It’s Monday again, which means we’ve got a new batch of songs to explore for the week. We’ve covered classic rock, electronic, hip hop, indie, and folk so far, but have barely hit the tip of the iceberg. There are still plenty of genres and sub-genres left to explore.
That being said, this week’s collection of alternative rock songs may seem pretty similar to our week of indie music. This is because the two are sometimes referred to interchangeably. The way I see it, indie is a genre that falls underneath the umbrella of alternative rock. While “indie” used to refer to independent artists (and can still), it has come to be defined as another subset of rock and alternative music.
But we’ll try to keep as much indie rock out of our songs this week as we can. Instead, we’ll pick out songs from artists who push the boundaries of rock, emphasizing experimentation.
With that goal in mind, there might be no better band we could start with than Radiohead. Their music is a good example of the range of styles that can be found in alternative rock. They also have a strong history of being experimental with their songwriting, production, and even distribution.
“2 + 2 = 5”
“2 + 2 = 5” is the third single from Radiohead’s sixth album, “Hail to the Thief”, which released in 2003. The title of the song is a reference to a passage from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
For those who haven’t read it, Orwell’s book takes place in a dystopian future run by an authoritarian government. The citizen’s are forced to engage in “doublethink”, replacing their own conscious beliefs with those imposed on them from outside from the”thought-police”. One of the methods used to coerce doublethink is convincing citizens to admit under threat of death, that two plus two equals five.
The album title “Hail to the Thief” is a not-so subtle jab at the song “Hail to the Chief”, the official anthem of the President of the United States of America. The album was made in response to the War on Terror, as well as the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore, even though Gore won the popular vote.
Thom York’s lyrics reference the title twice in the first verse. “2 + 2 = 5” is also the first track on “Hail to the Thief”, so these first lines introduce us to where we stand, as he sees it. And it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. The first verse drips with cynicism and mocks idealism in four short lines.
“Are you such a dreamer,
To put the world to rights?
I’ll stay home forever,
Where two and two always makes a five”
During the first two verses, the vocals are accompanied by a light, simple beat and a minor guitar arpeggio. In the section below, the arpeggios are traded for layered guitars, and the drums cut out.
“It’s the Devil’s way now,
There is no way out,
You can scream and you can shout,
It is too late now”
A distorted mess of guitars and drums come out in full force. The lyrics hit with the same driving energy, forcing the next message into your ears.
“Because you have not been
“2 + 2 = 5” builds and builds as it reaches its end. The final verses aren’t full verses, so much as they are a repetitive jumble of contradictions. But considering the themes being written about, the structure makes sense. Here’s just one example of what I’m talking about, which comes in at the end of the song.
“Oh go up to the king, and the sky is falling in, / But it’s not,/ but it’s not / Maybe not, / maybe not”.
This song is a good example of alternative rock, because it defies typical rock songwriting conventions. There’s no verse/chorus/bridge structure here, and while some lines are repeated, none of the sections are. The song moves organically forward, without a need to go back or repeat anything.
While I’d love to talk more about Radiohead, we can’t spend all week discussing their music (though we may come back to one more of their songs later). Tomorrow, we’ll look at another alternative rock song, and see if we can get a little more variety.