Note: this was originally published elsewhere in 2013.
“Karma Police” is one of those songs — and, oh, what a song — and it raises a lot of questions in line with that kind of sentiment: even if the three sections that comprise the song lack a formal tonal resolve, why does the song end up feeling so resolved? Because of the way it begins? As if it were the sonic equivalent of Luther or Columbo, where you’re given the ‘who done it’ at the beginning and you’re left to try and figure out the ‘how?’ Would it add credence to the notion of giving all one can to figure out the problem, but it’s not enough because the beginning of the song keeps slipping further and further away? (Until the suddenly drawn up curtain at the end?)
That feels a little easy, though, and doesn’t quite capture why you can “lock in” to the song over and over again, as if there was a giant gear from a giant clock slowly pinning you down. And what of the dance — as this paper points out — between music’s necessary repetition, ‘verbatim encoding,’ and the phenomenon of semantic satiation? Is it because once you hear a melody line, you have to hear the entire melody line? That you can’t ‘hiccup sing it’ like you were playing ‘Name That Tune?’
And why haven’t we latched onto Thom Yorke comparing songwriting in an interview with RTE to a Rothko painting? (Or — at least — I seem to recall it being RTE.) For me, that’s as big a clue as to method as Dylan calling “Blonde on Blonde” an album filled with a wild, thin mercury sound and hearing him then sing the emphatic praises of a woman with a mercury mouth. And I’m not trying to say that this isn’t the exegetical be-all-and-end-all to Yorke’s method, but what do Rothko paintings do, after all? They’re big. They glow. They echo and haunt. They’re exactingly structured. They’re aren’t quite representative, but they seem to aspire towards a certain representative visuality partly through the shock of their emphasis. Or — as Rothko puts it — “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point! … The familiar identity of things has to be pulverized in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrouds every aspect of our environment.”
Which brings us back to “Karma Police” once again. The man “buzzes like a fridge.” There is the historical echo of Lennon and McCartney asking sexy Sadie what she’s done. “You’ve made a fool of everyone.” And there is a temptation to read it as an act of creation tempting fate — that this is what brings out the man who buzzes like a fridge and the girl with the Hitler hair-do because ‘this’ — that is, them — is what you get when you mess with the ethereal ‘us.’ Ha, ha. Isn’t it funny? You go for it and you get this nonsense. You plug a guitar in and how dare you! You shake your hips below a television camera and I bid you good day. Isn’t it a laugh?
This is why the lyrics and the structure are a bit ‘pulverized’ and why it feels like the curtain lifting at the end come out of nowhere: the song dramatizes the act of sneaking beneath their radar. It’s why it was so refreshing and exhilarating to see the crowd at Glastonbury in 2010 chant the lines over and over again — like watching an idea do its impression of the sea hitting the shore — chant and sing it so much that Yorke came back to the microphone to finish the song for a second time. The line ‘This is what you get/when you mess with us’ pivots both ways, then: you get the metaphysical tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee’s coming out of the woodwork when you ‘go for it,’ but when they mess with you, you get what happened at Glastonbury; you get the horsemen (and women) of “You and Whose Army?”; you get that great Neil Young echo where Yorke captures the sad and exhausting bits in a fairly compelling way (“I’ve given all I can”); you get the reassurance that “you are not to blame for [the] / Bittersweet distractor”; and once the ‘Karma Police’ have taken them all away — once the rain and thunder have passed — you get a bit of relief. You towel off. Why, for a minute there, there might have been a rainbow. Keep an eye out.