Your petrochemical arms: a brief history of cyborgs, superhumans and robots in pop music

Our Superhuman exhibition has shown how human enhancement permeates our culture from sport to comic books. A rich seam also runs through popular music exploring both the joy and the alienation of living in a world dominated by technology and imagining what it’s like to become cybernetic. Robert Bidder takes us by the (prosthetic) hand and leads us into the realm of the musical robots.

While working in the current Superhuman exhibition, I’ve particularly enjoyed taking a closer look at Fritz Kahn’s popular print Man as an Industrial Palace. The German polymath had a huge influence on how we perceive the workings of the body and this beautifully designed, humorous and intricate image has become near-iconic.

El hombre como palacio industrial. Lithograph, Fritz Kahn, 1930

El hombre como palacio industrial. Lithograph, Fritz Kahn, 1930

When studying it, I couldn’t help but think of the cover of the 1978 Kraftwerk album The Man Machine and wondering whether they had absorbed the influence of their fellow countryman. Their general aesthetic and conceptual concerns seem indebted to Fritz Kahn, as well as other Germanic greats such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Nietzsche’s übermensch. All of these are also tangentially relevant to the Superhuman exhibition.

Kraftwerk: The Man Machine

Kraftwerk: The Man Machine

This led to a thought about the general proliferation of transhumanist, cyborgian and androidist content within pop music. It is an ever-present trope within mainstream film and TV – the 6 Million Dollar Man, Robocop and Terminator are just the tip of the iceberg, so why not music too?

If this blog post were to deal with all the areas where the boundaries of humanity were played with in popular music, it would become rather nebulous and multifarious. So I’m not going to touch on beast-people or the erosion of gender (most interestingly explored by Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P Orridge with his Pandrogeny theory), and I’m going to stick to the mecharific main contenders for the crown of robo-royalty.

Kraftwerk were the catalyst for much transhumanist thought trickling into mainstream culture. Their uncompromising austerity presented through their music and visual presentation was always infused with a faint romanticism and powerful aesthetic. Much has been written about their influence on electronic music and how, by removing traditional rock instrumentation and the eroticism associated with it, they ushered in a new era of exploration. They played with the relationship between humans and technology throughout their career, from the hench idealism of their cycling concept single Tour De France to their prophetic 1981 release Computer World. Here, most explicitly is We Are the Robots from 1977.

Devo have been described as a gonzoid American outfit cut from the Kraftwerk template. Although there are some similarities (the wearing of uniforms, the use of electronic instruments, and a cerebral, philosophical approach), they are a very different animal indeed. They are not as dedicated to the cause of man-machine as Kraftwerk but songs such as Mechanical Man and Smart Patrol/Mr DNA use the idea of the cyborg to illustrate their theories about the current de-evolution of humanity. Here in the Freedom Of Choice video, we are faced with a future robotoid Devo who have evolved into hairless, floating beings that use Ancient Rome, skateboarding youths and doughnuts to highlight the pitfalls of consumerism.

Slovenian conceptualists Laibach have always caused controversy through their use of quasi-fascistic imagery and militaristic music. Indeed, the satirical bent of this work is sometimes lost on newcomers to the band. The sampling of machinery and a stomping regularity to the music often causes them to be lumped in with the Industrial or Industrial Metal movements (which deserve a mention here as genres that have a large concern with the man-machine, often as metaphor), although their style is too restless to be truly genre-defined. Their music and lyrics often flirt with the idea of man’s relationship with technology, most candidly with their concept album Jesus Christ Superstars, which recasts Christ in the second coming as a Judge Dredd- or Robocop-type character. The video to Geburt Einer Nation (their German cover of Queen’s One Vision) sees them revelling in an Ubermensch fantasy complete with oversized stag creatures and fire!

If you thought we were getting into territory too obscure, how about that bit in Moonwalker where Michael Jackson turns into a robot and kills all the bad guys and then turns into a spaceship? I’m not too sure what to say about this but it is pretty cool.

In the early phase of his career, Gary Numan was heavily entrenched in the concept of man-machine. His 1979 album Replicas with Tubeway Army was a concept album about a Blade Runner-esque future where ‘Machmen’ – androids with cloned human skin – police the human populace. With the single Are Friends Electric? the band scored a hit with an austere and melancholy tale of paranoid dystopia, a vein Numan explored in further detail later in his career (most notably with his song Cars, which espoused the protection and security of the machine). In this Top Of The Pops performance the band eschew all the usual trappings of shamanistic rock performance, their stillness adding to the mechanistic menace of the track.

Björk has always had very corporeal concerns in her song-writing, from the sensualities of early Sugarcubes songs such as Walkabout (likening the human body to a landscape) to her album Medulla, which only used the human voice as its instrumentation. Although I couldn’t think of a song of hers which dealt lyrically with the encroaching effect of technology on the body, it’s hard to ignore the relevance of the video to All is Full of Love where two robot Björks are manufactured and then have a good snog. Perhaps it’s significant that the director of this video, Chris Cunningham (famed for his anthropomorphic videos to songs by Aphex Twin and Squarepusher), worked on the special effects department for the Spielberg film A.I.

It’s not surprising that there is a wealth of technology- and robot-inspired music from Japan, given the many examples of shape-shifting humans and animals running through Japanese films, animation, comics, computer games and mythology. Yellow Magic Orchestra is one of the most influential and wide-reaching of these acts, finding success internationally. Like many of these artists, YMO used electronic instruments almost exclusively. Another notable Japanese musician is Tomita, whose albums of electronic re-workings of classical music have been very popular, including his Greatest Hits with a cyborgian portrait of his face on the front cover.

A modern Japanese band carrying on this lineage (and highly indebted to Devo) is Polysics who, as well as looking the part, write songs called I Ate The Machine and Coelacanth Is Android. Below we see YMO playing in a city of the future below some hybrid Godhead and a spaceship.

Laurie Anderson has often used the human relationship with technology in both her visual art and her music. With O Superman she got to number 2 in the UK charts with an eight-and-a-half-minute song that not only has no drums or real chorus but also has idiosyncratic, cryptic lyrics. The ‘Superman’ (übermensch again) in question seems to be the might of humanity, or the might of the West. Anderson alludes to several human enhancements such as telephones, answering machines and aeroplanes. The domestic aeroplane is compared to the American fighter jet, and although I think it may be reductive to call this purely an anti-war song, the sentiment seems to be a common thread in music which uses the man-machine as a metaphor. As we see in the video, robotic movements and electric lights in the mouth are used alongside the vocoder and electronic instruments to create a quietly futuristic atmosphere. But the real cyborgian moment comes in the closing lines: “So hold me, Mom, in your long arms. In your automatic arms. Your electronic arms. In your arms. Your petrochemical arms. Your military arms. In your electronic arms.”

Daft Punk are probably the most commercial contemporary group to assume the guise of cyborgs. The French duo adopted this mantle after their second album was released, seemingly to preserve their anonymity. It’s been a concept (some may say a gimmick) they have been touting ever since. This use of masking is a good way to get around the cult of celebrity with many artists such as The Residents, Gwar, Slipknot, The Locust and many others artists using surreal or horrific costumes to draw attention away from the human beings making the music. However, only a few – such as MF Doom – use the heavily associated symbol of the futuristic cyber warrior. Below we see Daft Punk with a nefarious little bionic guy chomping his way (with human teeth?) through a characteristically bulky beat.

The Rammellzee was an interesting character: graffiti artist, sculptor, rapper, poet, art theoretician, philosopher, inventor of Gothic Futurism (his theory about the war between letters and the alphabet) and all-round eccentric. Unfortunately there is not much of his music online (at least none that has representative videos) but the video below outlines some of the characters, costumes and theories that he used in his lyrics and performances. It seems that some people tie him in with the Afrofuturism thread in contemporary culture. This world should have an honourable mention here with artists such as Sun Ra, Funkadelic/Parliament and Antipop Consortium among others considered to be Afrofuturists, making unique and compelling work. The common theme running through these artists is an assumption of an alien persona, or music with a sci-fi/ futuristic bent. Rammellzee, however, is one of the only artists referred to under this banner who explicitly weaves in a robotic aesthetic, at least in such a complex and dense way.

There are many others I could mention, such as George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique, the whole world of Musique Concrète, Industrial music, Cybergoth and Techno artists such as Cybotron and Drexciya – and I’m sure I am completely unaware of some interesting stuff. I also have missed out the great wealth of tech-tinged chart pop hits. Perhaps if you can think of anyone essential I have missed, you could add a comment below.

Robert Bidder is a Visitor Service Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can follow Robert on tumblrSuperhuman runs until 16 October.

61 thoughts on “Your petrochemical arms: a brief history of cyborgs, superhumans and robots in pop music

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