Radiohead Like Spinning Plates Lyrics Meaning & the Rwanda Genocide

by K Shabi PUBLISHED 20 June 2013

For a band known for its mysterious song meanings, the cryptic lyrics on Radiohead's album Amnesiac (2001) are some of the most difficult to understand, with the song "Like Spinning Plates" at the top of the list. What is the meaning of the Radiohead song "Like Spinning Plates"? There are a lot of references in "Like Spinning Plates," but the original inspiration of the song may have been the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Radiohead Like Spinning Plates Lyrics Meaning & the Rwanda Genocide
Float Down The River (Radiohead Amnesiac Blip)

Meaning of Radiohead "Like Spinning Plates" Lyrics

Like many Radiohead songs, "Like Spinning Plates" was a carryover song bouncing around from an earlier time, in this case the Kid A recording sessions. Feeling frustrated with early versions of the song, in a last ditch effort the band decided to garble the vocal track by reversing it and then replaying it backwards.[1] The reversed backing of the "Like Spinning Plates" vocal track may also have been an attempt to disguise and mask the strong political statements presented through the song lyrics. What do the lyrics of "Like Spinning Plates" mean?

"Places like Rwanda, where there’s a military government wiping out millions of people..." Thom Yorke, 1994 interview

The effect of the reversed backing of the vocals in "Like Spinning Plates" increases the "meaning" of the song exponentially, effectively making the singer and speaker of the song not lead singer Thom Yorke exactly, but a small, muted voice too muffled and distorted to have a recognizable identity. Who is this anonymous speaker?

While you make pretty speeches
I'm being cut to shreds
You feed me to the lions
A delicate balance

And this just feels like spinning plates
I'm living in Cloudcuckooland
And this just feels like spinning plates
My body's floating down the muddy river.

"Like Spinning Plates" and the Rwandan Genocide

Certain lyrics in "Like Spinning Plates" connect with interviews and eye-witness accounts of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, suggesting that the speaker of the song is perhaps one of the many anonymous victims of the Rwandan genocide. "While you make pretty speeches, I'm being cut to shreds," the small voice sings, perhaps commenting on the bureaucratic procrastination and inaction displayed by the US government during the crisis. To maintain a "delicate balance" of order, "pretty speeches" were made while hundreds of thousands of members of the Rwandan Tutsi tribe were metaphorically fed "to the lions" and quite literally "cut to shreds" with machetes by Hutu extremists.[3]

"As bodies flowed out of Rwanda down the rivers of Central Africa, State Department officials struggled to get the Pentagon to act."[3]

"The objective reality of what was happening in Rwanda couldn't be kept quiet forever. Rwanda's dead had begun to float downstream into the outside world. The country was literally overflowing with corpses."[2]

The closing lyrics, "My body's floating down the muddy river," cement the connection between "Like Spinning Plates" and the Rwandan genocide. Haunted by eyewitness accounts of "bodies" flowing "down the rivers" of Rwanda, chief Radiohead lyricist Thom Yorke perhaps transferred the ghastly imagery to the lyrics of "Like Spinning Plates" years later. Don't buy the connection between "Like Spinning Plates" and Rwanda? In October 1994 shortly after news of the genocide officially went public, Radiohead even performed at the Oxford Mail Rwanda benefit show at a local bar in Abingdon.[6] Additionally, an early version of the "floating down the muddy river" lyric appeared on during the Kid A years that more clearly references the Rwandan genocide: "bodies floating down the muddy rivver in bits and pieces."[1] "Floating Down the River" was also the title of one of the promotional video "blips" released along with the 2001 Amnesiac album.

The Meaning of the Amnesiac River & Greek Literature

"Like Spinning Plates" is not the only Amnesiac song to incorporate this mysterious "river" imagery. While the floating bodies of "Like Spinning Plates" may very well be connected to the Rwandan genocide, the river itself may be the same one mentioned in "Pyramid Song." While Radiohead's mention of "living in Cloudcuckooland" refers to the setting of Aristophanes' ancient Greek play The Birds,[4] the river in "Like Spinning Plates" and "Pyramid Song" may be yet another reference to Greek literature, this time to the river Lethe, the mythological river of "forgetfulness."[5]

Forgetfulness is a major theme running through the entire Amnesiac album. The album title Amnesiac and the lyric, "You forget so easy," from "You and Whose Army?" both refer to memory loss and forgetfulness. Whether they occur on a personal or national level, psychologically it's sometimes easiest to block out painful memories and tragedies like the Rwanda genocide. While in some cases it may be wise to move on and not dwell on the past, it's also not a good idea to completely forget about mistakes, lest we repeat them. By remembering a tragic event in recent world history, however discreet the reference may be, the song lyrics of "Like Spinning Plates" ensure that the Rwandan genocide will not be forgotten and therefore less likely to be repeated.

REFERENCES: Radiohead's "Like Spinning Plates" Lyrics & the 1994 Rwanda Genocide

1Radiohead "Like Spinning Plates" Reversed Backing, Official Kid A and Amnesiac Artwork
2PBS Frontline Triumph of Evil Documentary Transcript, 1999
3PBS Frontline Ghosts of Rwanda Documentary Transcript
4Aristophanes' The Birds Play Online
5"Lethe" Wikipedia entry
6Radiohead Played at Rwanda Benefit Concert

filed under: music, radiohead

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