This week in the New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones comments on the recent MoMA retrospective about the German band Kraftwerk. It’s odd for a pop band to end up in a museum, Frere-Jones thinks, but given Kraftwerk’s unique aesthetic and their contributions to pop music, it doesn’t surprise me at all.
Kraftwerk were a major force in the move toward electronic music in the late ’70s and ’80s, and we see their influence everywhere today. It’s not just that most pop music today is totally synthesized; some bands even borrow Kraftwerk’s melodies (e.g., Coldplay with “Talk”), and sample their beats (especially in early hip hop). Kraftwerk’s “guiding principle”, at least according to Frere-Jones, is the “mensch-machine” or “man-machine” (this was also the title of one of their albums). This concept of the interaction between man and machine, or even the convergence of man and machine is quite interesting, because I think that this defines our time.
And I’m not just referring to the fact that we now have enough knowledge to replace bodily functions with prosthetics. You see, some researchers claim that we can consider an increase in hard drive memory (the cost of which is declining at an exponential rate) as an increase in our own capacity for memory. When I first heard this stipulation (and I don’t remember where…), I thought it was silly. How can a mechanical thing be part of our memories? Sure, our brains are like computers, but they are chemical and alive. But the more I think about it, being able to store information either on the Internet or on computers allows us to not worry about “storage” in our own brains. We can, instead, increasingly use our cognitive resources to manipulate information in novel ways and become more creative.
Kraftwerk, and other early electronic artists, realized this. They produced sounds using computers (and other crazy equipment, back in the day) instead of playing instruments, so that they could focus on constructing new melodies and song structures. Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk’s contemporaries, also produced electronic music in a way that wasn’t seen before, but it was mostly ambient. Kraftwerk’s music has simple elements, but it moves in interesting ways. And they “speak-sing” in most songs, thereby truly showcasing the human in the “man-machine” interaction.
We have all become “man-machines” in our own way, and this dynamic is most apparent in pop music today (see my previous post on the production of top 40 hits). Kraftwerk are truly modern for basing their art on this idea. Frere-Jones likens them to Andy Warhol in the visual art world. Just like anyone could paint a soup can that someone else designed, anyone could press a button on a computer to make a sound. Creativity stays alive in the choice to press the button, and the choice to paint the soup can.