‘OK Computer’ Is How We Felt About the Internet Before It Devoured Us9 min read
2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
Man, the 1990s were so great, there was nothing you had to worry about back then. The economy was in good shape. The Soviet Union had collapsed. There weren’t even any wars. (I mean, there were, but we Americans didn’t pay attention.) Yep, everything was pretty chill.
Well, we did have one thing that kept us up at night: technology. Everybody had started getting computers, and the internet was becoming a thing, and we weren’t sure what all of that meant. Were we losing part of our humanity in the process? Were we turning into machines? And what might happen at the end of the century? Was Y2K going to destroy civilization as we knew it? Sure, the decade had mostly been a breeze, but maybe we were just setting ourselves up for a global catastrophe.
Radiohead’s third album wasn’t specifically about Y2K. But OK Computer, which came out in May 1997, connected to a vague, paranoid feeling that something bad was coming, a suspicion that the growing computerization of everything spelt certain doom — and that we were doing nothing to prevent it. OK Computer cemented Radiohead as one of the great rock bands — a reputation they’ve only fortified with subsequent releases — but it’s also a time capsule of a bygone era before we started living online. The album is about a lot of things, but one of its big themes was the notion that technology was coming to destroy us. It’s the sound of a rock band fretting about the future.
In the mid-1990s, Radiohead weren’t even the most popular band in the U.K. The Britpop revival, spearheaded by Oasis and Blur, was huge in their homeland, although Radiohead’s second album, 1995’s The Bends, had proved that they weren’t just “Creep” one-hit wonders. But Radiohead weren’t interested in competing with their contemporaries. “The whole Britpop thing made me fucking angry,” frontman Thom Yorke later said. “I hated it. It was backwards-looking, and I didn’t want any part of it.” As a result, in a story that’s been repeated millions of times, the group decamped to St. Catherine’s Court, a mansion out in the middle of nowhere in Somerset that was owned by Jane Seymour, to record what would become OK Computer.
The lyrics drew from some very 1990s alt-rock themes — alienation and the fear of being a fraud because of your commercial success — which ended up dovetailing nicely with another anguish of the era, technology encroaching into every aspect of our lives. This fear was already being reflected in popular culture — often, in cheesy thrillers like The Net in which ordinary characters are imperiled because of this scary new bogeyman known as the World Wide Web. Whether it was something great (like Terminator 2: Judgment Day) or truly dopey (like Johnny Mnemonic), 1990s movies played on our fear that tech was out to get us. Added to that was a growing concern about Y2K — which, essentially, was an anxiety that crucial computer programs keeping society functioning would implode because they weren’t equipped to handle the shift from flipping from 1999 to 2000, causing calamitous disruptions on, say, airplanes or power grids.
Y2K seemed like a disaster movie waiting to happen — at last, we would pay the price for our reliance on machines — and while few at the time really worried that global paralysis would occur at the stroke of midnight… well, not a lot of folks I knew were gonna risk flying on New Year’s Eve, either.
Yorke wasn’t so much freaked out about Y2K as he was computers and the web in general. “I was getting into the sense of information overload, which is ironic, really, since it’s so much worse now,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017, later adding, “The paranoia I felt at the time was much more related to how people related to each other. But I was using the terminology of technology to express it. Everything I was writing was actually a way of trying to reconnect with other human beings when you’re always in transit. That’s what I had to write about because that’s what was going on, which in itself instilled a kind of loneliness and disconnection.”
In other words, Radiohead were singing about a very old rock ‘n’ roll lament — the travails of life on the road — but adapting it to modern concerns.
In the mid-1990s, the internet was a strange, shiny mystery — most people didn’t exactly understand what it was or even where it was. (Was it inside your computer?) People like Bill Gates made it sound sorta cool — it was a place to exchange information, apparently — and in a 1995 appearance on David Letterman’s show, he talked about it with the giddiness of a kid. “It’s wild what’s going on,” he enthused. “It is the big new thing.” Letterman seemed unconvinced, making cracks about this whole “computer deal.” And in that clip, you saw the two rival viewpoints that were prevalent at the time: excitement about what the future of the internet might be like versus a grumpy distrust of this newfangled whatsit.
Not that OK Computer was some tortured sci-fi concept album about robot uprisings and mechanized masters. Yorke’s concerns were far subtler, although on the spoken-word interlude “Fitter Happier,” which integrates samples and a sad piano figure alongside a litany of random observations that sound like self-help motivations — “Fitter / Happier / More productive / Comfortable / Not drinking too much” — the computerized voice made the paranoia painfully real. Yorke had written the lyrics in a rush while feeling stuck and depressed, curious how a Macintosh’s SampleText program would spew them out.
“[It’s] the most upsetting thing I’ve ever written,” he’d say later of “Fitter Happier.” “The reason we used a computer voice is that it appeared to be emotionally neutral. In fact, it wasn’t because the inflections that it uses made it to me incredibly emotional. It brought out something that I thought was essentially flat, it brought it to life in a really fucking eerie way.” To the listener, the song felt like it was being “sung” by a sad robot trying to pump itself up to keep going another day — a creepy uncanny valley of human emotion and android lifelessness, a small example of how machines were becoming more like us. Replacing us.
For the most part, though, the album’s grappling with information overload was buried within the songs’ panic attacks, outbursts and general disillusionment. Technology was the background hum, a silent but consistent irritant contributing to the despondent characters’ downward spiral. The narrator of “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is so tired of life on Earth that he’s desperate to be taken away by extraterrestrials. The dude in “Airbag” is on a high after nearly dying in an automobile accident, a rare example of technology being a good thing: “In a fast German car / I’m amazed that I survived / An airbag saved my life.” “Climbing Up the Walls” was a good ol’ fashioned domestic drama, a portrait of a bad marriage coming apart at the seams. And despite its title, “Paranoid Android” isn’t actually about a robot, the track’s anger, revulsion and anxiety too painfully real to be anything other than human.
But OK Computer’s mixed emotions about our imminent virtual selves also played out in the album’s physical production. It’s not often brought up when discussing OK Computer’s origins and themes, but the mid-1990s was a period when Pro Tools was becoming a popular record-making tool, the technology allowing artists more flexibility to splice together different takes, enhancing and fixing mistakes digitally if so desired. In the process, the old romantic notion of a band together in the studio recording a song by playing it from start to finish was forever changed. Pro Tools made things easier, but also opened the door to criticism that music lost its spontaneity and humanity when it became too “perfect.”
“I feel a lot of music that has been recorded in the last five years has fallen victim to production,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl said in 2000. “I feel that people are relying too much on things like Pro Tools or Autotune for vocals and drums. … It’s a drag that people have become so concerned with perfection. I think it has something to do with the concern that something that isn’t pristine and perfect isn’t safe.”
That, of course, is a much bigger debate, but although Pro Tools was used on OK Computer, it was merely part of the spirit of experimentation on the record, with the band drawing from non-rock inspirations such as turntablist DJ Shadow (whose 1996 masterwork Endtroducing….. was crafted almost completely from other recordings) to break free of the strictures of what a band “should” sound like. The spooky computerized voices inside “Paranoid Android,” the way “Karma Police” collapses in on itself at the end, the samples ebbing and flowing within “Exit Music (For a Film),” Yorke’s distorted vocals on “Climbing Up the Walls”: They all contributed to an album that felt weird, wrong, subsumed by technology — as if the very scary, ugly emotions that often battered the songs were caused (and exacerbated) by the general feeling of alienation brought on by the growing importance of computers and the internet.
At the time, critics weren’t necessarily focusing on the album’s future-shock anxieties — instead, they were busy comparing it to The Dark Side of the Moon, which the members of Radiohead had differing feelings about. “[Guitarist] Jonny [Greenwood] made us all watch Pink Floyd: Live in Pompeii and said, ‘Now this is how we should do videos,’” bassist Colin Greenwood said in 1997. “I just remember seeing Dave Gilmour sitting on his arse playing guitar and Roger Waters with long greasy hair, sandals and dusty flares, staggers over and picks up this big beater and whacks this gong. Ridiculous.”
And, indeed, Greenwood, who’s gone on to moonlight as an Oscar-nominated composer, has cited the Pink Floyd album Meddle as an influence. But what OK Computer really shares with The Dark Side of the Moon is an expansive, meditative vision of the challenges inherent in being alive. Both are about madness and the ways that day-to-day life brings us down. They both tackle big themes and use the studio as a lab to try to make something new.
But OK Computer doesn’t sound like Pink Floyd’s opus, just like it doesn’t sound like really anything that came after it. The record, which was nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, really could only have been made as we were about to dive headfirst into the virtual world of the 21st century — and only by a band that was sick of the way rock music was sounding and wanting to forge a different path. You can hear those tensions in OK Computer — especially if you came of age in the late 1990s — but it’s a testament to the record’s greatness that they’re not necessary to appreciate it.
By making technology an invisible menace — inescapable and ubiquitous — OK Computer proved timeless rather than feeling dated or reactionary, capturing the zeitgeist rather than being trapped by the specific societal woes of its era. Information overload is worse now than ever — especially the flood of disinformation — but we as a culture seem to have made our peace with succumbing to the deluge. Maybe we’ve quit Facebook, but there’s always Instagram and TikTok and whatever comes after that. We’re cool with our laptops remembering our passwords. We walk around with a computer in our pocket that we call a phone although we never use it to speak to anyone. We text and we DM and we like our friends’ tweets, and yet we feel lonelier than ever.
And that’s all fine with us — we’ve become okay with the computers that dictate our lives. Radiohead would go deeper into their obsession with technology and alienation on their follow-up, Kid A, but they’d never again perfectly encapsulate the How It Started feeling of the pre-internet revolution. For those of us drowning in the How It’s Going age, OK Computer feels like the last glimpse of our old lives before everything changed.