This week, German music pioneers Kraftwerk begin an 8-night residency at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, their insanely influential discography run through one night at a time. Outraged, entitled Tweets met the instant sell-out of these shows. But with ticket seekers outnumbering seats by 20 to 1, this was one time when shady web brokers weren’t a plausible scapegoat. The albums from the late 70s and early 80s merit the frenzy, their clean lines and synthetic beats planting an idea of the future that pop-culture bought into completely. (By 1986’s Techno Pop and beyond, the point had been made, though. Sorry short-straw drawers.)
Although popularizing electronic music is the band’s primary legacy, you can’t overstate the reach they’ve had into every branch of pop music. Beyond reverent lifts from early adopters like David Bowie and Afrika Bambaataa, their music led to the creation of more sub-genres than the Beatles catalog did, from synth-pop to house, from IDM to EDM. Radio hip-hop of the moment isn’t far from throbbing techno. What we call “indie-rock” these days is more often composed of synth lines than guitar sounds. Repetitive drones are a building block more prominent than power chords. Vocoder tones Kraftwerk once had to have custom-built are now pre-loaded into every laptop.
They were prescient lyrically too, in a way that’s often overshadowed. Technology creeps into our lives in such a flat, banal way that the line between man and machine flickers. This subtle, orderly blurring was the band’s great theme. Celebrity culture was another sneaky preoccupation of theirs, beauty as a commodity, the ubiquity of narcissism. “Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass.” The confluence of these ideas might be a usefully concise explanation of the Internet a whole. “Computer Love” must have seemed vaguely ridiculous in 1981, but it’s a concept we don’t need functioning, eighth-generation sex-bots to recognize as resonant.
Not that everyone sees this prophecy come to pass as wanted progress. That a Kraftwerk show should even be such a coveted ticket has been predictably ridiculed. And as the origin point for complaints about technology's affect on live performance, the grumbles are easily understood. When the act of performing requires so little physicality, the show becomes the additional stage production required to sell it. Daft Punk, their commitment to robo-roleplay even greater than Kraftwerk’s, have used a fancy light show to become one of the most popular live acts in the world. Animal Collective, as laptop-bound as a huge indie-rock band can be, still haven’t quite found the level of psychedelic imagery necessary to totally pull it off. MoMA materials promise that the band’s promotional imagery (still futuristic, but closer to present day all the time) and its goofy/awesome use of robotics in live performance, will be incorporated into the shows as a source of visual stimulation that pushes beyond button pushing. We’ll see. The naysayers could be right. The first dudes to stand behind laptops aren’t inherently more compelling to watch than the latest. But this is a museum piece, primarily. As world-changing art, the robots have certainly earned their due.