When Paul Veracka was 16 years old, he won tickets on the radio to see Radiohead in concert. Veracka was unfamiliar with the band’s music beforehand, but just thirty minutes into the concert, Veracka says he was “utterly floored.” He hasn’t stopped listening to their music since, and to cement his love for the band’s music, he wrote a fascinating research paper that explores the political undertones of Radiohead’s sixth album, Hail to the Thief.
Radiohead was formed in 1985, comprised of five members: singer-guitarist Thom Yorke, bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarist Ed O’Brien, drummer Philip Selway, and guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood. Rolling Stone claims that Radiohead is arguably the most accomplished art-rock band of the early 21st century. The band’s widely anticipated album, Hail to the Thief, reached number three on the U.S. album charts. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, the band’s fifth consecutive nomination in that category.
Hail to the Thief was recorded in just two weeks, while the band was on tour. The album was released in 2003 during a time of political unrest brought on by the British and American invasions of Iraq. The name of the album, in fact, appears to be a play on the American presidential anthem, “Hail to the Chief,” which was also a phrase used by protesters during the controversial 2000 presidential election.
One might assume that the political landscape at the time of the album’s release as well as the album’s title would validate claims that the album is politically focused; however, Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s frontman, sends mixed messages about this. While he maintains that the album is “pop music” and “not anything more than that,” he also states, “They’re not so much songs about politics as me desperately struggling to keep politics out.” He adds, “If I could have written about anything else, I would have.”
Despite Yorke’s conflicting statements, Veracka cites the research of several “Radiohead scholars” and supports the view that the album is in fact “politically focused, inspired by the band’s outrage at America’s recent ventures into Iraq.”
Veracka explores—most powerfully through lyrical evidence—how Radiohead “embed[s] their political views in with the narrative of the album.” Veracka references several songs on the album to demonstrate its subtle political undertones. Veracka’s research shows that the song “2+2=5” evokes a feeling of paranoia in a dark, authoritarian world, while the song “Where I End and You Begin” demonstrates Radiohead’s exploration into the toxic relationship and “fading boundaries” between politics and people. Those are just two of the many songs Veracka mentions in his paper.
Veracka asserts that through these songs, listeners are immersed in the dystopian world that the album depicts. This type of silent and subtle protest, he says, differs from more conventional protest albums that contain lyrics that are “unambiguous and openly critical” and directed to a “clear enemy.”
Veracka’s paper is a compelling look into what makes a protest album, and how Radiohead’s album unconventionally protests not just politics but everything from climate issues to government surveillance. Veracka also notes that Hail to the Thief is targeted at the internet-savvy listeners, who make up an “innately powerful crowd of voices.”
Veracka, who is pursuing a double major in Language and Literature and Creative Writing, is graduating in the spring of 2017. He hopes to make time to continue exploring works of art that successfully tackle social issues.
How to Cite:
Veracka, P. and Felter, B., 2017. Hail to the Thief: Radio Head's Sixth Album and its Boundary-Breaking Protests. Philologia, 9. DOI: http://doi.org/10.21061/ph.v9i0.215