If there is a war between man & machine & machine wins, what will we be listening to? Last year we asked the same question, but man won & we looked at pure lyric. Here we look at the survival of lyric (& therefore humankind) as it merges with technology & other modern & futuristic advancements. We took a look at what lyric breaks through the robotics for a glimpse of the role of song in the future.
Thanks so much to my groovy contributors & fellow time-travelers! Here is the accompanying playlist, in case you want to sing along–It’s pretty addictive. (If you listen to exactly these songs in exactly this order, your future will be revealed to you.)
Del The Funky Homosapien – State of the Nation * Del The Funky Homosapien – 3030 * PJ Harvey – The Last Living Rose * PJ Harvey – In The Dark Places * Of Montreal – Gronlandic Edit * Prince – Controversy * The Antlers – Epilogue * The Magnetic Fields – Take Ecstasy With Me * Múm – Green Grass Of Tunnel * The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots Part 1 * The White Stripes – We Are Going To Be Friends
Del The Funky Homosapien by Laura Goldstein
Kodwo Eshun’s essay Operating System for the Redesign of Sonic Reality “marks out a lineage of black artists… for whom black identity is fundamentally connected with science fiction and electronic technology”*. Though not on the radar for this essential article alongside historical greats such as Samuel Delaney, Octavia Butler, Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and even Dr. Octagon, Del The Funky Homosapien crosses over into such territory in the album Deltron 3030.
Released in the year 2000 in collaboration with Dan the Automator and DJ Kid Koala, and which features many guest artists, the album focuses on the theme of a fairly dystopic future. The project is a concept album that takes place in the year 3030 and features the story of a space flight by Deltron Zero, a character created by Del. Throughout the course of the album, Del engages in battles with megacorporations that have taken over the universe. The music of the album’s title song, 3030, begins like a launch into the space of the lyrics, requests confirmation of position and then leads us into a melody that sets strange and beautiful gravitational conditions for the listener. Like a cello, Del’s slow and methodical rap, clear and straightforward, is his narrative enunciated in a pitch to match the invisible sound of your heart. From the first verse:Arm a nation with hatred we ain’t with that We high-tech archeologists searching for knicknacks Composing musical stimpacks that impact the soul Crack the mold of what you think you rappin for I used to be a mech soldier but I didn’t respect orders I had to step forward tell them this ain’t for us Living in a post-apocalyptic world morbid and horrid The secrets of the past they hoarded Now we just boarded on a futuristic spacecraft No mistakes black it’s our music we must take back
The song incorporates classics of science fiction literature and film Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell while distinguishing itself from “entertainment where many are brainless”. Del establishes the new narrative of a character who “must use my rappin so you all can see the hazards”. After escaping from jail, his “ears morphed to receptors”, he relays: “on the run with a handgun, blast bioforms, I am warned/ That a planet-wide manhunt with cannons/Will make me abandon, my foolish plan of uprisin”. In a world that, however far in the future, seems to continue to mirror oppressive human conditions, technology has only evolved enough to escalate and amplify the effects of a relentless capitalistic civilization on the body. But even though “enterprisin wise men look to the horizon/ thinkin more capitalism is the wisdom/ and imprison all citizens empowered with rhythm/…
we keep the funk alive by talking with idioms”
Another newer literary figure that escaped the scope of Eshun’s essay as well is experimental writer Harryette Mullen, who relies on the examination and creative use of idiom to critique a society that turns humans into robots who merely consume fuel and each other. I see both of these artists as working with the same modes of language weaponry, changing the future before we get to the one that they clearly see is ahead of us.
*in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner), (157)
PJ Harvey by Emily Toder
I love PJ Harvey so much. Below I attempt to get at some of why, while admitting to reductive hyperbole and reductionism, and forewarning that if this theory is accurate even a little, it really can account for at best an infinitesimal part of why PJ’s so good.
Setting aside for now the purely tonal features that dazzle me about her work – the pine of her voice in her throat and the sting of the strings and drums, etc. – PJ’s lyrics startle me by their sharpness and sparseness, and by the paradoxical waywardness of their structural simplicity. While rich imagistically and of course all the more in utter meaning, the lines have, to me, a kind of exaggeratedly basic grammatical style, almost altogether unornamented, and suggesting a linguistic economy I think does a song quite good. If you take a close listen, you hear subjects take usually just one action; nouns afforded most times a sole adjective; adverbs by and large avoided; and metaphor made wonky, rough, and stiff. A sister attribute to this fruitful paradox is the precision of the attention to place and the sick atmosphere of places so alive in her songs. This is of course most overt in her latest, Let England Shake, which in jolts laments a nation brutal, old, and tender. Here’s the words to its second track:
Did you notice how each thing gets to do one thing? Maybe it’s not a big deal to you, but I think it’s worth noting. Snippets are the essences of life. Also, I love gerunds, and PJ must do, too: look at how she molds the rhyming stinking, beatings, glistening, and nothing, as fluidly as though they were actually parts of the same part of speech, and who cares that they aren’t? (Nothing’s no’s gerund.) Of course I’m by no means suggesting she’s into this oddity or writes with a Strunk & White at her elbow – that’d be disappointing – but the very fact that this phonemic facet emerges at all, let alone so gorgeously, betrays the pervasive sensitivity to language out of which Harvey lives and knits her songs. This great English resource, no pun intended, is used subtly and steadily throughout the album, never failing (ha, ha, see ‘England’ next).
I also love it when she exploits from time to time the aural thrill of deviating from a rhythm or sound our ear has been trained to expect (which of course is itself the basis of a lot of jokes and other funny things, and often a handy asset in a poem). Look at this little piece of ‘In the Dark Places’ (also on L.E.S.):So our young men hid with guns in the dirt and in the dark places Our young men hid with guns in the dirt and in the dark places Our young men hid with gun in the forest and in the dark places
This is especially masterful to me because the unanticipated shift from dirt to forest is profound phonetically, and matched in poignancy with the melodic stray and altered emphasis with which PJ sings that whole third verse. The extra syllable the word forest features; the toll and potency of its fricativeness, making it great to belt; and the semantic aspects of its relationship to dirt… well it all makes me well up, and not just cause it’s about war. It’s duck-duck-goose, essentially, an elementally intuitable Mazurka-ish lyrical trope of probably all prosodically-stressed languages in the history of human life on earth, and employed here with unwitting sublimity so skillfully. Oh, I am glad I warned you in advance I was going to hyperbolize. Yay PJ.
Of Montreal by Hannah Gamble
There’s something perfectly contemporary about Of Montreal’s song “Gronlandic Edit”: There’s the kind of hermitism produced by too many options for what a person can do with herself should she leave her home, in conjunction with the flurry of anxieties that make a person feel that perhaps he should just stay indoors and not rope anyone he knows into the personal hell he’s currently experiencing. The word that best describes the song’s speaker is, I think, “overwhelmed”– overwhelmed by religious options, overwhelmed by his own upbringing, overwhelmed by the power of a natural world that doesn’t give a shit about us, overwhelmed by the emptiness of the admittedly alluring entertainment industry/ dream of celebrity. And then, maybe, also overwhelmed by all the beauty that’s wasted when we get caught up in all of the aforementioned overwhelming things.
The song feels very “now” and, in some ways, the song feels very “me,” but I also think that the song would be a perfectly suitable accompaniment to any post-robot apocalypse that our great [great-great] grandkids might know. While technology is surely to thank for how subtly distant and echo-y the vocals sound (nothing about the song is lo-fi, or raw, or roots-y), I think that the music video is the best example of how technology (animation/ editing) enhances the already pretty engaging lyrics: it’s playful, fast-moving, brightly colored, upper and lower-case A absurd, a little sexy, and definitely anti-sexy as well. The video feels like a party, but a party where the host is on the verge of a panic attack and so does something ridiculous like come out of the bathroom wearing only gold lamé booty shorts to get an easy laugh. Of course, what I like about the song is that it ends with a message to someone who seems to make the speaker feel safe in the midst of a maybe inhospitable city. In short: Starts with anxiety and ends with a little hope and sweetness. Would the robots be okay with this message of micro-hope for micro-love between humans? Who knows; my guess is that video would overload a few circuit boards.
GRONLANDIC EDIT [by Of Montreal]Nihilists with good imaginations I am satisfied hiding in our friend’s apartment Only leaving once a day to buy some groceries Daylight, I’m so absent minded, nighttime meeting new anxieties So am I erasing myself? Hope I’m not erasing myself I guess it would be nice to give my heart to a God But which one, which one do I choose? All the churches filled with losers, psycho or confused I just want to hold the divine in mine And forget, all of the beauty’s wasted Let’s fall back to earth and do something pleasant, say it We fell back to earth like gravity’s bitches, bitches Physics makes us all its bitches I guess it would be nice to help in your escape From patterns your parents designed All the party people dancing for the indie star But he’s the worst faker by far in the set I forget, all of the beauty’s wasted I guess it would be nice Show me that things can be nice I guess it would be nice [You’re trapped] Show me that things can be nice You’ve got my back in the city You’ve got my back ’cause I don’t want to panic You’ve got my back in the city You’ve got my back ’cause I don’t want to panic
Prince by Lina Ramona Vitkauskas
Music When The Rise of the Machines Occurs
I thought long and hard about this.
When machines rule the Earth (when?) I postulated they would “crave” music that would soothe their nonexistent souls, melodies that would serve as surrogate to their missing emotions—you know, tunes that would seem “catchy” to the metal ones. (Bowie was too obvious here).
My picks turned to any Hall & Oates, ABBA, or Queen. Maybe The Carpenters.
Weepy or campy robots would not be.
I moved then to Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army, Mr. Bungle’s California, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Eno + Bryne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, any Kate Bush, Blonde Redhead’s 23 album (specifically tracks such as “Publisher” and “SW”), any Bjork…hmmm. Nope.
Finally, I arrived at my pick: In the cold, metallic future void of humanity’s frailties, funky, sexy music will prevail.
Prince’s Controversy album…title track…Controversy.I just can’t believe All the things people say, controversy Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay? Controversy Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? Controversy, controversy, controversy I can’t understand Human curiosity, controversy Was it good for you? Was I what you wanted me to be? Controversy Do you get high? Does your daddy cry? Controversy, controversy, controversy Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? Some people wanna die So they can be free I said life is just a game We’re all just the same Do you wanna play? Yeah, yeah, yeah Controversy, controversy, controversy Listen, people call me rude I wish we all were nude I wish there was no black and white I wish there were no rules
The Antlers by J. Hope Stein
I just had to pick the Antlers because I think they are writing love songs like no one else. The album Hospice is about an abusive relationship, using the metaphor of a relationship between the speaker and someone who has cancer. But I have to say that it works on both levels quite deeply and delivers something entirely new to indie rock. There’s no rock song like this, because rock & roll is so young. There is no song of young love I know, addressing the “you”– where the “you” is victim of cancer. In that sense this is closer to classic poetry where young lovers were more likely to lose one another to illness. What I think is also remarkable about this song, is that most songs which touch on death tend to memorialize the dead, whereas this one tells the story of a relationship that is complicated and made more complicated by terminal illness. I don’t want to say this is the future, but it happens enough in life that there is great value in someone from your own generation making rock & roll out of it.
Below, in the lyric representation of the song Epilogue, I chose to keep in the full repetition of the song (“screaming, cursing”, etc) because written down it does the same thing it does when it’s chanted– it completely envelopes you in a cycle of human trappings and struggles. (I know it’s a sad song, but it’s sadder not to have it.)
EpilogueIn a nightmare, I am falling from the ceiling into bed beside you You’re asleep, I’m screaming, shoving you to try to wake you up And like before, you’ve got no interest in the life you live when you’re awake Your dreams still follow storylines, like fictions you would make So I lie down against your back, until we’re both back in the hospital But now it’s not a cancer ward, we’re sleeping in the morgue Men and women in blue and white, they are singing all around you With heavy shovels holding earth, you’re being buried to you neck In that hospital bed, being buried quite alive now I’m trying to dig you out but all you want is to be buried there together You’re screaming And cursing And angry And hurting me And then smiling And crying Apologizing I’ve woken up, I’m in our bed, but there’s no breathing body there beside me Someone must have taken you while I was stuck asleep But I know better as my eyes adjust You’ve been gone for quite a while now, and I don’t work there in the hospital (They had to let me go) When I try to move my arms sometimes, they weigh too much to lift I think you buried me awake (my one and only parting gift) But you return to me at night just when I think I may have fallen asleep Your face is up against mine, and I’m too terrified to speak You’re screaming And cursing And angry And hurting me And then smiling And crying Apologizing You’re screaming And cursing And angry And hurting me And then smiling And crying Apologizing You’re screaming And cursing And angry And hurting me And then smiling And crying Apologizing
The Magnetic Fields by Tanya Larkin
Once the great Singularity begins to take hold, I suggest testing for replicants not by asking how subject x feels about his mother, but my seeing how x responds to layered percussion and the complex rhythms at the foundation of songs like The Magnetic Fields “Are You the Trouble I’ve Been Looking For?” or “Take Ecstasy with Me,” both on the 1994 album Holiday. Subject x should probably move a little to prove he is human, even if it’s just to bite his or her lip in puzzlement. Turing tests aside—I’m ignoring them—surely what will remain of humanity is its ability to recognize and feel a beat that is composed by another human rather than a machine, even if that beat is fed through a machine.
The melodies of most songs on Holiday are carried by Stephen Merritt’s limited baritone and elaborated by synths (in other words, technology). The simplicity of these elements allows for the highest, most lush, most particular lyricism. “In my Secret Place” begins, “Time swings / like a wrecking ball into things.” “Swinging London” begins “I read your manifestos and your strange religious tracks / You took me to the library and kissed me in the stacks.” Merritt is unabashedly literate and shamelessly romantic, and in my view, has perfected the notoriously limited genre of the pop song, both lyrically and musically.
“Take Ecstasy with Me” is one of the greatest love songs ever, not to mention a moving testimony to a long term gay relationship that at the outset suffered and withstood the prejudiced violence of dumb-ass folk. The singer remembers the initial heady days of the couple’s romance when they took ecstasy and “got beat up for just holding hands” and invites his partner to take ecstasy with him again and feel the old feelings once more.You used to slide down the carpeted stairs or down the bannister you stuttered like a kaleidoscope ’cause you knew too many words you used to make ginger bread houses we used to have taffy pulls Take ecstasy with me, baby take ecstasy with me. You had a black snowmobile we drove out under the northern lights a vodka bottle gave you those raccoon eyes we got beat up just for holding hands Take ecstasy with me, baby take ecstasy with me.
Mum by Ryan P Mihaly
The musicians of múm know the magic-musical effect of a chiming cash register, of a spinning coin rolling to a stop, of a whisper. Their music peels away a layer of reality, always out of a bumbling, nascent curiosity, and offers a glimpse of a weird world found in small sounds, acoustically made but electronically smudged and toyed with. Lyrically, múm is creepy yet kind, slightly unsettling but well intentioned, like No-Face from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, hands outstretched and cupped in offering. In “Green Grass of Tunnel,” from their 2002 record Finally We Are No One, someone is making sounds in a cupboard and the sounds are taking liquid form. The song ends abruptly like a sentient music box happily clamping itself shut.
A new album is due this year.
From “Green Grass of Tunnel“:Down from the ceiling Leaks a great noise It drips on my head through a hole in the roof Behind these two hills here There’s a pool And when I’m swimming through a tunnel I shut my eyes Inside the cupboard I make sounds and through the tubes I send this noise
The Flaming Lips by J. Hope Stein
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a 2002 concept album from The Flaming Lips starts with the song Fight Test, which establishes the premise– we are what we chose to fight for:I thought I was smart – I thought I was right I thought it better not to fight – I thought there was a virtue in always being cool – so when it came time to fight I thought I’ll just step aside and that time would prove you wrong and that you would be the fool I don’t know where the sun beams end and the star lights begins it’s all a mystery And I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life, it’s all a mystery
Fight Test talks about the mystery of what each individual chooses to fight for. In the song Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part I, the fight is more specifically defined — “Robots”. This is a triumphant love song, with images of Yoshimi (a female superhero) protecting the male speaker from life-threatening robots. It also speaks of a broader daily struggle against the systemic robotization of our hearts and minds and puts lovers on the front lines:Those evil-natured robots they’re programmed to destroy us she’s gotta be strong to fight them so she’s taking lots of vitamins ‘Cause she knows that it’d be tragic if those evil robots win I know she can beat them Oh Yoshimi, they don’t believe me But you won’t let those robots defeat me Oh Yoshimi, they don’t believe me But you won’t let those robots eat me
In Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the song of epiphany is Do you Realize: “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face…..Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” The album is filled with images and sounds of robotics, combined with images of face, flesh, human longing and limitation. The Flaming Lips answer to the human predicament seems to be superheroes. Here it is the robot-slaying girlfriend, Yoshimi. On other albums they talk about “waiting for superman” and “the human prize” — humans pushing themselves towards some kind of superhuman prize. But the superhuman effort meets tragic ends. In the end of “Yoshimi,” after an album-ful of fantastical struggle, a man from the future comes:As logic stands you couldn’t meet a man Who’s from the future But logic broke as he appeared he spoke About the Future “We’re not gonna make it” He explained how the end will come, you and me were never meant To be part of the future, All we have is now, All we’ve ever had was now All we have is now All we’ll ever have is now
It’s a moment of pure defeat and human limitation. & Here you have to wonder what is defeated– Is this a break-up album or is it the defeat of mankind? In Yoshimi both are equally at stake. Now.
The White Stripes by J. Hope Stein
The future will be a safer place if there are more songs romanticizing platonic friendships– High-fives to bugs & worms & publicly affectionate just-friends!
We’re Going to Be FriendsFall is here, hear the yell back to school, ring the bell brand new shoes, walking blues climb the fence, books and pens I can tell that we’re going to be friends Walk with me, Suzy Lee through the park and by the tree we will rest upon the ground and look at all the bugs we found safely walk to school without a sound safely walk to school without a sound Here we are, no one else we walked to school all by ourselves there’s dirt on our uniforms from chasing all the ants and worms we clean up and now its time to learn we clean up and now its time to learn Numbers, letters, learn to spell nouns, and books, and show and tell at playtime we will throw the ball back to class, through the hall teacher marks our height against the wall teacher marks our height against the wall We don’t notice any time pass we don’t notice anything we sit side by side in every class teacher thinks that I sound funny but she likes the way you sing Tonight I’ll dream while in my bed when silly thoughts go through my head about the bugs and alphabet and when I wake tomorrow I’ll bet that you and I will walk together again I can tell that we’re going to be friends