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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

“Burn the Witch” soundtracks yet another harrowing election day in my mind

I hate that this beautiful song is the one that jumps out to me as fitting today’s mood, but that's how I'm feeling.

Thanks, anxiety. Because of you, I haven’t been able to fully concentrate on anything all day.

From the moment I woke up, my mind has been preoccupied with any and every thought relating to California’s gubernatorial recall election. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheer insanity of Gavin Newsom's leading opposition in Larry Elder, and my personal fears of poll inaccuracy because of diminishing Democrat returns has kept me profoundly paranoid.

This is more than my fear of the unknown that I wrote about yesterday. That fear is combined with my fear of some readily apparent truths: truths about the regulations we still need to combat COVID-19; truths about our economy and the few safety nets we still have at this time; truths about increasing partisanism, fact-doubting or blatant fact-disregarding, and blame games. These fears are the same ones I had all of last summer and fall leading up to the presidential election, and the aforementioned divisions and tensions have only increased within the past ten-plus months.

I saw these fears coming, but it didn’t matter — knowing they were coming just made me even more worried. From the starting point of the aforementioned fears, my mind takes me to the worst-case scenario, which among other things involves a massive health crisis with penalties for following earlier restrictions, the complete removal of economic security as minimum wage lies in peril, and — most profoundly in terms of my Senior Year Soundtrack selection for today — witch hunts against voices of reason, supported by a narcissistic, authoritarian leader.

In trying to remain in control and not let my anxiety get the best of me today, I turned off my news notifications before my first class (which started at 11:10 AM) and resolved to not look up anything about the recall and its results until the morning. While I avoided some anxiety through doing that, a good bit of it persisted because of the song that had been in my head all morning: Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch.” The track had been the song in my head the days of both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections as well, as it takes my fears and makes them way more catchy than they should ever be. Despite its seed having been planted during the Kid A sessions of 1999 and 2000, “Burn the Witch” feels as contemporary in its unease and dystopian perspective as any track written in the past five years. (The stop-motion video, artistically based on a 1960s British trilogy of programs coincidentally referred to as "Trumptonshire," also captures that vibe very well in its spin on the classic 1973 horror film The Wicker Man.)

Radiohead could not have picked a better track than "Burn the Witch" to be the lead single and opening number to A Moon Shaped Pool (2016). The introduction is as distinctive as any track from the 21st century, beginning with its unique string tone. Jonny Greenwood achieved the attack-heavy timbre by having the string players strum their instruments with guitar plectrums. It's a percussive, foreboding sound, especially when in the highest parts of the violins' range. The opening becomes even more chilling as the old Roland drum machine cymbal fades in, adding a sense of urgency through its regularity and noise-like quality. The electronic kick and snare drums and the acidic, vowel-like synth bass enter halfway through the intro and complete the hybrid orchestral/electronic groove, and at that point nearly the song's entire instrumentation is established.

In writing about a song I've listened to so many times, I've become so impressed with how much Radiohead were able to accomplish in terms of tone after introducing almost the core of track's instrumentation so early on. Firstly, adding most elements at the beginning makes the new elements stand out even more. The guitar chords before the chorus add a bit of intrigue through their freshness and clarity, and Jonny's ondes Martenot (a truly fascinating instrument — learn more from David Bruce about Jonny's importance to its history), introduced leading up to the first chorus, augments the strings with sine-like notes. I also believe the ondes Martenot is heard in the dissonant, high-pitched clusters that swell beneath the second verse's strummed strings. Secondly, the changes in those elements' timbre become even more dramatic and influential to the song's sound. The majority of the string players switching from strumming to bowing in the first chorus instantly ramps up the track's intensity, especially with how forceful the eighth-note bowing sounds on the low strings. When bowed violins and violas begin the second verse, they stretch out the chords they produce, making for a brief moment of lushness and serenity before the chaos takes over again. The reversed electronic cymbals before the second chorus are eerie and unnerving in their completely unnatural sound and shape.

As if the instrumental backing didn't already have enough to offer, every line of Thom Yorke's minimal lyrics is chilling, both by itself and in the context of the rest of the lyrics. The opening lines, "Stand in the shadows / Cheer at the gallows," instantly set the mood through a couplet that I can't help but think sounds like it could've just as easily opened a track from Coldplay's Viva la Vida days — in fact, being such a fan of that Coldplay sound, I often hear "Burn the Witch" as a Viva la Vida hellscape, with the benevolent "king" having been overthrown and sent to a cold, barren exile. The lyrics sound as if they're coming from an iron-fisted dictator, commanding adherence to their decrees under penalty of... well, being burned at the stake. When applied to today, it all feels like an allegory for the potential catastrophe that may await for us here in the Golden State. If there's a change in power, the man who'll be at the top will act rashly and instantly, telling everyone to take it with no option to leave it. The chorus is an extension of all that, as what Thom Yorke hauntingly sings in his trademark falsetto couldn't be simpler: "Burn the witch (x2) / We know where you live."

The chorus reminds me of how much I despise the term "witch hunt." I hate how common of a term it's become through Donald Trump's presidency and insanity, to the point that I wrote it earlier in this article because it fit what I was describing (see: end of paragraph number four). Whereas the term used to mean the persecution of an outsider with unusual beliefs, typically as a scapegoat, "witch hunt" has been co-opted by Trump and his supporter base — including Elder himself — as a damning rallying cry to drum up hatred toward their opposition, a hatred which soon breeds threats ("We know where you live") that often spiral into various forms of digital or physical action against their targets.

Whereas the other portions of the lyrics feel more based in fantasy, I can't help but hear the chorus as being grounded in the reality of the world immediately following A Moon Shaped Pool's release, including the current moment and at least our near future. Yorke notably used lyrics from the second verse and chorus to respond to Trump's 2016 victory. Perhaps the lead singer, and the rest of the band with him, saw it coming in the anti-immigration movements both in the States and across the pond, and found it right to release "Burn the Witch" in spring 2016 after being close to its ultimate release form for around a decade, if not longer. However they came to finally record it and put it out, it ended up being an eerily correct moment to do so.

As I listen to the track's heart-pounding, discordant, climbing, crescendoing conclusion one more time while I conclude writing, I can't help but wonder when we as a state, a nation, and a society will grow out of our current phase which "Burn the Witch" very much soundtracks. I sincerely hope that today's recall allays some of my fears and helps us begin to get out of that moment, but I also can't help but think we've just seen the tip of the iceberg in the past half-decade. Only time — and election returns — will tell us the direction in which we're headed.


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