No, We Are the Robots.
30 May 2005: 9:30 Club Washington, DC
On May 30, I paid $40 to see four gray-haired men in business suits stand in front of computer terminals for an hour and a half. I was not alone. The 9:30 Club, where this spectacle—Kraftwerk’s first American performance in many years—took place, was sold out, and the club was teeming with fans (mostly male, mostly middle-aged) as enthusiastic as any I’d ever seen at any rock show. Except there was no rock. There were no instruments. Ostensibly the men were creating music, but nothing they did suggested that, save for the rare occasions when the one wearing a headset sang a few words.
Though many of Kraftwerk’s compositions are putatively “dance music,” no one danced. The “music” blasting out from the PA was less dance music than tranquilizing pulses that mimicked the sound of the machines that keep the modern world running: computers, trains, cars, Geiger counters. I spent most of my time trying to figure out what any of us were doing there.
You don’t often get an opportunity to see performers who invented an entire musical genre from scratch, as Kraftwerk did with electro-pop. In its way, seeing Kraftwerk is akin to seeing James Brown or the Ramones or the Sugar Hill Gang. So surely lots of people were there out of a sense of historical duty, to acknowledge the wellspring of all music made with computers and sequencers. But I suppose much of the reason the show was sold out was the rarity of Kraftwerk’s public appearances in America. Combine that with the sterile non-humanity of their music, and it creates a palpable, undeniable sense of mystery—who are these people who make this music? Are they real? Do they think and feel and breathe like other human beings or are they actually machines, like they claim in their anthem “We Are the Robots”?
When they first appear on stage, back lit at their terminals, projecting huge silhouettes on the curtain before it opened, it was a breathtaking moment—the curtain was about to part—would they be alive, or would they be hollow line drawings, outlines of human shapes, like on their album covers? And then, there they were, basking in the glow of their monitors at their terminal stations, beatific smiles on their faces, clicking their buttons and rolling their fingers over what looked like little trackballs.
Part of Kraftwerk’s intrigue stems from the impossibility of determining how seriously they take themselves. You want to laugh at them, with their silly, over-stylized gestures and their blank stares, but you’re never sure if the joke is really on you. It was hard to tell if their smiles were directed inward, derived from the purity of their vision being executed, or if they were a spontaneous outpouring of gratitude at the really pretty unlikely sight of such a devoted audience, or if they were cynical sniggers at what the band was getting away with, that they were being paid so much to simply stand there and barely put on even the simulacrum of a performance. (It was most likely all three simultaneously.)
You could never really connect their actions with the rigidly programmed, pre-sequenced sound. Behind them, mesmerizing videos were projected on three giant screens: usually they matched the theme of the songs—images of train depots, neon lights, men riding bicycles, empty highways, streaming flows of digits and simulated cities drawn in vector graphics and, at the film’s most abstract, free-form Mondrian-like designs of lines and shapes. It was all synchronized precisely with the music, and reinforced the sense that despite what the men on stage were doing with their keyboards, nothing spontaneous could possibly happen.
It may be that with music as sterile as “Autobahn” and “Trans Europe Express” it’s necessary that the band be present to consecrate it in the flesh, even if for all they contributed they could have been performing remote from Germany. (During the half hour delay that was due to what the club called a “weather incident,” I stood wondering if they’d ever show, and whether the curtain wouldn’t rise to television sets on stands, tuned to close-ups of their heads.)
With a band like Kraftwerk, one pays to absorb their aura. And that’s all they do: they stand there and project their aura, the myth they have manufactured for themselves as prophets of the future synthesis of man and machine, when the technology man creates to master nature suddenly starts to integrate him with it instead, revealing all rhythms to be natural rhythms and everything mechanical to have an organic purity and harmony in its design. Kraftwerk’s songs can thus be seen as spiritual hymns, religious music for a society that venerates technology as its god. Perhaps we were all really there to be sanctified, to be led by robotic mystics through ritual worship of the miracles we take for granted: our pocket calculators, our highway grids, our trains that run more or less on time. The beeps and blips become a benediction, blessing us for precisely all the humanity we’ve lost, promising us a new and improved soul, all the better because we’ve manufactured it for ourselves with a great deal of R&D.
Again, it’s impossible to tell if this technical ecstasy is meant to be utopian or dystopian, and again, it seems meant to be both at once. With soulful machine shtick, Kraftwerk seems to promise a future where the problem of emotions and all their messiness and ambiguousness is solved permanently. But when you leave the concert, you don’t know if you should laugh at such a silly dream, be fearful of its inevitability, or be envious that you’ll never live to see it.