OK Computer has been widely hailed as a (the?) decade-defining record of the '90s, a record that marked the turning point of both the career of Radiohead and the evolution of British pop over the past two decades. Not only does OK Computer mark the beginning of Radiohead's superstardom, but it also marks the end of the "Britpop era" dominated by the likes of Oasis, Suede, and Supergrass. While earlier Britpop bands found their influences in The Beatles, The Smiths, and British punk, the dominant strands of pop of the U.K. today—think Coldplay, Keane, Snow Patrol—is more inspired by Radiohead and OK Computer… Which makes OK Computer one of the most influential and important albums of contemporary alternative rock.
Critics have sometimes called OK Computer a concept album because its lyrics and sounds all play on common themes. But this is something that Radiohead has denied. According to guitarist Ed O'Brien: "We spent two weeks track-listing the album. The context of each song is really important... It's not a concept album but there is a continuity there."
With that in mind, any discussion of "Paranoid Android," the album's lead single, also requires an exploration of the rest of OK Computer. You'll especially want some understanding of the background of the album some more knowledge about its themes and sound, and familiarity with the songs that immediately surround "Paranoid Android" on the record.
Where 1995's The Bends was introspective and personal, Radiohead felt that—in drummer Phil Selway's words—"To do [an awful lot of soul searching] again on another album would be excruciatingly boring." So in that vein, OK Computer attempts to look outside. In fact, for singer and lyricist Thom Yorke, "the outside world became all there was... I'm just taking Polaroids of things around me moving too fast." In songs such as "Paranoid Android" you do see an extremely personal figure in reaction to "the outside world," but as Yorke continues, "The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all." So the personal figures, where they exist, and when they hear the "unborn chicken voices in" their heads, are there to expose views of the outside world, rather than to develop any deep look into Yorke's psyche. Introspective lyrics like "the emptiest of feelings" in "Let Down" do make occasional appearances, but more to help convey impressions of the alienation of the endlessly repetitive modern transportation system, not to establish a character narrative.
But things are less simple: transport, as well as other themes in the album like alienation and disgust with consumerism, have positives as well as negatives. Both "Airbag" and "Subterranean Homesick Alien"—which sandwich "Paranoid Android" on the playlist—use the theme of transport as a sublime form of salvation and escape. In a song that's mostly about reincarnation, the insertion of the verse, "In a fast German car / I'm amazed that I survived—/ An airbag saved my life" in "Airbag" connects the spiritual awe of reincarnation with the less metaphysical joys of auto transport. The line "In an interstellar burst / I am born again" is imbued with both the sense of being reborn inside an "interstellar burst" and being reborn through an "interstellar burst," the burst of the airbag. In that respect, the near-death experience with transport saves and enlightens the speaker.
The song "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is about transport in that it is about alien abduction. Here the depression of transport in "Let Down" and the alienation of "locking up your soul" are transformed into a kind of transportation and alienation that you long for —
I wish that they'd swoop down, in a country lane
Late at night when I'm driving
Take me on board their beautiful ship
Show me the world, as I'd love to see it
"Paranoid Android" is right in the middle of these two tracks and there is, upon first listen, little immediate thematic continuity to be heard. But in thinking about the reincarnation of "Airbag," the initial verse ("Please could you stop the noise I'm trying to get some REST? / From all the unborn chicken voices in my head?" might be seen as the reborn speaker awaking to a surreal version of reality. The speaker awakens slightly insane and hearing voices. He's falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole as the branded, drugged, and networked world of the yuppie and the speaker himself become more and more insane with each passing verse. There's a sense of struggle between panicked madness and a desire to introvert.
Indeed, "Paranoid Android" carefully balances sonic aggression with calm; there is plenty of both hope and despair to be found within this initial slice of OK Computer. The themes of spiritual awe and violent lunacy mirror the chaos of the music, as the songs constantly bounce off various walls trying to find some stable ground. As such, "Paranoid Android" ends as though the speaker is falling to pieces; we can almost imagine him rocking back and forth in his straight jacket singing "the panic / the vomit / the panic / the vomit." And then "Subterranean Homesick Alien," the very next track, approaches the themes of alienation and dissatisfaction with modern life from a completely different viewpoint.
One aspect of "Paranoid Android" that critics often fail to recognize is the simple fun of it. "Paranoid Android" might represent the mind of someone going insane in the world of today, but it's also a deeply entertaining satire. Yorke sings with a bite, but he knows that "off with his head, man" smells of raging fairy tale kings and queens, and has even said that the song is intended as a joke. In a way, the insanity of "Paranoid Android" even gets rejected midway through the song, when the piece becomes clearly ironic right where you'd expect Radiohead to instead be serious.