Analysis: “Burn the Witch”(Radiohead)

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One of my favorite music videos of all time has got to be Radiohead’s “Burn the Witch”, which was released in May of this year. The animation is deceptively childish, the set comprising clay and felt-covered characters, and yet the underlying themes are dark.

When the beat starts, we see a taxi driver and an inspector riding a convertible, approaching a village. A fence towards the side of the road evokes a sense of security, and the blue sky welcomes the inspector into town. We are also introduced to the mayor, who stands on a podium speaking to a circle of villagers. He appears to be giving instructions to the group, gesturing with grand hand movements, and all the villagers nod in reply.

Next we see very normal, everyday events: A man mows his lawn, a postman paints the mailbox red, one man constructs some sort of wooden structure, and two women adorn a raised platform with flowers. Further along a grocer stacks boxes of tomatoes, and an orchestra begins to play. Although we still wonder what the mayor’s instructions were, we as viewers ease into a sort of monotonic complacence with the progression of the video, mirroring the similar banal occurrences we are shown thus far.

Soon after the mayor checks his watch, the inspector arrives in town. Though the mayor holds out his hand, expecting a handshake, the inspector ignores the gesture, taking notes on his clipboard instead. Pause 0:50 into the video and you’ll also notice a sign behind the two reading “The Speared Boar”, a foreshadow of the events to come. The mayor leads the inspector past a sign reading “Model Village”, though this refers to a literal, miniature version of the town, complete with a model mayor and model inspector who wave at their real-life counterparts. We begin to sense that there is something wrong with this otherwise very peaceful village.

The mayor and inspector continue their walk through town, crossing paths with two villagers who appear to be having fun on a see-saw. They even wave at the inspector, but somehow their actions seem forced, as if they’re trying to act as if they’re having fun. The cinematography here is brilliant, confirming our suspicions as the scene zooms out to reveal that the see-saw seats are made from a barrel and chair. These attachments to the see-saw are last-minute improvisations, perhaps just a show put on in front of the inspector. Indeed, what looks like a close-knit community in the village begins to look more like an elaborate exhibition meant to hide the town’s secrets.

Their next destination is another performance of a woman tied to a tree and men circling around her holding swords. They all wear the same green robes and unnerving masks with antlers. The pinnacle of the performance has the performers all point their swords at the top of the lady’s head, narrowly missing. The inspector raises his eyebrows, as if beginning to see the true nature of this bizarre town. The mayor leads the inspector past more fences, deeper into the heart of town, meeting more people.

The pair visit the tomato farm, where the workers aren’t so much picking tomatoes as they are simply waving their arms about in the air. Tomato crates are labelled “Jobe’s”, an attempt to laud the mayor for providing so many jobs to people, yet a failed attempt to do so, as the the phrase is misspelled and in fact conveys the opposite to the inspector. The farm manager drinks from a mysterious bottle, and the mayor does the same as well. He offers the inspector the concoction, but he declines.

Their final destination brings the inspector in front of a massive, covered tower of sorts. The mayor gestures the inspector to pull down the cover, and as he does so, reveals a colossal wooden structure shaped like a man. By now all the villagers have assembled in the area, and they coax the inspector in walking up the ladder into what resembles a jail cell in the wooden structure. Unknowingly, he has locked himself in. Below the tower is a “Jobe’s” crate, which a lady lights on fire. The townspeople look back at the viewers, all waving in unison, set to the background of a growing fire.

In all these strange occurrences lies one similarity: all the villagers wave at the inspector as he turns to leave. This uniform movement must have been coordinated, and by who else other than the mayor? We recall the beginning of the video where he gave instructions to the townspeople. He had his own motives for executing this plan: he does not want his authority to be possibly compromised if the inspector hands in a negative report of the town to his superiors.

And it’s not just the constant waving that’s the same: there’s a more sinister, calculated move on everyone’s part to follow the crowd. The mob mentality lies in their silent complicity to consciously orchestrate the witch hunt of the inspector. It is this same mentality that manifests in the giant man-structure that almost resembles a robot. The victim of this plan is the inspector, whose crime was that he was a witness to the town’s strange practices. His crime was refusing to shake hands with the mayor and refusing the drink from the farm manager. By separating himself from the group, he became their target.

Now, we know the mayor’s motive for trapping the inspector, but what about the villagers’? The answer is really the same reason as the mayor’s: ultimately it is fear. They must listen to the mayor, or they might face the same consequence as the inspector. Fail to burn the witch, and they might become the next witch. However, even by eliminating the inspector, there is no certainty that they are safe. In fact, this atmosphere of fear is a cycle that only continues with everyone’s cooperation. The song asks us to reexamine our attitudes of ignorance and our willingness to succumb to peer pressure.


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