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Music Criticism Fall 2009 - Fond But Not In Love

It's December, which means I must be writing about music. Over the next few days, I'll be presenting some essays I've written for Music Criticism this Fall 2009.

The computer was the most emotional voice I had ever heard.
-Thom Yorke, on "Fitter Happier," before the album's release.

I'm not standing behind the lyrics anymore.
-Thom Yorke, following the album's release.

One of the first conventions of essay writing taught in classrooms is that a paper’s thesis statement should come in the opening paragraph. “Fitter Happier,” the seventh track on Radiohead’s OK Computer is a densely packed song that conveys the album’s central claims about isolation, fear, and society heading into the 21st century. It is a thesis statement hidden away in the track listing, the title displayed in a type so small it could be considered an afterthought. The artists themselves have wrestled with ownership of the song’s lyrics, read neutrally by the computerized voice Fred. Countless owners of the CD have skipped past these uncomfortable 117 seconds, although the soul of OK Computer is found here. It is a multimedia piece that when taken together with the album’s futurist-primitive art style offers a chilling commentary on modern values.

Structurally, “Fitter Happier” consists of six main sections broken up by the instrumentation used in the background of the song. It opens with no background noise, and only Fred reading the first words “fitter happier more productive”; it acts as a title piece to the composition. At (0:04), undulating white noise flickers into the background of the song, fitting in with the unnatural non-human soundscape that has been created. The only truly human voice that is ever found in the entire song is a brief sampled sound from Flight of the Concord that begins at (0:09): “This is the Panic Office. Section 917 may have been hit. Activate the following procedure.”

This line cycles and repeats throughout the entire song, and offers a key into unlocking the feelings that were put into the writing of “Fitter Happier.” The song is future shock – panic – and the procedure that is being followed to deal with such trauma is to restate the values and principles most important to the narrator. The voice does not appear as being human, because the trauma of whatever incident sent the narrator into this state has robbed them of all human characteristics, save the principles outlined in the lyrics. The response to the panic is to repeat this mantra about being healthy, happy, productive, good, and safe. By staying “fond but not in love,” we can avoid the damage of heartbreak and feelings that are “ridiculously teenage and desperate.” Ultimately, this way of life may reduce us to being the same as a “pig in a cage on antibiotics,” but it is our own personal Panic Office’s way of ensuring our survival. The panic caused by living in modern society leaves us to worry about survival first, and the ideals of life second. What is perhaps most chilling about these lyrics is their suggestion that many of the things it seems normal to idealize in a good life (regular exercise, charity, crying at a good film) are emblematic of survivalism, not humanism.

Largely, this lyrical sentiment is felt throughout the entire album of OK Computer. “Paranoid Android” shows an outer aggressiveness to the materialistic phonies of late 20th century Britain, “No Surprises” is a balletic lullaby about the serenity of suicide when your heart is too full of pain, even “Electioneering” expresses panic about the falseness of our political system. The musical composition here on “Fitter Happier” shows a clustered collusion of soundscapes that induces the same sense of panic and disorientation felt by the Fred-voiced narrator.

The sounds of the song come from various sources, which when blended together sound alarming, frightening, and almost non-musical. A filtered piano enters the composition at (0:19), which sounds as if it is being played through an old record player, distant and scratchy. Its melody is played at a legato tempo, with a non-simple rhythm of play. By varying the dynamics of each piano stroke, it feels like a child, not a professional musician, plays the piano. The most clean sounding instrument is the strings that begin at (0:38), which play a minor-key long articulated sound that almost fades into the background of the loud text and white noise background. At (0:52), the lyrical mentioning of the savage and wrong pleasures of torturing insects, a theme that recurs throughout the album (Let Down - “shell smashed / juices flowing”), cues a loud cycling sci-fi sound. Rather than sounding modernist, it sounds like a 1970’s Doctor Who noise – a futurist impression of a 21st century with flying cars and rocketships. The lyrics spoken during this noises span are said quicker than other parts of the song, and reflect wrong feelings and emotions as opposed to positive ones. Particularly salient is the line “Nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate nothing,” which epitomizes the suppressed feelings of rage and violence mentioned in the lyrics. The sound eventually fades out by (1:10), and the soundscape is returned to the removed humanistic sounds of static, found text, piano, and strings as well as more positive words of the mantra “still kisses with saliva.” Finally, the sounds fade out into digital blips and nothing with the final reprise of “Fitter healthier” at (1:43).

The art direction of the album expresses many of these same central themes. Most literally, there is the image of a pig obscured by waveform – literally caging the animal in blankets of white noise as described in “Fitter Happier.” Beneath it, the small image of a child playing is drawn crudely, showing that while there is an inner desire to be childish and reckless, recalling that time in any sharp detail would be too painful. The broad and smudgy white strokes of the background art are like cave paintings – simple cries out for humanity and attention, while being superimposed with low-resolution strings of numbers or visualizations of highways. Radiohead sees a dual nature of people living in 1997 – desiring the simple, primal desires of human life, while feeling panicked and trapped by the technologies and rigid structures of modernity. The art shows how this future shock leads to future panic, which in turn causes the Panic Office to activate the procedure Fred reads in “Fitter Happier.”

OK Computer is considered a modern classic because like a great piece of writing, it has core thematic elements artfully and cohesively expressed through the lyric and music of its thesis “Fitter Happier” and the album art that surrounds it. Thom may reject the lyrics now, or find it far too dark and depressing for the actually intended tongue-in-cheek message, but the use of word, sound, and image creates a perfect storm of bleakness that goes beyond the beauty of Fred’s voice or the rejection of the lyrical meaning. “Fitter Happier” completes and defines the soul of the album.


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