Saturday, May 26, 2012

Kraftwerk, Robots, and Conformity

Although I have known about Kraftwerk for decades, I finally began to really check them out earlier this year. After recently watching a BBC documentary on British synth-pop, I was beset by a craving for more of their stuff. My budget for CD purchases, however, was pretty tight at the time. Very rarely do I trade in CDs, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

The next disc on my list was Trans-Europe Express, but after I had already done the deed I went to the racks to find that the single copy that Waterloo had in stock had sold, so I picked up Man-Machine instead. As I was checking out, a gentleman in the line behind me, who had  a stack of vinyl under his right arm, commented on the influence of Kraftwerk and of Man-Machine in particular.  Encouraging!

Kraftwerk’s exploration of new music technologies made them innovators within the emerging electronic music scene in Europe, but they were not working in a vacuum. Kraftwerk had several contemporaries, not the least of which was French synthesist Jean-Michel Jarre, whose fantastic sci-fi tinged soundscapes have been relatively marginalized by history. Kraftwerk, conversely, were inspired by the very real surroundings of post World War II Europe, and because they were grounded in the real, they became one of Germany's leading cultural exports, laying the foundation for a whole genre of music to come.

I immediately liked Man Machine, but the video for The Robots profoundly affected my perception of the album as a whole. As they pantomime the mechanized nature of their own music, their descriptively impressionistic approach spills beyond music into performance art. The song is not really for dancing, and I don’t think that the listener expected to sing along with the thick German accents buried in its vocoder-altered and reversed lyrics. Instead, like the entirety of Man-Machine, The Robots is a futuristic commentary on the present that explores some of the possible street- level outcomes of technology.

A counterculture of working class post-punks armed with Moog synthesizers found a kindred spirit with Kraftwerk when they began to appear on British soul in the mid 70s. Like Kraftwerk, they weren't interested so much as the synth as the replacement for the symphony, but were instead exploring the potentials of emerging synthesizer technology on its own terms to describe their condition. The difference was that they successfully shaped it into a commercially accessible form.

Cars by Gary Numan on Grooveshark

At least in comparison to Autobahn, Man-Machine is a movement toward a more commercially viable Kraftwerk. It’s difficult to discern if songs like The Model are an intentional effort to capitalize on the commercial success of synth pop or an ironic extension of the statement that Man-Machine is making about conformity. In either case, this song made a lasting impression on the synth-pop scene.

Although Man Machine is still relevant today, I’m not sure that I, as a 21st century American, can ever really understand the complex sociocultural environment in which it was situated. As post-war Germans, Kraftwerk was part of a generation that was struggling to make amends for the transgressions of generations past while doggedly pursuing a unique and globally acceptable cultural identity. From this perspective,Man-Machine takes on a much more complex and, I think, satisfying meaning about the cultural tone in Europe during the late 70s.

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