We live in a strange world, a confusing world, that hits us with a maelstrom of images, interests and information every minute, a world that is at one mundanely pointless and profoundly terrifying. We are locked in our self-curated digital flesh, at once free to pursue our tastes and completely determined by algorithms. It is the world of Idioteque. With that in mind, it seems like a good idea to revisit this masterpiece from Radiohead and travel through it to see what makes it tick. Might be a good idea to stop reading and listen to the song first if you haven’t heard it in a while…Done? Let’s go then…
It starts with a rhythmic machine, endlessly whirring and reproducing itself. This electronic percussion is joined by four chords (that just happen to be inversions of a single E maj7 chord) that sound like electronic plates laid softly on top of one another. They sound warm and cold at the same time, like a robot laying a comfortable cushion under your head then staring at you with dead eyes humming worrying lullabies. A simulation of compassion; the most that can be mustered in this fragile mechanical landscape conjured by Radiohead’s mix of electronic and analogue equipment, the digital and the human is accompanied by samples from Paul Lansky and Arthur Krieger, both avant-garde composers. There’s a fragmented feel about ‘Idioteque’, almost like it is comprised of components from different worlds that find themselves together somehow but they don’t quite meld. It’s no surprise then that the lyrics were formulated via William Burroughs ‘cut-up’ method that was famously employed by David Bowie. It is a way of creating unexpected connections and juxtapositions that reflect the confusing cavalcade of information that is modern life.
‘Who’s in a bunker?/ Women and Children first’ are the first words that appear after the eerie electronic chords and pounding mechanical drums. We are greeted by Thom Yorke’s voice, which you could say is at once humane and robotic, uttering a question that suggests an apocalyptic event is maybe on its way. There’s uncertainty and the faint sense that something awful is going to happen. Then there’s the utterings of some sort of rescue procedure ‘women and children first’, which is not really an answer to the first question but is slightly related. Is there hope then of averting this catastrophe? It’s hard to say. There’s a slight jarring of communication, people talking slightly past one another and all the time the creeping machine plods along in the background.
These contradictory phrases are repeated again adding to the sense of machine-like repetition. ‘I laugh until my head comes off/ I swallow till I burst’, the first word interrupts the last ‘children’ of the previous line as if the hyperactive attention span of the singer has been all-off-a-sudden directed towards an entertainment that makes you lose your head. In his novel Infinite Jest David Foster Wallace talks of a movie that is lethally entertaining i.e it is so entertaining that you literally can’t do anything else but watch it, so people watch it again and again and eventually die of dehydration. This capacity for entertainment to empty the human mind and contract the soul and reduce us to mere sacks of bones launching dopamine at the shiny screen disturbed Wallace, as it clearly does Thom Yorke. The head that is the centre of our ability to reason, our ability to step away from our robotic mechanical urges, this head will fall off. The things we consume will make us burst. The machine still chugs away in the background.
Then there’s more repetition; who is in the bunker? This question is now starting to haunt the song, then another non-answer ‘I have seen too much/I haven't seen enough’, more confusion, more contradiction, everything is either too much or not enough. This line always reminds me of the maelstrom that is social media; the vast amount of information is overwhelming, it makes you think it is impossible to know what the truth really is, but at the same time you are burdened with knowledge that you are powerless to do anything about it, knowledge that weakens your resolve, that makes you immobile. I think Thom saw the future of the internet in the recording studio, maybe. Then a further chop-up puts the emergency rescue procedure next to the grotesque warning about entertainment, another strange disorientating juxtaposition. You wonder whether there’s a headless family safe in the bunker watching funny cat videos.
Within all this strange apocalyptic imagery, the chorus rushes in and gives us affirmation with falsetto (the best kind of affirmation): ‘Here I’m allowed everything all of the time’. Again, it brings the internet to my mind; the universe at your fingertips, every song ever recorded, every movie ever filmed, every slice of people’s lives, every meal, every selfie, everything, and it’s open to access at any given opportunity. But there is a gatekeeper, someone must allow us. Of course these gatekeepers have went further than Huxley could’ve imagined; they know that to really control a population you allow them everything. Yorke sings ‘time’ with a descending melody, it runs down wearily, it’s not quite melismatic, it seems divide into chunks, it’s stuttering blocks of time filled with every stupid pleasure imaginable. The machine is still chugging along.
The chords then drop out and it is just human voice and machine. ‘Ice age coming, Ice age coming/Let me hear both sides’, the apocalyptic event has announced itself. Thom Yorke had become obsessed with melting icecaps and changing weather patterns during the recording of Kid A, another prescient concern he had foreseen. The sheer idiocy of centrist debate is laid bare by being situated next to the destruction of the planet; one can imagine a CNN segment ‘Climate Change; real or fake?’ in a shiny studio while all around are human remains, hollowed out mega cities and water engulfing continents. Bipartisan Inferno. I’ve looked at hell from both sides now. The harmony-giving electronic chords stay out of the mix as the voice then proceeds to give its clearest and most urgent statement: ‘We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening, happening’. Finally, the second line is a genuine response to the first, and the voice almost cracks whilst singing ‘happening’ as if a human being is struggling to break free from this digital hellscape to remind them that this is not a TV show, this is not a simulation, this shit is real, and it’s going to destroy everything. But immediately after this vulnerable outburst of striving humanity is ‘Mobiles squerking, Mobiles chirping/Take the money and run’, the distracting technology is back and is making basic meaningless noises and this is followed by the advice that every Oil company CEO is probably following right now ‘Take the money and run’, run to your mansion, your gated community, your spaceship, to your new home on Mars, as long as you have the money, you’ll be ok.
A second chorus follows and its message sounds even more hollow in the aftermath of the second verse. ‘Women and children first’ has been cut up and rearranged as ‘the first and the children’ playing underneath like a found recorded message from the past. There’s something oddly optimistic about the wording, ‘the first’, we have been contemplating the end of the world and now we are brought back to a beginning. Not only that, but there is also a hint of the future with ‘children’, the context of an emergency safety procedure has been stripped away and we are left with a glimmer of a beginning, of a future. The voice then drops out and is abruptly overtaken by a wobbly percussive phasing that palpitates for a brief moment then settles back into that familiar grinding machine; now operating without a voice but just an eerie abstract sound that resembles a haunted wilderness, not unlike Ligeti’s ’Atmospheres’, another piece that has that sound of nature whilst at the same time sounding completely unnatural. We’re left in this haunted landscape for an uncomfortable amount of time, as if to say ‘well, what now?’. We know the problems that Thom Yorke brings up, we know something must be done, we know, and we can feel the obstacles, but we can only sit and listen as the machine keeps grinding away.
Finally, the chords that start the piece return. ‘The first and the children’, that cut up wreckage of an emergency response pops up again, the faint odd hope, and then they disappear, leaving that haunted abstract landscape, the sound of mechanical birds making meaningless noises. The noise. The constant noise. But the machine has stopped, and now it’s difficult to know what to do. At the end you think ‘Was I horrified?’, ‘Was I bored?’, or ‘Was I Dancing?’ It is a danceable track, but in a sort of disco in a nuclear holocaust way. So as we sit in our chairs, staring at the screens, listening to the noise, we feel in our spines that something isn’t right, that something has to give, that if the machine propels us forward it could very well lead us to our destruction without us knowing it, do we tinker with the machine? Do we follow the hums of the electronic screeching, can they be used to steer us away from death and into life, into community, into love? And if not what…
what shall we do now? what shall we do now? what