Post-Industrial Noise in Meeting People is Easy
Grant Gee’s 1998 documentary Meeting People is Easy, which follows rock band Radiohead on their OK Computer tour, is often wildly kinetic, sometimes eerily static but always bubbling under the surface with distortion and static. The harmony of imagery and sound is powerful enough at points to lure the viewer into a sense of awe at the dynamic music of the band and the quiet, elusive, “artistic” personalities of the musicians. However, this film does much more than simply promote or document the band or the tour. In many ways, it functions as a visual companion to the “Paranoid Android” vision of OK Computer.
At the center of the film’s universe, and the album’s, is the highly ambiguous concept of NOISE. The soundtrack buzzes with weird sounds that weave in and out of snatches of interviews, conversations, songs, and natural sounds. Along with this “radio wave” effect is a dazzling series of edits that juxtapose quickly moving shots with stills, slow tracking shots, time-lapse photography, and color/black and white film and video, creating an unnerving effect that almost literally echoes the band’s sonic landscape.
Although OK Computer is a critique of a dehumanizing, simulated environment, the music itself, and the band’s aesthetic, are born of the noise created by post-industrial civilization. Many scenes throughout the documentary for instance, the slow pans across a crumbling, desolate Berlin use aural and visual cues to connect the band on tour to the bleak urban environments in which they find themselves. Lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood recalls an inspiration, saying that he remembers one sound in particular as “lots of glass and chrome and all that” and refers to the album as being “kind of white and shiny.” He talks about his music in the language of the urban denizen, and finds inspiration as well as critique in the noise of a post-industrial city. Jonny’s description of the album as being “white and shiny” literally brings to mind the packaged, mass-produced product that the music becomes when it is released in a white, shiny CD cover and distributed all over the world to millions of Radiohead fans.
The band, before their show in Barcelona, is seen pacing anxiously while waiting to appear onstage. Over this footage, we hear the sound of a vocal rehearsal, obviously taking place at another time, perhaps even another place, pointing toward a disjunction occurring between the bandmembers’ bodies and their voices and music. They have created something that seems distinct from them as individuals, and as product, it actually spins out of their control and into the sphere of mass marketing. On tour, Radiohead must play the songs they carefully crafted over and over, ad nauseam. The out-of-sync vocal rehearsal begs the question of whether those voices, and the music in general, still belong to the bandmembers once it becomes commodity, transmitted by electronic pulses over television and radio waves.
The notion of the music, and the tour, slipping out of the control of the band is repeated in a scene in which lead singer Thom Yorke mopes around alone in his hotel room after being insulted at a club in Manhattan. Over this scene, we hear the lyrics, “When it began I was so happy / I didn’t even feel like me,” suggesting that even Yorke’s music, which presumably makes him “happy,” becomes alienating to him, once it becomes a piece of a package (tour, press conference, T-shirts). Later, Thom, venting his frustration with the long touring schedule, describes an early show in Glastonbury as producing a “feeling that wasn’t human.”
The idea that the music becomes somehow nonhuman, alienating even for the musician, is compounded in the way that Yorke perceives modern radio, and the hype surrounding pop music. He sees it as noise. In one interview he speaks of how American radio stations play music for the advertisers, and not the listeners. He compares “modern rock” (including his own song, “Creep”) to the “buzzing ‘fridge” image conjured up in “Karma Police.” “I’m just hearing buzz” he says, and we hear buzz, buzz, buzz throughout the film as the noise of the hype machine, and various unidentified sonic transmissions, blend with the songs on OK Computer. Yorke declares, “Let them call it a concept album . . . it’s just fucking noise anyway. We’ve done our job, it just adds to the noise.” He refers to the hype surrounding the album, but words his statement so that he could just as well be referring to the hype as adding to the “noise” of the album. The sound of the bandmembers’ voices, roughly harmonizing before the concert in Barcelona, becomes, part of the intricate layering of sounds, the noise which permeates the sonic atmosphere of the film.
Visually, Meeting People is Easy creates a confined, automated world with little organic respite. Moving through subway tunnels, escalators, airport terminals, buses, jet fuselages, the camera creates a sense of confinement and paranoia, adding to the irony of the digitized voice that begins the film (and the album), promising “No more paranoia . . . pragmatism, not idealism . . . no longer empty and frantic . . .” But the spaces through which the camera moves are largely empty of life, even if the jumpy editing is indeed frantic, frantically documenting the few people in sight going nowhere. Trains, buses, and airplanes carry the band from one cramped, inhospitable city to another, one small, impersonal hotel room to the next: there is an allegory at work, linking the rigors of the tour and the banal rigors of a plasticized, digitized world.
It’s a Brave New World scenario to be sure, apt not only in the context of Radiohead’s vision, but in the actual media frenzy that envelops postmodern civilization in an endless stream of meaningless sound bites and headlines. The band on tour, at the nucleus of such a frenzy the “buzz” around them in 1998, when they won best album of the year from NME seems to exist in a microcosmic approximation of the creepy world they critique in OK Computer. A world where “fitter and happier” means bloated and sedated, and in this condition, as Thom Yorke observes, “they got you by the balls.”