Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

And if I could be who you wanted…
If I could be who you wanted…
all the time.
All the time…



The first time I ever heard this song was when Andy performed it for me in my basement room in the Fall of 1997. I know it seems like a late date, but I had been avoiding Radiohead since “that creep song” became so overwhelmingly popular in 1993. I suppose that the impulse to avoid popular things is a product of the nineties, or perhaps the alternative scene that predated it. In either case, it’s hard to avoid. (I suspect that there was also a bit of pride, being in possession of a great many recordings, thanks to friends like Mike, that very few of my friends had really spent much time with. What can I say? I was young.) Indeed, to this very day, I often have to be dragged into things that are generally considered clever. I have some weaknesses, these mostly manifesting through television, but there we are. So, it was no surprise that I would have paid little attention to Radiohead’s first three albums until Andy hit me over the head with “Fake Plastic Trees.” Now, of course, this wasn’t the original, but Andy’s stamp of approval really meant a lot in those days. He had been a member of my ill-fated band, and I’d gotten to see his quirky genius at work on a regular basis. To this day, I remain full of a mix of admiration, affection, and trepidation when I approach Andy. I suppose I’ll always carry that around when I listen to this song.

Moving backwards, for a moment, I should point out that we weren’t alone. We were there with Nicole F, a girl he had been seeing and who made up one half of “The Nicoles” – Superfans extraordinaire for my ill-fated band. More on that in the Brand X/Soma entry. What I remember most was the intense stillness that came over the room once Andy had finished. There’s something about the final stanzas of the song that seem to come from an entirely different place than the rest of the lyrics. One of those great moments where a song grabs you, pulls you to the mirror, and forces you to confront your fears and hopes at once. That moment when the final “wears me out” yields to the B-minor chord that prefaces the introduction of the final sighing wish… shivers every time. (Hard to avoid with Thom’s voice – it really does come from another planet. One quite close to the one on which Jonsi of Sigur Ros keeps his, I think. There really is something unavoidably awesome about male voices that can reach into the stratosphere.) It’s a universal plea, and I don’t think you can really read those lyrics without thinking of someone, or somewhen, when you didn’t mean them from the bottom of your heart.

Of course, the official line on the song and the video is this: “A song written for the world of mass marketing and mass consumption.” And, yeah, it’s all in there. But it’s not as much an indictment of those things, I think, as it is a fear of not measuring up. That one’s commodity is going to prove inferior to another – the Brand X, as it were. And we see this anxiety all around us. In the fans and worshipers of American Idols, boy bands, fashion magazines, and talk shows that dot our cultural landscape. What are these things if not archetypes that are necessary only because of the sorts of quotas set by the business of culture? I can’t help but wondering what Baudrillard, who passed away yesterday, would have had to say about the notion of “reality TV.” When you get right down to it, it seems almost impossible for a Thom Yorke to exist in a world like this one. And it’s here that the final lyric takes on a bit of extra weight. There’s almost a wry twist to the “who you wanted,” changing it into “who you (the society) wanted.” As if he knows a better way than I do, and he’d show me if I only knew how to look.

These are the sorts of thoughts that go through your head when you’re overwhelmed by the perfect, simple beauty of a song like this. Ultimately, “Fake Plastic Trees” is a perfect pop song. (I suppose I’m using a definition of pop that is more traditional – pop in the same sense that Morrissey and R.E.M. are pop, as opposed to Milli Vanilli or Celine Dion.)

When Andy had finished playing, and the silence began to ebb away, we went out into the night in his rattling car. We drove past darkened fields and empty suburban streets, and I leaned against the window and watched the stars float past. (This is still my favorite place to be in any car.) I’ll never forget the beautiful stillness of that night. Eventually, it was time to drop Nicole off. She went up the driveway, past her red VW bug, and into her expensive, Westfordian home, and I couldn’t help but wipe my hand across my mouth in much the same way that Eliot suggests in the poem that inspired this site.

Andy and I sang a great many songs on that drive, and we talked about music and art and stuff until we ran out of time. I got my first copy of “The Bends” that night, in exchange for my third copy of “Disintegration.” (God knows how I keep losing that album. I’ve given away almost as many copies of that album as I’ve given “Laid” by James. Which, if you know me, or knew me in high school, you’ll know is a very large number indeed.) Chances are, indeed, that, because of me, you got “Laid” on your birthday.

On my own in my room, I listened intently to the album while the night passed me by. By this time in my life, I had elected not to return to college. I was technically unemployed, living in my parents’ basement, and without any real sense of direction. It’s not romantic, by any stretch. By the time I arrived at the end, crying as the invocation to “immerse yourself in love” came through, I was changed. Having been largely unconvinced by the events of the past few years, I knew then that there were things in the world worth pursuing and fighting for. I felt that same spark that I felt when I first heard “Mayonaise,” and I knew that I was holding in my heart the first sounds of the song that would get me through. Which is not to say that I hadn’t ever loved songs between “Mayonaise” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” Quite the contrary. But, every now and again, a song will cause the pieces of your cerebral attic to come together in just the right configuration. I knew that there really were a few people for whom I wanted to be who they wanted. One of them, after all, was me. And I knew that the only way to get there was through genuine interaction. To this day, the song reminds me of the great danger of trading away parts of your identity to ready-made cultural elements. (It’s ok for that to sound a little pretentious. It kind of has to, given the way things are.)

As a bit of an aside, the path that I followed from that moment lead me to Oxford, England – home of Radiohead. During the first week that I was studying there, I met my friend Lucy. We went out for a walk into town, and, in one of those amazing moments of surrealism that I would learn to adjust to, we stopped on a crossing at just the same moment that Thom Yorke was heading past. And I didn’t even notice. That is, until Lucy nudged me as we passed, and I turned to regard the lanky figure going by. I was so disappointed at not getting to see this hero of mine that I nearly kicked myself. Of course, it’s a strange, strange place, and I would eventually get another chance… at Sainsbury’s. Thom was there buying muffins. Muffins. This man doesn’t eat store-bought muffins, and he certainly doesn’t get in the queue if he’s forced to. I would think that I imagined all this, if not for the fact that others have seen it too. Given the video for the song, I thought this little anecdote worth bringing up. Of all the many adventures that have followed from my love of music, this has got to be one of the more unusual.

At any rate, before I go and rob you of your own chance to approach the song, I’ll just say that I hope the entry was what you wanted. I leave you with the video. It’s not the original, but I think you’ll find it’s just as special… nothing, after all, beats the sound of thousands of hearts singing as one. Nothing.

4 thoughts on “Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees”

  1. I’m really, really adoring these entries. I’m kind of jealous actually, that I don’t have anything like this in me to write (except maybe a series on girls I crushed on for too long, but shouldn’t have… but I think I’ve already done that).

    By the way, that preview that’s coming up below the comment box is awesome. How’d you manage that? AJAX or Javascript or something?

  2. Thanks, Chris. It’s really very gratifying to read that. Honestly, I always feel a bit silly about telling stories – particularly to the thin air – and so I’m really happy to know that they’re being well received. As for not having it in you, I don’t believe that for a second. You’re putting much more energy into your novel, which is every bit as personal. For that reason alone, I don’t believe you. :p

    The comment preview is done with AJAX. I’m also considering making it possible for the “read the rest…” link to simply yield to an ajax-ized transition… supplying the text without refreshing. I’m not sure, though, as I find the code a bit wonky. Anyway, I’m glad you like it! WordPress really does have some pretty cool toys…

  3. This is so so beautiful. I could put so many things in quotes… things that you said and i loved… because i have felt those things too. I specially loved the parts where you said “But, every now and again, a song will cause the pieces of your cerebral attic to come together in just the right configuration” and “To this day, the song reminds me of the great danger of trading away parts of your identity to ready-made cultural elements. (It’s ok for that to sound a little pretentious. It kind of has to, given the way things are.)” I can feel how much you love music just by reading this post. I swear this entry is so stunning. It gives a feel. Loved it so much.

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