making the robots dance

We tend to oppose, to imagine as contrasting, bodies, passion, physicality on the one hand, and technology, science, and systems, structures, and society on the other, with the former being personal and irreducible to analysis, while the latter are regarded as distant, cold, imposed from without, and inexpressive. But perhaps we’re wrong, and perhaps there’s some way that the former set of qualities might be reached through the latter. But don’t take my perhaps-pretentious word for it; look at the culture around us, in particular the cultures that arose in response to the first wave of readily controllable musical machinery, and as part of musical genres in some sense reacting against (but also working alongside) earlier modes of musical production. Okay, what the hell am I talking about? I’m thinking of postpunk, on the one hand: punk as reaction against excessively technocratic, excessively technical, and just plain excessive; early hip-hop, reacting against the slickness of commercial soul – but in both cases, realizing that the mechanical could speak as well as merely be used.

It didn’t take very long for synths to travel from Emerson-Lake-and-Palmer ridiculed pretentiousness to new, easy-to-use tools to make music by non-musicians (of course, technology helped out immensely here), and so, by 1977, Ultravox could use synths in its simultaneously robotic and haunting (and also by turns laughable and moving) “My Sex.” I like to imagine this as the attempt of an android, having come to consciousness, to realize its burgeoning awareness of the sensual responsiveness of its artificial flesh, perhaps having been programmed with the poetry of Andrew Marvell and the films of Jean-Luc Godard. John Foxx’s delivery is intentionally flat and monotone (if you imagine a robot attempting to rap, you might approximate its halting mechanical flow), and while some lines are likely to produce the sort of awkward laughter we might have at an Ed Wood film (“my sex / is often solo”…yeah, I’d guess so…), it also achieves, in moments, highly evocative and poetic images (mostly in fragments: “Suburban photographs / Skyscraper shadows on a carcrash overpass”; “an image lost in faded films / A neon outline / On a high-rise overspill”). Musically, we have a static bass and drum figure (later used to more conventional effect in the post-Foxx, and career-making, Ultravox track “Vienna”) with repetitive keyboard parts. But it’s Brian Eno’s production of those elements that makes the track work for me; specifically, the bell-like textures his treatments evoke, and the polytonality evident both in terms of key and intonation (that is, not only are some parts apparently in different keys from others, they’re not even playable on the same keyboard: they’re out of tune, relatively). I think bells are so haunting not only because of various cultural connotations, but because they’re alien in terms of their overtone series: they’re discordant within themselves, they do not fit in the scale. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Eno’s recently displayed a fascination with bells: see the notes to his January 07003 album: click on the album itself to activate the javascript ya hey.)

For another example of the way the robotic can be used to evoke its cultural opposite, the emotional, consider Gary Numan’s track “The Aircrash Bureau.” While the verses are very stiff, with a rigid bassline squaring out fifths and octaves and moving suddenly from one chord to the next, along with blatantly mechanical percussion, the instrumental “choruses” inhabit the most lush soundscapes possible, even stereotypically so (the piano tinkling on the second runthrough of this section is positively Liberace-like). Actual (i.e., acoustic) strings double synthetic strings in a rising pattern that then descends, arch-like, back to a somewhat wandering melodic line that leads back to the verse parts. What’s interesting is that the harmonic richness of this section is actually achieved in a fairly mechanical fashion: the melody simply goes up, up, up by thirds, passing from seventh, through ninth, through eleventh and thirteenth, all the way back to the octave (some octave switching occurs, but the overall effect is of a line that keeps rising). It’s also true that this section, despite the melodic line, is harmonically static, with the bass holding steady on one chord then moving to another. One could argue that the essence of “mechanism” isn’t that static quality but arbitrary change; but still, the track certainly makes use of contrasting moments of stasis and movement.

Okay, I mentioned hip-hop – which might seem odd after talking about weedy British lads like Numan and the Ultravox boys – and I’m certainly no expert…but it strikes me that even though dance and its physicality has been a strong component of hip-hop, in its early days at least, a lot of hip-hop movement played with an almost mechanical rigidity, a robotic sort of jerkiness. It’s therefore no accident that looming large amongst early hip-hop influences is, of all people, the very white, German act Kraftwerk (notably that band’s “Trans-Europe Express”), which practically made a fetish of disappearing its bodies, to the extent of building robots to replace its members in performance and videos. Here’s an academic but relatively comprehensible essay by Mark Dery (which mentions Tricia Rose, Greg Tate, Erik Davis…man, this brings me back to my grad student days…) pointing out the persistent “Afro-futurist” motif in African-American culture, including hip-hop. Rose, I recall, at a lecture she gave at UWM sometime in the mid-’90s, pointed out that for a lot of African-American males, some of the only viable career options were technically oriented: working with electronic gear, mastering the equipment the (white) rest of us needed to function was one way of making one’s way in the world. And of course, the most basic, origin-al mode of hip-hop repurposed technology: turntables, microphones, stereo systems. Foregrounding the technological, the mechanical, was also a bit of a rebellion against the smoothness of ’60s soul and ’70s disco/R&B loverman moves; rather than work within the commercial music system (as both Motown and disco had done), hip-hop was both from the streets and (at first) independent, and in those ways paralleled early punk and postpunk. (Perhaps no accident that both musics valorized Jamaican reggae…)

So the robots danced. And the androids dreamed of electric sheep.

Ultravox “My Sex”
Gary Numan “The Aircrash Bureau”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “making the robots dance

  1. Anonymous

    I enjoyed your thoughts about how post-punk and early electronic music could be simultaneously “robotic and haunting”. There are artists who use electronics to evoke a sense of dread (such as Suicide and some of Aphex Twin’s more aggressive music); but others create haunting and deeply melancholic music with the same tools. I think of Gary Numan’s “Down in the Park” as well as “Hiroshima Mon Amour” from the John Foxx era Ultravox. Even Thomas Dolby’s “One of Our Submarines” (the chorus of which I misheard as “Why am I suffering?”)has that feel.

    Your comments on the dispassionate vocal style of John Foxx led me to think about some of the New Wave songs that were popular on the radio which employed the same style. Gary Numan’s “Cars” was a huge hit, as well as Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator”, Trio’s “Da Da Da”, the Flying Lizards’ version of “Money”, and the Waitresses’ “I Know What Boys Like”. Each of these was a novelty song in a sense, but they enjoyed a broader audience than most of the New Wave, and they exposed listeners to some fairly discordant sounds. Again, you’re writing some great stuff here! Thanks — jonhope

  2. Tadeusz

    John Foxx also worked in a considerably more passionate vocal style on “The Garden”. Compatring “The Garden” to “Metamatic” isa little like comparing Maxfield Parrish with Kupka. The effect is quite shamelessly romantic, and there is even a disco version of the Pater Noster (hideously kitsch). But tracks like “Europe after the Rain”, and “Systems of Romance” convey a defitate sense of extacy.

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