Song of the Week: Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

Radiohead's The Bends.  Soundtracking adolescent latenight drives in the rain since 1995.
Radiohead’s The Bends. Soundtracking late night drives in the rain since 1995.

A long time ago, I wrote a short story for a class.  In that story, the main character got dumped by his girlfriend.  I don’t remember why–he was probably like me, and he probably deserved it–but they broke up.  Then he went to a party they were supposed to attend together.  Once at that party, he described the house in great detail, and all of those details were complimentary.  And then he left and did some other things.

It wasn’t a good story.

I can’t recall the plot, but I remember the teacher’s criticism: “he gets dumped, immediately goes to a party, and starts thinking how pleasant all the furniture is?  No.  He gets dumped, drags himself to a party, and reflexively hates everything there.  The last thing affects the next thing blahblah…”  I don’t remember exactly what the teacher said, either, because it was spring and the girl beside me smelled like honeysuckle.  But I think he said something about context.

Song of the Week: Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

“Fake Plastic Trees” is a famous song by a superfamous band off their now-classic 1995 album The Bends.  It is neither recent and charting nor new and buzzworthy.  This post will (probably) not get me increased traffic or cool points.  But, again, I’m not a critic and this isn’t my job.  I’m a singer-songwriter.  I love great songs.  I heard “Fake Plastic Trees” this week and remembered–all over again–just how great it is.

This song does what Radiohead (in 1995) did either better than everyone or before everyone.  Epic buildups, ethereal soundscapes, simple melodies highlighted by choice moments of falsetto: these are devices that were equally present in contemporary records (U2, Jeff Buckley, etc) and later hits (Coldplay, Travis, Snowglobe, etc).  It’s the perfect combination of GenX alt-rock and millennial pop-rock; it is simultaneously of its time and of ours.  As I wrote before, Coldplay’s talent is one of aesthetics, not significance.  “Yellow,” aesthetically, tries to sound like “Fake Plastic Trees.”  But everything you need to know about the difference between Radiohead and Coldplay is found in “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Yellow.”  One is a defining song for its decade; the other is pretty, and dumb, and more pretty than dumb.

(I digress!)

“Fake Plastic Trees” appealed to listeners in the mid-90’s mostly because it’s beautiful, powerfully-executed, and deeply moving.  It has continued to appeal to casual listeners because it (alongside “High and Dry”) created a new archetype for “hit rock song” that’s continued to be successful.  Subsequent bands have simply painted by the numbers.  These are some of the reasons I loved the song then, and some of the reasons I’ve loved it since.  But these are not the reasons I fell in love with “Fake Plastic Trees” earlier this week.

So, what is this song about?  An young outsider wanders around an aging, yuppified world, pointing out all its artificiality.  It’s a perfect premise for both Generation X (twenty-something “losers” of the 90’s feeling alienated by the twenty-something “winner” culture of the 80’s) and for every generation (e.g. “plastics” were shorthand for middle-age and emptiness in the 60’s, too).  Nothing escapes our outsider’s critical eye, and each small artifice implies a bigger one.  Household things are fake.  Decorations are fake.  Salesmen are fake.  The city is fake.  It wears “her” out.  This couple is fake.  His job is fake.  Peoples’ faces are fake.  Everything but nature is fake.  It wears “him” out.  For over two minutes, it is a relentless condemnation of “the other.”  Meanwhile, the band expertly builds the song, piece by piece, higher and higher, to an overwhelmingly gorgeous breaking point.

And then we get verse three:

“She looks like the real thing/she tastes like the real thing/my fake plastic love”

And that’s what makes “Fake Plastic Trees” a three-dimensional, richly rewarding song two decades later.  It’s the story of a man criticizing the world because he knows he’s as guilty as anyone.  He comes home to his own broken relationship, beneath layers of artifice–his “fake plastic love”–and can’t hide anymore.  It wears “her” out, and then it wears “him” out, but it finally “wears me out.”  The band’s died down.  There’s nothing left to point a finger at but himself.  His neighborhood’s phony, but he’s got the corner lot.  The world’s not broken; he is.

(Or to put it in Fiction 101 terms: Thom Yorke got dumped, dragged himself to the party, and reflexively hated the furniture.)

You can hear that brokenness at 3:45 (York’s delivery of “If I could be who you wanted all the time…).  The song’s past its musical breaking point, and the singer’s wrung out, left with only himself.  When he finally verbalizes his own falseness, and he barely get the falsetto “be” out.  It is the sound of someone down but not quite out.  He knows he’s a fraud, but he’s trying his best.

I’ve heard this song a thousand times and that moment–that one word–still kills me.

I’ve said it before: some songs point fingers.  Some songs talk about why someone else is wrong.  Some of these songs I even admire.  Dylan’s “Oxford Town” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”  Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock.”  The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.”  Heck, my fifth-favorite band of the 90’s was Rage Against The Machine, and finger-pointing is 95% of their catalog.

But in 2013, with rock bands and singer/songwriters increasingly carving out their own little niche, that trait has become amplified.  It’s not just easy but essential to brand yourself as cool by setting yourself apart from something else.  Irony and detachment are starting points for many songs without any of them asking where that detachment comes from.  After a while, I don’t believe it.  No one, no matter their fashion statement, is unaffected by the world around them.

But “Fake Plastic Trees” is.  It goes further.  It is a great example of the trait that has always pushed Radiohead from “great band” to “Pantheon band.”  For all their genre-bending experimentation, for all their technology-battling production, for all their post-modern angst, their music’s core is universal emotion and shared experience.

They might be paranoid about becoming androids, but they’re determined to remain human.

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Song of the Week: Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

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