This song is packed with so much meaning, it's hard to know where to start. So, we'll give you the story first and let the meaning take shape later.
After the success of Radiohead's first hit single, "Creep," Capitol Records pressured them to come up with a follow-up single that sounded like "Creep" and that would resonate with American fans.
But what the head honchos at Capitol didn't anticipate was that Radiohead was taking its sound in an entirely new direction and wasn't going to make tracks like "Creep" anymore. In fact, they were trying to distance themselves from it entirely and show the public that it wasn't typical of their music.
Remembering the band's first tour of America, singer Thom Yorke told Melody Maker, "My first memory of getting to America was that [...] I woke up on a coach, walked into this hotel in Boston at seven o'clock in the morning, switched on MTV, and there was 'Creep.' It was like, 'Oh my God...'" (Source)
So, the band went to RAK studios in February of 1994 to create what eventually became The Bends. After a few unsuccessful months, a violinist and cellist showed up at the studio and the band decided to add their unique sounds into the working track for "Fake Plastic Trees."
There was one problem though: Yorke was in a very unstable mental state. The Radiohead frontman, who's known for his bouts of severe mood swings, seems to write his best material when he's gone slightly off the deep end, and "Fake Plastic Trees" may be a perfect example.
"That was one of the worst days for me," Yorke later reminisced about the songwriting process. "I spent the first five or six hours at the studio just throwing a wobbly. I shouted at everyone, and then [producer] John Leckie sent everybody else away. He sat me down, and I did a guide vocal on 'Fake Plastic Trees.'" Guitarist Colin Greenwood added, "Thom played it in three takes then burst into tears afterward." (Source)
So, now the band had a single that they were excited to release, but Capitol wasn't so stoked. They hired a big-time producer, to mix it up and make it more like the "alternative" songs then dominating American radio, but the band hated it. "All the ghostlike keyboard sounds and weird strings were completely gutted out of his mix, like he'd gone in with a razor blade and chopped it all up. It was horrible," Yorke said. (Source)
Finally the band convinced Capitol to release the original mix of the track and it went on to become one of their biggest hits of all time. It has since been covered by artists like Alanis Morissette and Dashboard Confessional.
So, what made "Fake Plastic Trees" an instant and immortal hit? We at Shmoop are willing to bet that the lyrics—as well as the unique sound—resonated with the 1990s' lost and disgruntled Generation X and summed up perfectly the disillusionment that comes with living and trying to love in our hectic, modern world.
We've already talked a lot about all the "fake-ness" going on in the song: fake plastic, fake earth, fake towns, fake people, etc. We get it: everything is manufactured and unnatural. But what's the problem with that?
You're probably reading this on a computer so you know that not everything that's made of "fake" plastic and metal components is worthless. Lots of people use computers, lots of people drive cars, lots of people work in big skyscrapers, and lots of people go shopping and eat fast food. This song begins to get a little depressing considering the fact that if you live in a first-world nation (or even a big city in a developing nation), you have to drive, fly, or sail pretty far to get away from all the plastic and metal and other junk that surrounds our everyday lives.
And then you'd have to abandon your car/boat/plane and proceed on foot because those things are made out of metal and plastic, too. That's a lot of work. And a lot of stress.
Stress, by definition, is simply strain. Pressure is a persistent force: both physical and psychological. Stress, more broadly, is what happens when things get unbalanced. In the body, for instance, the stress response is controlled by two systems (one that promotes "fight or flight" and one that promotes "rest and digest") which work in opposition to each other: when one system has been active for too long, the other one steps in and balances things out and vice versa. It's important that these systems don't work at the same time, because you don't want to be digesting—or, ahem, excreting—while you're busy running away from a predator.
But when the fight or flight system is active for too long, your body takes serious hits and can have long-term damage. We suffer because our bodies respond naturally to unnatural stressors. Modern urban or suburban living, although perhaps more "comfortable" and "convenient" than older types of human lifestyles, is actually not always so great.
Think about owning a house. Okay, you have shelter from the weather and the cold. But you also have power and gas bills, maintenance and painting costs, a dog who needs walking, laundry that needs washing, a backyard that needs upkeep, etc. So, for the luxury of having shelter, you get to put up with a million other nuisances that can make your life one big headache. To pay those bills, you need a job, and you might have to commute through heavy traffic or a crowded subway or bus to get to that job. You work long hours, you sit in an office, you fight traffic both ways, you get home, and then have to cook dinner or go out to eat, all of which costs more money.
And how did you afford this housing in the first place? You most likely went to school and, let's face it, school is hard. Let's just say that pulling one all-nighter after the next while eating pizza while writing is not exactly healthy. Then you graduate, realize that living is really expensive. Maybe you meet someone you love (which, even though it's amazing, is also very stressful) and search for an apartment or house where you can launch your adult life. And unless you are lucky enough to be a famous actor or musician or have a cooking or travel show or inherit lots of money, "adult life" generally consists of working your booty off at least five days a week just to get by.
And celebrities, for all the money they have, seem to have crafted their own special brand of Hollywood-related stress, which leads to depression and drug abuse. Kind of makes you want to relinquish civilization and all its "worldly comforts" and move to Antarctica, doesn't it?
So, let's take a look at the progression of "Fake Plastic Trees" and see where this all ties in. We start out with:
Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
Wow, that's a lot of plastic for three lines. It's meant to be ironic: Obviously you don't have to water a fake plant, and you can't plant a fake plant, especially not in fake earth. What we're seeing here are a whole lot of fake things masquerading as real things (think I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!). So, if the very plants around our characters are just a bunch of green plastic, we can only imagine what the people are like.
Well, next we find a girl, who got her watering can from "a rubber man in a town full of rubber plans." Still more plastic, and now rubber, to add to our collection of trash that seems to be piling up around this girl, potentially suffocating her. Being surrounded by all this fakeness and plastic wears her out. And she's not the only one:
She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
This man—presumably her boyfriend, husband, or lover—who she lives with in this rubber town is just as plastic and fake (in this case made of Styrofoam) as the rest of her surroundings. It's a metaphor for how living in this plastic society has even turned the living, breathing people into shells of themselves. He's "broken" and "cracked," depressed beyond all belief, although he probably tries to maintain an appearance of happiness or at least complacence.
But really, though, just like plastic, all he does is crumble and burn. Even more ironically, the song implies that he used to be a plastic surgeon in the '80s. So, not only does he live in the frighteningly modernized world of Canary Wharf, but he also used to inject actual plastic into real people. All of this "wears him out" just like it "wears her out." It's just getting faker and faker.
All of a sudden, the voice shifts from third-person (he/she) to first person (I/me/my). Who is this "I" that we are suddenly dealing with? The polystyrene man? Another guy? Thom Yorke never makes it quite clear; all we know is that this "I" person seems to love the "she" in the song and feels like he'll never be good enough for her ("all that you wanted"). Well, for argument's sake, let's make it the plastic man, singing about his feelings of isolation. And let's also go back to the watering can for a minute. Why does this couple have a watering can for a fake tree? It serves no functional purpose, so what's the point? This ties into another deeper theme in the song: the human need to keep up a façade.
Like everyone around them, this couple wants to seem perfect, but the pursuit of perfection is always a lost cause. They might have one of those relationships that people stay in just for the sake of appearances.
The woman might not have space or dirt to plant a real garden, but she buys the watering can anyway to make her tree look real for the neighbors. The guy is really depressed, despite the fact that he's probably rich (a retired plastic surgeon living in a high rise apartment) and feels deeply inadequate but tries to hide it. We aren't told their ages, but he's probably middle-aged or older considering he's retired, and she could be anywhere from 20 to 60. We really have no idea.
They probably live in one of the new condo developments in Canary Wharf that sprang up on the fringes of the business district to house all the people who work there. Like tract housing (where all the houses on the street are built by the same people and look essentially the same), these apartments don't leave much room for creativity or individuality. (But they are quite luxurious.) However, they resemble a hotel more than a home, and all this couple can hope for in making their space their own is a few lousy trees to give some life to the place. Except that the trees are fake.
As the Beatles said, "can't buy me love," and although the guy has all this money, what he truly wants is to feel loved by the woman in the song. All his money has gotten him is a lot of plastic and the "idea" of a nice life. He says:
But I can't help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run
This emphasizes the fragility of it all. He literally wants to bust out of there and live freely—maybe take the girl somewhere green and beautiful and real. But they're both inescapably stuck. He almost sounds like someone trapped in the dystopian societies of George Orwell's 1984 or Lois Lowry's The Giver, where every aspect of life is run by the government and machines, which doesn't leave much room for true emotions or joy.
This is all very depressing, and Thom Yorke doesn't really offer any kind of solution to the problem. We can't ask him why he cried after writing it, but it seems that he was struck by the hopelessness of it all: the thousands of people who are trapped and overworked in modern societies, who wish more than anything that they could hike up a mountain and look at the view, but they can't find the time.
Mass consumption and mass marketing has created a vacuum where money and time disappear, and in the end, we have no energy left to enjoy living.