Meaning Radiohead image

Meaning Radiohead

Twenty years ago I used to teach lectures on Generation X. Remember them? Remember when Douglas Coupland was the secular prophet of a new age and ‘the divorce generation’ was taking centre stage? When Millennials were just appearing on the horizon, and we hadn’t yet decided whether to call them Millennials or Mosaics?

Watching an elderly-looking Thom Yorke at Glastonbury on Friday night brought it all back. Twenty years ago I used the lyrics of Fake Plastic Trees as source material for Gen X. (Other Radiohead songs are equally as emblematic; as per the Manic Street Preachers, et al.) As this song played towards the end of Radiohead’s Glastonbury set it was all terribly reminiscent of the 1990s:

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
It wears her out
She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins
And it wears him out
It wears him out
It wears him out
Wears him out
She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love
But I can’t help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run
It wears me out, it wears me out
It wears me out, it wears me out
If I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted all the time

Yorke’s lyrics captured and articulated the psychology of the first generation raised by TV. A generation used to continual and dazzling rates of technological advance. The first generation to experience virtually no physical pain or discomfort but with a corresponding increase in mental agitation. A generation that has known recessions and unemployment and social tensions. The generation that grew up afraid of nuclear holocaust and witnessed the collapse of communism. The generation that got married later than our parents did, and lived with them into our 20s. The brand conscious generation.

So much of our world was ‘fake plastic trees’: the weariness; the emptiness. Yorke summed it up just right.

The Millennials (‘Mosaics’ now a term confined to history) who followed us are like us, but different. They are the first truly multi-media generation. Where Gen X was raised by TV Millennials have been raised by the internet. They are growing up in a world where it is hard to distinguish fantasy from reality and where there seems to be very little certainty about anything. But rather than lament the fake plastic trees Millennials embrace the plastic and turn it into knowing kitsch. They are the post-truth generation. They are the porn as wallpaper of life generation. They have grown up in a time of economic boom, followed by prolonged stagnation. They have seen standards of living soar but job security greatly decrease. They do better at school than any previous generation. They are wired to the web and cannot imagine life without a mobile phone. They are more concerned with personal hygiene than any previous generation, and are more confused about the body than any previous generation. They have no idea what the 1970s were like, or the realities of communism. Because of the distortions in the housing market they have little opportunity to acquire capital so are increasingly turning against capitalism. Hence they embrace Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders with enthusiasm. (The Gen X pollsters didn’t spot this.) JK Rowling is their prophet. They are #YOLO and #FOMO. Gen X calls them Snowflakes. They think Gen X had it easy.

I’m listening to Fake Plastic Trees as I write this. My 17-year old has just walked by and said, “What are you listening to?” Clueless.

There’s little doubt that the brilliance of Thom Yorke’s writing and Jonny Greenwood’s arranging has produced some of the most memorable songs of the last two decades; but watching Radiohead on Friday night left me more sorrowful than elated. Sorry that for so many of my generation and the one that has followed it life does seem essentially plastic – meaningless.

A long time ago a young Andrew Wilson was in one of those lectures I gave on Gen X. It was the first time I met him. Ten years ago he wrote something which has stuck in my memory ever since, not least because it references Radiohead:

Jesus lived as someone who knew something we don’t – that something of dramatic importance was about to happen, and he was bringing it about. And then he rose from the dead, kickstarted the new creation, and told his followers there was a job to do, a planet to heal, a Gospel to share, a world to save. Look what happened. Deadbeat fishermen became apostles. Tax collectors wrote books that are still bestsellers today. Broken, demonised women became the first witnesses of the new creation. Arrogant thugs turned into church planters. Jesus had taken on futility and won, so you don’t have to listen to Marcel Duchamp, or Jean-Paul Sartre, or Radiohead, or whoever is depressing you at the moment. Because of Jesus and resurrection, futility is very, very last season. Meaning is back.

I still like listening to Radiohead but Andrew was right. Because of Jesus there is meaning – for Gen X, and even for those perplexing Millennials listening to Ed Sheeran. Yes!

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