1997 was a bizarre year for music, mainly because no prevailing mainstream trend dominated the airwaves. Teenpop wouldn't hit until the next year, while grunge was on its watered-down third-wave by this point. The indie rockers that did jump ship to the majors were the somewhat low-profile ones one gets the sense that labels were signing anything in hopes something would stick; how else to explain the Apples in Stereo on a major label? while punk's mainstream presence was limited to blink- 182 and Green Day. In short, the patchwork scene had room for just about any sort of music.
So after Radiohead did the unthinkable and shirked its one-hit wonder status with 1995's singles-laden The Bends a quintessential Britpop album, even if it wasn't as overtly British as Blur, Suede or Oasis expectations were high when it came time for the quintet to release its third disc.
Starting a trend of stubborn non-conformity it would continue over the coming decade and further cementing its use of enigmas, slogans and innuendo which began in earnest after the release of a cryptic video for The Bends' "Just" the band released "Paranoid Android" as Computer's first single. Concise and accessible it isn't; bizarre and inflammatory it is. Exhortations of "Ambition makes you look pretty ugly" accompany a musical progression that starts with an innocuous, tick-tock drumbeat and fluttery acoustic riffs, then spirals into ugly guitar squalls and jagged distortion, and then finally slows down again into a denouement that turns almost hymn-like with its harmonies. The six-minute song's accompanying animated video features a quintessentially 1990s stoner-slacker dude meeting all sorts of grotesque characters (i.e. a rotund man losing limbs, dim-bulb politicians, etc.). An obvious commentary on modern society's gluttony, intolerance and cubicle culture, the song is political without being preachy, mysterious while still being overt.
The rest of the album is equally challenging: half near-straightforward pop songs, half unorthodox takes on pop structures. "Fitter Happier" uses the robotic, monotone "Fred" voice from the old-school Macintosh computer to recite rules for living healthily the effect being that these same codes to live by seemed sterile and mind-numbing, like the Trainspotting "Choose Life" theme or the cookie-cutter suburbia of Edward Scissorhands. "Subterranean Homesick Alien" (yes, it's a reference to the Dylan song) features chilly, neon-green-hued keyboards that float above and underneath the cries of "uptight, uptight" that emerge mid-song. Even more ornate is the hushed "Exit Music (For a Film)," whose chords resolve in a lovely, orchestra-perfect major key around the phrase "We hope that you choke"; the preceding parts of the song and in particular Thom Yorke's murmurs of "Keep breathing" feel like the sonic equivalent of a candle flickering in the darkness of a church.
Elsewhere, "No Surprises" is a lullaby to suicide, where a glockenspiel chimes sadly as Yorke croons, "I'll take a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide, with no alarms and no surprises"; and "Electioneering" uses political metaphors ("voodoo economics") to critique, squalling riffs and manic vocals from Yorke matching the song's claustrophobic tone. And the dour "Karma Police," an ode to staying unique in the face of conformity, uses its minor-chord piano and Yorke's mournful whimper, "For a minute there, I lost myself," as a rallying cry for the tenuous grasp of individuality.
As a commentary on the increasing isolation and alienation within modern society, Computer was several years before its time; as an ominous warning about the effects of stultifying politics and dreary, soul-sucking day jobs on people, it was dead-on. What's even more interesting is how succinctly a band of Oxford, England, eggheads predicted the shift in the U.S. political and social climate that happened in the coming half-decade. Bill Clinton was still the president in 1997, domestic terrorism was of no concern and Saddam Hussein's threat was a faded memory of the Gulf War. America had no particular reason to be fearful or, well, paranoid. But the world Radiohead created within Computer was fragmented and suspicious, mistrustful and fearful feelings that today feel like a prescient glimpse into a country that was soon to be ripped apart by violence and beholden to empty sound-bites and lip service.
The band pretty much exploded into the stratosphere soon after its summer 1997 tour and became the arena- and stadium-sized act it is today. But OK Computer to many is still its watershed moment. Both futuristic and of its time, the album is and was a warning that lurking below the shiny happy gloss of a booming economy is the other shoe ready and waiting to drop. Annie Zaleski
Like any red-blooded American, Ani Difranco spent her summer on an old-fashioned road trip. Here, B-Sides maps her stopping points and landmarks of interest along the way.
Johnstown, New York: Outhouse where Elizabeth Cady Stanton got her first period.
Jamestown, Virginia: Boulder where Pocahontas punched John Smith in the nuts.
Denver, Colorado: Bloody patch of earth that inspired The Red Tent, a.k.a. the book about Biblical figure Dinah's life.
Manassas, Virginia: The gutter where John Wayne Bobbitt's penis was recovered.
Nilwood, Michigan: Home Depot (needed a hammer for patriarchy demolition).
Peoria, Illinois: Appliance store where Betty Friedan did not buy a vacuum.
Atlantic City, New Jersey: The Miss America "Freedom Trash Can" brimming with bra, high heel and girdle ashes.
Hopkinsville, Kentucky: Salon where bell hooks first had her hair straightened.
Washington, D.C.: Feminist Andrea Dworkin's tombstone. Epitaph: "Here lies a radical prude."