The Queue: Muse, Jonathan Coulton and Radiohead

The Queue is a recurring excuse for me to talk about songs or albums in short form. This week I examine three tracks that explore anxiety about the end of human culture in three very different ways. Let’s investigate.

Muse — “Exo-Politics”

In case naming their album Black Holes & Revelations and then choosing a cover photo that can best be described as “business lunch on Mars” didn’t quite tip you off—and let’s not forget song titles like “Starlight”, “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Knights of Cydonia”; subtlety is not really their thing—Muse make their extraterrestrial ambitions plainly clear on “Exo-Politics.” A robotic riff chugs through the verse as a theremin whirrs like a flying saucer in the background; Matt Bellamy pleads for a higher power to “open the skies over me” because he’s “waiting patiently” for “fully loaded satellites [that] will conquer nothing but our minds.” “Exo-Politics” is intentionally herky-jerky like a b-movie alien but with all the slick production and theatrical performance of a modern blockbuster. If this is what anxiety about the end of human culture via alien invasion sounds like, well, I can support that.

Jonathan Coulton — “All This Time”

While Muse looked to the skies for our overlords, Jonathan Coulton looked to a sequencer. “All This Time” is gentle and looping, its pumping beats pushing along at a workmanlike pace as Coulton’s serene voice eases through the melody with no hint of the existential dread he describes. A dystopian future has left mankind as subservient creatures in machine-run cities, escape seems impossible: “What if all the switches get stuck on ‘destroy’?” That’s a risk worth taking, Coulton supposes, because even after “all the counter-measures are deployed, all we’ll have is all this time.” Honestly, it seems more peaceful than the last eleven months. If this is what anxiety about the end of human culture at the hands of the machines sounds like, well, plug me in.

Radiohead — “Idioteque”

Kid A was the album that redefined Radiohead and “Idioteque” is the song that defines Kid A. It’s also explicitly about a combination of nuclear winter and catastrophic global warming. A driving, lightly industrial beat undergirds Thom Yorke’s increasingly agitated vocals which begin by gently wondering “Who’s in a bunker? Who’s in a bunker?” before devolving into what passes for fury in Yorke’s register. “Ice Age coming,” he warns. “We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening.” Those words already form arguably the most incisive Radiohead lyrics; their potency is magnified when set beside the intervening line: “Let me hear both sides.” A month ago politicians who reject the idea of climate change tacitly endorsed an attempted coup, now they want to have an equal seat at the table where it’s determined how the country will continue to function and, among other things, how it will address the existential crisis of climate change. “Let me hear both sides, let me hear both.” If this is what anxiety about the end of human culture at the hands of man sounds like, well, this actually seems like how human culture will end. Really, it’s almost too obvious. The predictions of the foresighted seem like ramblings of the insane until they’re proven true and Yorke uses Prophet synths and makes this kind of shit. What else is there to say?

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