The Album That Could Have Stopped Trump
After releasing their career-defining album Kid A in 2000 (the same year in which then-governor of Florida Jeb Bush allegedly meddled in his own state’s infamous election recounts, which ultimately allowed Jeb’s brother, George Walker, to become 43rd president of the United States), Radiohead–the Grammy-winning rock band from Oxfordshire, England–returned in 2003 with their follow-up, Hail to the Thief. Where Kid A utterly changed Radiohead’s soundand expanded the reach of electronic music in popular culture–Hail to the Thief offered a perfect piece of political commentary, akin to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (but by White people).
But what’s crazy is that this 2003 album may just be the defining album of our Trump era, too.
In the early 2000s, Radiohead was searching for whatever was next for them, as they wrestled with members getting married and having kids and worried for the future of the world. And then, the president of their neighbors across the pond would convince their own nation’s leadership to steer right politically and embrace war, privatization and other harmful policies that laid the groundwork for the current drama of Brexit. And today, the album maintains its sense of urgency, each song a plea to the listener to take tangible action in the face of injustice. After all, this album–again, released 15 years ago–is inspired directly by a presidential candidate winning an election via the electoral college and not the popular vote. Its songs cover topics from political corruption and voter apathy to environmental irresponsibility. Any of this sound familiar yet?
Hail to the Thief is required listening for anyone who feels a sense of disease with their government, and for anyone who is too comfortable with their government.
As an album, Hail to the Thief is incredibly cohesive, and every track can be applied directly to the political landscape of the early 2000s. Even the song names have double meaning, each one having a politically neutral title followed by a parenthetical subtitle that reminds the listener that Radiohead isn’t just making music to make money but also to offer their own melancholic interpretation of the world.
The opening line of the album serves as a multi-pronged critique of the American voter, who elected a homophobic, “colorblind”, warmongering, pro-torture, “Christian”, “pro-life”, pro-death penalty, anti-science candidate not by voting for him, but by staying at home like the stereotypical dreamer who dreams of making it big but never leaves the couch. Yorke sings,
Are you such a dreamer,
To put the world to rights?
I’ll stay home forever
where two and two always makes a five."
Then, in the song “Go to Sleep (Little Man Being Erased),” we get this treasure:
We don't really want a monster taking over
Tiptoe around, tie him down.
We don't want the loonies taking over
Tiptoe around, tie them down.
To me, these words sound almost like calling a group of voters, say, “deplorables” or “tRUMPsters”.
Lastly, “There, There (The Boney King of Nowhere)” issues a prophetic warning in its repeated line, “Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” Yorke and most of his band are atheists, and in this song, and this line is a pointed attack on Christianity, as the song overall blames Christians for Bush’s election. Of course, this makes a lot of sense, just like blaming Christians for Trump makes sense. More broadly, though, this line reminds us to be cautious about all of our feelings. “Just cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there” Radiohead says to us. “There’s always a siren, singing you to shipwreck. Don’t reach out, don’t reach out.”
In totalitarian regimes, fear and anger are used to manipulate the masses: the fear of the gay, the disabled, the Jew, the immigrant, and more. Who is the siren singing our country to shipwreck? One could argue it’s Fox News, or Donald Trump, or maybe the far-right in general, but I think that that Radiohead is warning us about something bigger than just one individual or institution. They’re warning us about our desire to seek out voices that put us at ease, that weaken our resolve to seek out the truth: the voices that cause us to feel comfortable with choosing not to vote, the voices that let us shrug off the suffering of our neighbors, the voices that let us overlook racism and homophobia and ableism and sexism and violence. “Don’t reach out, don’t reach out,” we’re warned from 2003.
Hail to the Thief is required listening for anyone who feels a sense of disease with their government. It’s required listening for people who are too comfortable with their government. This is the album that could have prevented what occurred on November 8, 2016 if we had heeded its warnings and double-checked everything we took in as fact. It’s for that reason I am proclaiming Hail to the Thief as the album of the Trump era. And it’s easy to listen to: at less than an hour long, it’s so short you could practically tweet it.