Chords of Consciousness: Radiohead's "Idioteque"

Welcome to Chords of Consciousness, a weekly column that will chronicle political, social, and sexual activism in music. Each week I'll examine a song and attempt to answer the questions "Why did it strike a chord?" and "Why does it still?"

Editors note: Activist expression isn't always polite, inclusive, or nuanced. This column will sometimes include songs with explicit language and uncomfortable subject matter in the name of art. If that's not your style, it's no big deal. We hope you'll explore our other original content. 

On the eve of the 21st century, there were two widely held beliefs. The first was that Radiohead, the British rock band that was responsible for 1997's escapist masterpiece OK Computerwas not only Nirvana's rival as the most critically acclaimed band of the decade, but they were the best band in the world, period. The second was that numerical computer programming could prove the downfall of modern society, and preempt global catastrophe. 

It's no coincidence that entering 2000 at the height of its powers, Radiohead deliberately chose to synthesize (literally and figuratively) the fear and utter calamity surrounding the crash course of globalization, overpopulation, and technological advance. It was as if they were calmly standing at the intersection where all three would inevitably collide - taking wagers on how many would survive. If it sounds like a bleak outlook for Kid A, an album that would change Radiohead's sound and musical approach forever, it was. Thom Yorke's songwriting frequently touched on the cruelty of existence (see Paranoid Android, Let Down, Exit Music, Fake Plastic Trees, Killer Cars, etc), but until this point he'd never predicted natural disaster and human consumption as the reason. Enter Idioteque

Here I'm allowed, everything all of the time
Here I'm allowed, everything all of the time
Ice age coming, ice age coming
Let me hear both sides
Let me hear both sides

Amidst a four-chord swelling synth pattern, a stark naked looped drum sample, and assorted "computerized" noises Radiohead set the backdrop for an apocalyptic foray into what happens when shit hits the fan. People in huddled in bunkers. Looting. People frantically ushering "women and children first" to safety. It's a cold sound, almost as icy as the imagery itself, yet the steady pulse of the percussion creates a frenetic feel to the song, like a ticking clock. I used to tell my wife, 'Radiohead creates soundtracks to worlds we've never been to." Well, the world of Idioteque is a warning, not a welcome.  

Given the band's stances on global environmental policy and their infrequent, eco-friendly touring methods, it's not hard to connect the dots between the line "Here I'm allowed, everything all of the time" and a rampant disregard for Earth's finite resources by governments, private industry, and humans as a whole. Thom Yorke blatantly acknowledges that we as a species not only consume without haste, but reject the consequences of consumption that stare us in the face - scarcity of land, water, fights for resources, systemic fear, even anarchy. At the time of Kid A, the Internet was proving a powerful tool for the sharing of scientific research, and climate change was entering the everyday lexicon where it would stay to the present day. "Let me hear both sides" is a plea to make sense of the chaos, but it's also an extended middle finger from Yorke to those who claim that there are even sides to be taken, because in the next verse he beckons "We're not scaremongering, this is really happening."

That's why Idioteque is still relevant today (aside from the fact that it stands as one of the enduring singles for an iconic band and is actually oddly danceable?). Despite scientific consensus, despite mounting evidence, despite shattered warming record after shattered warming record, and a prevalence of seasonal extremes, the mentality of a resistant breed of Earth dwellers remains "Here I'm allowed, everything all of the time." It's 2016 - far too early to call Radiohead's Idioteque prophetic, but definitely a point where we can look to it as one of the early pieces of post-industrial paranoia, and a cautionary tale of what happens when societies give-in to impulse and only get impulse in return. 

Here's a great live version from Glastonbury in 2003