Lyrical Analysis: “Paranoid Android” by Radiohead

The lyrics can be found here.  You can listen to the song below:

“Paranoid Android”, by Radiohead, is a rather straight-forward song about isolation.  However, because the song uses abstract imagery and manages to tell two, overlapping narratives with only one set of lyrics, the song is ripe for lyrical analysis.  Literally, this is a classic tale of insanity.  Figuratively, and the meaning you’re more likely to connect with, “Android” is a requiem for the outcast; for the leftfield perspective.

The notion of wanting to get some rest in a noisy environment is something we all can relate with, but the outcast of “Paranoid Android” is pleading; begging to fall asleep, because his head is filled with “unborn chicken voices”. This can seem confusing until the line is read literally – imagine that there are actually chickens inside this man’s head.  “Unborn,” in this context, is a clever way of saying “non-existent”; not actually real.  He simply hears noises in his head, and the syncopated call of a chicken is a perfect image to express the chaos of auditory hallucination.

In another sense, these voices in his head are not in his head at all, but actually the sounds of the world around him (with which he feels such disconnect).  The outcast cannot view society as a screaming success because his senses are overwhelmed with the literal screaming of the oppressed; the crack of the metaphoric whip, keeping everyone at work (“the crackle of pigskin”); overwhelming gluttony (“the crackle of pigskin” i.e. bacon); the panic of the chased; the vomit from those who witness it all and of course, those too busy making money to care (“the yuppies networking”).  The outcast begs it all to stop, because he’s simply trying to get some rest.

As if a nagging reminder to his insanity and his disconnect, the promise of a peaceful sleep is lost; replaced by literal paranoia (“What’s that?”).  Already so broken-down, the only way this outcast can cope is to escape to a dreamlike state; to imagine an alternate reality where he is in command, persecuting everyone who has ever wronged him (“When I am King, you will be first against the wall — where your opinion is of no consequence at all”).

Unfortunately, due to what’s been bubbling under the surface, what should be a pleasant daydream turns into a manic episode.  Rather playful, optimistic longing is replaced with aggressive force.  As if he’s shaking the collar of society itself, he screams, “You don’t remember!  You don’t remember my name!”  Now, he’s in control and is using his power to get back at his enemies – “Off with his head now; off with his head!!”

Unfortunately, the mania subsides and is replaced with a calming, static depression.  He’s back to the real world and his fantasy is just that – a fantasy.  The difference is, there’s no going back.  Perhaps in the intensity of his manic episode, he has broken a law or two, for now passersby are scorning and ridiculing him for his insanity.  “Off with his head now!!” is both a mantra yelled at society and the actual response of society to the outcast’s madness.

A crowd draws and he’s told, “That’s it now — you’re leaving,” but he refuses to give-in; instead fighting back and running away (“the dust and the screaming”). The police presumably catch him, but not before he is beaten (“the crackle of pigskin”), shrieking in terror as the walls of his world cave-in (“the screaming”).  All the while, this is taking place in public, with businessmen and women rushing past, far too busy making phone calls to stop and observe (“yuppies networking”).

It is here where Yorke sings with a cruel jest, “God loves his children.”  It is here where the literal story of a man going crazy and the casual observations of the modern cynic merge.  In the literal narrative, this line is a delusional self-assurance, muttered by the outcast as he’s hauled away.   In the figurative narrative, the cynical observer is mocking the idea of “God” with a bitter sarcasm: “God loves his children,” as if to say, why would anyone Godly waste their attention on this hellish world?  Regardless atheistic implications, this line is important because it shows how both the outcast and the observer have lost all hope.

In the chaos of literal arrest (or the figurative personal disconnect felt towards society), the outcast gives in.  The reason we know the outcast is too tired to fight is because the song starts off with “I’m trying to get some rest,” as if to imply should our protagonist not recover soon, there will be no will to continue.  With no hope in sight, the outcast proclaims, “let it all rain down on me — let it pour from a great height, far up in the sky.”  As if lithium had entered, intravenously, into his bloodstream, our lonesome friend finds peace (even if in defeat).

As if to justify the abstract nature of this song, we hear a robotic voice chanting, “I may be paranoid, but I’m not an android.” In other words, the outcast might have been seen as eccentric; perhaps even paranoid for no reason, but at least he was feeling something.  The beauty of this song is that once you understand the general narrative, all the abstract imagery can be applied to a multitude of concepts, all seen from the observer / the outcast’d perspective.  This outcast is holding up a mirror to our world, but before he can even ask if we’re okay with the resultant image, he loses his mind.