GERMANY: The Man-Machine - Kraftwerk
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
A truly timeless piece, the electro synth-pop outfit perfectly parody the doomed human dependence on materialism in the past, present and future
Never have I heard an album that is so of its time in some regards yet so ahead of its time in others. In fact, even today 42 years after the album was released in 1978, huge chunks of the album still sound so futuristic that one could envisage The Man-Machine remaining relevant for decades to come, despite the rapid pace of the technological revolution that the world is undergoing. The album is a far cry from traditional oompah music or schlager music that may be more obviously associated with German culture; yet, for an electro synth-pop album with English lyrics, one of its many underlying messages is perhaps about the nation in which it was produced.
“Whilst much of the album, particularly the first and last track which have an incredibly futuristic feel to them, possibly focus more on how the human race will succumb to Artificial Intelligence, one could listen to this album and suggest that much of the album is a social commentary about how we have already become robots ourselves and are losing the battle already. ”
Kraftwerk’s album could be seen as a genius social commentary critiquing the inevitable destiny of humanity, regardless of which side would go onto win the Cold War. Perhaps when it was released, over a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it could be interpreted that the band may have been more overt in parodying communism as opposed to capitalism. This can be detected before listening to any of the six tracks by taking a look at the album artwork in which the band are dressed in red gazing in an easterly direction, perhaps towards the USSR, with hairstyles exactly the same, almost identical jawlines, and donning mime-like white face paint that one might recognise from a minimalist Steven Berkoff play such as West, in which the characters lose their sense of individuality. It is hard to be sure if the band are mimicking those in communist states for their conformity and obedience to the state. However, listening to the music this argument could be taken one step further and it could be claimed that Kraftwerk are instead mocking the absurdity of their acquiescence, to not just their leaders but also the manufacturing industry and the machine world.
However, after the Cold War came to a close in 1991, it could be argued that the music parodies the capitalist global agenda, which emerged victorious and cemented American hegemony, in much the same fashion. This is because both doctrines paradoxically rely on the same principal of profiteering from consumerist nature, and consumerism is so intrinsically linked with our quest to build new technologies. Whilst much of the album, particularly the first and last track which have an incredibly futuristic feel to them, possibly focus more on how the human race will succumb to Artificial Intelligence, one could listen to this album and suggest that much of the album is a social commentary about how we have already become robots ourselves and are losing the battle already.
The irony in the fact that the album heavily uses synthesisers, rather than traditional instruments is an obvious comment about how we are already being played by the machines. One only has to look at the German dependence on the manufacturing industry to realise that maybe it is not just products by Tesla and Google that we should be wary of eroding our individualism and free will, but in Kraftwerk’s home nation its citizens had done so already by their ultra-reliance on BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen production lines to keep their economy and thus their existence afloat. The aforementioned tracks which book-end the album, Robots and The Man-Machine, are not only insanely futuristic but also contain a monotonous yet spellbinding beat which speak of how we have been warped by the repetitive assembly lines and factories that give us utility.
Nevertheless, despite being a fascinating album, it would be unfair to focus simply on the resonance of its message, as we build an ever increasingly symbiotic relationship between man and machine, whilst ignoring its musical prowess. A short album in run-time, it is nonetheless jam-packed with enjoyable music. The second track Spacelab has a beautiful introduction with an almost Brian Eno-esque quality to it, before turning into a catchy synth-pop song without lyrics. This is followed by the rather intense although still engaging track Metropolis before going into the only track that feels of a particular era. Slightly ahead of its time the infectiously catchy The Model feels very ‘80s’ in its style, with lyrics a bit questionable in the modern climate if taken literally and interpreted as being sung from the perspective of a seedy man, rather than from a robot posing as one. However, my absolute favourite track is Neon Lights; a dreamy and symphonic electro ballad. Overall, the album is rightly a classic within its genre; whilst it remains both pertinent and prophetic, it will continue to be heralded as a great for many years to come…. until the robots censor it.