Just as the right song can make any movie scene memorable, so too can the right accompanying music skyrocket a set of lyrics to immortality, and that's just what Radiohead accomplishes with "Fake Plastic Trees."
It kind of sounds like a dirge a.k.a. a funeral song, doesn't it? It's sad and slow, almost mournful, and Thom Yorke's voice echoes as if he's in an empty room. Thom will often carry one syllable over several notes ("girls in the eighties" and "but gravity always wins") and will drag it out, which adds a unique texture to the sound.
A writer from The New York Times noticed this, too, calling it a "pivot point," and discusses how it's used in "Creep," Radiohead's first hit:
"Creep" [...] was the first of many Radiohead songs that used pivot tones, in which one note of a chord is held until a new chord is formed around it. (In the turn from G to B, the note B is the pivot point.) "Yeah, that's my only trick," Yorke said, when this was pointed out to him. "I've got one trick and that's it, and I'm really going to have to learn a new one. Pedals, banging away through everything." (Source)
The music follows the progression of the characters' moods. At first it is melancholy: we begin in the key of A Major with a few lonely chords on acoustic guitar, eventually layering in some basic keyboard notes that sound electronic and alien. The first two verses alternate back and forth between A Major, f# minor, and D Major (the fourth chord in the key of A). All this flipping between major and minor chords adds a lot to the song because each line starts in a major key (happy) and ends in a minor key (sad), showing the progression of the characters' states of mind.
Johnny Greenwood used an old Hammond organ instead of a normal piano for some of the song's sonic layers, giving it a lush sound. The beginning of the song gives us a glimpse of this plastic couple's everyday life, starting with the girl. We get the sense that she's being observed by an outsider who takes pity on her situation. She goes about her business zombie-like, aware of her entrapment in a superficial world but resigned to the belief that she can't do anything about it.
When we are introduced to the male character in the next verse, the song picks up in momentum. Drums and more background keyboard notes come in, along with the beginnings of electric guitar. The notes build in intensity, with Yorke holding one exceptionally long note that is full of angst and bitterness right before singing, "She looks like the real thing / She tastes like the real thing," when the music really starts to crash and get louder. The song reaches its ultimate crescendo, appropriately, when he sings about wanting to bust through the ceiling.
Then, just as suddenly, the music drops off, gets quiet, and returns to the way it sounded at the beginning, timed exactly with Yorke singing, "It wears me out." The quick drop in sonic power perfectly mirrors the man growing tired and weary after fantasizing about his big escape. The music, and his imagination, grows more and more intense until he realizes that it's all hopeless and his world comes crashing back down around him, with even more weight than before. From here on out, it's doomsville for the guy. Yorke's voice gets softer and rises higher; a plea to the world. He ends repeating the words "If I could be all you wanted," and his voice trails quietly away, like someone who has just given up.
According to Thom Yorke, "Fake Plastic Trees" was inspired by the redevelopment of Canary Wharf in the East End of London. Hailing from Oxford, home of that famous and ancient university where greats like Oscar Wilde and Albert Einstein studied, the band has roots in one of the most exciting intellectual hotspots in the world. The band seems to be interested in scrutinizing the society in which they live and in writing songs about what they observe in the world around them.
England, like many European countries, is not as cohesive as you might think. In fact, it's broken up into many regions that each boast a specific dialect and have a strong local pride. London is even more stratified, and East London has long produced an almost tribal sense of identity. It's home of the working-class descendants of the 19th-century chimney sweeps, longshoremen, flower girls, and factory workers...and perhaps a few criminals, too.
The East End has often been characterized in books as a place of dark and dangerous alleyways, opium dens, and other deviant behaviors that the proper Victorians looked down upon. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde sends his privileged gay male characters to the seedy dockyards where they are free to be themselves and get away from the lies they are forced to live during the day.
East London is also the home of the famous Cockney accent (think My Fair Lady). According to the website Cockney Online: "To be a true Londoner—a Cockney, you have to be born within hearing distance of the bells of St. Mary Le Bow, Cheapside, in the City of London. 'Cockney' or 'cock's egg' was originally a fourteenth-century term applied contemptuously by rural people to native Londoners who lived rather by their wits than their muscle. Today's natives of London, especially its East End use the term with pride—'Cockney Pride'."
Naturally, the working-class natives of the East End got pretty offended when London tried to "clean up" the place by building the flashy Canary Wharf development scheme (which looks a bit like the corporate downtown skyline of Dallas, Texas) right in the middle of their docks. Not to mention the fact that the huge skyscrapers block their reception of TV channels. They even sued the Canary Wharf LTD about this TV reception issue, but lost the case in the House of Lords.
Radiohead. Oh, man, where do we begin? Along with The Beatles and Pink Floyd, they are among the most influential bands to ever emerge from the United Kingdom. But they are also one of the most influential bands, period.
In the cutthroat music industry where competing bands are sometimes out for blood, other artists have had some remarkable things to say about this band. Timbaland said, "Coldplay and Radiohead are the illest groups to me. That's music. Norah Jones is music. I love real music that I can play and never get tired of. The stuff I don't get tired of is the stuff that's musical." (Source)
On the other hand, there's also been a lot of mudslinging, especially from artists who are constantly compared to Radiohead, like Noel Gallagher from Oasis for example. He said:
The biggest criticism that the music press have against us is that we're not Radiohead. But, correct me if I'm wrong, they've been making the same record since Kid A, have they not? I like them. Every time I see them live they blow me away, but you know, it's kind of, we make very accessible rock and roll music, you know, and they constantly make difficult electronic records. It's not a criticism of them, and it shouldn't be a criticism of us. (Source)
Interesting that even when he's criticizing Radiohead, Gallagher still manages to compliment them. Sounds a bit more like bitterness or jealousy than actual dislike. But can you blame him? Radiohead is a tough act to follow. Coldplay has often been likened to Radiohead, but just because Thom Yorke and Chris Martin are both blonde and British does not make them the same person.
Even Kanye West and Miley Cyrus had something to say about Radiohead. At the 2009 Grammy awards, both artists desperately wanted to meet Radiohead but the band refused. After this snub, Miley later told a talk show that she would "ruin them," and Kanye said, "So when he performed at the Grammys, I sat the f--k down." Later, the band released a statement saying, "When Miley grows up, she'll learn not to have such a sense of entitlement." Also, Yorke wrote a blog post that included the quote, "Wish us all a safe journey if you still like us and you're not one of those people I have managed to offend by doing nothing." Quite the feud, but it seemed like Miley and Kanye were much more riled up about things than Radiohead, who appeared to be looking on with bemused satisfaction.
While most bands like to ride the wave of success from their first single and record similar-sounding tracks, Radiohead did just the opposite with "Creep." They tried to make that radio-friendly hit disappear. When Radiohead recorded The Bends, the transition from guitar-driven alternative rock to a more eclectic blend of electronic and other genre influences started to be noticed. Although "Fake Plastic Trees" starts out on acoustic guitar, it eventually blends cello and violin and various synthesized sounds, which enriches the melody and sounds more like the Radiohead we know today.
By the time they got to OK Computer, the transformation was more or less complete, and the albums that followed (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, and In Rainbows) have honed this new sound. When you hear any of the songs from any of those albums, you know immediately even if you've never heard it before: This is Radiohead.
In his 2001 New Yorker article on the band, "The Searchers: Radiohead's Unquiet Revolution," Alex Ross wrote:
On the one hand, the Top Forty chart is overrun with dancers, models, actors, and the like; on the other hand, there are signs that pop music is once again becoming a safe place for creative musicians. The world fame of Radiohead is a case in point. Having established themselves with tuneful guitar rock in the nineties, the members of this band took the risk of doing as they liked, and they discovered things about the marketplace that others had missed. Last year, they released an album titled 'Kid A,' an eerily comforting blend of rock riffs, jazz chords, classical textures, and electronic noise, which, in a demolition of conventional wisdom, went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart. 'Amnesiac,' its like-minded successor, came out in June and is doing just as well. Radiohead's selling point is not their identification with any one genre but their way of ranging over music as a whole. They have intensity, intelligence, a personality in sound. (Source)
So, that's their calling card. A distinct blend of rock, electronic, classical, house, and experimental which keep them pushing the envelope and wowing the listeners with syncopated rhythms, synthesizers, thought-provoking lyrics, powerful chords, layering instruments, and Thom's unique voice.
In 2007, Radiohead became the first band ever to release an album exclusively online (In Rainbows was first available on their website) and to ask listeners to decide whatever price they wanted to pay for it. A brilliant concept and also a great marketing strategy in the increasingly internet-driven recording industry. Essentially, they embraced piracy in the sense that the album was free, but in so doing, the band got even more support from their followers and newbies alike. Some broke kids paid £0, while others, like Jay-Z, paid £200.
Clearly, if a band is successful enough to release a virtually free record, they've pretty much got it made in the shade.
The constant presence of plastic and fakeness is overwhelming in these lyrics. It's like being in a Target, Ikea, or Home Depot, with glaring fluorescent lights everywhere and aisles upon aisles of plastic and metal goods. This, of course, is all stuff you can go without, but, for some reason, you feel like you need it.
And then—boom— two hours later you're down $200 on a bunch of "necessities" that will probably end up on the curb when you change apartments next semester.
In the words of Tears for Fears, "it's a mad, mad world."