With a few exceptions, like "Lotus Flower" or "15 Step," all Radiohead songs are a bit sad in their own way. But that's not to say that they're only sad. In this episode, Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic will uncover the unexpected humor of "Paranoid Android" and explain why identifying the humor is essential to fully understanding Radiohead's work.
[00:00:00] Savannah Wright: [00:00:00] This is Fake Plastic Podcast, a podcast that unlocks the alchemy of Radiohead — one song, music video, or live performance at a time. My name is Savannah Wright. In our last episode we talked about Radiohead's fickle relationship with the press. Thom Yorke in particular was a subject of speculation for numerous critics, perhaps because of his moodiness during interviews, his disdain for fame, and his proclivity for writing depressing lyrics.
[00:00:28] And it wasn't just Thom whom they [00:00:30] labeled moody. Before OK Computer, Radiohead was generally known for their sad music. Remember this clip from Clueless in our first episode.
[00:00:39] Alicia Silverstone: [00:00:39] Yuck! The maudlin music of the university station? Wah wah wah.
[00:00:47] Savannah Wright: [00:00:47] Honestly, with a few exceptions, like "Lotus Flower" or "15 Step," all Radiohead songs are a bit sad, but that's not to say that they're only sad.
[00:00:55] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:00:55] People often talk about Radiohead as the sad sack, [00:01:00] self important, humorless guys making music to commit suicide to. I mean, those are the things that are like, have been said to me by people who don't like Radiohead over the years as someone who really loves Radiohead. And so I think it just says that part of hating Radiohead is, is missing a little bit of what's going on with them.
[00:01:20] Savannah Wright: [00:01:20] This is Spencer Korn Haber, a pop culture writer for The Atlantic. He wrote a piece a few years ago aboutthe irony and humor in OK Computer, an aspect of Radiohead's work we often overlook. [00:01:30] Oddly enough, Spencer and I discovered Radiohead through the same person.
[00:01:34] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:01:34] I mean, to be completely honest, your sister Marisa got me into Radiohead. You know, I was a music nerd in high school, but, uh, I remember she had the album Hail to the Thief and, uh, just sort of insisted that I listen to it, and um.
[00:01:51] Savannah Wright: [00:01:51] Our story departs slightly from there. The first album I remember listening to was Amnesiac, which threw me straight into the deep end.
[00:01:58] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:01:58] You know, with that encouragement, I also [00:02:00] remember borrowing, uh, my, my friend's father's copy of OK Computer and really wanting to understand it and not understanding it. And um sitting on the floor of my, you know, teenage bedroom, uh, reading the lyrics that were printed in the liner notes and just sort of like having, that first spiritual experience you have with Radiohead. Um, and I think it was like in the middle third of "Paranoid Android" is when it really, when it kind of all clicked [00:02:30] for me
[00:02:31] Savannah Wright: [00:02:31] In this episode, Spencer will uncover the unexpected humor of that same song and explain why identifying that humor is essential to understanding Radiohead's work. But first, some context.
[00:02:43] "Paranoid Android" is a six and a half minute odyssey comprised of four distinct sections. To create these sections, the band fused together parts from three different songs, each written by a different band member.
[00:02:53] It's a structure partially inspired by the through composed form of The Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm [00:03:00] Gun."
[00:03:02] (clip from "Happiness is a Warm Gun")
[00:03:02] For fans, "Paranoid Android" is one of Radiohead's crown jewels, but the song can be jarring for first time listeners. I remember playing it in the car with a group of friends one day and halfway through one of them asked, "Wait, the song is still going?" For that reason, some might dismiss the song as pretentious or overblown. To them, it's a fulfillment of Radiohead's stereotype as a sad band that writes art music for intellectuals.
[00:03:28] Radiohead knew this, [00:03:30] and they were aware of how the press portrayed them and how the masses understood them. And they used that knowledge to craft a highly self-aware rock opus in response. From its ambiguous title to its bizarre combination of musical styles, "Paranoid Android" plays into each of these expectations and then subverts them.
[00:03:48] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:03:48] Yeah, I mean, "Paranoid Android", it sounds like sort of a dystopian, like, yeah. Yeah. It was kind of very like late nineties mix of like, fears about the dystopian, [00:04:00] uh, new millennium and also the sort of like grungy, self analyzing sadness and paranoia. The title actually came from, uh, Douglas Adams's book Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
[00:04:16] I, I thinkit refers to a robot character who is apparently very brilliant but is sort of stuck in a dreary system doing banal things.
[00:04:27] Savannah Wright: [00:04:27] For those unfamiliar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the [00:04:30] Galaxy, here's a clip from the 2005 film. Marvin here is played by the brilliant Alan Rickman
[00:04:36] Marvin: [00:04:36] I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed.
[00:04:40] Trillian: [00:04:40] Well, we have something that should take your mind off things.
[00:04:43] Marvin: [00:04:43] It won't work. I have an exceptionally large mind.
[00:04:48] Trillian: [00:04:48] Yeah, we know, but, um, we need you to go down to the number two entry bay and pick up our stowaways and bring them up here.
[00:04:57] Marvin: [00:04:57] Just that? I won't enjoy it.
[00:05:00] [00:05:00] Trillian: [00:05:00] Yeah. Well that's life.
[00:05:03] Marvin: [00:05:03] Life. Don't talk to me about life.
[00:05:07] Savannah Wright: [00:05:07] Although exaggerated for satire, Marvin's outlook on life wouldn't be out of place in Radiohead songs like "Let Down" or "Fake Plastic Trees."
[00:05:15] (clip from "Fake Plastic Trees")
[00:05:15] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:05:15] Yeah. I mean, that's sort of probably definitely describes people's perception of who Thom Yorke is. Um, but my understanding is that Thom Yorke has said over the years that the title was meant as a joke. It was, um, uh, meant [00:05:30] to send up his own image as a sad sack or as a paranoid android.
[00:05:34] Savannah Wright: [00:05:34] Adopting the persona of the Paranoid Android allowed Yorke to simultaneously demonstrate his self-awareness and toy with listeners' expectations. Listeners who thought this would be yet another depressing song about Thom Yorke's pain.
[00:05:48] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:05:48] Well, I think that a lot of people who maybe aren't that into Radiohead just hear you know, they probably don't get it. And you know, they hear the song and they think that it's, you know, it's just someone earnestly [00:06:00] whining about the unborn chicken voices in their head or whatever.
[00:06:03] You know, they hear "Creep" and they think this person's just like feeling bad for himself about being a loser. I think there's, it's usually more complicated than that. I think this song, you know, it's kind of about how you're disgusted at. You know, you might feel disgusted at the world around you and you might feel like the people around you are inhumane, but it then is driving [00:06:30] the narrator to him, him or herself, like acting like rather inhumanely.
[00:06:35] And, and, um, kinda starting to have a public tantrum, like.Sort of uses this fascist imagery about how, like someday, you know, his enemies will be against the wall. Um, you know, like it's, this person is inspired by ugliness in the world to become sort of ugly themselves. Um.
[00:06:54] Savannah Wright: [00:06:54] At first, "Paranoid Android" seems to fit the bill of a traditional Radiohead song. It has a sonically [00:07:00] interesting melody, intelligent lyrics, and a narrator in some sort of distress. But Spencer sees a few layers of humor in the song, which suggests that we shouldn't take it as seriously. To start, he identifies a few instances of camp.
[00:07:14] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:07:14] You know, when you're talking about humor, you might be talking about something that just seems funny, you know, like kind of a funny sensibility, you know, the idea of camp.
[00:07:22] Um, and so you. I'd say you hear that in just like the particular word choices, the thing that's like, uh, "kicking squealing Gucci little [00:07:30] piggy" or "unborn chicken voices." You know, these are just like, sort of funny images.
[00:07:36] Um, and so then beyond that, you know, you think of humor or comedy as the art of surprise. And so you have a lot of reversals in the lyrics. You have that part where he's saying, uh, "you don't remember, you don't remember my name, I guess you do."
[00:08:05] (clip from "Paranoid Android")
[00:08:05] [00:08:00] Or like, you know, that part where he has the litany of like "the panic, the vomit, the yuppies networking," which is already like a funny juxtaposition, um, that things that don't quite logically make sense together. And then, you know, then he caps it off with "God loves his children. Yeah." Which is, you know, feels to me like a punchline
[00:08:38] (clip from "Paranoid Android")
[00:08:38] [00:08:30] So there's just that like sort of structural whiplash, um, in, in the word that strikes me as "humorous." And, and then, yeah, I think that the general content of, you know, they sense it could be understood is sort of mocking. You know, it's mocking humor. Uh, you have the singer, the narrator [00:09:00] who's definitely mocking and jeering at the world around him. But I'd say also a lot of things about the song indicate that the song itself is mocking the narrator.
[00:09:09] Savannah Wright: [00:09:09] You mentioned the final line, "God loves his children," you read as kind of a punchline. It was. Previously in the demo it was "hallelujah." What do you make of that final line? Do you think it was like hallelujah was, could have also been a punchline or why do you think they made that change?
[00:09:24] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:09:24] Um, yeah, that's a really interesting question. Yeah. I mean, obviously there's a very [00:09:30] real interest in religion or people's take on religion there. It's that. I mean, that whole portion like makes me think of someone like Job or Abraham, who is being punished and they don't really or being tested and they don't really know why.
[00:09:48] Um, and then, but it's someone who's not taking it well. It's like when Job. Like when Job is at his, you know, maybe emotional rock bottom is like, feels like the world is coming down on [00:10:00] him, you know? Uh, but I guess, I guess probably with that line Thom is probably making fun of people having faith in a higher power in the light of how terrible the world can be.
[00:10:14] But you know, maybe he's making fun of him making fun of himself about that. I'm not quite sure.
[00:10:18] Savannah Wright: [00:10:18] Hm. Yeah. It is vague. And I guess that's how Radiohead likes it. They don't want to be on the nose, but that is an interesting thought.
[00:10:25] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:10:25] Right. I mean, just starting out like the, I, yeah. I mean the obvious irony is it's like, [00:10:30] yeah, God probably doesn't love His children if they're going through this.
[00:10:34] Savannah Wright: [00:10:34] That's true. Yeah. I mean, it does, it does read as very sarcastic with the way he sings it, the way he draws out the "yeah." I'm like, okay, we get it.
[00:10:44]Spencer Kornhaber: [00:10:44] Yeah.
[00:10:44] Savannah Wright: [00:10:44] The instrumentation itself also plays with expectations.
[00:10:48] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:10:48] Yeah. I mean, going back to the idea of like the surprise of the punchline, the fact that the song changes so dramatically and with such sort of like, um, pinache I [00:11:00] think is. I think it's meant to like, make you sort of crack up or like have a confused smile and reaction.
[00:11:07] You know, when that kind of like surf guitar prog rock part comes in, it's a very, and it's just like so overdone. Almost sorta like, so like, you know, it reminds me of like sort of these dramatic arena bands. You know, 80s metal, these sorts of things that I think that the average Radiohead listener would find to be a little preposterous.
[00:11:28] I think, I think they also, yeah, I think they [00:11:30] generally are choosing music that is, or like references to musical styles that are heightened emotionally. Heightened to the point of, you know, uh, melodrama or parody, you know, bringing in like flamenco sorta elements. I think that the way that when it goes often used in Western context is usually just sort of like false addition of drama.
[00:11:52] I think, um, you know, the middle section, right? Like harmonically it's like evoking something from classical music. I'm not [00:12:00] an expert, but like in the old stuff kinda like Pachebel's Canon or something. That's sort of melodramatic.
[00:12:06] And so, yeah, I think, I think that's all done in sort of like a heightened, uh, way that to me feels sort of humorous and like it's almost a satire.
[00:12:19] Savannah Wright: [00:12:19] Yeah, no, I liked that you mentioned the prog rock elements because that was a genre that a lot of people wanted to place Radiohead in, and it's almost as if they're mocking it the same way that he was mocking the whole Paranoid [00:12:30] Android persona.
[00:12:32] Moments of humor are not unique to "Paranoid Android," but appear throughout OK Computer, giving the record a subtle underpinning of irony.
[00:12:43] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:12:43] Trying to draw out the kind of contradictions of the human experience and, uh, you know, and they really are like really in line with the sort of ironic style of that, of, of the era.
[00:12:57] And so, yeah, I mean, like you [00:13:00] have. The songs are generally pessimistic or leveling a critique, but they're also like really in touch with like how it feels to be alive. You know, the gratitude towards being saved by a consumer product is like what "Airbag" is about. And, you know, just like the rough and the rush and the laugh of like surviving, you know, a near miss in a car. Like that. It's about the earnest, like way that joy flows out of you from like this near death experience that you were saved [00:13:30] by a product.
[00:13:30] Um, I think that's generally what's going on with OK Computer and with "Paranoid Android" they're kind of putting it in the social context and they're, they're holding the idea of the disaffected, you know, nineties nihilist as like, you know, someone who might have some points to make, but is also, um, a pretty pathetically funny character themselves.
[00:13:55] Um, I think, I think the production, Nigel Godrich, like put all this sort of [00:14:00] like weird little funny noises, like kind of hearing uh guitar sounds or like, like burbling little synths that just like, kind of like tickle the ear and give you a sense that like, there is like the hand of someone who wants you to, um. They're just like kind of lightening the mood or like disrupting the mood in various ways.
[00:14:21] Um, I think that's a lot of what's happening on OK Computer.
[00:14:24] Savannah Wright: [00:14:24] This humorous undertone comes to the forefront in the music video for "Paranoid Android." In an interview for [00:14:30] Jam, Yorke said, quote, when it came time to make the video for that song, we had lots of people saying, 'Yeah, great. We can have another video, like "Street Spirit", all moody and black and dark.'
[00:14:39] Well, no, we had really good fun doing the song. So the video should make you laugh. I mean, it should be sick too.
[00:14:46] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:14:46] So the music video is, uh, I find rather unsettling. It's a cartoon. You know, it's also like, it's also just like this '90s artifact. It feels like a Beavis and Butthead thing. I believe it was based on a pre-existing [00:15:00] cartoon series in Europe or something like that. Um,
[00:15:03] Savannah Wright: [00:15:03] Magnus Carlsen was commissioned by the band to make the video. He's the Swedish creator of the animated series, Robin.
[00:15:09] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:15:09] But the band had the creator make the video without knowing the lyrics or at least being able to read the lyrics. And so he just went by sounds, but he ended up, uh, I think creating something that is not that out of line with the content of the song.
[00:15:24] Um, you know, it's this cartoon story of this guy who appears to [00:15:30] be, um, alienated and freaked out by everything around him. He sort of a misfit. He took a shower with a hat on. Um, and then he just like finds himself at a bar where there's all this, like depravity, violence that's going on around him.
[00:15:47] But that's kind of the mood of the whole video where there's that gruesome, just sort of Hieronymus Bosch beings all around the sky. He eventually escapes, uh, with an angel on a [00:16:00] helicopter. And so maybe, you know maybe God does love his children. I don't really know what, like how it fits together as a story, but definitely like the fact they have these naked cartoon people doing ridiculous and disgusting things like certainly fits with what the song seems to be about.
[00:16:17] Savannah Wright: [00:16:17] Hopefully at this point we've convinced you that Radiohead isn't just a downer band as detractors might say. But why is it important that we recognize this humor at all?
[00:16:26] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:16:26] Uh,to really love their music is to sort of get into the [00:16:30] extent to which they are working with satire a lot. They are working with sarcasm a lot, and they're really interested in sort of almost like on a physiological level, what makes you laugh or cry or smile and like why humans, um, how you pull the string on the back of a human being.
[00:16:48] Um, and so, yeah, I mean, I think some of their songs are about like the physical sensation of laughter or smiling in the face of terrible things. Um, and so that's just like part of [00:17:00] their schtick. It's part of like what they're trying to communicate about the world. And if you miss that, I think you're kind of missing the point.
[00:17:05] Savannah Wright: [00:17:05] Hmm. That's interesting. You say it elicits a physiological response. Do you have an example? Is it in the music that you're finding that or.
[00:17:13] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:17:13] Yeah. I mean, I, I think the one that comes to mind is the one I mentioned which is "Airbag". I mean, "Lucky" also it's, you know, about, um, you know, the transcendent feeling of surviving something.
[00:17:28] I think, you [00:17:30] know, when they're playing with toy box sort of sounds on a song like "No Surprises", which is like, really just like a very dreary song. They're kind of looking at like what it means to cheer yourself up or like, or like the ways that people medicate themselves and sort of like amuse themselves in, uh, in very like objectively unamusing situations in you know, a screwed up society.
[00:17:57] Um, and then, yeah, I think [00:18:00] musically, like they often are just like trying to like startle your ear and like sorta make you smirk or laugh or squirm or whatever. You know, I think about like, um, "Life in a Glass House" with the horns.
[00:18:21] (clip from "Life in a Glass House")
[00:18:21] And I think of the harps in [00:18:30] "Motion Picture Soundtrack."
[00:18:33] (clip from "Motion Picture Soundtrack")
[00:18:33] I, I think about like "Myxomatosis", which is like such a ridiculous sounding song,
[00:18:39] (clip from "Myxomatosis")
[00:18:39] Um and it's sort of a cute, morbid Brothers Grimm story. Um, I think they're doing, they're doing a lot with just surprising and I'm really delighted. Like their music is often delightful [00:19:00] for this reason and that gets lost, um, in the way people talk about them.
[00:19:04] Savannah Wright: [00:19:04] That is a good point. I'm going to pay attention to my physiological responses to their music now. Cause I don't think, I didn't notice that before, but I am trying to figure out like what makes them so great. And that is something that no one has brought to my attention before. So thank you.
[00:19:19] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:19:19] Yeah. I mean, you know, like, like, like I don't understand the math of like why their music works, but certainly like there, the cording is hitting a spot that I don't think a lot of [00:19:30] other bands often hit.
[00:19:32] Um, but I think the instrumentation choices are also like just really, uh, consistently surprising and, and, uh, They, they kind of knock you off one foot and then you, but then the music itself is like, so pleasing that it brings you back in and restores your balance.
[00:19:50] Savannah Wright: [00:19:50] Yeah. And I think that's present in in the song as well, just with all of the shifts and changes. Yeah.
[00:19:55] While their inventive instrumentation has persisted over the years, Spencer believes that [00:20:00] Radiohead's humor has not.
[00:20:01] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:20:01] I do think that they've gotten less funny over the years and like the last three albums, you know, starting with In Rainbows, I think they entered like this really beautiful and poignant and wistful mode that is not as. I mean, it's still a little funny. It's still a little satirical.
[00:20:17] But, like, by the time it gets to A Moon Shaped Pool, it's pretty, I mean, it is pretty morose. It's a lot like what people say they are, but even then, you know, you, you have little funny lyrics and strange things going on, but, [00:20:30] uh, I think they've gotten more serious kind of tonally.
[00:20:33] Savannah Wright: [00:20:33] Why do you think that is? Do you think it's just a result of aging and wanting to talk about different things or.
[00:20:39] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:20:39] Yeah, I think it is. I think that, um, I think Thom has gone through some things. That's what A Moon Shaped Pool was about. And, uh, you know, he's really worried about the end of the world, like in a very real sense due to climate change.
[00:20:52] And, you know, I also think that they're a great example of what is like an ongoing tradition of pop music, which is like, [00:21:00] the problem of making pop music that works as political critique at all. Um, and you know, the tendency of very smart people to make sarcastic music, to like kind of lean into the way that pop can please the ear and like amuse. While they're at the same time, like trying to sum up a viewpoint by taking , by being sarcastic about it. Um, you know, getting you to sing along, but then you realize, no, this is like, sort of like a false sing along.
[00:21:28] And they're like. You know, it [00:21:30] works if you're like really into them and you are on the wavelength of whatever band you're do. But I think often, like it's hard for the message to get across to a popular audience. Um, and maybe it's getting set up with that too. I think that A Moon Shaped Pool is their least accessible album, and, uh, I think he's really trying to think about different ways to convey a message in music.
[00:21:52] Savannah Wright: [00:21:52] Yeah, it's definitely in a more poignant way. It's not trying to be satirical. The only instance I can think of is in "Identikit" when he says [00:22:00] "broken hearts make it rain" and he's kind of cheeky about it, but yeah. Otherwise.
[00:22:04] Spencer Kornhaber: [00:22:04] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think, I wouldn't say there's like. Like, I think "Burn the Witch" is like a very dark, like, but still sort of fairy tale like situation. Um, you know, and on that song you have him like talking about playing a song on the jukebox that says 'burn the witch.'. So it's like about how music and like, culture can be used for these like nefarious, uh, ends of creating a sort of fascist order.
[00:22:29] Like I think [00:22:30] that, I think that he's really, like, I think he's all along has been like really sensitive to that, but I think maybe he's at the tipping point at on, I don't know. I, I I'll, I'll be interested to see what they do next.
[00:22:42] Savannah Wright: [00:22:42] OK Computer was released in 1998 at the dawn of the Internet age. While the world celebrated the possibilities that new technology could offer, Thom the paranoid android, was decrying the alienation that would surely follow, and humor was a means to make that critique more digestible.
[00:22:58] But as Spencer said, [00:23:00] sometimes that sarcastic message can go over the listener's head. That's certainly the case with critics of OK Computer, who continue to dismiss Radiohead as a sad sack band raining on the world's parade.
[00:23:11] So the shift in Radiohead's humor over the years suggests that Radiohead learned from that experience. Maybe they realized that they can't afford to not be taken seriously with the issues we face. Now, maybe we've wasted too much time laughing things off. Maybe the wistfulness of A Moon Shaped Pool is telling us that it's time to face [00:23:30] the music.
[00:23:37] (clip from "Burn the Witch" plays)
[00:23:37] You've been listening to Fake Plastic Podcast. Fake Plastic Podcast is an Alternate Thursdays production with new episodes every other Wednesday. You can find us on Instagram or Twitter @fakeplasticpod. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. And. If you really liked this episode, please leave a review and share with your friends, Radiohead fans or [00:24:00] otherwise.
[00:24:00] I'm Savannah Wright. Thanks for listening.