'One day I am gonna grow wings': Radiohead's abject transcendence

Nathan J B Wiseman-Trowse

Research output: Contribution to ConferencePaper


Whilst OK Computer did much to affirm Radiohead’s status as a band operating on the spectrum of progressive rock, its status as a concept album is more difficult to defend. However, the order of tracks on the album was much-deliberated over, and it is the transition of one song (‘Exit Music (For a Film)’) into another (‘Let Down’) that is the focus of this paper. Personally, the shift from the former to the latter is one of the most arresting moments on the album, and in this juxtaposition of songs can be found an ambivalent attitude to the fleshly and the transcendent. ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’, composed initially for the closing credits of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) suggests an alternate ending for the doomed lovers, running away to find peace from the familial politics that forbids their love. Yet the song also suggests a death pact and suicide as a form of vengeance on those left behind. This baleful and bitter ending segues via ambient sound into the shifting arpeggiated intro to ‘Let Down’, a musical change of tone that suggests some form of redemption even as the lyrics paint a more complicated picture. Echoes of Ballard and Kafka conflate the human body with both modes of transport and fragile insect physiognomy. Whilst both songs seem to interrelate music and lyric in sometimes oppositional ways, the theme of transcendence unifies both tracks. The almost choral ending to ‘Exit Music’, its hint of ‘ever-lasting peace’ and ‘Let Down’s assurance of transformation out of the crushed insect body (‘one day I am gonna grow wings’ suggests a means of escape from the material. The insect as a transitional body, abject and destroyed, becomes a site of flight from the symbolic order, ‘hysterical and useless’ perhaps, but revolutionary and sublime in new and perhaps more meaningful ways. Similarly the death pact becomes a means of transcending the symbolic order, leaving those behind to choke on their ‘rules and wisdom’. The ambivalence of both the music and lyrics for both tracks starts to make more sense as the songs develop a recognition of a post-mortal / pre-Oedipal state of bliss linked to the destroyed body. In the blown-out brains and the crushed carapace lies the promise of a more radical form of (non)existence. It is in that moment of jouissance that OK Computer offers its final alternative to the perils of alienating modernity.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2017
EventOK Computer 20 Years On: Radiohead's Musical, Cultural and Political Legacies - University Rennes 2, France
Duration: 18 May 2017 → …


ConferenceOK Computer 20 Years On: Radiohead's Musical, Cultural and Political Legacies
Period18/05/17 → …


  • Radiohead
  • popular music
  • music
  • Kristeva
  • indie
  • rock
  • abject


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