Thom Yorke: Robots, and Humans, and Cyborgs. Oh, My!


Yorke's signature slanted eye

Behind what many critics have argued as one of the greatest bands in popular music, lies Radiohead’s front man Thom Yorke, a mysterious specimen.

Most listeners of the five man band at least recognize Yorke as an angst-filled English singer with the ability to reach and sustain notes over a wide vocal range using his distinctive vibrato, yet few fully understand the complex singer.

Not only does he possess the capability of registering otherworldly falsettos and cindering vocals, but he uses this subhuman-like talent to infuse Radiohead’s music with a well-simmered audio-soup of fear, robots, humans, emotions, computers, cars, and even lasers; all reflecting Yorke’s wary perspective of the future.

Yorke’s ambivalent view on technology rules the music of Radiohead and can be found within the lyrics, vocal stylings, sound production, and can even be traced back to Yorke’s own childhood.

The Defective Beginning…

Foremost, certain important childhood events left Yorke just as defective as the machines he habitually sings about, spawning his uncertainty with technology and himself.

At birth on October 7, 1968 in Wellingborough, England, Yorke’s left eye was fixed shut.

Told that the eye was paralyzed and that the condition was permanent, the young lad ignored the facts, persisted, and underwent five eye operations before the age of six “to graft a muscle in, like a bionic eye”, resulting in him wearing an eye patch for one year (Marshall).

At the age of six, his last surgery was botched, giving him his signature drooping eyelid, a look Oasis’ Liam Gallagher rudely coined as “fuckin’ cabbaged eyed” (Femalefirst).

This physical flaw burrowed a deep feeling of hurt within Yorke’s heart that, to this very day, ripples through Yorke’s vibrating vocal chords and rattles listeners, evident in his lyrics.

For example, in the track “Reckoner” off of 2007’s In Rainbows, Yorke’s voice trembles at a certain high octave in a desperately honest attempt at showing his comfort with vulnerability, while the violin swells up and down in a wave-like fashion, highlighting Yorke’s vocal trill on the lyrics “You are not to blame…dedicated to all of you.”

Thom Yorke is not too blame for his physical ailment of a partially blind eye, yet he self-loathes just like the rest of humanity. In addition, Radiohead’s debut single and breakthrough slacker anthem “Creep” off of Pablo Honey hints at Yorke’s lack of self-confidence.

About a man who tries to get the attention of a woman but can’t because of his bodily insecurities as reflected in “I wanna have control/I want a perfect body/I want a perfect soul”, Yorke states that he has and still does struggle with image: “I have a real problem being a a man in the ’90s…any man with any sensitivity [of himself] would have a problem” (Sullivan).

In addition, adding to Yorke’s dismay at having a defective eye, he was unable to find comfort in the companionship of friends because his father’s job as a chemical equipment salesman meant the family moved very frequently.

The young, aesthetically blemished Yorke deflected the constant teasing and bullying by absorbing his free time with music. In 1978, when the Yorke family settled in Oxfordshire, the lad received his first guitar at age seven.

By eleven, he had joined his first band called On a Friday with his current Radiohead mates Johny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, and Phil Selway at the all boys public school Abingdon.

Yorke claims that “school was bearable for [him] because the music department was separate from the rest of the school” and “it had pianos in tiny booths, [where he] used to spend a lot of time hanging around after school” (Ross).

Moreover, Abingdon’s isolated music room allowed the precocious lad to discover his musical skills, especially his voice, an attribute of which Yorke is most humble about.

Even with a vocal range spanning the peaks, valleys, and everywhere in between (after all, he never learned to read music); Yorke somehow still manages to find imperfections contained within his prodigy-like voice box, to which he feverishly dissects.

He has been quoted as saying “I have this thing about my own voice on record. No matter what I sing, it sounds really serious, and I sound self-loathing or whatever, which was driving me nuts because that’s not what I was writing” (Marshall).

Incredibly, York utilizes many styles of singing including aggressive shouting in the middle of songs as is the case in “Paranoid Android” and semi-spoken singing for “Myxomatosis”.

Yet, the bloke continues to discredit his own extraordinary talent by claiming that he sounds too pretty and is annoyed at how “polite [he] can sound when perhaps what [he’s] singing is deeply acidic” (With Radiohead).

Yorke could be described as a well-oiled vocal machine, but one with psychological (confidence) kinks that have yet to be worked out.

Additionally, as well as being affected by his ocular deficiency and lack of confidence, Yorke was also deeply affected by a poignant event that occurred after high school, when he postponed university.

He was involved in a car accident with his then girlfriend and current wife Rachel Owen where he was very near to being hit by two other cars coming the other way; the traumatic event made York wary of any kind of mechanized transport.

Yorke strongly believes “the day we have to stop getting in cars will be a very good day” (Marshall). His uncertainty with moving technology is evident in songs such as “killer cars”, “stupid cars”, and “airbag”; a song about “a device that can save your life or malfunction and kill you without a warning” (Auner).

Indeed, there lies a sort of paranoia within the mind of Thom Yorke, a peculiar attribute he seems to recognize and mirror in songs like “Lucky” off of 1997’s OK Computer.

The dirge uses the front man’s vocals to his fullest lung capacity with lyrics of “Pull me out of the aircrash” and “I feel my luck could change”.

Throughout the melancholy tune, Yorke’s afflicted voice plays like a car engine, starting up, staling, and eventually coming to a halt, mimicking the very thing he fears.

Moreover, after leaving Oxford and completing his education at the University of Exeter in 1991, Thom Yorke once again focused on perfecting what he’d like to call an “imperfect” voice when On a Friday resumed.

The group signed to Parlophone under the moniker of Radiohead. After the initial success of their first album, 1993’s Pablo Honey, Yorke didn’t know where he fit in with all the newfound fame and attention.

Cornered in the limelight, he attempted to counteract his awkwardness and off-kilter-looking eye by acting out in typical rock-star fashion.

He hit the self-destruct button pretty quickly which resulted in him randomly cutting his hair off and being unable to perform onstage because of high intoxication.

With an enlarged ego, he further attempted to fit into the rock star motif by bleaching his hair and wearing extensions, a radical change for the freckle-faced, short, small-framed redhead.

This volatile behavior reflects Yorke’s internal struggle at coming to grips with fame and being “right at the sharp end of the sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle” he felt he was helping sell to the world (Reynolds).

Of Metal and Flesh

Furthermore, the collective events and the consequences of adolescence, from the slouchy-eyed look permanently fixed upon Yorke’s face to a near death automobile accident, has built Radiohead’s front man into a man wary of technology, evident in Radiohead’s vast anthology of songs.

Technology, specifically the concept of a human/machine hybrid garners a lot of attention in Radiohead’s music as “a means of reflecting on [Yorke’s] anxieties of what it means to be human in an increasingly technologically mediated space” (Auner).

This friction between the human and the robot can be seen in the way in which the band’s sounds are produced, either through electronic devices or live instrumentation, through metal or flesh.

For instance, 2007’s In Rainbows was a homogeneous mixture of metal and flesh, of synthesizers and raw guitar strumming; “here, Johny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien are playing guitar but they’re playing things that go beep, too” (Molitorisz).

As an admirer of glitch, ambient techno, and IDM, especially artists of Warp Records such as Autechre, Yorke injected the track “All I Need” with soft synth lines, Greenwood’s guitar skills, and reverb on the vocals so that they echo from the stereo.

Even Radiohead’s 2001 album The Bends, with the cover art of a crash test dummy, relies on this programmed/live method.

The self-titled track “takes crunching grunge guitars prevailing in the early 1990s and adds emotion and delicacy” with the inclusion of an orchestral section (Molitorisz).

Also, 2001’s Amnesiac leaned more towards this trend by processing vocals, obscuring lyrics and departing from rock for a more varied musical landscape to include classical, electronic, and jazz.

“How to Disappear Completely” off of 2000’s Kid A, relies on “the lure of minimalesque arrangements that combine both coldness [of a machine] and the warm [of the blood flowing through a human body] in the ambivalent way of contemporary electronica” (Collins).

Yorke, along with the modern age, acknowledge the idea that a traditional instrument such as the piano “now spans the range between the shiny black assemblages of wood, metal and plastic (or ivory) in our living rooms to the music software triggering piano samples on a laptop computer” (Auner).

Artificial Voices and Ventriloquism

Indeed, the boundary between real and simulated sound has been blurred by the creeping up of a technological age, even when it comes to Yorke’s own voice, making for eerie tension in Radiohead’s music.

For example, Yorke often filters his voice through external devices such as a vocoder that make possible a kind of ventriloquism.

The self-titled track Kid A featured heavily processed vocoding that “transforms bewitchingly from reverberation to feedback to distortion” (Collins).

Modified voices like automated speech on a phone, and artificially generated voices also make their way into much of Radiohead’s soundscapes, either enhancing the emotion or highlighting the shallowness of the song.

Sometimes, vocal samples and voices are lifted off vinyl, creating a popping, scratchy-grit-filled effect that blankets Yorke’s own voice and manipulates lyrics into mangled, merely inaudible lines of subliminal-messages.

Many tracks off of OK Computer contain “human voices that are sampled and repeated in the form of constant loops against highly processed or digitally generated speech that sounds as though a machine [or alien] were speaking to us”, as is just the case in “Fitter Happier” (Auner).

In the futuristic sounding tune, Thom Yorke “is replaced by a not very sophisticated voice synthesizer comparable to the ‘Fred’ voice included with the Macintoch SimpleText program”.

The voice goes on reciting a litany of self-help phrases such as “not drinking too much/ regular exercise at the gym (three days a week)/ getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries/ at ease/ eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats)”.

Behind this ‘Fred’ voice, voices of the stereotypical square, white, male of invisible authority drones on with a fragmented dialogue (“this is the panic office…activate the following procedures”) that sounds as if filtered through an intercom, then gets washed away by a piano messily tumbling over sparse notes.

Giving the Machine a Heart

Moreover, by Yorke’s conscious effort to inject the very technology he fears right into Radiohead’s music, he is given a heart like the archetypal Tin-man.

He has called “Fitter Happier” the “most upsetting thing he had ever written” and that the “Macintosh voice was the most emotional voice he’d ever heard” (Auner). York didn’t use his own voice on the song in order for it to be unpretentious.

There is something strangely human-like about the way a computer sounds, not getting the pronunciation correct or stumbling over words and allowing for human error, like the way in which some people stutter or stagger over vocabulary.

There exists a type of irony in much of Radiohead’s tunes, possibly because humans and Yorke will always find a way to attach themselves to a song, no matter how robotic or unnatural it may sound.

For example, The ‘Fred’ voice in “Fitter Happier” comes off as so uninflected and neutral “with its empty phrases and artificial quality” that it takes on an almost heroism in its “stoic continuity” (Auner).

In “Karma Police”, another song off of OK Computer, “an electronic sound gradually envelops the singing voices, finally disintegrating into noise and distortion, before abruptly being shut off, as if a switch had been thrown” (Auner).

Layered vocal loops play, while at the end, the lead vocals skip and stammer as if a tape were stuck, or Yorke were experiencing technical difficulties articulating himself. In a dualist nature, there is a human aspect to every machine aspect.

Even though “Karma Police” ends suddenly as if a switch had been turned off, involving electricity, there exists a sliver of humanness in the song; after all, a switch being thrown requires the helping hand of a human, if only for a second.

Processing Language as 010010101000101010…

In addition, the posthuman, artificial/real voices featured throughout some of Radiohead’s most successful albums reflect a postmodern view on language.

This view recognizes the instability of language as is the case in “Fitter Happier”, where “the status of [the] technological modifications of speech is an extension of the concept of poetic defamiliarization of language” (Auner).

Words have become nothing more than a collection of letters, a typographical chain of nothingness, because some things in life don’t make sense as is reflected in the album Hail to the Thief’s track entitled “2 + 2 = 5”, an allusion to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

In “Everything in its Right Place” off of OK Computer, Yorke’s vocals are layered heavily over one another, building up into a thick jumble of words that ultimately confuses the listener and leaves no clues or answers as to what Yorke is lyrically explaining.

Language is nothing but recycled fluff to some, only worthy of making “us hear the ways in which the media pervade the most private recesses of our psychic lives” (Woods).

Some theorists believe that language will extinguish itself in time and sentences might as well be represented in the binary numeral system as ones (humans) and twos (machines).

Fearing the Machine

However, even though Yorke has no problem speaking about or even mimicking technology in his band’s music, he still remains ambivalent about anything mechanical, even fearful of the future.

Most Radiohead songs perfectly exhibit York’s idea of technology as a potentially scary, but useful entity. The tune “Climbing up the Walls” refers to a deep-rooted fear and the pronoun “I” is used as if it where actually a human.

That “I” would always be there even when you “open up your skull”; it also warns you to “not cry out or hit the alarm”. Radiohead’s sixth album Hail to the Thief, released in 2003, was written as a reaction to the events of the 2000’s such as Y2K and out of fear for his children’s future in a quickly approaching posthuman and postmodern world.

It appears that Yorke realizes that as our world becomes more and more filled with images of “cyborgs, artificial reality and cloning…the borders between authentic human presence and the machine [become] increasingly permeable and unstable” and this scares the man (Auner).

Within Yorke, there truly lives a paranoia about computers taking over the world, yet he has stated that “they’re just sitting there…[he] can hit them with a two by four” (Marshall).

Yet, two by fours were once just raw logs, hauled on a truck to some factory, where machines were used to cut them down to size. Technologically is inescapable.

The singer worries about the computer age and the fact that people know so much about one another just by using the internet.

Yorke takes on the “Big Brother” stance of paranoia, fearing that “in the future, the balance of power won’t be determined by who has the most nuclear weapons, but by who has all the information” (Marshall).

The lyrics throughout OK Computer further this theory, where throughout the album there exists an omniscient camera in a secret room that watches “the character who walks in – a different character for each song”; the camera’s not quite Yorke. “It’s neutral, emotionless, but not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite” (Marshall).

In Rainbows: Aware of a Postmodernism and Technology

Furthermore, Yorke’s latest musical endeavor with Radiohead, 2007’s In Rainbows, marks a turning point for the band – uncomplicated, user-friendly sound.

This willingness to forego complex string arrangements and mangled, gritty guitar loops shines a postmodern light on the group. The closer Radiohead’s sounds head toward popular music, the more postmodern they become.

For instance, “Faust Arp” uses simple, classic, familiar pop string accents and finger-picked acoustic guitars to “traffick in popular cultural images” all the while resisting ‘high’ art forms (Woods).

The album’s opener “15 Step” features a choppy, programmed drum intro that comes close enough to electronica-style experimentation that popular postmodern music would allow.

“Bodysnatchers” favors the more traditional verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus structure as opposed to Radiohead’s usual dramatically building progression.

Yes, in typical postmodern fashion, In Rainbows is both shallow, yet complicated; a fine contradiction. For instance, Yorke reminds us of his complex, ambivalent relationship with technology on the track “Videotape”.

In the song, the bassline seems to promise a climax that never actually shows up, causing the listener (already on pins and needles) to feel what Yorke feels: an uncertainty and tension with the future’s technology.

An unstable drum beat pushes against the melody in a thirsty attempt at throwing it off, but Yorke fights against it: “You are my center when I spin away/ Out of control on videotape.”

He struggles with his topsy-tervy relationship concerning the future. The song might be a reminder of those quality, nostalgic days “in red blue green” when everything is in its right place.

To Yorke, life is as it should be when he surrounds himself with his family, referring to Yorke’s children, who’s future he has revealed he fears for in this industrially growing nation, a nation he has observed as frightening through his partially blind eye.

Thus, In Rainbows includes the usual Yorkian paranoia that complicates much of Radiohead’s albums, yet the inclusion of pop melodies and such familiarities earns the CD a place on the shelves of almost anyone who is willing to lend an ear, or at least a heart.

The Future

Thom Yorke, still ambivalent about technology, has found at least one outlet for comfort with the future: a new band.

In 2009, Thom Yorke joined forced with Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, drummer Joey Waronker, and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco to create the group Atoms for Peace.

The group’s songs are “clearly influenced by recent dance trends such as jungle and dubstep, but with live instrumentation instead of electronic settings, they also recall the moment punk found its hips” (Powers).

Yorke takes all of his anxieties and lingering pains and turns them into a form of rapture, which is a “natural fit for dance music, which offers ecstacy through bodily entanglement and exhaustion” evident in Yorke’s spastic, mechanical dance moves (Powers).

Yorke’s angst and uneasiness about the possibility of posthumanism still exists, but he’s bottled it up for a future Radiohead album.

Works cited

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