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Thom Yorke explains why political songwriting has died

@SamWKemp

Unlike their Britpop contemporaries, Radiohead always managed to stand a little outside the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement. While members of Oasis and Blur happily visited ten Downing Street to share a drink with the newly-elected Tony Blair, Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and the like stood on the margins, watching the party unfold with nervous anticipation. The same year that infamous gathering at number ten took place, Radiohead released OK Computer, an album that carries none of the optimism that had swept over the British Nation throughout the 1990s. Rather than looking outwards towards the future, Radiohead continued to cast its gaze inward, offering up a selection of introspective art-rock songs that were at once highly cerebral and intensely abstract.

In refusing to associate themselves with New Labour, Radiohead saved themselves from looking like prize twats when Blair eventually fell from his lofty perch in 2003; the year he joined President Bush in invading Iraq. It was in many ways a result of their mistrust of political systems, a mistrust that eeked its way into Thom Yorke’s songwriting on OK Computer’s ‘Electioneering’ and actively defined the lyrical content on Hail To The Thief. However, since the release of In Rainbows, Yorke has been far less brazen about his political outlook, choosing to focus on more personal issues.

Describing the shift from political songwriting to more insular material in an interview with The New York Times, Yorke said: “Ten, 15, 20 years ago, there was a sense that saying political stuff in lyrics or talking about it in magazines had some significance. Now if you stray to the political, you get lost in a fast-moving stream, and if you stay within the realm of the personal, you feel insignificant. Art’s ability to engage in any significant way has changed. There’s a sense of paralysis when you watch this theatre of the absurd going on, politically speaking, and it doesn’t seem as if you can put your soul into that theatre, because that theatre has no soul. The subversion of truth and reality that we’re witnessing at the moment means that it would be dangerous for art to engage in them. It’s fucked up.”

Ah yes, the post-truth era. What Yorke seemed to hit upon in that interview was something that has had an immense impact not only on his own songwriting but also on the songwriting of young musicians from all quarters. Because of the complexity of political truth, and the terrifying realisation that we can live in our own political universe without ever doubting the legitimacy of our beliefs (see QAnon), songwriters perhaps feel less comfortable using their music to make grand political gestures. As Yorke notes, they are in a state of paralysis.

Feeling that their music has no real power of political systems, the modern songwriter looks inward – just as Yorke did. “A sense of insignificance can mean that you turn inward,” he continued. “There is anger out there, and it’s waiting to find a good place in art; the anger of witnessing this theatre of the absurd and seeing where it came from and why it exists and where it’s going and where it’ll end. Something else is going to happen. Hopefully something significant. There’s a lot that needs to be done to repair this damage,” he concluded.

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