Kraftwerk predicted a future in which the melodies that humans groove to are machine-tooled like car parts in a factory. And lo, so it has come to pass. It’s a pretty simple formula, it turns out, to simulate the note progressions that stimulate our emotional expressions. People like having their needs serviced by robots, unsurprisingly. What hasn’t come to pass, however, is people behaving like robots. Humans still behave in chaotic, senseless ways, totally at the mercy of the hormonal flux of their emotions and with no logical regard towards their own better interests. In that sense, the “man-machine” of sci-fi predictions remains purely fantastical.
If modern man, with his off-the-rack suit and pre-fabricated corporate environment, is little more than an anonymous mannequin representing the material aspirations of the Western way of life, then to what end have we even bothered with all of our industry and progress? If modern life is so spiritually kaput, why do we keep grinding the wheels of technology? It’s so we can acquire collectively agreed-upon symbols of achievement and use them in substitution for insight, connection and personal growth. And in the evening we can go dance to electronic music. See, Kraftwerk asks the deep questions and makes the deep statements. The commentary made on the postwar condition of 1977 is no less relevant, except now we also have to deal with the newfangled snake-oil business of commodified identity and 15-minutes-of-wellness spiritual conformity. Yeah, it’s pretty bleak out there for people who value creativity and self expression for their own sake rather than as a branding exercise. Is it a fair trade-off for the magic of penicillin and airline travel? Are we aching to return to times when lives were presumably more meaningful for being shorter and more brutish? Nah. Modern life offers us the entirety of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and the luxury of not dying of dysentery. Our desire to complain about our own moral and spiritual bankruptcy is its own form of posturing.
Although I’m technically young enough to have discovered electronic music through through something more contemporary, I still discovered in the traditional way; through Kraftwerk. And, fun fact, this was the first Kraftwerk song I remember hearing. I think at first I mainly liked it because parts of it are in Russian. But I was also intrigued by this new way of making and presenting music; Kraftwerk offered a narrative and an aesthetic that I hadn’t encountered before. They weren’t about what most fleshbag musicians were about. They didn’t take it for granted that love and physical desire were the most interesting and important aspects of the human condition. The most interesting thing about being human is being human. As opposed to being inorganic matter. And the question is, what even is the point of being a human individual in a world where technology has taken the place of spirituality as our primary means of understanding the world? The more pressingly relevant that question becomes, the more we don’t know.
Cold War dreams of nuclear annihilation, contaminated generations. Maybe some of you are too young to remember the fears that struck people’s hearts throughout the Cold War decades. Some of you may have been weaned on modern fears like global warming and super-viruses and the impending Singularity. Some of us don’t worry about those things because we’re lying awake at night waiting for the air raid sirens. (Some of us have epigenetic nightmares about air raids.) And many of us still break out in cold sweats when certain words are invoked; radioactivity, Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Plutonium, atom bomb, meltdown, nuclear winter. We were taught that the world would end in mushroom clouds and uncontrolled cell division. Those fears may not feel relevant, not die Angst vor dem Tag, as it were. The members of Kraftwerk were all born in Germany in the immediate wake of the Second World War – a particularly traumatic spot in space and time, obviously – making them members of a uniquely scarred subgroup in a scarred generation. The fears and angers that haunted humanity in the decades after the war must have been a hundredfold for children born and raised in its still-smoking epicenter. Some of them responded by making art about what it means to be human and what it means to be a machine and what ends celebrated scientific progress can be turned to. That certainly hasn’t become any less relevant, and even if the specific keywords have been pushed to the back burner of our collective nightmares, the warning still hits home. And, yes, that nuclear arsenal, though it may not be a popular headline anymore, it still exists, and is still likely to end us all well before super-AIDS or mass famine have the chance to.
We are all the operator now. We’ve beamed ourselves into the future with our pocket calculators and home computers. Yet we haven’t become a world of automatons who wear identical uniforms and dance poorly. Kraftwerk certainly set a template for how popular music would be created in the future, and how it would sound, but their ‘we are all robots now’ schtick is generic sci-fi. That is, the idea that advancing technology would throw man’s soul into an endless feedback loop of alienation has been the scary story we tell ourselves ever since technology began to advance rapidly. So, at least since the Renaissance. More interesting is the idea, always contested and always proved true, that advancing technology actually leads the way to new highs for literature, music and art. New technology doesn’t make us more alienated; it gives us new options to express our ever-existing feelings of angst. If pre-industrial peoples seem to have been less alienated, it’s only because fewer of them were literate enough to write about it.
I’m a sucker for robot voices. Robotic and digitized singing is very commonplace now – every other Top 40 song seems to feature vocals autotuned into the realm of science fiction. And yet I can’t help but find it exotic. In the case of shitty pop songs, the performances of the robots (Autotune and his friend Drum Machine) are usually the standouts that steal the show from whatever puny human is nominally the ‘artist’. In the hands of a real artist, the robot can add an entirely new dimension of depth and dare we say even emotion. Oxymoronic as it may sound, a sad robot can be far more affecting than an insincerely sad human. And for all of this progress you can thank Kraftwerk, who were among the first to discover that you can use digital simulations to express things the merely analog cannot. The interesting thing about electronic music, as in the hands of masters like Kraftwerk, is that it offers a canvas to project almost any kind of emotional reaction with only a few nudges to what that reaction should be. Unlike more human-based performers who can’t help but telegraph their loud human feelings, robot musicians offer a sort of bleeping ambient mirror that can be affecting or easily ignored according to mood.
“This is not the level of ‘individual concentration’ anymore. The point of view of the nineteen century is over. The myth of the important artist has been overexploited. It doesn’t fit anymore with the standards of modern society. Today, mass production rules.”
“There is an interaction. Interaction on both sides. The machine helps the man, and the man admires the machine. (Showing the Sony tape recorder) This is the extension of your brain. It helps you remembering. It’s the third man sitting at this table. As for ourselves, we love our machines. We have an erotic relationship with them.”
– Florian Schneider
“In the Bible, language is considered as the highest form of art: ‘At the beginning was the word.’ But for us, Bible is over. There are much faster things, electric things. In our music, words are only given as a pretext. We don’t express ourselves through them.”
– Ralf Hütter
And there you have it, the philosophy behind Kraftwerk. I don’t know the dates for those quotes, but even without them, we know Kraftwerk beamed us all into the future. I’ll say Andy Warhol would be right there too, agreeing with what Ralf and Florian have to say about the developing relationship between man and machine. Mass production has taken the place of honor away from the lone auteur. Human self-expression and communication have been delegated to machines. Those events have been predicted by many, but too often as dystopian nightmares. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, man has feared being replaced and enslaved by all-powerful sentient technology. It’s a relatively new phobia, but has grown as deeply rooted and powerful as our fear of the dark. But, although technology has developed at an increasingly accelerated pace, cars still don’t fly, robots haven’t developed self-awareness, no Matrix has imprisoned our minds and those holding their breath for the Singularity are crackpots. While the old inevitably cry ‘dehumanization!’ at each new great technological leap forward, we have artists like Warhol and Ralf und Florian to demonstrate how mass production and high tech machinery are valid enough tools for creation. In the right hands, computers and factory-style means of production still yield meaningful results – works that affect our emotions, making us think and wonder. Although the tools have changed, art remains the highest human pursuit.