Essays on Technology and Culture

The Darker Side of the Man-Machine

This past week, I finally had the chance to see Kraftwerk perform. I attended the second night at the United Palace Theatre, a restored movie palace that serve as a church and occasional concert venue. In its ornate lobby is a massive, four manual organ console. One could easily imagine it being part of the encore, but Kraftwerk have moved on from such low-tech methods of sound. There is something old world about Kraftwerk that is suited to such an ornate space, but all the retro glitz of the palace fell away once the lights dimmed. All there was to see were the four podiums, their operators, and the movie-theater sized projection screen displaying a 3D wonderland of visuals.

The visuals, like much of Kraftwerk’s music, are often subtle and simple: Kraftwerk’s robotic doppelgängers performing their calisthenics routine, a sheet of iridescent green undulating numbers, a virtual drive on the Autobahn, a ghostly TEE train traveling on rails of light, and occasionally key phrases from the song lyrics. The performers were secondary to the visuals, and by design. Even before co-founder Florian Schneider left the group, the platonic ideal of a Kraftwerk show was for robots to perform the songs via telepresence. The closest they ever came was having their robots dance on stage during their titular song, while the band performed the song backstage (or just played a recording) while enjoying a schnapps. As long as it sounds right, it could be anyone up there: man as machine, as replaceable components.

Which leads to the dark undercurrent that many miss when discussing the music of Kraftwerk. There’s an undertone of ambivalence to their oft-celebrated songs about technology. The altered lyrics to “Computer World” which they started using in the 90s bring this ambivalence to the forefront, resonating all the more in the post-Snowden era:

Interpol and Deutsche Bank
FBI and Scotland Yard
Control the data, memory [1]

There’s a double-edged sword cutting through their technological songs. “Computerlove” wistfully calls to mind the potential of connection from the information age, and the loneliness of staring into our screens. In concert, the tripped out glitch visuals of “It’s More Fun to Compute / Home Computer” are as overwhelming as spiraling into an Internet K-Hole. Then, there’s “Radioactivity,” originally a paen to broadcast radio, recast in the 90s as an Anti-Nuclear anthem. The most recent iteration adds lyrics in Japanese about the Fukushima disaster. It’s a stark contrast between the joy of Kraftwerk’s songs about motion and travel. “Autobahn,” “Trans-Europe Express,” and (of course) “Tour De France” are bouncy and ebullient. They relish in the freedom and expansive nature of travel and motion, and their accompanying 3D visuals drove the contrast home.

Kraftwerk’s live shows prove the concept of “multimedia” as performance. The visuals, the music, and the lyrics all play off each other. Their interaction is calculated and controlled, right down to the occasional 3D trick to amaze the audience—the needle tip of a space probe poking into the room caused the whole theater to gasp. While the music stands up on its own, adding the live experience only helps communicate the ideas in Kraftwerk’s vision. A Man-Machine may be a super-human being, but what are they giving up in the process? Are they depersonalized like “The Model”? Kraftwerk provides no answers, except perhaps riding a bike. They don’t need to. They just need to provide music to feed your head. If you can dance to it (and you can), all the better.

  1. Worth noting that the original German lyrics are more explicit in their concern over data and spying, even in 1981. “Computerwelt” makes reference to Flensburg, home of the Verkehrsamt, where speeding ticket records are kept. The German lyrics also provide a reason for computerization: “Denn Zeit ist Geld”—because time is money.  ↩