“Karma Police” is great because it marks the beginning of something, not the end.
Music video has always been the medium of the future. It’s part of an era more synesthetic than our own: sound produces image, image produces sound, we bear witness in the fullness of our sensing bodies. In the time still to come, the songs we love become living, breathing objects we can physically embrace.
The music video for Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” directed by Jonathan Glazer, is futuristically, undeniably tactile. The inflexible metal of a Chrysler car, the automobile’s velvety interior, the bruising ruggedness of the asphalt road, the soft heat of the headlight glow, the eventual alchemical transformation of this glow into the fuller blaze of fire—these seem to make contact with us directly. Even the texture of Thom Yorke’s head gently presents itself to our grasping fingers.
For those not familiar with the video, its basic premise goes something like this: a car drives forward in the night, while Thom Yorke slinks down and listlessly lip syncs in its backseat. Its headlights discover a man who runs and runs, presumably fleeing the vehicle. But when the car stops, it suddenly becomes clear that this man has sinister plans for the petrol that the auto has pissed out onto the asphalt. Behind his back, he lights a match and lets it fall onto the gas-soaked ground to create a blaze that moves towards the car. The tables have turned. The vehicle reverses to avoid the flames, but, in the end, it cannot elude them. It’s set ablaze, but somehow the camera contorts to reveal that Yorke has disappeared from the backseat.
It’s a simple scenario that feels somehow both constructed and real: it’s a parable but a palpable one. The song’s lyrics reinforce this. “This is what you’ll get/ When you mess with us,” goes its notorious refrain. Stated Jesus-style, the message might say, “Blessed are those who don’t fuck with others, for they shall avoid getting fucked over themselves.” It helps that flames of terror are involved—the driver of the car has hell to pay for the initial pursuit. And what a frightening hell this is, where the sheer panic felt in response to approaching fire lasts an eternity, only to lead to a second eternity of actual burning. “For a minute there, I lost myself,” Yorke wails. This too plays out in the video, but the line is both blessing and curse: the disappearance at the end is mysterious bliss but temporary. When the minute’s up, deathly tortures will undoubtedly rain down.
It’s actually sort of amazing that the song’s content and its video match up so nicely. Story goes that Jonathan Glazer, the video’s director, initially pitched the idea to Marilyn Manson for a different song entirely. Manson rejected him, so the concept ended up in the video for “Karma Police.” It’s as if some kind of supernatural, freely associating force led to this result. Every police needs a car; every key change needs some ignition. The song’s transition is haunting, sudden and brutal, and we can certainly say the same for the video’s literal shifting of gears.
One might be tempted to see all of this as just pouring out more praise in favor of a rather obvious choice for the best music video ever. Peter Tabakis wrote in his piece about the best band ever that it’s really not very much fun to choose as “the best” what people already expect. The “Karma Police” video has plenty of accolades already: see this oral history on Pitchfork or the video’s appearance on myriad “Best Music Videos of the ‘90s” lists (this or this, for example). Furthermore, to be shamefacedly self-critical for a second, it’s easy (and right) to criticize my choice as yet another example of a white male critic choosing white male objects as the best or greatest of all time. And this for a medium that, when it’s working on all cylinders, tends to celebrate multicultural realities and camp sensibilities.
But part of the pleasure of “Karma Police” à la Glazer involves tracking its inspirational bloodline to a coterie of diverse artists, videos and films. On the paler side of the pavement, there’s the Cillian Murphy-starring video for Fionn Regan’s “The Meetings of the Waters” or Glazer’s own Under the Skin, both of which rely heavily on the mystery of driving while shrouded in darkness. (See also the vids for Angel Olsen’s “Shut Up Kiss Me” and Chelsea Jade’s “Laugh It Off” for ludic takes on a similar phenomenon.)
Then there’s Jay-Z’s “Marcy Me,” which—in homage to Glazer—turns the main idea of the “Karma Police” clip on its head to consider the criminalizing gaze of surveillance that unnecessarily terrorizes predominantly black neighborhoods. The old-fashioned car becomes a new-fangled helicopter, and the bright white lights reveal a community gathering rather than a paranoid revenge fantasy. The video helpfully transports the searching-through-darkness structure far from the inbred English countryside and lets the returned gaze scathe the entire structure and trajectory of police patrol.
Additionally, check out the video for Drool’s “End Girl” and the Parris Goebel-directed (and Parris Goebel-starring) take on Justin Bieber’s “Company.” These are indebted to Glazer’s revelation-seeking forward motion whose end result (nightmare-inducing disappearance for the former, girls’-night-in dance party for the latter) is reversal. Both sets of music-driven moving images are achingly beautiful and possessed with possibility. These videos, drawing from the enigmatic energy of “Karma Police,” wonder what chill-inducing spectacles the camera might discover next.
If “Karma Police” is the best music video ever, it’s only because its extended family is a blessed group of ambitious, brooding fiends. Only a video from the ‘90s, when we were all watching the same damn ones (oh, how I miss thee, MTV, BET, and VH1!) could work its way into so many future works of art.
Yet, for a certain kind of music video traditionalist, “Karma Police” marks the end. This was 1997, after all, a time when MTV had already started cutting down on music video content in favor of reality programming. The videos made by directors like Glazer and a select few others—I’ll forego naming everyone that had a Directors Label DVD dedicated to their work, but shout out to Palm Pictures—are sometimes seen as the apogee of music video history, the only brilliantly logical location where videos could have ended up. These filmmakers were able to distill 100 years of cinema spectacle into a single, four-minute clip and find another way to do it again, the next day. In the context of “Karma Police,” this means fusing film noir’s death-defying energy with the road movie’s aimless melancholy and horror’s vengeful spirits to create four minutes and 27 seconds of motion-sick poetry. How could it get better than this?
The whole point of nominating “Karma Police” for “Best Music Video Ever” is that it most definitely could. It would be too much of a cop out to name a recent video as the greatest of all time, but just look at the wild shit that’s come out in the past few years: Kendrick’s videos for “ELEMENT.” and “King’s Dead,” any Blood Orange video, The Carters’ “APESHIT.” I HAVEN’T EVEN MENTIONED BEYONCÉ’S LEMONADE, PEOPLE!
Aging millennials and Gen Xers be damned! “Karma Police” is great because it marks the beginning of something, not the end. In an era of political and aesthetic backsliding, music video may be the only medium to successfully and consistently push things forward. It is the future, and the best way to love what’s already lost and disappearing—namely, the song you’re listening to now and the planet, its companion.
Hold it close, though the flames may engulf us whole.