When I think of the 90s one of the themes that tends to run through the works is an overwhelming sense of ennui. Spurred by works like “The end of History and the Last Man” By Francis Fukuyama, which argued that after the fall of communism there was no “ideological threat” for society and that without this clash of major ideologies which had defined history our traditional sense of history would end (NOTE: this is a massive oversimplification). This idea would largely be disproven by the rise of terrorism as a major threat but for a while in the 90s the sense was that there was no major driving events that defined the generation. No wars, no social movements, and no great economic struggles like the great depression. Like in the 1950s there really was no problems (at least for white middle class males, minorities still had numerous cases of discrimination). This led to a period of introspection about society that seemed to point to a world dominated by meaningless consumerism and vapidity leading to intense dissatisfaction and alienation.
This shows up in explicitly in works such as Fight Club, and American Beauty, but it lies in the background of many of the works of the 90s. For example cartoons like Beavis and Butthead, and Ren and Stimpy, mocked the 80s cartoons attempts at poignancy that tried to mask there shallow salesmanship. It was a reaction to the barely covered to commercialism of shows like Transformers, and He-Man. In terms of film, the work of Tarantino affected a sort of escape fantasy to the past with his constant reference to the pop culture of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The Coens oeuvre was full of stories of somewhat stupid characters stumbling through there plots with a mixture of bleak cynicism and heart, stories of idiots we can’t help but both laugh at yet love. But for me what sums up this era the most is the work of the band Radiohead which presented a world full of alienated people lost searching for meaning where this is none.
If they have one song that sums up their entire career it is the song “Fake Plastic Trees” of their album the Bends, which came out in 1995.
It’s a rather simple song that doesn’t take much liberties with structure but it manages to a pack a lot of emotion in a down tempo balled. Musically it is very simple just some guitar matched by a bit of synths. Similarly it is lyrically quite simple detailing a narrative about a woman and a man she lives with both defined by their alienation from each other.
The first verse references this woman buying a fake rubber plant, “that she got from a rubber man, in a town full of rubber plans”, seeming to suggest that the world around this women is hollow, full of people following out plans they have set for themselves that will never truly grant them happiness. The second verse references this women living with a “cracked polystyrene man, who just crumbles and burns”, someone who is unable to face the world around him and when exposed to it crumbles away like polystyrene to fire. Following this there is a line referencing how he “used to do surgery, for girls in the 80s”, which I have interpreted two different ways. One is that he used to plastic surgery fitting in with the songs motif, or that he used to do some sort of useful surgery and now is living a meaningless life. This verse ends with the line “Gravity always wins” either a reference to how the negative forces of the world will always pull us down or simply to suicide by jumping off a building. The final verse switches perspectives describing a man, in the first person rather than the third like the previous verses, with a “Fake plastic love” who “Can’t help the feeling, I could blow through the ceiling, If I could just turn and run” essentially breaking out of this rut of alienation and depression.
After every verse the chorus changes slightly changing the pronouns to fit whoever the verse was about, starting with “It wears her out” to “it wears him out” and finally “it wears me out”. There is an outro which simply states “If I could be who you wanted, If I could be who you wanted all the time”. This is rather cryptic but it seems to show a man unable to be who society wants him to be, unable to fit into the world of fake plastic.
The song itself has some rather interesting background behind it, with it being inspired by the fake plastic trees that adorn Canary Wharf in London. After it was recorded Thom Yorke apparently broke down into tears.
Like many of the works that express similar sentiments from the time for all the depression there is a sense of hope with the line “Can’t help the feeling, I could blow through the ceiling, If I could just turn and run” seeming to apply some sort of escape from this miasma of alienation. This is similar works like American Beauty which ended with a sort of redemption for the main character, managing to at the end see above the fake world that surrounds him. Though not all the media allowed for such redemption, Fight Club for example posited that tearing down such a system that encouraged consumerism would only result in a similarly oppressive one (in fairness there is a lot more at play within Fight Club than just alienation with elements of Fascism, Patriarchal dominance, and Toxic Masculinity playing a huge role).
Looking back though a lot of these works seem to be a bit less important in a Post 9-11 world where we have much more to worry about than just alienation and ennui. We now have a world of nihilistic paranoia and a chaotic political landscape. For comparison let’s take a look at the song “Hunting for Witches” by Bloc Party which sums up the fears of the 2000s in a similar way.
To start of where “Fake Plastic Trees” is slow and listless reflecting the tiring affect that societal alienation has on the characters, “Hunting for Witches” sets about to create a somewhat energizing and terrifying sense of paranoia. It kicks off with a repeating with various indecipherable voices from news clips quickly come in and shutting off in a repetitive motion emphasizing the oversaturation of media in the modern world. A descending sound is created from the tapping of a pick on a guitar creating a sound that reminds one of falling or of police sirens. A drum machine kicks in repeating a constant beat, quickly setting up the guitar riff which rides the drums like a wave, cutting through the mix with high treble. All of this serves to set up a sense of paranoia and neurosis in a world full of fear sold to you by the mass media.
The first line of the song completely underscores all of the paranoia opening with “I was sitting, on the roof of my house, with a shotgun, and a six pack of beers”. It immediately paints the picture of a man terrified of the world around him. The line that follows gives us context for that fear with “The newscaster says the enemy is among us, as bombs explode on the 30 bus” showing us this is a man who is buying in to a narrative of paranoia delivered by the media. Following this is “Kill your middle class indecision, now is not the time for liberal thought” referencing the affect that 9/11 had on many people, leading to a sense of war hawkishness, bigotry, and fear that lead to conservative actions like the patriot act which robbed people of their rights.
The next verse of the song further details the situation stating “90’s, optimistic as a teen now its terror, airplanes crash into towers” which contrasts the relative happiness of the 90s with the fear of the post 9/11. It also indirectly shows the kind of lack of perspective something like Fake Plastic Trees, or Fight Club has. Sure its shitty to feel alienated and lost in a world of consumerism but troubles 90s seem somewhat insignificant and whiny compared to the troubles of the 2000s. After all the 90s was a relatively great time to be alive, with a huge booming economy and all. Returning to the song the fear mongering of the media is brought up again “The Daily Mail says the enemies among us, taking our women and taking our jobs, all reasonable thought is being drowned out by the non-stop baying, baying, baying for blood” further emphasizing how media pushed a narrative of bigotry and fear upon the average person.
The chorus of the song with the line “I go hunting for witches” delivers an indictment of the entire culture post 9/11 which bathed in fear and desperate to get some kind of sense of security created a paranoid world view. People searched for “witches” something that isn’t real but can be blamed for all our problems. For many this scapegoat was people of the Muslim faith who faced bigotry post 9/11.
The song closes out with “I was an ordinary man with ordinary desires, I watched TV, it informed me,” followed by “There must be accountability, disparate and misinformed, fear will keep us all in place” clearly stating that one must hold the media to a standard of accountability and not let fear mongering spread.
“Hunting for Witches” manages to portray a person and by proxy a culture in a way that is both critical and sympathetic, driven into a state of paranoia and fear after tragic events. It’s a song that I think seems to portray a more desperate and more important message than “Fake Plastic Trees”. I do want to point out that I think consumerism and alienation our important problems in our society but for me they pale in comparison to problems like fear mongering and bigotry.
It seems strange looking back on both these songs in the year 2016. I can relate to both of them and I feel both have an important message that can be applied to today’s cultural climate. It’s somewhat sad how little we have come, our culture is still fearing a terrorist thread and we still our stuck in a world of consumerism. I wish I could end on a more positive note than that but I really can’t cause its 5:36 in the fucking morning and I want to sleep.
My next post is gonna be more positive I promise.