Study Guide

Fake Plastic Trees Lyrics

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Her green plastic watering can

Quick Thought

This is a must-have item for every gardener. 

Deep Thought

Watering cans are used to get water to those places that the hose can't reach, to water delicate seedlings without drowning them, and to water indoor plants. Since no one has a hose inside their house. 

Funny that a plastic Radiohead CD like The Bends, where this track is found, might cost you $14.99, and a plastic watering can might run anywhere from five bucks to a hundred.

Dang, plastic is expensive.

But, maybe that cute green plastic watering can looks good or looks right or looks like the one she's supposed to have. Get the play on words with "plastic" there?

For her fake Chinese rubber plant

Quick Thought

The Hardy Rubber Tree, native to central China, is a species of rubber tree whose bark has been historically cultivated for the production of natural latex as well as medicinal purposes.

Deep Thought

The Hardy Rubber Tree is the only species (Eucommia ulmoides) in the genus Eucommia, which is also the only genus in the family Eucommiaceae, so it's somethin' special. 

Its name means "good gum," because of its naturally occurring latex. The bark is sliced a special way, dried out, and harvested, and is a useful source of latex to the Chinese. Latex can also be harvested from the leaves, and has been used to line industrial pipes.

Medicinally, the rubber is used to treat a variety of conditions including lower back and leg pain, kidney problems, and hypertension.

In the fake plastic earth

Quick Thought

This line could be referring to AstroTurf, or some other type of synthetic grass.

Deep Thought

AstroTurf is one of the biggest names in synthetic turf, which is basically plastic grass posing as real grass. 

It debuted in 1964 and has since been used for a wide range of purposes, from huge football stadiums—its first appearance was at the Houston Astrodome in 1966—to mini-golf courses to home lawns. 

The stuff is synthetic plastic, made out of nylon and polyurethane, designed to look, feel, and act like real grass, but without the hassle and expense of having to water it. Plus, it doesn't get muddy or frosted with the weather like regular grass.

That she bought from a rubber man

Quick Thought

Although this lyric might not have any direct reference, it adds to the "fakeness" theme that's running through these lyrics.

Deep Thought

Throughout "Fake Plastic Trees," Thom Yorke argues that our world is one that's slowly becoming phony and manufactured. A world where the people, the ground, and even the plants are all rubber and plastic. Nothing feels real or natural anymore. 

Although rubber can be naturally occurring, like with the Chinese Rubber Tree, it's also an industrial product made from polymerizing certain monomers. 

Say what? Basically, "polymerizing certain monomers" just means that we can artificially add molecules to things in order to make new things. 

With more and more breakthroughs in chemistry, the more things we can make ourselves. While these breakthroughs are very useful, we have to ask ourselves if the effortlessness involved in buying a fake potted tree can replace how good it feels to actually plant, care for, and watch a real tree grow.

Not to mention, a real tree decomposes naturally, but plastics and rubbers take thousands of years to break down—if ever—and have, therefore, become a huge problem in our landfills.

In a town full of rubber plans

Quick Thought

When Thom Yorke penned "Fake Plastic Trees," he had the Canary Wharf district of London in mind. 

Canary Wharf, built from 1987 to 1991, is a flashy shopping and financial district which houses three of the very tall buildings in the UK, One Canada Square, 8 Canada Square, and Citigroup Centre.

Deep Thought

Canary Wharf was built on the site of the old West India Docks, a once-bustling port that peaked during the golden era of British Imperialism and sea trade in the 1800s.

The Isle of Dogs, located right next to Canary Wharf, is surrounded on three sides by the River Thames and was long an area dominated by low-income community housing and the descendants of blue-collar dock workers, the Cockney people. More on that later.

The shipping industry there later collapsed when planes and trains replaced ships and boats, and many parts of the Isle of Dogs fell into abandon and poverty. The rapid growth of buildings and commerce in Canary Wharf, however, has caused housing prices in the Isle of Dogs to skyrocket and has caused the cost of living to increase.

The peninsula that contains the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf has now become an area of social extremes. Modest flatlands contain a burst of high rises in the center and Canary Wharf has become the epitome of excess and wealth in that area of London.

To get rid of itself

Quick Thought

Yorke aims his critique at a town that is so gung-ho for development, it risks oblivion in the process.

Deep Thought

History has shown us that many great civilizations and empires eventually grow too big for their own good and collapse. 

If the rise and fall of empires particularly interests you, check out the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. A famed UCLA professor, Diamond explains in his book why certain societies, like that of the Vikings in Greenland, fell apart. Although uncontrollable environmental factors like earthquakes and droughts were sometimes the cause of the downfall of civilizations, human strain on natural resources—think deforestation, pollution, toxic waste buildup, overhunting and fishing, and human-caused climate change—more often led to disaster. 

If the "town full of rubber plans" can learn anything from the past, it's the need to balance technological innovation with the maintenance and preservation of natural resources. We have evolved to survive on what our earth provides us, so if a city or civilization destroys these resources, it could literally "get rid of itself."

With the new millennium came a monstrous drought for Australia, dubbed the Millennium Drought. One of the most devastating droughts of its history, the dry-up was attributed to humans trying to change the desert ecosystem of the Outback. 

Too much irrigation, cutting down trees that held the soil in place, and tapping rivers for urban usage all led to this frightening drought. Before the drought's—well, temporary—end in 2010, Australia may have been the first semi-arid land to partially turn into a dust bowl.

It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out

Quick Thought

The dramatic increase in human commerce and technology in the past two centuries has led to a jump in the number of stress-related health issues.

While stress once helped humans a lot, now it mainly just causes a whole bunch of problems.

Deep Thought

From its very start, heavy industry and modernized living created health nightmares in growing societies. 

The "mad hatter" factory workers of the 18th and 19th centuries went "crazy" inhaling mercury vapors while making hats. During the various industrial revolutions that occurred around the world, people frequently became sick from dealing with harsh chemicals, highly stressful working environments, and polluted water and air. 

Nowadays, we've tried to keep these situations in check, but that doesn't get rid of the day-to-day stresses that pervade modern human life.

This isn't to say, however, that our pre-industrial ancestors had no stress. We don't even want to think about running away from a charging mammoth or battling severe ice ages. Those would certainly put a huge degree of strain on the human body. 

But the problems that doctors are now seeing have to do with the fact that our evolutionary adaptations to stress actually do more harm than good in our modern lives. See, back in the day—like, seriously, like caveman times—when we got stressed out or incredibly scared, our body would go into the "fight or flight" response in which a huge surge of adrenaline would hit the brain and give us enough physical energy to either fight off the attacker or run like crazy. 

So, in the charging mammoth scenario, that would have been dang helpful. 

The fight or flight response also causes a spike in cortisol, dubbed "the stress hormone," which helps our body deal with stress. Small doses of cortisol give us a burst of energy, sharper memory, higher pain tolerance, and more, but too much of it can be very damaging. 

In prehistoric times, once the threat had passed a.k.a. you either killed the mammoth or made it back to your cave safely, your body immediately went into relaxation mode and adjusted its hormone levels back to normal.

But now, constant sources of stress—think traffic, deadlines, meetings, money issues, carting kids around, term papers, fill in your stress here—activate these old stress-response systems constantly. The body has no time to cool down or recover, leading to a condition known as chronic stress, a condition associated with a variety of serious health dangers.

The "her" in "Fake Plastic Trees" appears to be suffering from chronic stress exhaustion—"it wears her out"—that accompanies living or working near the hectic lifestyle of Canary Wharf.

A cracked polystyrene man

Quick Thought

A type of plastic developed after World War I, polystyrene has found many commercial and industrial uses, and is most popular in its foam state, best known as the brand-name Styrofoam.

Deep Thought

Polystyrene is a durable plastic that's made from erethylene and benzine. Those are just fancy words for carbon compounds, so don't worry if you aren't familiar with the ins and outs of organic chemistry. 

And this stuff has a variety of forms and uses. Polystyrene is found in foam cups, packing peanuts, Styrofoam to-go boxes, coolers, insulation, and many other products. 

The "crumbles and burns" in the next line of the song refers to how toxic plastic is when you set it on fire. It's really flammable and releases a variety of nasty chemicals that not only hurt you if you breathe 'em in, but also mess up the atmosphere. 

RIP ozone layer. 

It's one of the hardest plastics to get rid of and is a major contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gnarly bunch of trash caught in the North Pacific Gyre where the swirling water keeps it contained. Although recycling Styrofoam has been difficult in the past, there are programs now that accept it.

He used to do surgery

Quick Thought

Although a "surgery" can include a wide range of medical procedures, the "girls" and "gravity" in the next lines imply that this guy was once a plastic surgeon.

Deep Thought

Believe it or not, plastic surgery goes way back. It's actually thousands of years old.

The first plastic "surgeons" were Egyptians, but they only performed the procedures post-mortem a.k.a. after the person died. They tweaked facial features and moved bones around so that the dead pharaohs would be recognizable in the afterlife. 

The first nose jobs were performed in India, where they would cut skin from the cheek or forehead and wrap it around a leaf over the nose, then secure it into place and make room for nostrils. British doctors eventually observed this and brought the surgery back to the UK, where it gained popularity in the 1800s. 

However, the two World Wars really gave plastic surgery a kickstart, because doctors suddenly had tons of reconstructive surgery to perform on soldiers whose faces or bodies had been mutilated in combat. 

The Japanese used to pump silicone into the withered legs of soldiers, which led to the rise of silicone breast implants in the 1960s and beyond. Plastic surgery evolved in the 20th century from its reconstructive purposes to the multi-billion dollar beauty business it is today.

Although nose jobs and breast implants continue to be the most popular plastic surgery procedures, lyposuction, facelifts, butt implants, and even various forms of genital "beautification" surgery have become more common.

For girls in the '80s

Quick Thought

The big hair, colorful eye makeup, synthesized beats, acid-washed jeans and bright clothing of the 1980s sparked an increased interest in plastic surgery. Some very famous celebrities went under the knife, but the results weren't always so pretty.

Deep Thought

Although men are increasingly willing to get plastic surgery for themselves, women have historically been more likely candidates for plastic surgery because of the high standards most societies set for female beauty and appearance. 

Despite some 21st-century progress in beauty acceptance, new airbrushing and photofinishing techniques, as well as the skinny models who display them, still put women everywhere under pressure to look a certain way. 

Plastic surgery has also become increasingly popular on network and cable television with shows like Extreme Makeover, Nip/Tuck, and The Real Housewives of Orange County extolling its virtues. 

Rarely ever, though, do these shows tell you what happens when it goes wrong.

But gravity always wins

Quick Thought

Along with the dramatic rise in popularity of plastic surgery, there has also been a rise in plastic surgery addicts, fake surgeons out for money, and pictures of surgeries gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Deep Thought

The line "gravity always wins" implies that the normal signs of aging a.k.a. saggy cheeks and breasts and droopy eyes can only be fixed temporarily with surgery. 

Eventually, that ever-present force that makes planets orbit and causes the tides to turn will wear our bodies down, no matter how much enhancement surgery we have. 

One relevant example is Botox, in which men and women have their foreheads and cheeks injected with small amounts of botulism, an incredibly toxic bacterium that paralyzes and kills you almost instantly if you ingest it. 

People are willing to inject themselves with one of the most potent, lethal substances known to man as they search for physical perfection, or as they try to reduce the signs of aging.

She looks like the real thing

Quick Thought

There are countless examples of fake products designed to look, taste, smell, or feel "like the real thing."

Deep Thought

The first product that springs to mind is "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." Thank you, Fabio

The name itself implies that it's mimicking real butter, tastes exactly like real butter, but isn't actually butter and is, therefore, better for you. And, although the product may taste pretty good as a spread, at the end of the day, it's not real butter. 

Another example is Barbie, the world-famous doll created by Mattel, who made her debut in 1959. Barbie caused a sensation when she first appeared because she had the body of an adult woman with real curves and real breasts, quite unlike the toy baby dolls with which little girls had previously played. 

Barbie's curves are anatomically unrealistic. If she were blown up to life size proportions, Barbie would be over seven feet tall and would have to crawl to support her top-heavy frame, not to mention she'd only be able to have one bone in both her arms and legs. 

But she still became the model "real world" woman for little girls everywhere. So, although she looks like the real thing, it turns out she really, really isn't anything like a real adult female.

Though Curvy Barbie has been under scrutiny, too, Mattel backpedaled on its plastic beauty and began releasing Barbie in different sizes in 2016.

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