Which band sang the song Fake It

Pop anthology

Before that, it was glitter, neon, overkill for ten years. No wonder Radiohead then had to sing over plastic trees. A major emotional event.


How should you write factually about this song? Radiohead's “Fake Plastic Trees” is a major emotional event, a manifesto of the nineties, which, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana and “Alive” by Pearl Jam, represents the cultural turning point that the new decade of the eighties will bring meant the nineties. Beyond the underground, the eighties had been a smooth decade, with brightly made-up singers on neon-colored record covers. New Romantics combined blow-drying hairstyles with crypt aesthetics. Global superstars like Prince and Michael Jackson took video art and stage behavior to spectacular heights. Format-Radio played the same superficial pop ballads 24 of 24 hours (by the way until today) and Madonna confessed to being a “material girl”.

And then came 1990/91, and all the glaring, superficial, flat things no longer meant anything to the younger mainstream. It would mean failing to recognize the depth of this rupture, simply attaching it to the lumberjack shirts of the musicians from Seattle. At that time it was about a new truthfulness, whether in America or Great Britain, in Weilheim or Hamburg - and in Oxford, where Radiohead settled. Kurt Cobain sang in "Teen Spirit", the undisputed anthem of the decade, in hard-to-understand words about teenage rebellion, growing up and freedom. In “Alive” Eddie Vedder made the painful realization of not being the son of one's own father the topic. And in “Fake Plastic Trees” Thom Yorke reflected on the artificiality of a plastic world. The teenagers of that time reached out to these three bands with those few catchwords, maybe they even conveyed values ​​to them. The time was ripe for the seeds that American underground artists like The Dream Syndicate, Dinosaur Jr., R.E.M. or The Pixies had sown to rise.

Radiohead wanted nothing less than to be made into the English arm of the grunge movement in the media. Their first, artistically still somewhat inconsistent, album contained "Creep", a touching song about an outsider who fitted into the Seattle musicians' program. The music industry marketed Radiohead as the "weirdos" from England. But the band had so much more to offer and was more than any other pop band with mass appeal in music history ready to challenge their fans with each new release. This is how masterpieces such as “The Bends”, “OK Computer” and “Kid A” emerged, each a radical departure from the previous successful model, each taken the maximum artistic risk and characterized by the willingness to offend fans.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is the best song on “The Bends”, their best record - at least from the point of view of those who appreciate Radiohead for their guitars. Musically, the third single from the album breaks with the recipe for "Creep", their most successful song, which imitates the loud-quiet scheme of grunge. In contrast, the comparatively slow ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” begins with an acoustic guitar, to which Yorke sings the first verse. Little by little strings, bass, organ and drums join in. The dynamic increases continuously until the third verse (“She looks like a real thing”) is followed by the emotional climax of the song with a rocking outburst for the entire band. After that the song doesn’t end yet, but with the last lines (“if I could be who you wanted”) it offers all band members the opportunity to get back on track.

The text is based on some impressions of Yorke from the Canary Wharf area in east London, which is built on previously unused dock areas on the Thames. This is what the informative website songfacts.com writes. Contrary to what was planned, the area did not become a business district. For a long time there were artificial plants on the site, from which the title is derived. Yorke told Rolling Stone that with this song he found his lyrical voice. Yorke sang "Fake Plastic Trees" according to the website after an apparently fascinating performance by American rock musician Jeff Buckley. After the admission, he burst into tears. Some listeners should still feel that way today.

A green plastic watering can

For a fake Chinese rubber plant

In the fake plastic earth

That she bought from a rubber man

In a town full of rubber plans

To get rid of itself

It wears her out

It wears her out

It wears her out

It wears her out

She lives with a broken man

A cracked polystyrene man

Who just crumbles and burns

He used to do surgery

For girls in the eighties

But gravity always wins

And it wears him out

It wears him out

It wears him out

Wears him out

She looks like the real thing

She tastes like the real thing

My fake plastic love

But I can't help the feeling

I could blow through the ceiling

If I just turn and run

And it wears me out

It wears me out

It wears me out

It wears me out

And if I could be who you wanted

If I could be who you wanted

All the time

All the time

Singer Thom Yorke achieves the effect of the text with the use of catchphrases such as “fake plastic earth” or “cracked polystyrene man” instead of a clearly understandable story. The terms refer to the artificiality of a superficial “plastic” world. The author leaves it unclear who the lyric self and protagonists of the text are. But the associations work and have sent signals to the young audience of the band that someone here is perceiving and problematizing this superficiality in the world. So you can gather people who think like that around you. First he mentions a green plastic watering can with which a fake Chinese rubber plant can be watered in a fake plastic world. "She" - whoever that is - bought these from a (eraser?) Rubber man in a city full of (eraser?) Rubber plans to get rid of them. The stanza is followed by the recurring sequence “it wears her / him / me out”. It indicates criticism of the corrosive effects of elements from the plastic world.

In the second stanza there is a change of perspective: the author fades from “Sie” to a broken man, more precisely: a Styrofoam man with whom she lives. But it only breaks and burns. In the eighties - the time that was characterized by superficiality like no other decade in pop culture - he performed cosmetic surgery for girls. But gravity always wins. Now he is being drained again. On the third verse, the emotional climax of the song, the author shifts the focus again. Now it's about the lyrical me that calls out to itself, "You" (probably a different you than the one in the first verse) looks real and tastes real, its fake plastic love. Even so, it would not shake the feeling that it could be blown through the ceiling if it simply turned around and ran away. That drains the lyrical me. At the end the singer proclaims: "If I (only) could be who you want all the time".

Yorke does not make it easy for the listener to grasp the exact meaning of his words. The associative use of keywords does not even make it necessary to develop a precise meaning. Rather, he plays with the images of superficial beauty (false trees, girls who have been operated on), but even the shouted-out self-assurance of being with a real being cannot reduce the burden of such an illusory world. Instead, the plastic world is draining people - and it only helps to beg that you can be as the viewer would like to be.

With this song, Radiohead take the side of those who cannot shine with a presentable surface, as they did with “Creep”. Ironically, the song is also included (in a purely acoustic version) on the soundtrack of the feature film "Clueless" starring Alicia Silverstone. In the scene in which it can be heard, it serves to confront the young protagonists with weeping music. “Fake Plastic Trees” is the very pretty and superficial main character as a prototype of such music. The lyrics are ironically broken by the plot of the film. Yorke later distanced himself from the demeanor of the characters in the film, saying he didn't want people like that as Radiohead fans. Even the cover of the soundtrack is amusing because its aesthetic alludes to the superficial eighties, but with songs by Cracker, the Beastie Boys and Supergrass it contains many examples of the alternative wave of new veracity from the nineties.

“Fake Plastic Trees” triggers nostalgic feelings in many Radiohead fans in the early years. The song is the best example of the guitar-heavy sound of the early phase of the band. But with the more complex “OK Computer” the band pushed open the door to prog rock of the seventies, and then with “Kid A” they linked up with the intelligent electronica music of Aphex Twin and Autechre. "Amnesiac" incorporates Charles Mingus influences, "Hail To The Thief" incorporates hip-hop style elements, among other things. Whether krautrock, techno, dub or folk - on later albums the band takes what it needs from pop history. And guitarist Jonny Greenwood composes fine film soundtracks. Even if the fans of the guitar-heavy first years don't like to hear it: their courage to change has made Radiohead rise to the Olympus of the really big rock bands. Pink Floyd, U2, Wilco or Blur have at some point or several times in their careers been prepared to significantly disappoint their fans' expectations. Whatever you think of it, a rock pearl like “Fake Plastic Trees” will remain forever.

Keywords: "Fake Plastic Trees", Britpop, Grunge, Radiohead
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Radiohead: "Fake Plastic Trees"

From Philipp Krohn

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