Meaning of “Karma Police” by Radiohead

“Karma Police” by Radiohead is somewhat of a sarcastic song which is meant to be an attack against authority but also a shoutout to the concept of karma itself in that ultimately the oppressive actions the singer is espousing seem to come back to him. For instance, at the beginning of the track he seems more than willing to call the “karma police”, even if he is offended by someone’s appearance. And he warns others that he is ever quick to refer to this authoritarian entity if he is so compelled to.

However, later he expresses dissatisfaction via his association with the “karma police”, stating that he has given them his all yet remains “on the payroll”. Again this track is meant to serve as a diss against authority, especially within an office-oriented labor capacity. This may explain the terminology used in the aforementioned phrase. But the overall idea he seems to be putting forth here is that just as easily as he can call the “karma police” on someone else, they too can be called on him. And the track concludes with him seemingly regretting ever associating himself with them in the first place.

A very symbolic song

So all things considered, despite the simple and even comedic language used throughout this track, it is very abstract and symbolic. And the story it tells reads somewhat like a lesson. A lesson? How? As in if someone (in this case the singer and his buddies) is quick to persecute others, that same persecution will one day come back to haunt them. Or in the very least they will never be free from the specter of the “karma police”.

Lyrics of "Karma Police"

Facts about “Karma Police”

  • This track was originally released by Parlophone and Capitol Records as part of Radiohead’s OK Computer on 16 June 1997. It later came out as the second single from that album on 25 August 1997.
  • It was also featured on their 2008 compilation album Radiohead: The Best Of.
  • Radiohead actually debuted this classic in 1996 when they served as the opening act on Alanis Morissette’s tour.
  • “Karma Police” peaked at number 14 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. It reached number 8 in the UK and managed to actually top the Íslenski (Iceland) Listinn Topp 40.  Also interesting to note is that it reached number 15 on the Danish Singles Charts in 2010, 13 years after its initial release.
  • Furthermore, the song achieved platinum certification in Canada and gold in Italy. It achieved silver in the United Kingdom.
  • The critically-acclaimed music video to this track features a tale in which a man who appears as the underdog throughout manages to best his persecutors in the end. This story is clearly based on the theme of “karma”.
  • The video, directed by Jonathan Glazer, was filmed in Cambridgeshire, England. It made its debut on 21 September 1997 via MTV.
  • The band produced “Karma Police” alongside regular collaborator Nigel Godrich.

Birth of the term “karma police”

The term “Karma Police” originated from the band members, who used to threaten to call  this fictitious entity on each other if someone, in the words of guitarist Ed O’Brien, “behaved like an *sshole”.

Who wrote “Karma Police”?

This iconic song was written by Thom York and his fellow Radiohead members.

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