Kraftwerk created electronic music—
for good or for ill?
Words: Zach Braner
March 9 2022
The legacy of a band’s troubling insight into technology
Yet if Kraftwerk’s sound has by now been mined for all its chart-topping potential, their message has been slower to sink in. Their seminal five-album run through the mid-70s and early 80s plunged headfirst into the rapid pace of technological change with a kind of holy zeal still capable of scalding its listeners. Their eagerness to eradicate any trace of humanity from their music figures them as prophets of the global trend toward automation, and their ambivalence about the machines they aspired to become cuts to the core of modernity’s self-engineered crises. In an era where philosophers have largely abandoned the category of the human, where desperate billionaires invest in artificial afterlives and a global communications network scatters and reincorporates petabytes of consciousness every minute, it’s just as well to ask: What was Kraftwerk trying to tell us?
Kraftwerk’s bold adoption of technology drew on the interwar aesthetics of Dadaism and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but by the 1970s, these had surrendered to absurdity or sentimental nostalgia in their attitudes toward the future. Kraftwerk—following the logic of machinery itself—bore detached witness to the inevitable convergence of human and machine. Their breakout hit was a radio edit of their 1974 track “Autobahn,” a 22-minute trancelike hymn to driving on the highway, set to a pulsating synth rhythm with simple, buoyant melodies lifted from the Beach Boys’ sunny consumerism and retooled to exalt the clean satisfaction of German industry. Though the purity of the song is compromised by touches of flute and guitar, the essential Kraftwerk experience, really a directive, is here: merge. The song compels you, sweetly—for your own good!—to join the ceaseless flow of traffic, match yourself to its indefatigable rhythm, and participate in a higher consciousness via the smooth functioning of the mensch-machine.
Here is Kraftwerk the handmaiden of the new gods, tempting listeners past any instinctive aversion to “computer music”—which, at the time, might’ve seemed like a contradiction—and compelling crowds to grant circuitry the power to enthrall the human spirit (see “Ohm sweet ohm”). This is the trick of Kraftwerk’s music: its rhythm hijacks your neural loop and transforms you into a machine. “When you play electronic music, you have the control of the imagination of the people in the room, and it can get to an extent where it’s almost physical,” Hutter told Lester Bangs in 1975. It’s a concept they’d revisit in darker moods on songs like 1977’s “Showroom Dummies” (“We are showroom dummies!”) and 1978’s “The Robots” (“We are dancing mechanik!”).
The band appeared to spin metaphors of dehumanization and celebrate our growing intimacy with technology in the same simulated breath. But the robotic presentation shielded them from the demands of sincerity, and indeed their music undermined the idea of an ‘authentic voice’ altogether. In 1975, the group released Radio-Activity, their first completely electronic album, and the first to feature key collaborators Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, who supplied their signature layered drum patterns. The album opens with a geiger counter slowly accelerating until it morphs into a gothic dirge, replete with simulated choral notes, over which Hutter’s ethereal voice chants, “Radioactivity / is in the air for you and me.” It’s a haunting anointment of the Nuclear Age, responding to the uncontrolled spread of radioactive matter from atomic weapons and reactor incidents worldwide, as well as the nuclear industry’s suppression of its dangers (union activist Karen Silkwood was killed the year before). But then Hutter sings, “Radioactivity / discovered by Marie Curie” with the same guileless delivery and the song takes on a goofy, children’s book quality. Are they warning us about an irradiated planet or admiring the progress of science? The song’s pun on radio-activity as broadcast music adds another layer of ambiguity, producing a delirious mix of meanings which ultimately proves the ‘message’ superfluous to the integrity of the song.
This ambivalence is an effect they maximized on 1981’s Computer World, where the title track seems a sinister confrontation with the Powers That Be--“Interpol and Deutsche Bank / FBI and Scotland Yard”—and the next song has Hutter boasting “I’m the operator with my pocket calculator” to a silly synth ditty with electronic button noises. The leap from dire warning to frivolity suggests a brutal irony—the unwitting subject of this new regime contenting themselves with the power to add and subtract—but Kraftwerk never shows their cards. They rarely gave interviews, and from 1975 on their public image became as carefully orchestrated as their music. They appeared as identical emotionless automatons, giving zero clues to the presumably human lives and intentions behind the act. Instead, like the machines they emulated, Kraftwerk existed to perform their task and nothing more; their disturbing indifference to the technological reordering of humanity may have been the only possible outcome of their total fusion with it.
In a 2019 essay, the philosopher Daniel Steuer argued that this fusion was a more realistic threat to humanity than the prospect of robot overlords or a technological Singularity:
The real dystopian endpoint is a world in which the process of mutual formation between humanity and its technological inventions has produced a state in which both the human and the nonhuman worlds are modeled on just one, in its foundational principles very limited, invention—the information processor—and there is no longer any imaginative space in which alternatives might be created.
Perhaps this is why Kraftwerk’s music still sounds fresh, and why their engagement with what it means to make electronic music is richer than almost any of their successors. A useful analogy is Carl Schmidt, the social theorist whose incisive analysis of liberal politics demands engagement despite—or perhaps because—of its author’s prominent role in the Nazi party. Kraftwerk perceived the real trends of technological development with the radical clarity of somebody uninterested in preventing them. Schmidt’s case is also relevant in that Kraftwerk was one of the first postwar German groups to proudly claim their national heritage. They chose a German name and recorded in their own language because “we want the whole world to know our background”—and Hutter even spoke of “the more advanced German mentality.” This sinister underside to their brand of futurism is inescapable: the autobahn, after all, was a Third Reich innovation. In that 1975 interview, Bangs asks if they’d eventually want to hook electrodes to their brains and emit thoughts as sound—“The final solution to the music problem, I suggested.” Hutter, characteristically literal, does not take the bait: “No, not the solution. The next step.”
The band‘s prophetic understanding of how technology might alter its masters is obvious on “Computer Love,” which essentially does what the 2013 Spike Jonze movie Her does in seven minutes of tender reverb-soaked synths. But their intuitive sense of Steuer’s ‘informational naturalism’ is best exhibited by another song from Computer World, “Numbers”: a massively influential electronic track, which Afrika Bambaata sampled on “Planet Rock.” The song is three uninterrupted minutes of a single drum pattern while digitized voices count the beats in German, English, Spanish, Italian, French, Japanese, and Russian: the universal convertibility of languages via mathematics, and at the same time a live demonstration of the universal convertibility of the pop song into pure rhythm—by taking out intangibles like lyrics, improvisation, variation, or any identifiably human touch, and leaving only the mechanical essence. That the song works, that it won dancefloors then and still gets sampled today, is Kraftwerk’s fait accompli. Music cannot be the bastion of human exceptionality; in fact its basic principle proves our machine nature—or, as Antoine Bousquet writes in a review of Steuer’s work: “Perhaps the most difficult admission of all, however, is that cybernetics is not dangerous because it is false, but rather because, in a very important sense, it is true and it works.”
Translated into writing, these are points anticipated by many thinkers, but Kraftwerk embodied the idea of cybernetic transformation; effected it in their music and their style; to a large extent actually produced it in cultural reality. Kraftwerk wasn’t trying to send a message—they were the message, and as the modern world comes to resemble the world of their music, its immanent truth glows brighter.
In recent times they’ve become less ambivalent about their main theme—for a 2010 performance of “Radioactivity” they inserted the word “stop” before the word. But still, Kraftwerk are not activists, and a 2017 interview finds Hutter repeatedly shutting down his interviewer’s attempts to explore the political undertones of “Autobahn” or “Trans-Europe Express.” In a fitting and exemplary way, Kraftwerk’s human components don’t seem to grasp the greatest legacy of their music. Its pioneering insights are as much a product of the electronics as the biomass which engineered them, and arrive only in the moment the whole creation fuses with its listener.