Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Holding out for a zero

Readers of Welcome to the Machine will be aware of my fondness for the taking-an-idea-for-a-walk-just-to-see-where-it-goes school of interpretation, and my impatience with the banausic notion that the easiest way to get a definitive explanation of what a song's about is to drop an e-mail to the songwriter. So I am smitten with admiration - and not a little jealousy - at the following paragraph, on the talk page for OK Computer's Wikipedia entry:

Has anyone in the band spoken about the level of intent of the title reflecting a 0K Computer? I think that the theme of memorylessness is prevalent with them (e.g. titling an album Amnesiac) so it seems like the most sensible interpretation of the name as a computer with no memory. Yet in an interview with Yorke when asked point blank about the title's meaning he doesn't bring that up (though he doesn't actually answer the question at all, just kind of says the title isn't that relevant to the musical content). I'd be very suspicious that it wasn't intended as a play on the OK/0K duality—I just can't find it stated explicitly anywhere on the web.

HostileFork, whoever you may be, I salute you.

11 comments:

The Bureauista said...

I remember reading a review of Hail to the Thief in which the writer criticised Thom for being overly concerned about ridding his songs of cliche. I think he was implying that the lyrics and motifs were impenetrable not because they meant something particular to Radiohead that none of the rest of us could immediately ascertain but because they had been made so deliberately to prevent anything 'real', and by extension potentially ridiculous, being read into them. [God that was a convoluted sentence. Sorry.]

I was irritated by that review, but it stuck with me, precisely because the lyrics of the songs from that era seemed so meaningful as to have been written ABOUT me. I remember hearing 'all the tapes have been erased' and a shiver running down my spine because it summed up everything about the moment I was living in (another reference to memorylessness, no less!). I found that other friends had similar thoughts, and I wonder what it is about those words - some kind of fluidity - that makes them so relevant to so many different people in some many different situations.

Perhaps I'll have to get your book, Tim.

Valerie said...

Wow. Gotta love HostileFork's comment. That's going to have me thinking for a while... plus, what an apt concept (memorylessness) for the drinking-from-the-firehose information age.

Your book is still teh awes0me, though, Tim.. I'm starting to re-read it while actually listening to OK Computer (which I only had on cassette, originally, and hadn't properly listened to in years).

Tim Footman said...

Bureauista: I think it's perfectly possible to understand the post-OKC material, but it's quite hard to articulate that understanding. Sounds as if the reviewer was in a huff because the album was difficult to review. Tee hee!

Cassette, Valerie? There's something strangely appropriate about that. Is the 0K computer running with a tape drive?

realdoc said...

I think this a level of Radiohead admiration beyond my meagre intellectual capacities.

FirstNations said...

'better stronger' WAS extremely difficult to dance to.

FirstNations said...

...by which i mean to say i agree with you, realdoc. i'm up at 4:am eating paint chips here; don't mind me.

Murph said...

I wonder what he thinks of Adele getting to Number One.

Tim Footman said...

Realdoc and FN have been selected for a prolonged session in a re-education camp.

Murph: As much as he thinks of Peter Kay.

Murph said...

Sorry I meant "A Dell getting to No 1".

hostilefork said...

Hello Tim! Hostile Fork here—quite glad you liked the inquiry. Yet the Wiki article has been expanded a great deal since I made that comment...it now has a story from Yorke:

Yorke explained the title's meaning: "We did this promo trip recently to Japan, and on the last day, we were in a record shop and this one kid shouted at the top of his voice, 'OK COMPUTER!', really, really loud. Then he had 500 people chant it all at once...I got it on tape. It sounds amazing. It reminds me of when Coca-Cola did 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing', that amazing advert in '70...The idea of every race and every nation drinking this soft drink...it's actually a really resigned, terrified phrase..."

Though being both an artist and a programmer myself, I see that story like a template. It's so generic it could explain any album title, a la Mad Libs:

[artist name] explained the title's meaning: "We did this promo trip recently to [country], and on the last day, we were in a record shop and this one kid shouted at the top of his voice, [album title], really, really loud. Then he had 500 people chant it all at once...I got it on tape. It sounds amazing. It reminds me of when Coca-Cola did 'I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing', that amazing advert in '70...The idea of every race and every nation drinking this soft drink...it's actually a really resigned, terrified phrase..."

Works just as well for "Sargeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" as it does for "OK Computer"! That doesn't mean the story isn't *true*, it just doesn't satisfy my personal thirst for intent in art.

If our creative icons are essentially Dadaists, then I guess that's how it is. But after all my years of education and living I seek to be thrilled by something more purposefully cohesive than The CD Cover Game! In fact, I've become almost "religious" about the importance of being mathematically precise in one's communications...and having intent.

On the subject of embedding more immutable meaning into one's work, I recently designed something I call Arecibo ASCII. It's a thought experiment, but I'm actually rather worried about our society's lack of emphasis on intent. We already have "splogs" (spam blogs) by the millions. What happens when all the signal is lost in the noise—and algorithms start making music and videos?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KbulFDXA-k

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQI5Tv2sC9w

Questions for this modern age! Perhaps interesting to you or perhaps not. But feel free to write me as I think about this stuff all the time... :)

HF

Tim Footman said...

Hello Hostile Fork, glad you dropped in. The joy of self-Googling, eh?

I know what you mean about the lack of intent; ties in with postmodern/New Crit ideas about the death of the author, plus a sort of Jungian collective consciousness, almost in anthropological terms (Star Wars as a sort of Zeitgeisty yearning for heroism, rather than a George Lucas project).

But, with specific reference to that OK Computer story, also remember the disconnect between language and meaning. Throughout Asia, you see slabs of English text on t-shirts, notebooks, bags etc, that seem to have no relevance to anything: advertising slogans, poetry, stuff that seems to come from washing-machine instruction booklets. It just looks or sounds right. There was the intent for all those kids to say 'OK Computer', but not necessarily anything beyond that.

That said, the origin of 'OK Computer' as a phrase is clearly with Douglas Adams. Does there need to be any intent (on Radiohead's part, for using it) beyond "it sounded good"?