Kraftwerk have spent much of their career blurring the lines between man and machine. They are from a generation that grew up thinking that computers and machines would depersonalize us all and make our culture monotone. How untrue that all turned out to be. One reason that technology became a catalyst for diversity in design and day-to-day living was the fact that there were smart people raising the red flag and warning us that mechanized convenience has a cost.
I'm thinking about all of this because I just saw one of Kraftwerk's eight performances at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Over the course of the retrospective, the musicians, which now include just one original member, are performing most of their albums — one per night, plus extra songs — on eight successive nights. On Thursday, when I was in the audience, they played much of Trans Europe Express, and the performance was brilliant.
I use the word performance wondering if there's a better word. Truth be told, the four members don't seem to do much behind their clinical workstations. They look more like passive contestants on Jeopardy then rock performers.
But that's part of their schtick. When I first saw Kraftwerk in 1981, performing music from Computer World, I was struck hard by something that has never left me. Understand that though the music of Kraftwerk doesn't vary emotionally from song to song, the reaction from the audience does. At D.C.'s Warner Theater in 1981, the last song and the encore songs were met with monster cheers and stage-rushing. But it wasn't the music that made that happen — at least this is my theory. The reaction is really about the crowd and its expectations. What you do when the band plays its last song is to cheer harder and what you do when the band plays an encore song is go crazier. It rarely varies from that. Seeing Kraftwerk points out that even when a band sounds exactly the same in its supposedly climactic moments on stage as it did 15 or 40 or 75 minutes earlier, the audience will almost robotically go through the stages of appreciation that a concert setting demands, and Kraftwerk knows that.
In fact, when Kraftwerk made their 2005 U.S tour they took this irony a step further. After the main set, the band didn't come back for an encore, but instead sent out robots to "perform" the encore song. Needless to say, the crowd went nuts.
I love this band and I love their pristine precision. The show at MoMA, with its huge backdrop and 3D projections, was stunning, simple and visionary. The deadpan nature of Kraftwerk's songs is what makes it all work. They're deadly serious, and somewhere in it all is one tiny small wink that makes for some deadly serious fun.
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