Pet Sounds: A series in which teaching staff and students from the English Department reflect on a piece of music or song. [Read all entries.] [Revisit the “Headspace” series.] [Revisit the “Ongoing” series.] [Revisit the “Interrogative” series.]
How can two plus two make five?
“2+2=5” by Radiohead probably alludes to George Orwell’s 1984—‘In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it.’ It is a process of make-believe, of psychological manipulation, of intellectual deprivation that lends this mathematical equation sanity.
I was drawn to the constant shifting of voices in the song. It begins with the monologue of a man struggling to decide if he should ‘put the world to rights’. He chooses to ‘stay home’, to retreat into domesticity and immerse himself in the fantasy of lies, where two plus two makes five. While we are not sure if doublethink is used here, this man who is under control represents ignorance and evasion. And then, in the third verse, another man appears and he is capable of having a clear vision. He regrets that it is too late to escape from the ‘devil’s way’. Who’s the devil then?
The devil’s identity is revealed in the fourth verse. The sudden shift of voice in this verse is accompanied by the increasing tempo, as if an authority is demonstrating his offhand superiority. The loud, coarse and raw sounds of the band mimic speeches given by authorities like Big Brother. With each repeated, pungent refrain of ‘payin’ attention’, we can feel the intense lust for power and mastery. There is a progression from ‘feeling’, to ‘loving’ and to ‘needing’ attention.
The ninth verse, on the other hand, appears to be a cry of resistance against distorted reality. While it is easy to ‘sing along’ with the oppressors’ chants, knowing the truth makes it hard to agree with the lyrics. The repetition of negating ‘not’ reinforces one’s reluctance to accept the made-up reality. Knowledge and consciousness are the shields against indoctrination.
Yet, how many people can be so penetrative? The last verse suggests that there is a bad time coming, possibly a terminally bad time-apocalypse. It is a time when the sky falls. It is a time when people can barely reinvent reality as they have lived up to the ‘truths’ that they believe in. They know not the objective reality, maybe not.
Christians intend to collapse millennium into apocalypse. Y2K is celebrated where time shall be no more. It is also a time when humanity is not capable of delineating realities of its own. We have been underrating the manipulative power of mass media. From the TV, the radio and the internet, we are exposed to information that conjures up our visions of reality and understanding of truth. Therefore, it is important that we keep an open mind so that a lot is likely to fall into it. For if we adopt an open mind, we open doors to limitless opportunities. For if we adopt an open mind, we retain a little sense of humanity.
Yannie Lee is a student at the Department of English and Department of Education.