The song has three distinct sections. The first section ends 1:57 in, after the second chorus ("huh what's that??"). The second section ends at 3:33. The final, slower section follows with a return to the second section for the guitar-solo coda, at 5:36. Because of this progression, critics have often compared "Paranoid Android" to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody"; like that song, "Android" presents three distinct sections that each ahve something different to offer in terms of Radiohead's production, rhythm, arrangement, and stylistic qualities.
Many of the effects that make up Radiohead's trademark production and arrangement qualities are in "Paranoid Android." The computerized backing vocal "I may be paranoid, but not an android" is a widely-used effect on OK Computer; it comprises the entire vocal track to "Fitter Happier" and also compliments the general yuppie-culture criticism of the album. The style of vocal sampling seen in the beginning of the word "ambition" during the bridge has remained prominent in later Radiohead works. The layering of vocals in the third section is something else that the band has kept in their musical style, as well. Plus, the choir-like arrangement of the voices reveals the classical influence on the band; as the third section builds to its close, not only does the song have a choir going on, but Yorke's vocals (beginning, "that's it sir, you're leaving") act as a counterpoint to the progression of the choir (that is, the two melodies play simultaneously while being completely different).
The three sections of the song are all distinct rhythmically. The first section has a Latin feel, with a 3:2 clave in each measure that syncopates the third and fourth beats. (There's a lot of music-theory jargon in that sentence, but if you listen for the bass drum and the clap along, you'll find you'll clap three times in the first half of each measure and two times in the second half, which is a defining feature of bossa nova rhythms.)
Aside from a more standard rock rhythm, the second section features several three-measure parts in which the song shifts to 7/8 time, which is incredibly unusual for contemporary rock music (most pop songs are in 4/4 or 3/4). Unusual time signatures are pretty characteristic of Radiohead's music. As further examples, "15 Step" and "2+2=5" feature 5/4 and 7/8 time, respectively. In 7/8 time, instead of having four beats per measure, there are three—two normal beats (which are a quarter note long) and one "compound beat" (that's a quarter note plus an eighth note long). Try to follow the beat to these 7/8 sections in "Paranoid Android." You'll find that the first two beats are easy to hear, but the third is different.
7/8 time is not something that's typically heard in pop music, so it immediately draws the ear and almost by necessity the listener must work hard to grasp the rhythm. With the increased sense of pace in these sections, the rhythm—and even Jonny Greenwood's guitar melody—feel cut off too soon as the measures frantically go by. This style recalls the historical appearance of 7/8 in traditional Greek and Bavarian dance music and jazz, as it builds an incredible tension that finds release only in the song's slower third section.
That slower final section is the song's most straightforward, in rhythmic terms. The tempo drops to near 60 bpm (beats per minute) and the drums move into the background of the piece. This standard 4/4 feel involves the emphasis of the bass and the drums on the first and third beats while the guitar takes the second and fourth beats (strumming every sixteenth note on the second and fourth, rather than just every eighth note).
This short laundry list of the defining characteristics of "Paranoid Android" illustrates the most important musical quality of the song: that it's a Radiohead song. While Radiohead has been copied time and time again in recent years, there's still no band that sounds exactly like Radiohead. Their style is defined abstractly by their willingness (and musical capability) to be experimental and unconventional in non-superficial ways, while also managing to incorporate standard pop elements. The band's style is defined by Thom Yorke's unique vocal genius, Jonny Greenwood's guitar work—which often travels into the atonal and dissonant spaces, only making the resolution of that dissonance so much more powerful—and the rhythm section's far too often unappreciated subtleties.
The title "Paranoid Android" comes from the book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Specifically, it comes from the character Marvin the Paranoid Android, who's plagued with ennui due to his "brain the size of a planet" that could never be utilized adequately. However, Marvin is not really paranoid at all—another character, Zaphod, just calls him that.
The humorous source of the title is reflected in the playful sound and creation of the song. In 1997, singer Thom Yorke told an interviewer from Canadian website Jam! that "the title was chosen as a joke. It was like, 'Oh, I'm so depressed.' And I just thought, that's great. That's how people would like me to be. And that was the end of writing about anything personal in the song."
"What in the world is this song about?"
That's just about everyone's first reaction to "Paranoid Android." How could it mean anything? The lyrics seem disconnected, having no structural continuity or logical flow. Where you might have wanted to be able to construct a story out of the words, "Paranoid Android" is not a coherent narrative. While Radiohead songwriter Thom Yorke has said that the song was inspired by a bar incident, whatever narrative there is in the resulting lyrics isn't entirely self-evident—even at their clearest, the lyrics suggest little more than narrative fragments.
Lacking narrative, the song could only be though of as coherent in terms of its thematic focus. This kind of writing only started to develop significantly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the experimental poets of Modernism, and it's a style that Radiohead almost always uses in their lyrics.
To get a sense of what being "thematically coherent" means, consider some lyrics from "Let Down," another track from OK Computer:
Transport, motorways and tramlines, starting and then stopping Taking off and landing, the emptiest of feelings, disappointed people Clinging onto bottles, when it comes it's so so
Only a little analysis is necessary: the terseness of each phrase (which are often not even phrases) suggests emptiness. There's little need to editorialize, or perhaps, little that means anything in the first place. The only emotion is the lack of emotion. Every phrase can suggest things on its own. And this lack of need for a full story means that the brusque first verse of "Let Down" still manages to evoke a sense of frustration with the modern transport system and with the way it controls our lives.
"Paranoid Android" does much the same thing, though the varied musical styles of the song might make it less clear. Some larger themes of the song include insanity, violence, and the rejection of the consumer lifestyle that characterized the '80s and '90s, and that continues to characterize the West today. Additionally, several distinct moods—paranoia, violent anger, and the desire for salvation—define the different voices of the song. But what's perhaps most important about the lyrics is their general hilarity as they confront these various "serious" states.
The song begins with an explicit sense of paranoia and insanity—the backing vocal "I may be paranoid, but not an android" and "unborn chicken voices in my head" suggesting hallucinations or, obviously, voices in the speaker's head. While not explicitly criticizing "yuppies" as later verses do, the "endless noise" opposing the speaker's desire for "REST" evokes the workaholic jungle of the modern city. In this context, the idea of the "android" may be that of a machine that doesn't require sleep or rest, or might represent how people treat themselves when they become entirely devoted to their careers.
The speaker's insanity and paranoia morph into a violent and Orwellian power trip in the next verse, erupting in sync with the distorted guitar at:
You don't remember You don't remember Why don't you remember my name? Off with his head, man Off with his head
So where's the humor here? While the song's title alludes to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the line "off with his head, man" comes straight from Alice in Wonderland and other fairy tales. Given the social criticism contained in the lyrics, one might expect real calls for violence but instead the speaker gives us ironically comical ones. It's as though the comedic relief is a warning to not take the song too seriously. (John Lennon did the same—and borrowed similar Lewis Carroll imagery to do so—in "I Am the Walrus.")
The verse that begins with "'that's it sir, you're leaving" contains more of the same—a mixing a social criticism with insane mutterings. You can practically see the speaker losing it as he sings "the panic / the vomit / the panic / the vomit." This verse is also where any antagonists are directly alluded to. For one, the mention of the "yuppies networking" in between the panic of "the dust and the screaming" and "the panic" implies connections between yuppie culture and the sources of the speaker's insanity, which were only alluded to in the beginning of the song. The only other time where there's an identifiable target in the song is in the line "kicking squealing Gucci little piggy," where the speaker "brands" the woman harshly on the sole basis of what she wears.