In this post, I talk about how themes of alienation pervades the music of the English rock band Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd is one of the greatest bands in popular music history, achieving international commercial success and widespread influence in subsequent musical developments. They formed in London in 1965 to humble beginnings as a student group, and comprises Syd Barrett (guitar and lead vocals), Nick Mason (drums), Roger Waters (bass guitar, vocals), and Richard Wright (keyboard, vocals).

Their music is marked by instrumentation and ambience, and has a psychedelic overtone to it, leading people to credit them as the innovators of the genres of progressive rock as well as psychedelic rock. Alan Parsons, an audio engineer who also helped to craft The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Let It Be, said that “The Floyd were, by their very nature, audio experimentalists… The Floyd and the Beatles have a lot in common in that respect - and they both worked in the greatest studios with some of the greatest engineers” (Harris).

Their popular success, having sold over 250 million records worldwide, can be attributed by their innovative musical methods of delivering deep and resonating messages to their audiences, with their songs and lyrics often referencing societal and relatable personal issues. They are personally my favorite rock band of all time, as I am endlessly enchanted by their unique musical style and deep lyrical meaning. In fact, there are many recurring themes throughout their songs, and the one which stands out the most is the concept of alienation. To be “alienated is to be cut off, or estranged, from something or someone with which one should be connected” (Resich). Alienation can be broadly categorized into the following categories:

  • Alienation from Labor
  • Alienation as Absence
  • Alienation as Disunity

In this post, I will explore these three categories of alienation as they have appeared in their songs, and see how it reflects societal and political issues of that time, many of which are still relevant today.

Alienation from Labor

We don’t need no education,
We don’t need no thought control.
                - Another Brick In The Wall, 1979

The Marxist vision of alienation, features prominently in their works. This can be seen in “Another Brick In The Wall”, which is a criticism of how the rigid British school system stifles individualism and free thinking, in order to produce good workers for the capitalist machine, turning bright-eyed children into “just another brick in the wall” (Pink Floyd, Another Brick In The Wall). “Welcome To The Machine” is similarly a manifestation of their anger against the recording industry, whom they perceive to be manipulative and exploitive due to their constant efforts of trying to push for further commercial success at the expense of the band’s mental health, which eventually resulted in their original leader Syd Barrett’s mental breakdown and departure from the team:

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream?
It’s alright we told you what to dream.
                - Welcome To The Machine, 1975

This portrays the record industry, and society at large, as an industrial complex which surrounds and tempts us with material things from birth, thereby beginning a vicious cycle where upon growing up we have to keep working hopelessly for this industrial complex, because that is what we thought we had to do in order to achieve our “dreams”. This is what Marx describes as the alienation of the worker from the act of production, where his labor is not voluntary, but in fact forced. In a similar vein, the band members felt immense pressure to continue writing successful new songs in order to keep up with their prior success, and to meet the expectation of their record label and fans. Their album, “Animals” (1976), also conceptualizes a world where nobody cares about anyone else in a “dog-eat-dog” world, and uses anthropomorphized animals taking on different roles (dogs, pigs, and sheep) to show this, similar to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). “Dogs” (1977), for instance, has the following lines: “You gotta be crazy, you gotta have a real need / You gotta sleep on your toes, and when you’re on the street / You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed”, laying bare the reality of the ultra-competitive hyper-capitalistic society that we find ourselves in today.

Alienation as Absence

Now, we look at alienation in terms of absence. There are two “absences” which feature strongly in their songs. The first of it is the departure of their original leader Syd Barrett due to mental health issues:

How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls, swimming in a fish bowl
Year after year
                -Wish You Were Here, 1975

Pink Floyd never truly recovered from the loss of their leader, and his unfulfilled presence always meant that they “pretend to be present whilst their minds are really elsewhere” (Reisch), always trying to but failing to connect with Syd once more. However, “Wish You Were Here” was such a hit because so many other people in the world could relate to this notion of experiencing the absence of someone, the absence of a feeling. It is ironical that even as the world grew increasingly interconnected, people felt increasingly alienated

The second “absence” is the death of the lyricist Roger Waters’ father in the battle of Anzio in the Italian campaign of World War II when he was only five months old:

And my eyes still grow damp to remember
His Majesty signed
With his own rubber stamp
                -When The Tigers Broke Free, 1982

In the above lyrics, Waters is recalling the time when he tried on his father’s uniform, and found a condolence letter from King George VI, which was signed with a rubber stamp. He found it particularly upsetting that a stamp was used instead of having a real signature, given the fact that his father has made the ultimate sacrifice to the country, and doubted the sincerity of the gesture. In addition, “And the Anzio bridgehead / Was held for the price / Of a few hundred ordinary lives” (Pink Floyd, When The Tigers Broke Free) highlights his anti-war stance and disgust of the squandering of lives by politicians for war. Indeed, he considered the Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands as a betrayal to the sacrifices that his father made to end the most horrifying and destructive war in human history, believing that the politicians never learned their lessons. His father’s death has also “fostered an instinctive mistrust of authority” (Harris) in him since he was a child. In addition to the two above, there are also other “absences” which are alluded to: “I caught a fleeting glimpse, / out of the corner of my eye, / I turned to look but it was gone, / I cannot put my finger on it now” (Pink Floyd, Comfortably Numb). These absences are “absent women friends, failed aspirations, unrealized political ideals, and … the loss of youthful joy and dreams as one grows older” (Reisch), but this general feeling of absence, of not having a purpose, of being bombarded by modern gadgets and gizmos and losing touch of the “ground of our human being” as Heidegger puts it, causes the “familiar and pervasive modern experience of anxiety, guilt, and loss” (Reisch).

Alienation as Disunity

Dark Side of the Moon Album Cover

The iconic cover art for the Dark Side of the Moon (1973) is one of the most famous pop symbols today. Created by English designer Storm Thorgerson, it shows a white beam entering a prism and splitting into a rainbow of colors. “White is the combination of all colors, and here it represents unity. The prism, which for Waters represents society, separates us, diffracting unity” (Reisch). Societal constructs can break us apart and create absence in many ways. At home, overprotective or absent parents hinder the proper development of children, as we see in Mother (1979): “Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you. / Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing. / She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing”. In The Happiest Days of Our Lives (1979), teachers were “Pouring their derision / Upon anything we did”, pointing out how the emphasis on conformity and obedience stifles children’s creativity and “authentic expression” (Reisch). Other examples of industry and the alienation of our labor, and most obviously the military and war, have been further elaborated previously.

Having seen alienation from others, alienation from our labor, and alienation of our ideals and ambitions, “Waters adds the ultimate disunity - self-estrangement” (Reisch). This alienation from self is a central theme in French philosopher Albert Camus’ works, who remarked that “This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me”. We can see this most distinctively in their album The Wall (1979). The Wall is about a musician named Pink who is gradually driven to madness by his overprotective mother, the death of his father in war, tyrannical school teachers, a cheating wife, and his “drug-fueled career as a rock star” (Reisch), which closely resembles Waters’ own experiences. In the live performance of The Wall, there is a “gradual construction of an actual wall of large cardboard blocks which first obscures, and then, by mid-show, totally physically divides the audience from the band” (Reisch).The building of the wall symbolises Pink’s gradual alienation from his family and from society, and once the last brick in the wall is placed, he begins to become alienated from himself and goes insane.

Comfortably Numb (1979) from the same album, also one of the best rock pieces in history, sums his feelings perfectly: “Now I’ve got that feeling once again / I can’t explain you would not understand / This is not how I am / I have become comfortably numb”. In the song, Pink was having a delirious fever, but was scheduled to perform on-stage. His manager urges him to prepare to come on stage, but he is physically unable to. Then a backstage doctor comes, and injects his arms with some very powerful medication that makes him feel “comfortably numb”. It reminded him of the times when he felt detached from reality as a child, just as he is feeling so right now. He does not know what he is doing anymore, he does not know why he is doing what he is doing anymore, and perhaps he does not even really know who he is anymore. He begins to lose touch of reality, “You are only coming through in waves. / Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying”, unable to separate Being from Non-being, unable to reconcile what he has become. Finally, the line “The child is grown, / The dream is gone.” affirms that this reality was not what he had wanted to grow up into, and that he is wholly sinking into denial about the conditions of his existence. Like the writings of Camus, Comfortably Numb sums up the absurdity of modern life, with Pink being forced to perform in spite of his decaying health, and the burden of “unhappy consciousness” as described by Hegel, which “anguish derived from the fact that the world does not fulfill our wishes” (Reisch), leading Pink to descend into madness, being unable to communicate with either others or himself.

In Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), he draws parallels between the absurdity of man’s life and the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was condemned for eternity to keep pushing a heavy boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll down again. However, unlike Pink, Camus’ Sisyphus is heroic. Camus believes that because Sisyphus continues to push the rock despite understanding the absurdity of his situation, Sisyphus “is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock” (Keefer). Pink, on the other hand, was “walled in by the bricks of frustrated efforts to achieve unity” (Reisch), and decides to resign from his reality and let go. However, as the alter ego of Pink, Waters must have recognized this, but yet continues to perform and write new songs. Camus concludes in The Myth of Sisyphus that “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Pink Floyd, despite having railed and revolted against the various forms of alienation that modern society forces upon us in their many songs, continues, even paradoxically, to achieve even greater success and fame, releasing critically acclaimed albums such as “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” (1987) and The Division Bell (1994). Therefore, just like Sisyphus, the members of Pink Floyd are “heroes who are aware that their trials and tribulations are simply their fate, and they acknowledge and affirm that destiny” (Reisch) and continue to innovate, write songs, and perform, and we too, can imagine that they are happy.


  • Reisch, George A. Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with That Axiom, Eugene! Open Court, 2010.
  • Harris, John. The Dark Side of the Moon: the Making of the Pink Floyd Masterpiece. Harper Perennial, 2016.
  • Keefer. “The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.” The Myth of Sisyphus,