King Crimson is an English progressive rock band formed in 1968, renown for its experimental style and approaches to music. It is also one of my favourite bands ever — their music definitely isn’t for everyone, but I would encourage people to give it a shot regardless! Their stylistic choices make it so that even back-to-back songs sound totally different, but you’ll find that there’s a method to their chaos. In fact, their debut album In the Court of the Crimson King, released in 1969, has cemented itself as one of the band’s most influential works, finding success both critically and commercially. Aptly subtitled “An Observation by King Crimson”, the album explores pieces that explore themes such as escapist isolationism, divine apathy, and human cruelty, with King Crimson’s members offering their perspectives on these subjects. The album’s introductory track, 21st Century Schizoid Man, is a truly profound piece that was written as a response to the then-ongoing Vietnam War; as the song’s lyrics indicate, the band was staunchly anti-war and warned against the consequences of the aftermath of the war if the United States’ agenda was seen through to completion.
21st Century Schizoid Man is, in essence, King Crimson’s prognosis of the average person of today; the “normal” that we live in is so far detached from the reality of people living mere decades ago, that the band, as if looking into the future, considers us all ill — to them, we are “schizoid men”, splintered and shattered as a result of the Vietnam War, and by extension, the imperialist campaigns that inspired — and drew inspiration — from it. King Crimson prophesized the alienation of the individual from the communities around them, and society at large, as a direct result of bloodshed from wars of the past giving rise to more extensive forms of the commodification of labour, the aspirations of regular people being dominated by ever-growing consumerism, and the death and downfall of culture and art at large.
The song stands out among the others in the album, with the eponymous Schizoid Man — almost reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream — being one of two characters present in the album art, featuring opposite the Crimson King (who is also the main focus of multiple tracks).
The lyrics are incredibly purposeful in their phrasing, as seemingly random and aimless phrases strung along together come to evoke frighteningly powerful imagery that conveys an immense amount of meaning to the listener. The juxtaposition of the signifiers in the very first line — “cat’s foot, iron claw” — serve to both, set up the rest of the song, and also hint toward the constant themes of a weaker entity being preyed on by a stronger, more ruthless one. We see allusions to the immense toll the war took on the soldiers that fought it, and the ever-creeping paranoia that gripped Western society as the Cold War grew fiercer and tenser. While the use of the phrase is (rightfully) contentious, the band uses the chorus “21st Century Schizoid Man” as a metaphor to show that the people of the 21st century would come to embody the traits so commonly associated with the disease. We are “split” into seeing objects relative to ourselves in absolutes — good and evil, friends and enemies; we choose one or the other, viewing them through the lens of a strict dichotomy, instead of approaching our relationships and problems as complex and grey, with good and bad intertwined, as reality often is.
In fact, every verse following the first ends the same way — with the ominous proclamation, “21st Century Schizoid Man”. The altered, disembodied voice makes these words sound almost like a warning from the future to the listeners of the ’60s and ’70s. This further solidifies the ideas that King Crimson put forward: that, if things do not deviate from the status quo sufficiently enough, all roads will lead down to one path for future generations — that of the Schizoid Man. These words, almost like a harrowing prophecy from the past, heavily contrasted the dominant voices at the time the song was released; in the world of art and music, King Crimson’s dark, apocalyptic predictions clashed with the optimistic hippy ideologies that their contemporaries held. At the same time, pro-American propaganda was pervasive, invading every sphere of influence it could in order to stoke the spirit of nationalism in the hearts of the populace. While the dominant ideology in the West was exceedingly jingoistic and pro-capitalist, King Crimson went firmly against the grain; indeed, as history and our present conditions show us, their then-emergent ideas rose from an uncannily accurate perception of the world around them, and time has proved their predictions to be, for better or for worse, prophetic. As such, to us, the people of the 21st century, the phrase isn’t a mere warning anymore — it takes on a horrifyingly numb, inhuman tone, as we witness the contradictions within the systems we built unravel, with human life and liberty as the price to pay.
Blood is spilt in the pursuit of capital and hegemonic supremacy. Life is stolen from us as we struggle to stay afloat. The lives of common people are toyed with, and greed supersedes the sanctity of the human spirit. We live in a present whose foundations are built on instability, and we are faced with a future marred by bleakness and tragedy.
What else is left to say? The song details the atrocities of the futile wars we fight, continued violence against vulnerable groups, the corruption of politicians goading soldiers to their doom, the death of complex culture and art in favour of more media that is more easily commercialized, the shift towards materialism and consumerism, and the blind willingness of the masses to go along with the status quo, almost complicit in their own downfall. It is absolutely devastating to look at the differences in meaning the song takes in different contexts — what once was a song that pleaded for change and warned against future societal outcomes, now becomes a truly horrifying piece of work that stands as a monument to humanity’s failures. Since 21st Century Schizoid Man was written 53 years ago, we have not deviated in the slightest from our path to self-destruction.
We have become every bit as ignorant, apathetic, fragmented, materialistic, and isolated from each other as King Crimson predicted we would be. Imperialists continue to wreak havoc on the countries of the Global South, the class divide continues to widen, and we continue to put on a veneer of peace and stability, continue to lull ourselves into believing the lies we are told before we are even born. We have arrived at the future King Crimson warned the world about, and it is undeniably bleak; the only question is — what next? Do we listen to the warnings we’ve been given for centuries? Or do we carry on and see our current path through to its logical conclusion — mass death, climate catastrophe, and a violent return to barbarism? The answers to these questions can only be answered, unfortunately, with time. For now, we can only pray with shameful hope for something better, as we silently don the ruefully accurate moniker that King Crimson bestowed on us half a century ago.