Technology, music and how we understand society through popular culture: Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and electronic music in the 1970s

[This is a re-post of a small article I wrote in 2012 in a previous blog. I still think it is relevant, so I am migrating it to this website]

What does music mean to society? Everyone has a special relationship with music, but not everyone can very clearly say what makes a song, a style or band special to someone. To many people who recall the music of their olden days, for example, it is clear that songs get attached to memories, to unexplainable feelings that many times cannot be mediated by anything other than things like music, images (photographs), smells, etc. On a personal level, music is a mediator par excellence to memories, things that cannot be expressed in any other way, or even feelings. But what is music to a society, if society is more than just the sum of its individuals? More specifically, what can it be said about the relationship of popular music and the social context in which it appears, its history and culture?

Kraftwerk, man machine

Kraftwerk, man machine

In the 1970s the band Kraftwerk revolutionized Western music in Germany and everywhere people had access to it. Many people call them the “grandfathers of electronic music.” Part of their revolution was to use newly developed electronic equipment as the basis of their songs. But more important than the technology they used, what captivated many people were the ideas behind their music. Their music was not only made with new technology, but moreover, Kraftwerk’s music was about what new technology meant for humanity, and one of its most “human” creations: music. Instead of using electronic devices as a complement to their music (like it had already been done in the 1960s with electric organs, or in the 1970s with Disco), Kraftwerk used electronic sounds to create a world that did not exist, but its consequences could be imagined in human terms. Case in point, one of Kraftwerk’s most famous songs (below) is about the idea of a future train connecting all of Europe (something that could only be imagined at the time). Others are about robots working in human societies, the possibilities of home computing (remember that in the mid-to-late70s/early 80s this was still a very new and strange concept), the synthesis between man and machine, etc.

What was captivating back in the 1970s was not the idea of technology in itself, but rather the fact that there could be a strong link between technology and humanity. The 1970s were the height of the Cold War, and the escalating nuclear arms race between the West and the Soviet Union meant that the possibility of total human annihilation by technological means was very real. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had given plenty of proof of that possibility.

Whereas the late 1960s had seen plenty of reactions against war and the political control of a minority (the student revolts of 1968, the hippie movement, the civil rights movement), by the mid/late 1970s the “exhaustion” and disillusionment with these movements gave way to a general hedonism and introspection in popular culture (in terms of music, think of the big acts of the 1970s like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Disco music and later Punk, which was a call to anarchy, the seemingly lack of “ideology” or politics). In this context, whereas much of the 1960s the reaction against the dangers of technological global warfare appeared in society in a form of reaction against technology (for example in the hippie idea of “going back to nature”) or against the rationalized stato-quo (the protests against the bureaucratic system of European politics); by the mid to late 1970s, technology and rationality acquire an new meaning: the possibility of new forms of human introspection.

Woodstock and the Hippie social movement

Woodstock and the Hippie social movement

Kraftwerk’s music was important to this, but this technological introspection could also be seen in other forms of popular culture. In film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1969) Kubrik explores the inhumanity of space, the strangeness of human existence in the grand scheme of the universe. In “Solaris,” Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky explores the same topic from an opposite perspective, by showing viewers how, in the end, the strangeness of the universe actually makes us think about our own humanity. In Germany, Rainer Werner Fassbinder makes an important film (World On A Wire, 1973) about what makes us human, even if we are threatened by the fact that our reality could very well be a virtual simulation (20 years later, The Matrix took many ideas from this film).

During the Cold War in the 1970s, technology’s relationship to humanity had become an important popular culture theme. But what does this have to do with Germany?

Before World War I, Germany had emerged as one of the most important technological powers of the world. In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, in terms of philosophy, social theory (in particular the work of Max Weber) and the arts, rationality (and its offshoots: technology and science) had seemingly promised a new world of rationality opposed to the irrationality of religious and national fanaticism. Rationality was the way to the future. Later, however, World War I and World War II proved that pure rationality and technology could also be used to kill millions in systematic ways (this also proved that rationality does not equal morality). The hopes for the rational and technological redeeming of the human condition were suddenly proved to be false. Moreover, Germany’s history in the post-WWII period has been a convoluted one in terms of memory and identity, with German society having to cope with the danger of relating German national identity to the memory of violence and ideas of racial superiority (itself, a concept that at the time was seen as being based on science) of Nazi Germany.

For many Germans, the post-war decades were a time for coping at the same time with the issue national identity, blind faith in rationality and technology, and the idea of progress. However, in the 1970s a generation of young people who grew up completely disassociated from Nazi Germany was coming of age. To many of these people the “shame” of Nazi Germany was part of their cultural background, but so was the desire of transgressing the idea of national guilt to create a new German society.

It is in this cultural context that the idea of technology and rationality re-emerge, not as a way to shape society, but as a way of humanity to rethink what it means to understand themselves as humans, in the face of human annihilation, political struggles and the “weight of history” resting particularly strong on the shoulders of German society. Technology again appeared as a possibility for a new generation of Germans not to dwell in the crisis of the past but to spring forward to a new future for their society and individuals.

Hence the importance of Kraftwerk to Germany and the world. The origins of their musical themes and techniques are not merely technological, but rather they are related to the social, historical and cultural context of the time. In this regard, their music was a mediator for what many people could perhaps only perceive at that time at an unconscious level. Therefore, that “je ne sais quoi” that made many people be interested in Kraftwerk’s music from the early 70s through the early 1980s (and the generations of electronic musicians thereafter) was not just a matter of taste, but more so of culture and society.

This connection between popular culture, music and society is however even more evident when we compare what was happening in Germany (and the West) with what was happening in Japan with the “other” electronic music grandfathers: Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). They were influenced directly by Kraftwerk’s music from the rest half of the 1970s (YMO released their first album in 1978, Kraftwerk released Autobahn, their first fully electronic album, in 1974 and “Radio-Activity” in 1975). But whereas Kraftwerk’s music was a product of Germany’s culture and a desire to explore technology in itself, YMO’s objective was, from the beginning, to imbue into electronic music a sense of Japaneseness.

In various interviews, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s members have said Kraftwerk’s music sounded cold to them (one of these interviews can be seen here). The result of what they created was the mixture of electronic music with Japanese popular sensibilities of the mid 1970s (for instance, their name comes from the fact that black magic was a popular object of fascination in Japanese popular culture at the time) was a much more upbeat type of electronic music that addressed topics related to orientalism (Tong-Poo, La Femme Chinoise, The End of Asia), Japanese everyday popular culture (Taiso, Nice Age), visions of technological societies (Seoul Music, Technopolis) and even the –at the time very Japanese—topic of video games (Computer Game, Firecracker). Of course YMO’s music is largely instrumental (so most of their themes can be recognized by a mixture of reading the song titles and the stylistic features of the music in itself), but like Kraftwerk, the important thing was not just in focusing on the themes, but do so in a way (technique, methods) that would relate to the topics. Thus, YMO’s music contains sounds that were used in video games, Japanese and Asian musical themes (like in Insomnia, below, and Rydeen, which is based on revolutionary music in China during the cultural revolution), etc.

Japan and Germany post-war societies and culture shared a great deal with one another. Both of them were losers in a war that brought them great cultural shame and misery, and both of them bounced back into the developed world through industry and technological research (and also, of course, a generous contribution from the United State’s money and political policies). However, technology in itself had a different meaning to both societies. World War II was in Germany backed by a “scientifically” (now pseudo-scientific) proven idea (racial superiority), whereas in the case of Japan the war had more to do with national fanaticism. Largely the same consequence (war and a claim of national superiority), but it made the symbolic meaning of technology and reason different for both societies in the future. In Germany, pure reason and technology was perceived to have led to the irrationality of war; in Japan, technology was associated for many years with the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in both societies, technology also proved to be the redemptor of their own catastrophes. This view is, of course, a consequence of the economic miracle that both countries went through starting from the 1950s.

Technology would not only appear in music, but also in film. Two good examples of this are the aforementioned Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire” in Germany and in various important Japanese films (for instance in Godzilla, where the title monster was a symbol for ultimate destruction that could only be fought with more technology, even if there was a great risk in doing so). This proves the fact that popular culture in general was interested in technology at many levels of consciousness and unconsciousness.

Technology was both tragedy and redemption in Japan and Germany of the 1970s. Thus, it is no accident that music, film and popular culture in general took it as an important theme at this time in history. This only shows, once again, that culture is not something that exists independent from society and history. Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s music were important because of how much they related to the fears and expectations of a new generation of Germans and Japanese artists, who found a fertile ground in the already-global-at-that-time world of popular music and in the fears and hopes in the context of both the Cold War and industrial capitalism.