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Karma Police

by Brianne Mueller

I remember rushing home from school when I was around 12-years-old. I was desperate to catch the 3 o’clock showing of MTV’s "Total Request Live" in order to start my VHS player and tape my favorite videos that would be played that day. Only 2 years earlier, Radiohead released the single “Karma Police”, which shortly thereafter made its music video debut on MTV. It was then, around the turn of the millennium that my obsession with music videos started.

Now in my mid-20s, after an expensive liberal arts education, years of classical training and film-nerdery that would put most people to shame, I remain intrigued by this classic music video that premiered in the late 90’s. My perspective has certainly changed, but there are essential elements in that music video which grabbed my attention at 12-years-old and have never quite lost their grip. Even with each additional viewing, I see more things that grab my attention. For instance, there is an extra frame inserted in the video around 00:01:38 mark - if anyone can see what it is, please email me.

The story behind the song (and there always is one) is that the members of Radiohead would tease each other and say that the karma police would be out to get them. This teasing about karmic retribution quickly became a recurring inside joke and eventually gave life to the lyrics in the song. There was overwhelming positive response not only from the album from which it is derived – OK Computer (1996) – but the song itself received massive amounts of radio play. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, the music video was especially well received when it first aired, resulting in a MTV Video Music Award for the director and several nominations for the video itself.  

The song tells the story of a man who implores the karma police to arrest ‘wrong-doers’ of various sorts. “Karma police, arrest this man/He talks in myths/He buzzes like a fridge/He's like a detuned radio…Karma police, arrest this girl/Her Hitler hairdo is/Making me feel ill…” Glazer puts the audience in a very unique and frightening position from the start – the driver’s seat. Very few music videos take that leap and put the camera as the protagonist and those that do don’t usually do it well, another reason why this video is so exceptional.

This stripped-down production is immediately immersive. The almost complete lack of special effects allows you to focus on the details of the story being told, all without a line of dialogue (save for the song, of course). With no visual distractions, the important (and detailed) aspects of the video are streamlined. This allows you not only to appreciate the intricacies of the visuals but also to pay closer attention to the words in the song. It does what a video should: use the the song to tell a story and use the visuals to strengthen its message.

As the storyline unfolds literally right in front of our eyes, the lyrics are able to take on an entirely new meaning.  Within the context of the chasing a perfect stranger down a dark, deserted road, the lyrics become directions. A power play is evident as the direction of this music video literally changes the meaning of the lyrics. Lead singer Thom Yorke is revealed to be the backseat passenger of the ’76 Chrysler New Yorker we are driving. His presence initially evokes a slight sense of confusion.  “This is what you get when you mess with us”. That’s certainly threatening, but they are offset by his obvious ambivalence of being in the car in the first place, and I don’t blame him. He is merely along for the ride; neither doling out karmic retribution nor in control in the ride. He, like the audience, plays the spectator to an unavoidable event.

This small allusion towards being a pawn in one’s own life is a reoccurring theme for Radiohead. They have always had an uncanny way for pointing out the juxtapositions and ironies in our lives. “Karma Police” in particular examines the fine line between karma and vengeance.  Yorke sings, “For a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself/Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself” from the backseat, realizing the clear vengeance in chasing this man. In the final few seconds, as the car bursts into flames, the man is nowhere to be found. As Yorke’s character finally realizes the futility of the situation, you can almost visualize his dramatic jump from the reversing vehicle and onto the side of the road.

Watching “Karma Police” for the first time over 10 years ago, I was floored. I remember very vividly sitting in my living room with my friend Toni, who was loudly voicing her distaste, yet I sat there entranced. This video has lived in my YouTube favorites for years. Now and again while trapped in the occasional ‘YouTube vortex’, it remains one of the first I expose to friends in order prompt certain reactions. No matter if you liked this video or hated it, chances are that ,like my friend Toni, you watched the entire thing. And isn’t that the ultimate success? That despite your personal opinion about the video, somehow it draws you in and keeps you hooked until it decides to loosen its grip, and you jump from a burning car into a ditch.

Bri Mueller is a life-long music enthusiast with a recent passion for film. An aspiring music video director, she is a theatre arts major (Psychology minor) from Lawrence University, currently employed as a Marketing Coordinator. Bri enjoys gluten-free brownies, parenthetical phrases and rock 'n' roll. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Daniele Teodoro. Contact Bri at bri.mueller[at]theinclusive.net.