“Airbag” by Radiohead
I’ve come to believe that there are two masterpiece records that not only predicted the political, cultural and even emotional condition of the 21st century, but expressed them musically and lyrically in such a way as to leave themselves open to years of listening and thoughtful reflection. The first was David Bowie’s Heroes LP, released in 1977, and the other was Radiohead’s OK Computer, which debuted twenty years later and recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The album and CD covers of these collections also display thought-provoking artwork subtly adding to the message of their music, Bowie poses in an oddly Vulcan-like, emotionally removed posture, and Radiohead’s is a near-abstract, blurred looped highway adorned with other clues to the record’s contents and message.
OK Computer opens powerfully with its most forceful and arguably best track, “Airbag,” penned by the band from the ideas of its leader, Thom Yorke. The song commences with an immediate production assault, courtesy of the band and the album’s co-producer, Nigel Godrich. Just as with Heroes, whose brilliance is enhanced by the production team of Bowie, Brian Eno, and Tony Visconti, “Airbag” and all of the songs of OK Computer soar to previously unheard heights of artistic and technical wonder. Both albums are thematically unified masterworks of rock composition, recording, and musicianship.
The conceptual undercurrent of “Airbag” and OK Computer goes farther than holding up a mirror to society’s emotional gutting in the face of obsessive commercialism, the feeding frenzy to satisfy the hunger of the capitalistic “commodity fetish.” Radiohead brings in the world’s dependence on the machine and its deadening, defeatist qualities, expressing the idea from several viewpoints and woeful tales. I am reminded of the hard-hitting forces and revelations of the groundbreaking work by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in the film 2001. In that movie, it’s not the manmade computer, HAL, that is absolutely threatening to our person and emotions. It is the idea of a human living out his days in the presence of “The Sentinel,” the sleekly constructed, inexplicably perfect machine of unknown origin, a machine about which he will never have any hope of comprehending, leaving him confused and unsure of his meaning and place in the universe.
In 1997, I’d never heard a song by Radiohead, but my younger coworkers at the time were all talking about the power of OK Computer. For some reason, I sensed that this album might be “the real deal” offering heights of music I’d longed for since the end of the 1970s. I sat down late one evening and put the CD on for a first listen. As the guitars of “Airbag” soared and pulsated around the room that night, I kept track with the lyric sheet like a boy checking his baseball score card at Yankee Stadium as he witnesses a perfect game. This was exactly what I’d been searching for from popular music for a long time. Everything worked for me, especially the masterful and innovative guitar work of Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien. Colin Greenwood’s sparse bass playing in “Airbag” is mixed abstractly and beautifully with drummer Phil Selway’s pounding, and the effect transfixes the listener. I later learned that Selway had played a phrase which was looped and reconfigured through various tricks of production giving it an uneven, automatic and unreal feel.
Yorke, sings his guts out about the future during “Airbag.” He hits on something about the current world as well, something I’d always sensed around me but had not yet fully realized or been able to articulate. It was a naked exposure of the inter-emotional landscapes of people and how they were shifting quickly because of the currents set loose by technology, those from computers, TV and movies, and by obsessive advertisers trying every trick of the cultural book to sell their wares. And of course, the song was a warning sign about the rising tide of a fairly new thing at the time, called the Internet.
The story of “Airbag” is told in minimal lyrics, just a handful of lines. It’s a life life/death/life story taking place during a World War. The protagonist, Yorke, is in his fast German automobile and is saved from a horrific crash and his demise by the car’s airbag. We hear of how in the “deep, deep sleep of the innocent, I am born again” and how “in an interstellar burst, I’m back to save the universe”, sung with the powerful lamentation of a lonely soul surviving in a cold, sterile, yet still somehow mysteriously miraculous world. Yorke seems to be relating that we are all born to a fantastic uniqueness, each of us with the mission to save our immediate social and familial worlds, yet surrounded by machine, metal, and flashing neon lights, we forget our purpose, and thus, who we are, very early in life.
Bowie sang these lyrics in 1977 on Heroes, “Sons of the Silent Age, don’t walk, they glide in and out of life/They never die, they just go to sleep one day”; “Airbag” and OK Computer updated and upgraded that sentiment. The lead song on Bowie’s masterwork, the well-known ‘”Heroes”’ is an in-your-face drama about the Cold War and about the machine emotions of the times. Bowie’s lovers kiss amongst the guns blazing in the sky, holding on to each other amid the crazed war machine. In 1997, Yorke is alone, reborn with a flourish of a profound interstellar burst that no one bothers to find significance in but himself. He’ll lock himself away until his next fatal car crash and subsequent rebirth.
Radiohead saw the world at that time, saying “here we all are and this is where we are all going.” The first line of OK Computer and “Airbag” is, “In the next World War” and I took it to mean today’s World War, the current, ever-present World War of people and their deadening machines creeping, seeping in from all directions. Sure, a machine can drive you around and a machine can give you the joy and the art of recording unfathomable, timeless music. Yet, we live in a time when many of us are failing to notice or bother to think about the possibly irreversible emotional price we are paying for the non-stop technological life we’ve all willingly and complicatedly chosen to lead.