In the era of reality singing contests and downloadable singles, it’s become harder and harder to find thematic albums that don’t just collect random songs but make an overarching artistic statement in their own right. Is it any wonder that Radiohead’s OK Computer still makes the rounds on my speakers. True to the band’s philosophical inclinations, the record denounces the way of life and politically correct ideals of modern North American society.
Consider its central track, “Fitter Happier”, which outright breaks the album’s musical momentum to ridicule these notions. Abruptly positioned between “Karma Police” and “Electioneering” as if to undermine their musical flow, the song, if we can call it that, argues that our current take on life is numbing and dehumanizing. At first glance, the lyrics read like a self-improvement pamphlet: “not drinking too much/ regular exercise at the gym”, “eating well”, and being “a patient better driver”. These are all things we have been told to do countless times in magazines and on television.
However, among these clichés is other advice that seems to promote emotional detachment and isolation: “fond but not in love”, “will not cry in public”, “still cries at a good film”. In other words, you should only cry at appropriate moments, and, in fact, you’re expected to do so when socially accepted. No one judges you when you cry at a movie. The same cannot be said when you cry in any other public environment. You must show potential for emotion (whether genuine or not) but never sign of vulnerability. It is the fundamental difference between being fond and being in love.
The vocal interpretation on the album is the result of such emotional isolation. The mechanized voice is still partly human, but it’s monotone, devoid of expression, of life. Even without hearing the song’s vocal interpretation, we can easily get a sense of numbness. The lyrics on the pamphlet (remember those?) are presented entirely in lower case letters and almost without punctuation, much like a computer program. It becomes impossible to know how to read the text with correct intonation; we are forced to read it more or less word after word like a list.
The only comma appears at the end of the song: “fitter, healthier and more productive”. It is a repetition of the first line. The comma visually isolates the line from the others and glues the three concepts together. “Fitter”, “healthier”, and “more productive” become a single concept. You cannot have one without the other: to be a better person, you must be more productive. Though hardly politically correct, it is a message with which we are constantly bombarded: “Cable Internet goes a hundred times faster! Now you can do more!” More what? The commercials never tell us, and neither does “Fitter Happier”. What is it we produce?
Though the text gives the listeners a lot of advice (or are they commands?), the verbs are all in their gerund form or conjugated in the third person, constantly alienating us from the song. The only instances where we can recognize ourselves, as opposed to recognizing things we have been told, are the sarcastic comments in parentheses. At the beginning of the text, they simply complete the thought evoked in the line: “regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week)”, “sleeping well (no more bad dreams)”. Often, they seem to mock an advice by pitting it against a more obvious pop culture reference: “eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fat)”.
However, as the song moves forward, they become more subversive and inappropriate: “never washing spiders down the plughole” becomes “no more killing moths and putting boiling water on the ants”; “baby smiling in the back seat”, which reminds us of a car commercial, becomes “shot of baby strapped in back seat”, which directly tells us of the car commercial. The parentheses evoke a truth that the rest of the text is trying to snuff out: “concerned (but powerless)”.
The comments in parentheses are not the only ones to become sour as the track reaches its climax. The last ten lines constitute the most disturbing images of the piece. It’s an organic evolution: as the song progresses, lines like “no chance of escape” already indicate a growing tension. The climax is reached in line 41 with the use of the word “shit”, a completely inappropriate word that goes against every advice the song has given us. The use of coarse language is the ultimate expression of frustration and thus of emotional commitment and vulnerability. For all his preaching, not even the speaker could continue this charade.
“Fitter Happier” leaves us with a final image that fully conveys the central thesis of OK Computer: “a pig/ in a cage/ on antibiotics”. The animal is ready to be consumed. It is sick, drugged, and unable to act, just as our ability to think and feel is being numbed by the politically correct ideals of a consumer society. We are fitter, happier, more productive, and ready for the slaughter. Also, we watch American Idol.