Radiohead has long served as rock's modern heroes. Arcade Fire thinks so. Coldplay thinks so. Even Kanye has stepped down from his throne and acknowledged the band's influence. But at the core of Radiohead's music, there's always been a larger and more prophetic message than most musicians ever muster. Theirs is socially conscious art that speaks to the ills of society. 1997's OK Computer was about technological alienation; 2003's Hail to the Thief centered on political reform; 2011's The King of Limbs was all about environmental concerns.
They're the seers of the rock world. The response to Kid A, Pitchfork's best record of the 2000s, was especially keen on this point. Released in 2000, the album was later noted by music critic Chuck Klosterman as a bizarrely accurate prediction of the Sept. 11 attacks. Pigeons & Planes wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about other things Radiohead predicted, but there's actually some legitimacy to Radiohead's visionary status. They may not see the future, but they see more clearly than anyone else how the present is shaping up — which is itself a sort of foretelling.
"People sometimes say we take things too seriously, but it's the only way you'll get anywhere," frontman Thom Yorke said in an early interview, back in 1991. "We're not going to sit around and wait and just be happy if something turns up. We are ambitious. You have to be."
More than two decades later, those ambitions have cemented the band as one of rock's most prescient acts. Here are six songs where Radiohead saw the present and the future more clearly than any of us.
"Pop Is Dead" sees the homogenous rise of pop music.
The songs of Radiohead's early days still emphasize an important idea: that pop music will become homogenous and everything sounds exactly the same. "Oh no, pop is dead, long live pop / It died an ugly death by back-catalogue," Yorke sings. It's a line that foreshadows his harsh criticism of the music industry — and especially Spotify, which he called "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse."
With the popularity of apps like Shazam leading to the "Shazam Effect," it's clear that mainstream music is increasingly less about good songwriting and more about commercialism. Radiohead prematurely eulogized that decline back in 1993, but they knew it would come soon. "It will only be a matter of time — months rather than years — before the music business completely folds," Yorke once said. "[It will be] no great loss to the world." That mix of apocalypticism and optimism suits a band that pioneered one of the most successful new models for selling music: pay what you want.
"No Surprises" nails suburban sprawl.
The OK Computer track paints an all-too familiar portrait of a picturesque suburban life that is far from perfect: "I'll take a quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide." Yorke saw the environmental implications of suburban living even when global warming wasn't a popular talking point. As of last year, about 50% of all U.S. household emissions came from the suburbs alone, mostly due to the carbon dioxide emissions from commuting between city centers. Understanding the impact of carbon footprints is something Yorke has long struggled with too, especially on tour. When the Guardian asked if he felt hypocritical playing live arena shows, a growing concern for stadium rock concerts, he responded frankly: "Yep. Absolutely."
"Fitter Happier" predicts the iPhone and Apple Watch.
Much of 1997's OK Computer was about the unemotional and unavoidable integration of technology into our daily lives — the title is enough evidence. But the Stephen Hawking-esque computer voice of "Fitter Happier" is a great snapshot of the album's concept, and it's an oddly good forecast of where technology like the Apple Watch has taken us. "Fitter, happier, more productive / Comfortable / Not drinking too much / Regular exercise at the gym," the voice intones. We can quickly "keep in contact with old friends" (Facebook). We can "eat well" (apps like Nutrino). We can keep "sleeping well" with "no bad dreams" (Sleep Cycle). The end of all these apps and our constant monitoring is, in part, the reduction of every person to a data point, of every life to a set of efficient proceedings.
"Palo Alto" shows what Silicon Valley was becoming.
An early version of "Palo Alto" was included on the OK Computer collector's edition, but the track originally appeared in the band's 1998 Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP. The song feels like a lost track within their vast catalogue, yet it offers an early, astute observation of the booming California tech scene and where it was headed. After they toured Xerox and several other tech companies in 1996, the city became Radiohead's inspiration for a "happy" but busy place in the future: "In a city of the future / It is difficult to find a space / I'm too busy to see you / You're too busy to wait."
This song precedes Google's first office in Palo Alto by about three years. In the past 10 years, real estate prices have more than doubled; Palo Alto has become a futuristic landscape where life is only getting busier.
"Idioteque" predicts the obstacles in the debate over climate change.
It's hard to ignore the outward calls for awareness in 2000's "Idioteque," especially when the lyrics turn political: "We're not scare-mongering / This is really happening." At times, its electronic spareness feels apocalyptic. The cover of the album is even a picture of ice surrounded by water.
It's a clear foreshadowing of many environmental discussions over the past decade, many of which have dealt with accusations of scare-mongering. But Radiohead has kept an unflinching focus on global warming for a while now. "My son really loves wildlife," Yorke told Friends of the Earth in 2007. "And every time he draws a polar bear, I want to tell him there probably won't be any by the time... he's my age. That's kinda hard to deal with."
Environmental concerns persisted in Radiohead's music for several more years, as evident in 2011's The King of Limbs. The album title was inspired by one of Britain's oldest trees, and its deluxe edition was deemed the world's first "newspaper album." The accompanying materials (featuring two vinyl records, numerous pieces of art and "a piece of oxo-degradable plastic to hold it all together") were offset by the Universal Sigh project, which measured and negated the carbon footprint of the newspaper's release.
The video for "Pyramid Song" depicts the effects of rising sea levels.
The video for "Pyramid Song" features a city completely underwater. Cars, houses and people now exist at the bottom of some mysterious ocean. Similar to "Idioteque," the video served as a call for change. But 2006, when the video was released, was a benchmark year for global warming. It was the hottest year Britain had seen since 1659, and some legislation in the U.S., like the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, was finally starting to take effect. Radiohead was at the forefront, using their music to advocate for awareness early on. It wasn't until much later that the rest of the world took notice; now, rising sea levels are only getting much, much worse. We could all benefit from a bit of Radiohead's foresight.
Correction: April 10, 2015
An earlier version of this article implied that "Pop Is Dead" was released in 1995. It was released in 1993.