Existentialism is a unique school of thought. While other types of philosophy seek to resolve questions of right and wrong, good and bad, meaning, purpose, and truth in terms of logical arguments and definite answers, existentialism is an attitude. Existentialism is about the mood in which we perceive and react to these questions. There is a consideration that there might not be answers to the questions we have, which means we must try to learn to live despite the life we are given.
It is this precise mood that in my opinion explains very well the approach of Radiohead to music and culture.
Though existentialism takes a number of forms, there are several themes that are usually held in common. There is an awareness of the finitude of life, of knowledge, and of human capacity; there is a toleration of an impending death. There is also anxiety, questions concerning a disappearing God, problems with detecting the whereabouts of the individual who stands faceless in the masses, and finally the concern for living an authentic life. Starting with OK Computer and especially picking up with Kid A and Amnesiac, and perhaps culminating with Hail to the Thief and even In Rainbows, Radiohead expresses the same sentiments of such philosophers as Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, and Nietzsche.
Here is how it goes: In OK Computer, we stare into an impending and growing nihilistic despondency. In Kid A and Amnesiac, we are submerged in it. In Hail to the Thief, we are lamenting over it and losing faith. In In Rainbows, we accept it and trudge forward nonetheless. This is the story of a band that grew up and got comfortable, as much as they could, living in a world in which they felt they did not belong.
Take, for example, “Airbag” from OK Computer. With Thom Yorke exclaiming “I am born again” (entering in the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal return), we have a layering effect in the sound: a lurking bass, a steady but shifting pace of percussion, and a far away chime. The layering makes for a decomposition of music, identifying each piece of the noise as an element in itself. The general approach is an existential one, for there is a thoughtful shift from strong meaningful enveloping meaning to a reduction to basic truths. For existentialists, the truths include mortality and imposition of meaninglessness. For Radiohead, the sound truths are each instrument and studying the range of experimentation of each instrument in each layer. And for the lyrics, there is the study of being born again, life lived over and over. Eternal return, to Nietzsche, indicates that we cannot live for the afterlife but must hopefully exert our true natural selves. For Camus, the return signifies the absurdity of staring at a situation far beyond our control, an imposed existence, and then taking joy rather than despair in the resultant uselessness of the work that is life. The “airbag saved my life” – Yorke exerts his sensitive relationship with mortality, drawing it out and amplifying it for the listening.
These themes carry forward, with the vivid analysis presented in “Paranoid Android,” a song that displaces the protagonist from the moral ineptitude of all surroundings. We have a storyboard, a shifting style of sounds, a humming of Yorke’s vocals. “Ambition makes you pretty ugly” – in other words, the world we live in might have made a mistake, for we seem to be working for the wrong reasons. Sarcastically, Yorke cries out that “God loves his children, yeah” as if to taunt the restitution we feel in the knowledge that suffering in life will pay off. The song has a mood swing in sound, and we seem to be vacillating between the revolt and the gloom of our conditions. Kierkegaard wrote of the problem of anxiety, that moment where we all stand at the edge of a cliff and we feel the impulse to jump, and yet we do not. This is anxiety. As Radiohead’s protagonist is lifted out of the world in the music video of “Paranoid Android” by an angel, we have that question of whether or not we will take that leap. We see the choice, and we see the temptation and monstrous spontaneity of the moment of death, and yet when the politician falls off the bridge and sinks to the bottom of the water, he loses his arms and legs and is then brought back to earth as an infant. He is born again.
Then, with “Fitter Happier,” there is a slow descent of the ordinary way of living. From the agreeable terms of being “more productive” to the unfortunate sense of being a “pig in a cage on antibiotics,” we see humanity deteriorate in its out illusionary approach to life. The protagonist is in “bad faith,” according to Sartre: trying to be what we are not, homeless, and out of touch with incarnate existence. The layering sound connotes the growing dissonance of life, with radio frequencies and white noise and whispers behind the computer voice of the lead vocals, and then eerie chimes that build and then spiral out of control at the end of the song. The introduction of electronic influences marks the effort of Radiohead to portray, phonetically, the despondent world that is unnatural. One of Heidegger’s chief tenets was against the building of technologies, technologies that serve to distract from nature and make life ordinary and structured. Technologies fade into the background, beyond our notice, so that we do not even realize we are homeless and detached from our actual mortal lives. As such, the sounds, too, are detached. Convention, on the other hand is broken: percussion, strings, and lead vocals are traded in for electronic chatter. Radiohead cannot express the sentiment of the nihilistic world in normal organized song. Hence, we move to Kid A.
Just as songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Fitter Happier” appear to develop and evolve and alter toward the existential realizations, songs in Kid A inhabit that philosophical locale. Opening with “Everything in Its Right Place,” electronic manipulation is used to layer Yorke’s voice upon Yorke’s voice, with his lyrics coming in snippets that are repeatedly fuzzed out by blatant musical machinery: “Kid A, Kid A, Kid A… Everything, Everything, Everything…” Repetition (“tried to say, tried to say” and “yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”) and reversing of sounds disarms the listener. We are locked into only a few lyrics. Finitude of the message is the larger message. There are no more struggles for a “good” or a “meaning” – not in Radiohead’s lyrics, not in their sound, and not in their world.
But there is still an art form, for here Radiohead is immersed in the existential dilemma of the sense of meaninglessness. In the song “Kid A,” the vocal lead is lost in the clatter of distortions and chimes and whistles. In “Treefingers,” a deep note keeps canceling out the buildup and rising of higher notes and chords, yet in the drifting pitch there is a salient note lost in the back. Radiohead sounds like they are wiping back and starting anew, searching for that note, that proper place to erect melody and tune. With “In Limbo,” the riffs are buried under more riffs, and the voice of Yorke disappears and reappears. “I’ve lost my way,” says Yorke mournfully. In the end, a wash of variations to Yorke’s voice engulf his dying lyrical sound, and then they engulf the entire musical attempt until we feel flushed out. Then comes “Idioteque,” which marks a sudden change in pace. “Women and children first,” cries Thom, suggesting an evacuation of the world. “Ice age coming” is a line that reflects impending death. “Take the money and run” signifies the loss of order in the apocalyptic world of Kid A. We find this anxiety of the question of whether inhabiting the world of meaninglessness and non-form is worth the suffering. The percussion disappears, and then returns, as if hinting at the finality of the musical form. Behind the resolute percussion, more cries and chatter fill the back like bells and metal shards marking the coming of a tornado.
When you listen to Kid A, you find each individual song to be difficult to consume on its own. But as an album, the music thrives as an orchestration of sound, and the sound transports us. The lyrics fall away from view (some songs were given lyrics by picking from a pile of lines arbitrarily), and we learn to communicate in a new form. Existentialism is in the forlorn sense that the hopeful calls and warnings of OK Computer are over. We are without endless possibility. Life is imposed upon us. God is gone from view. We cannot live for the afterlife, for we have no sense of right and wrong. Amorality thrives, for morality is a construction, just as conventional music forms and verse-stanza setups are a construction. Here, music can take new strides and still be called music. Yet all the while, we are within the finitude of sound. We are confined in the experimental tones of phonetics. The members of Radiohead push themselves in this album to explore the nature of their capacity as artists by abandoning traditional instruments and testing out the devices of incarnate life – in this case, the electronic. But it is important to note that Radiohead does not become an electro-group. This is alternative, experimental rock.
To finish off Kid A, Radiohead plays enchanting high glass-like notes with an undertone that is deep, enduring and unwavering. “Stop sending letter, letters always get burned,” calls out Thom, resigned from the illusions of anything other than the nihilism of existence, which, in the Nietzschean sense, repeats: “I will see you in the next life.”
Amnesiac carries the experiment forward to a conclusion. Strings return, for instance. We are starting to carve out room for the familiar. We are now sensing a recession of feelings of homelessness. But the experimental approach is still very apparent in songs like “Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box,” where multiple percussion techniques combine and intertwine, a soft snare drum mixing with what sounds like the beating of water drops on hard and changing surfaces. These percussion techniques slow and then return as Yorke’s voice resonates around changing styles of beats. Nevertheless, his vocals are still set in the back and still treated as a mere “sound” rather than a front vocal centerpiece.
“You and Whose Army?” iterates an attempt to take power. “Come on, come on, you think you drive me crazy?... you and whose army?” – here we have an established force. Radiohead, though still struggling behind a strained, weak Yorke voice, is searching to assert itself. Eventually, Yorke overcomes the difficult nature of his music, blossoming with “You forget so easily…” And then the percussion sets in, the tough thick moving piano sound takes over, and we have a song. “We ride tonight,” says Yorke.
These are the signs of an attempt to exert willpower. Nietzsche’s noble forces of life-asserting and power and strength-embracement are heard here taking shape against the backdrop of existential uncertainty, meaninglessness, and ambiguity of God. There is still despondency, as in “Like Spinning Plates” where Yorke and Radiohead complain that while “you make pretty speeches, I’m being cut to shreds.” Nietzsche states that in a world of amorality, incarnate existence directs us to be our natural selves. We must exercise our states of being. There is no divide between potential to do and doing. The hope, therefore, for Radiohead is that in their realization of the finite, imperfect, purpose-lacking world, they hopefully fit the shape of the master, not the slave. They seek to affirm life when all others engage in their own suffering with a hope of redemption.
And in that hysteric worry over its own nature, Radiohead seeks out the strong master morality of setting good to powerful, strong, and noble. In “Like a Glass House,” York sings in front of trumpets and saxophone sounds, like a soulful funeral march in New Orleans. Yorke tells his “royal highness” to not throw stones and talk politics. He sings that he would love to “sit around and chat…stay and chew the fat” but “someone’s listening in.” Radiohead will elevate and not be subdued.
And then, Radiohead rises, until they return in Hail to the Thief with a view of hindsight. “It’s the devil’s way now,” says Thom, “There is no way out, you can scream and you can shout, it is too late now.” These lyrics in “2+2=5” mark the opening of a new musical sound. We are in a place where now, the darkness of the world is accepted. In “Backdrifts,” Yorke exclaims that we are “rotten fruit” and “damaged goods” but “what the hell we’ve got nothing more to lose” because “one burst and we’ll probably crumble.” Life is finite, existence is fragile, and humans are imperfect. Like Pascal stresses in his form of existentialism, human knowledge is limited, and that limitation encloses us. There is an unpredictability in the songs of Hail as Radiohead ostensibly throws every technique at the music – special recording, layered sound, electronic distortions, percussion, string, convention, nonconvention, vocals, non-vocals, and so forth. “We are accidents waiting, waiting to happen,” declares Yorke in “There There,” a prominent call of the confinement of life and the lack of choice and agency in the entrance into existence. A system of strings tears away into the emergent melody, which harvests through a beginning of natural noise and yet stimulant drum sessions and overarching tones. “Jus cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there” means that much of what we believe is constructed in our mind. What is real, and what is “there,” as Heidegger would say, is the sense of being, the natural, the possibilities of the incarnate. Yet these possibilities are only knowable as we relate to our own deaths. Finitude is our access to our potential, our “Da-sein,” our “being there.”
In “A Wolf at The Door,” the simple four-note melody repeats without end, and Yorke wraps himself around it. Yorke vocalizes the cruelty of the world in the Nietzschean: “Drag him out your window, dragging out your dead” and “smacks you in the head, knifes you in the neck, kicks you in the teeth.” This brutality is inevitable, a reflection of our animalistic core, which Nietzsche values highly and believes is the instinctual truth of our natural selves. Society, according to Nietzsche, domesticates and tames, but in this song Yorke struggles against the lack of help from a doctor, a taxman, investments, dealers, Stepford wives, and cops. Society is pushed aside, for society cannot keep Yorke safe from the wolf at the door who keeps calling him and telling him “all the ways that he’s gonna mess me up.” Yet this existence, finite and incarnate, is where Nietzsche believes we must be. The powerful must return to the wilderness and prowl and exert their will. The weak and wretched will suffer, and the strong and masterful will rule.
Finally, we arrive at In Rainbows. After a few songs, the melody slows, and for the first time in five albums, Yorke steps forward with a soaring vocal lead: “Don’t get any big ideas,” he says. “They’re not gonna happen.” There is a humming and a whistling, a psalm-like reflection on all that has passed. In “Reckoner,” with clanging clashing symbols, Radiohead rises up to speak on behalf of everyone, dedicating the music “to all human being.” “You can’t take it with you, dancing for your pleasure” – in other words, life is finite, and we can amuse ourselves and celebrate life now with the knowledge that all is fleeting and beyond control.
Radiohead grows and develops into an instructor on living in an existentialist reality. Life is not eternal, and there might not be an afterlife, and God is far away from humanity. Whoever told us what good and bad means got it wrong. Our existence is all we have, and we were thrust into it. The world suffers from a sense of meaninglessness. And here is Radiohead, moving from the initial worry of the impending death to the confident ring of “Reckoner, take me with you.” We are learning how to live life and how to wade through the conditions that appear to be set against our favor. We learn to affirm life. We embrace absurdity, we accept anxiety, we quit bad faith, and we identify the importance of the will to live authentically. For nothing is more closely connected to “good” than authenticity. To that degree, the journey and elevation over expectation and willingness to experiment in the career of Radiohead make this music group an example to follow. Whether or not they are truly a noble masterful living being over the masses of weak and powerless is uncertain. But, Radiohead identifies and pursues and takes residence in the conditions of life and the dilemmas of existence. They are an existential band.