For a band known for its mysterious song meanings, the cryptic lyrics on Radiohead's 2001 album Amnesiac are some of the most difficult to understand, with "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.
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 garbled the vocal track by reversing it and then replaying it backwards. The reversed backing of the "Like Spinning Plates" vocal track may also have been an attempt to mask the strong political themes presented through the song lyrics.
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 Thom Yorke exactly, but a small, muted voice too muffled and distorted to have a recognizable identity. Who is this anonymous speaker?
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.
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. Additionally, an early version of the "floating down the muddy river" lyric appeared on Radiohead.com during the Kid A years that more clearly references the Rwandan genocide: "bodies floating down the muddy rivver in bits and pieces." "Floating Down the River" was also the title of one of the promotional video "blips" released along with the 2001 Amnesiac album.
"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, 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."
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.