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Lyrical Analysis of Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)"

Andrea was in the all-state choir in high school. She was in a band that was never famous. She has studied music theory & history.

Radiohead concert in Texas. September 30, 2016.

Radiohead concert in Texas. September 30, 2016.

Taking a Closer Look at a Radiohead Classic

Considered one of the greatest ending credit songs, "Exit Music (For a Film)" is a dirge that conveys many of the key themes of arguably Radiohead's most important album: OK Computer. The song has to do with the destructive sides of society that imprison people and force them into tragic predicaments. It was written specifically for Romeo + Juliet.

Baz Luhrmann, the director of Romeo + Juliet, spoke highly of Radiohead in the DVD commentary. He said their song is one of the greatest ending credit songs.

As a nerd of both Shakespeare and Radiohead, I thought it would be worth my time to explore what makes "Exit Music (For a Song)" so special.

The article will unmask some of the mysteries behind this song by using the following methods:

  • Analyzing the lyrics
  • Taking a look at what inspired it
  • Examining how it fits in with OK Computer
  • Examining its musicality with basic music theory

Track Information

InfoExit Music (For a Film)

Band

Radiohead

Album

OK Computer

Run Time

4:27

Written by

Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, Jonny Greenwood, Philip Selway, Thom Yorke

Key

B Minor

Year

1997

Songs That Sound Similar

"The Tourist" by Radiohead; "Dondante" by My Morning Jacket; "My Body Is a Cage" by Arcade Fire; "Five Years" by David Bowie

Lyrics by Radiohead.

Lyrics by Radiohead.

Lyrics

Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears
Today, we escape, we escape

Pack and get dressed
Before your father hears us
Before all hell breaks loose

Breathe, keep breathing
Don't lose your nerve
Breathe, keep breathing
I can't do this alone

Sing us a song
A song to keep us warm
There's such a chill, such a chill

And you can laugh
A spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you
Now we are one in everlasting peace

We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke

Analyzing the Lyrics

At the heart of so many of Shakespeare's plays is misconception. Shakespeare loved to explore how misconception leads to tragedy or comedy. His great understanding of misconception and how that creates conflict is why his plays are so fascinating and continue to be studied centuries later.

Radiohead's song for Romeo + Juliet focuses on two things: the tragedy of misconception and the evils of society.

Romeo Overcome With Grief

The song can more easily be taken from Romeo's perspective, but it's not out of the question to see it from Juliet's. Romeo arrives at the tomb to find Juliet's body. He believes she is dead, and after saying a few parting words to her body, he is ready to take deadly poison.

Compare Radiohead's opening lines of their song to Romeo's famous lines in the Capulet Tomb:

Wake from your sleep
The drying of your tears


ROMEO: Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe

That unsubstantial Death is amorous,

And that the lean abhorred monster keeps

Thee here in dark to be his paramour?

For fear of that I still will stay with thee,

And never from this palace of dim night

Depart again. Here, here will I remain

With worms that are thy chamber-maids. O, here

Will I set up my everlasting rest,

And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars

From this world wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!

Arms, take your last embrace! And, lips, O you

The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss

A dateless bargain to engrossing death! (Act V, Scene III)

Romeo's lines address his confusion: He doesn't understand how Juliet can look so beautiful while dead. The audience knows Juliet is actually asleep, but Romeo doesn't. He doesn't know she faked her death, and this is the great misconception of the play.

Radiohead's song in the opening lines reflects Romeo's deranged grief. He wants her to wake up, he wants that to be a possibility, but he honestly thinks she is dead. He doesn't have key information because a letter that was supposed to get to him didn't. Friar John had a letter from Juliet addressed to Romeo, but the friar was quarantined because of an outbreak of the plague.

The song also plays to the audience who would be watching Shakespeare's play and holding their breath hoping that Juliet would wake.

What If They Had Escaped?

The next part of the song fits in with what Yorke has said about the play. In interviews, he has said he wished Romeo and Juliet had escaped before the bad stuff started. The song suggests what Romeo could have done—take Juliet with him after they shared an intimate night together and go into exile together.

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You could apply the same interpretation to the opening lines, “Wake from your sleep, dry your tears away.” Essentially, Romeo wakes up Juliet after their final night together, and this time he has a plan to keep them safe. Either interpretation works for the opening of the song, really.

Running away with Juliet would have spared her from the distressing conversation she'd have with her parents, where she is reprimanded for not agreeing to their plan to have her married off to Count Paris.

Lord Capulet is verbally abusive to his daughter—he doesn't understand her feelings in part because her romance with Romeo is a secret. Juliet is already grieving the loss of her cousin Tybalt and the unfortunate truth that Romeo was the one to kill Tybalt out of revenge for his slain friend Mercutio. The following lines of the Radiohead song reimagine this upsetting turning point in Romeo and Juliet:

Today, we escape, we escape

Pack and get dressed

Before your father hears us

Before all hell breaks loose

Unfortunately, all hell does break loose after Romeo and Juliet's last moments alive and awake together. Romeo's mother dies offstage, Romeo kills Count Paris, Romeo takes the poison, and Juliet uses his dagger on herself.

Final Words

The next lines of the song speak to the final words of both Romeo and Juliet. They both wanted to be with their partner; death was more appealing to them than living life alone. They both felt understood in the light of the other. It was too painful to live and not be understood for their deep-seated and poetic ideologies on life and love. The loneliness they felt without their partner was immense. I've placed the Radiohead lines side-by-side with the final words of Romeo and Juliet:

Breathe, keep breathing
Don't lose your nerve
Breathe, keep breathing
I can't do this alone

Sing us a song
A song to keep us warm
There's such a chill, such a chill


ROMEO: Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide,

Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on

The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark!

O true apothecary,

Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.

Here's to my love! (Act V, Scene III)


JULIET: What's here? A cup closed in my true love's hand

Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.

O churl, drunk all and left no friendly drop

To help me after. I will kiss thy lips.

Haply some poison yet doth hang on them

To make me die with a restorative.

[Kisses him] Thy lips are warm.

[...]

Yea, noise? Then I'll be brief. O happy dagger,

[Picking up Romeo's dagger]

This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die. (Act V, Scene III)

Society Is at Fault

The final part of the Radiohead song perfectly conveys the sorrows of Romeo and Juliet, and it squarely points the finger at the people in power who by their rules and expectations caused the demise of two young teens who had little if any agency over their lives. Both teens were condemned for challenging their prescripted roles.

Juliet was only 13 years old, and her parents were considering getting her married off at 14 to a man ten years older than her. At 14 years of age, Juliet was expected to marry Count Paris, give him children, and improve the political standing of her parents. What Juliet wanted was to be with Romeo, but she wasn't allowed to be with him because of his surname—Montague.

She was bound to her gender role. Even in the tomb, the only real role she was given for her future—if she were to leave the tomb—was to become a nun dedicated to God and the church. This offer by Friar Laurence is incredibly insulting to a young girl who has spent the last couple of days madly in love and open to her passions. She'd rather be dead than take up the scripted roles her parents, society, and the church deem fit for her.

Romeo is a cursed character. He wants to be a pacifist and a love poet, but instead, he is provoked to fight and kill Tybalt and Count Paris. Romeo couldn't avoid the roles society thought fit for him—to take on patriarchal norms such as arrogance and violence.

It was the faults of the ancient grudge between the two rival families, the Capulets and Montagues, that led to Romeo's and Juliet's deaths. Tybalt Capulet enraged that Romeo crossed enemy lines to attend the Capulet ball thought the only solution to Romeo's treachery was punishment by a duel.

Tybalt was willing to risk imprisonment or worse the death sentence by provoking Romeo. Tybalt was the product of generations and generations of hate for the Montagues. A Montague simply going to a party was enough of an excuse for Tybalt to get into a fight.

The first Montague and Capulet to break enemy lines and fall in love would always be fated to tragedy. Romeo and Juliet, unfortunately, happened to be the ones who fell in love. Both were the only child of their parents.

Radiohead's chorus is as if Romeo and Juliet spoke from the grave to curse their families, society, and all the circumstances that ruined their bliss:

And you can laugh
A spineless laugh
We hope your rules and wisdom choke you

But the chorus doesn't stop there. It does start with bitingly sharp criticism of the world, but there is an interjection that speaks more to what Romeo and Juliet always wanted—each other. The song uses the lines criticizing society to get to the most important part of the entire song: a suggestion that Romeo and Juliet are together in death, and they no longer suffer.

Now we are one in everlasting peace

The rest of the song decrescendos and repeats the same line three times. The repeated phrase is a reference to Mercutio's famous line which he says three times: "A plague o' both your houses!" Mercutio says this three times after Tybalt gave him a fatal wound. This is how Radiohead interpreted Mercutio's line:

We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke
We hope that you choke, that you choke

Radiohead lyrics.

Radiohead lyrics.

Inspiration for the Song

The lyrics for "Exit Music (For a Film)" are inspired by Shakespeare's play. At first, Yorke wanted to incorporate lines from the play, but he ended up deciding to summarize Romeo and Juliet instead.

The Franco Zeffirelli version of the movie had a strong impact on Yorke when he was a teenager:

I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13, and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn't understand why, the morning after they shagged, they didn't just run away. It's a song for two people who should run away before all the bad stuff starts. —Yorke

Yorke has compared the opening of the song to Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. The big climactic section of the song borrows from trip-hop, in particular Portishead.

The track includes:

  • Acoustic guitar
  • Mellotron choir and other electronic voices
  • Distorted bass run through a fuzz pedal
  • Drums

Romeo + Juliet and OK Computer

Luhrmann commissioned Radiohead to write the ending credit song for Romeo + Juliet. He gave the band the last thirty minutes of the film to help them create the song.

The band immediately started working on the song once they saw the part where Claire Danes, playing Juliet, picked up a gun and pointed it toward her head. In the play, Juliet uses a dagger to kill herself. Luhrmann adapted the play into a new punk film with guns, cars, drugs, and skyscrapers.

The band requested that the song not be featured in the soundtrack album. Here's the incredible part, this song helped ground and give Radiohead a frame to work with to create their ambitious self-produced album OK Computer. In a way, Romeo and Juliet is touching every part of the album:

[It] was the first performance we'd ever recorded where every note of it made my head spin—something I was proud of, something I could turn up really, really loud and not wince at any moment. —Thom Yorke

Personally, it's one of my favorite songs on the album. I have a soft spot for "Paranoid Android", which sent me down my original love spiral for the band. "Exit Music (For a Film)" is a different experience for me than the other songs on OK Computer. There is a reverence to the song. It makes me stop what I'm doing and consider the world around me, my own thoughts, and the choices I have made. The song was designed as a dirge.

I'm not the only one who has been mesmerized by this song. A long time ago, Marilyn Manson escaped a treatment facility and was on the verge of killing himself. He said to Rolling Stone:

I escaped from a treatment facility and listened to this song as I was standing on the edge of a cliff, thinking about jumping. Then I walked down the hill.

The Making of OK Computer

Radiohead recorded their album at St Catherine's Court, a historic mansion in Bath, UK. The band recorded in different parts of the house to create their album. The vocals for "Exit Music (For a Film)" were created on a stone staircase, which provided natural reverberation. The album was created in isolation, so the band had freedom over their schedule. The biggest problem was that they had no deadlines for the project, so it was hard to stay focused on it. It was intimidating work.

The album's instruments weren't overdubbed separately. A large portion of the album was recorded live. This is probably why the tracks come off fresh and authentic—it isn't over-recorded, plus the musicians had the freedom to approach their craft when they wanted to. An amazing bit of trivia: Many of Yorke's takes were first takes of the songs.

Musicality

The complexity of most Radiohead songs is incredible. I don't want to burden readers with heavy musical jargon about chord harmonies, dissonances, tritones, and the like, so I'm going to try to delve into this song in a way that makes it easy to understand.

One of the easiest ways to describe a song is to determine whether it's in a major or minor key. As with most melancholy songs, "Exit Music (For a Film)" is written in a minor key (B Minor). Much of the vocal track has descending notes, as in the case of the bridge:

Breathe, keep breathing
Don't lose your nerve
Breathe, keep breathing
I can't do this alone

The song starts with guitar strums and sustained notes from Yorke's voice. F# is the core note of the song; Yorke repeats and goes back to it several times, giving the song structure.

Listen to the first verse: Yorke repeats F# multiple times, and his notes descend from there down to the next B. All of this together creates an emotive, melancholic song. It's an intelligent design: a minor key, descending notes, and hovering around a sharp note (F#). Yorke's voice is easy to follow, and though he does jazz up his vocal treatment a little, it's easy to follow him over the more complicated chords and effects that are in the mastered version.

The chorus somewhat inverts the musical pattern found in the verses and bridge. In the chorus, Yorke sings above F#. The chorus is chilling, and it begins with the words "And you can laugh."

The dissonance in the descending notes is bigger than it is in the verse and bridge—this helps to make the song more dramatic. It's like a ball dropping, rebounding not as high the second time, and then dropping once more to rebound not as high again.

The part that makes this song epic is when Yorke sings "rules and wisdom choke you now" as ascending notes. He crescendoes to the word "now."

There is this beautiful sustaining part of the song with "Now we are one, in everlasting peace." The notes Yorke sings are all right beside each other making for an incredibly focused section. The climax is heartbreaking: It conveys the core sadness of Romeo and Juliet, how badly they wanted to hold on to each other, and their desperate actions to try and survive. The contrasting words and rhythms before it plus the really stretchy sustaining notes of the climax are impactful.

Those long sustaining notes in a crescendo play to the sorrow that is Romeo thinking Juliet is dead, and Juliet realizing Romeo killed himself. But now they’re at peace. There is no more suffering for them. This section transcends the rest of the song, hinting at something spiritual or otherworldly. This part of the song is the most likely part to give people goosebumps.

The end of the song has Yorke repeat "we hope that you choke, that you choke" three times. Each time with less energy and more fragility. Different instruments fade out each time he repeats the phrase.

References

© 2022 Andrea Lawrence

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