Thursday, April 12, 2012

fitter, happier, more productive

I've gotten a lot of grief recently about not being clear in defining what I consider avant-garde or culturally significant art, so I thought I'd give you a better sense of what I mean through an an exemplar piece of work from an artist that has boggled my mind and society's mind since the early '90's.

Hailed by the notoriously elitist Pitchfork as the best album of the 1990s, Radiohead’s OK Computer not only delivers an impeccable sound but also captures the essence of the Digital Age. Though not explicitly recognized as a concept album or ordered as a narrative, its lyrics and album artwork resonate a common theme: dystopia. OK Computer expresses how the Digital Age has transformed the roles of the working class, the corporations, and the government, and the fears of what our affection for technology may lead to.  It reflects on the aftermath of an order, the world before industrial technology and global politics, disrupted by the pollution of dangerously powerful technology, values dictated by hyper-consumerism and capitalistic interest, and political apathy. Yet, the album does not leave us without hope, for it forces us to reckon with the true culprit of the matter and guard ourselves with the necessary set of ethics to keep from falling victim. Because OK Computer’s widespread reach and influence has blossomed the album to an extremely significant and particularly meaningful emblem of our generation, the message and ‘call to action’ behind the art plays a central role in popular culture. 

OK Computer gives life to a polluted order. Packaged in modern ethics, or lack thereof, the pollution is the notion of solving all of our most intricate problems using technology, the idea of material possession as the chief unit of measure, and the concept of the democratic government gradually losing its power. “Fitter Happier,” with a prophetic voice, is the most emblematic song of the technologic takeover, of machines dictating our very being. The lyrics, essentially a laundry list of actions to take in order to regulate and automate human behavior, describe a machine that is running a program to ensure a “fitter, happier, more productive” public. The agenda “more productive” should be given special attention because it is key to understanding the climate of the polluted order where personal worth is judged on productivity. 

In response to pollution, society has attempted to stretch the old order to encompass the new perspective. Because the shift was incrementally achieved, an illusion exists that old ethics have been preserved.  Yet, the dissonance between the old and the new is far too great for the standards to coexist. “Karma Police” perfectly embodies this struggle for power. From the experience of the narrator, a citizen living in the polluted order, we are able to get a sense of what it is like to live under such circumstances. He goes back and forth between what he has to do and who he is, which makes clear that his morals are not compatible with his duties in society. The narrator painfully repeats, “For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself/Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself,” but it is not obvious which part of himself he has lost. From the lyrics, we understand that he suddenly gained an awareness of right from wrong and a sense of duty to report the crimes committed by his peers; the karma police is in fact his conscience. Then he remembers “I’ve given all I can/But we’re still on the payroll,” and he sinks back into the order of bureaucratic society. No matter how many times the circumstances play out, the only solution he sees to disband this cognitive dissonance is to choose to remain a member of society and thus forgo his values. Keeping up with the polluted order means losing the good – there is no place for selflessness, freethinking, or patriotism. And the result: a desensitized, disconnected, and disenchanted heap of people. 

“No Surprises” most perfectly encapsulates what pollution has made of our lives. “A heart that's full up like a landfill/A job that slowly kills you/Bruises that won't heal/You look so tired-unhappy.” Our protagonist has conformed to a lifestyle dictated by bureaucratic culture, which has suffocated his being. He sings, “Bring down the government,” but his lackluster tone of voice shows he does not even believe in what he is saying.  He may only be revisiting his ambitions as a young man, now clich├ęd and ludicrous as an adult. In fact, this is his “final fit,” “final bellyache” and there will be nothing but “silent silence” from him here on out. He has accepted what his life has become and will die in complacency. He muses, “Such a pretty house and such a pretty garden” to justify the passion for life he has compromised.

OK Computer is a tale of modern alienation. In the words of British rock critic, Nick Kent, “It cast a complicated spell over millions, who found something deeply illuminating in the record's insinuated struggle to find a humane set of values amid the numbing paraphernalia of the lap-top mind-set." The album is a reminder to think for yourself instead of allowing computers and corporations to think for you. It is encouragement to take control of your life by relying on nothing but your own mind. And, it is a warning of what the future could look like if you neglect the individual. OK Computer is truly an avant-garde piece of work, not just of the musical distinction, but of genius in all realms, against all criteria. With a simultaneously modern and futuristic vision, this album makes a very important social observation that will be relevant for decades to come, so long as the influence of technology and corporations continues to reign over society.