Everybody thinks Radiohead’s 2003 album, Hail to the Thief, is a nod to the US Presidential election of 2000—an election that may have been stolen amidst confusion and debate about election-results reporting, voting booth design, hanging chads and recounts that were finally ended by a Bush-friendly supreme court decision.
But Thom Yorke and other band members denied this, with Yorke eventually telling Rolling Stone (in May, 2004) that he had a different presidency in mind—that of John Quincy Adams whose election in 1824 was similarly deadlocked, decided by the House of Representatives, and beset by rumors about back-room deals among powerful Washingtonians.
Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive
(Open Court; US: Apr 2009)
But I wonder if Yorke was being entirely candid. For what better occasion is there for thinking about famous shenanigans and power-plays in US political history than contemporary shenanigans and power-plays, especially when they have historic and bloody consequences? For after September 11th and during the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Yorke and Co. were planning, writing, and recording the album in question.
In fact, Yorke thinks about political power a lot. But you’d be wrong to assume he takes a narrow, traditional view that associates political power with small groups or individuals—Kings, Presidents, Superheroes or media moguls, for example. As Brandon Forbes shows in the book Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive, Yorke takes power to be something that resides, at least partly, in those over whom it’s exercised.
If so, Yorke is in fine philosophical company, including Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt. And so video director Jamie Thraves, whose stunning video for “Just” (from The Bends) is, as Forbes explains, a perfect illustration of Yorke’s and Arendt’s conception of social power: When you’re being controlled, “you do it to yourself”—at least in part, “and that’s what really hurts.”
As I write, there’s a lot of pain in Iran. Some are predicting that a stolen presidential election will energize the population to finally reject the regime that’s held power since 1979 and seems bent on using violence to maintain it. But, as Yorke’s “Planet Telex” should remind those progressive Iranians who may feel that their own democratic power has been crushed or taken away, the truth is the opposite: “You can crush it but it’s always here/you can crush it but it’s always near.”
Kid A cover (partial)
Adapted from, “Where Power Ends and Violence Begins”, by Brandon W. Forbes, in Radiohead and Philosophy: Fitter Happier More Deductive, Open Court, 2009, 173–81.
“All power tends to corrupt,” goes the tired aphorism from Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” One need only look to recent political history to see the resonance of this statement, as the list of despots and dictators that haunt the 20th century, as well as the 21st, is long indeed.
In our current political climate in the West, we associate such evils as torture, terror, and the existence of a dreaded secret police with totalitarian power—the ultimate form of absolute power, a power that crushes individual freedom, the fundamental principle of liberal democracy, through violence and terror. The many books and films about the problem of totalitarianism speak not just against the possible rise of absolute power in our governments, but also of our intense fear and anxiety about losing freedom and democracy to a violent power. The War on Terror’s desperate co-opting of the Manichean rhetoric of the World War II/Cold-War era is one example of this fear’s hold on contemporary America’s national conscience. Its very name is another.
Radiohead seem especially attuned to this fear of the tie between violence and power. From OK Computer to Hail to the Thief, their records consistently portray a world rife with terror, despondency, and violence. Piggies squeal, bruises don’t heal, and police arrest citizens for random crimes like offensive hairdos or annoying conversational habits. Knives come out, armies are taken out, and bodies float down muddy rivers. Little men are erased, young blood is effaced, and the feeling of being strangled, beaten, and skinned-alive is never far. Radiohead seem to live in a violent world.
This world not only sounds nightmarish, it looks it, too. Stanly Donwood’s sleeve art, from Kid A and after, especially, depicts wide-eyed demonic creatures weeping, screaming, or perpetrating violent acts. The hidden booklet behind the CD tray on Kid A is especially disturbing. Creatures kick each other with razor-sharp feet, drip blood from their claws, and gather with machine guns and masks under the ironic headline “Glamorous.”
The cover of Hail to the Thief, which uses a painting of Donwood’s called “Pacific Coast”, further exemplifies the terror and anxiety found in these disturbing creatures. Utilizing blocks and blocks of text, the painting translates social anxiety into a wall of media-crazed buzz words like “Oil”, “Fear”, and “Security”, all the while aping a map of Los Angeles. One can easily recall the alienated fear of Pink from The Wall here, as each block adds yet another moment to the individual’s feeling of separation and powerlessness.
Yet Radiohead also present an optimism—of sorts, at least—in the face of power. They depict moments of resistance in which they rear a defiant head. The moving “I Will” from Hail to the Thief features a resilient Yorke promising to “rise up” in the face of overwhelming odds, promising not to let anything happen “to my children.” Amnesiac’s “I Might Be Wrong”, while channeling an anxiety that sees “no future left at all,” still urges us to “think about the good times and never look back.” And Kid A’s “Optimistic” offers the consolation that trying the best you can is good enough, even if one feels utterly powerless, like “nervous messed up marionettes floating around on a prison ship.”
So how are we to understand power and violence as political subjects? Does power always give birth to violence? Are power and violence even the same thing?