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“Exit Music” Is the Song Our Generation Deserves

From ‘Westworld’ to ‘Black Mirror,’ how Radiohead’s gloomiest song recaptured the zeitgeist

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s the worst part of the loop. For weeks now, we’d gathered on Sunday nights to watch robots fuck and kill each other, and watch humans indulge various amounts of pathos whilst fucking and killing robots. And then, at least once during each new episode of Westworld, the player piano whirs to life, and we nearly 12 million faithful viewers wince anew, as one. "Ah, Christ," we think. "Here comes another dopey pop song."

The Stones’ "Paint It, Black" for a shootout, Nine Inch Nails’ "Something I Can Never Have" for a joyless orgy, Amy Winehouse’s "Back to Black" for some devious scheming. Composer Ramin Djawadi’s sad, eerie, instrumental chamber-music covers are the show’s silliest aspect, too obvious and not a little craven, the apex of prestige TV using classic pop songs we all know and love and mope to as emotional crutches. "It’s a cheat, a shortcut to resonance," Sean T. Collins wrote in Vulture last month. "That particular work of art has far more cultural purchase, impact, and history than a first-season TV show." That Westworld has perfected this trick — and seized on one particular band’s catalog in overusing it — is no surprise.

This show is obsessed with Radiohead. "Fake Plastic Trees," "Motion Picture Soundtrack" (the tune Collins singled out), and, yes, "No Surprises" all snuck into the first nine episodes alone, unsubtle odes to the world’s gloomiest and most celebrated rock band, three decades deep into a career spent warning of the myriad ways technology will alienate and destroy us all. You knew Westworld’s love affair wouldn’t end there. And so, as Sunday’s rousing season finale climaxed, the Robot War finally upon us and Robert Ford making one last windy speech as the prelude to his shocking and romanticized suicide-by-proxy, the soundtrack lit upon the only song that made sense. A melodrama bomb several TV shows before it have deployed for this very purpose. The modern equivalent to Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," the minor fall with no major lift, soon to be found colonizing our singing-competition reality shows, too, turning chairs and triggering nervous breakdowns. The song this show and, increasingly, our generation deserves.

It landed on 1997’s OK Computer, but "Exit Music (For a Film)" was originally written for Baz Luhrmann’s gonzo 1996 bacchanal Romeo + Juliet, starring your true best friends Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. (It plays over the end credits, but didn’t make the official, suspiciously dope soundtrack.) Thom Yorke loved early footage of the movie, apparently, and had wondered for years why Romeo and Juliet didn’t just elope. The song is a dour and triumphant double-suicide dirge, pretty close to as lyrically unambiguous as Yorke has ever gotten: "Now we are one / In everlasting peace" for the howled climax, "We hope that you choke" for the croaked, spiteful denouement. It was perfect for disaffected teenagers then, and it’s perfect for disaffected TV shows now.

Part of the song’s appeal is its modularity, the platonic ideal of a slow-burn montage jam. For 2:50 or so it’s mostly just Yorke moaning amid desultory acoustic guitar and a disembodied, synthesized death-angel choir, our man first perking up only when the drums and gnarly fuzz bass kick in: "And you can laugh / A spineless laugh." That’s Phase 2; in the Westworld version, it accompanies the moment Maeve decides to find her daughter and marches off the escaping train and back into the abyss, the dread and resolve both cresting. The song’s crashing Phase 3 apex — "Now we are one" — is reserved, unfortunately, for the show’s doofiest character, the super-British, macho asshole writer guy, as he’s roaming around the basement and realizing all the decommissioned hosts have been, uh, recommissioned.

(HBO)
(HBO)
(HBO)
(HBO)

This is the song’s second big spotlight of 2016; the first came courtesy of "Shut Up and Dance," the cruelest and grimmest of Black Mirror’s newest episodes. The details are stupendously unpleasant; suffice it to say that this dude is bloody and traumatized, and gets yelled at by his mom during the "And you can laugh / A spineless laugh" part before squinting into police-car lights during the "Now we are one" part. (Sidebar to Black Mirror enthusiasts: What is wrong with you? Do you not have enough problems? Take a walk! Go home to your families! Watch literally anything else! Reconsider your life choices!)

A fun aside here, given the high esteem in which both Westworld and Black Mirror are held, is that the weird CBS crime procedural Person of Interest, starring Ben from Lost as some sort of proto-NSA supergenius, did the "Exit Music" thing back in 2014. I have no idea what’s happening here narratively (which is, to be fair, often true of Westworld, a show I actually watch), but the song’s beats are coherent regardless. The evil old guy growling, "Eliminate them all!" The technological jargon. The sad lady intoning, "You’re not a free man anymore, Harold. You’re just a number." ("Breeeathe," Yorke mewls. "Keep breathing.") A few of our heroes get away to "You can laugh a spineless laugh"; the evil surveillance apparatus reboots to "Now we are one." This show ran for two more seasons and ended this past June; hopefully a few of the bad guys choked.

Just a few months after that, another less-buzzy show — the CW’s dystopian soap opera The 100 — swooped in, tapping "Exit Music" for its Season 1 finale. Again, you get the broad strokes: apocalypse, tentative rebirth, natural beauty sullied by man-made devastation, one very sad, lonely guy on a space station drinking alone ("Now we are one"), and a few charred corpses to liven up the "we hope that you choke" epilogue. This looks stressful; maybe stay out of it.

Weirdest one for last: Here is a scene from a British comedy called Father Ted, where the entire joke is that the mere presence of "Exit Music" on the radio can make even a happy priest sad. The cynical read here — and we might’ve just entered a golden age for cynical reads — is that a 20-year-old Radiohead song proved so prescient that now it’s the only way we can imagine our awful, glum, dead-end future. It might not be so bad as all that, of course, but these shows aren’t where you turn for "it might not be so bad as all that" sentiments. So for now, we are all this guy, trying to keep our spirits up but dragged inexorably downward by Thom Yorke. There is a laugh track. We’re the only ones not laughing. Aren’t Radiohead just the best?

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.