The Hidden Meaning Of Radiohead's Street Spirit

Radiohead isn't what you'd call an "uplifting" band. That being said, The Oxfordshire quintet doesn't have be, nor is that their purpose, nor is that even the purpose of music, in general. But when singer Thom Yorke calls one of the band's own songs the most "hopeless" out of anything they've ever written, that's a sign that there's some seriously heavy, tragic, and horrifically mournful music at hand.

"Street Spirit (Fade Out)" is the final song on Radiohead's 1994 now-classic The Bends, the band's final album of straightforward, non-proggy rock, before 1997's Ok, Computer revolutionized their sound and set the stage for their future albums' ever-changing, ever-evolving soundscape of complexity and subtlety. "Street Spirit," however, while a well-crafted, plaintive ballad full of depth of tone and feeling, also hits the heart with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's a vortex of purest despair, struck with every plucked string, and its waterfall of emptiness doesn't stop until the final note. The descending vocal line of the song's outro imitates the unrecoverable realization that the music describes. 

Sonically, in this way, it's easy to understand the meaning of the song. Yorke, per Ultimate Guitar, says that the song nearly breaks him every time they play it, and that they have to reserve it for the end of their sets to ensure he has enough energy to keep going. The song's specific meaning, though, and its origins, while evident in the lyrics, take some deciphering.

The ultimate agony of unavoidable death

"I can feel death, can see its beady eyes / All these things into position / All these things we'll one day swallow whole"

Written as a collage of images and vignettes to encapsulate a sense of despair, Yorke says, "'Street Spirit' is our purest song, but I didn't write it. It wrote itself. We were just its messengers. It's biological catalysts. Its core is a complete mystery to me. I wouldn't ever try to write something that hopeless." Yorke goes on to describe the song as, "about staring the f***ing devil right in the eyes ... and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he'll get the last laugh." Basically, in the end, "Street Spirit" is about being unable to contain all the hopelessness one senses at trying to envision the totality of death, and the ultimate uselessness of existence. No chance for redemption at the end of life, no fraudulent escape routes, nothing to stop being swallowed into nothingness. 

Yorke goes on to say that when he performs the song, he doesn't know, amongst all the cheering faces, that anyone really understands its meaning. He compares the fervent cheers of the crowd to a dog wagging its tail right before being put down. According to Rolling Stone, though, fans voted "Street Spirit" #6 out of all of Radiohead's songs. So, even if people don't precisely get what the song means, it seems they certainly feel it.