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.
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.