead pinpoint the dangers of this new world, they accept their absorption into it, actively pursuing new methods of music-making, perhaps as an attempt to bring order to something seemingly chaotic.