Why Kraftwerk Make Me Laugh
Kraftwerk have been a lot of different things to a lot of different listeners. To the '70s American mainstream, the Düsseldorf electronic music pioneers were a novelty group responsible for the unlikely Beach Boys-meets-"Tubular Bells" hit "Autobahn." To David Bowie around the same time, they were a signpost pointing upwards on rock 'n' roll's evolutionary ladder (they eventually turned down his request to back him on his 1977 album Low, which didn't stop Bowie from borrowing their sonic pallet). Later in the decade, on albums Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine, Kraftwerk provided at least part of the templates upon which many splintered genres were founded: hip-hop, synth-pop, electro, industrial, goth-rock, and ambient. And last week, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they were deemed worthy of a nomination on this year's ballot.
To me, a '90s kid bored by grunge's diminished returns, Kraftwerk were a seductive puzzle. I was drawn to their miraculous ability to sound, at once, futuristic and out of time. That Radio-Activity is an album made in 1975 and not 1985 still astonishes me.
Fifteen years have passed since I first put a needle to a pre-abused copy of Trans-Europe Express. As my awe has faded, I've developed another unconditional response to their records: Kraftwerk make me laugh. They make me laugh hard. Among the many different things they've been for different listeners, I can now finally say what they've become for me: they are the most profoundly witty pop group I know.
It's not like Kraftwerk have kept their sense of humor a secret. For over half the band's life, they've indulged in the wry habit of sending mannequins and robots out to do their publicity. They've played other pranks, too. Their favorite targets are often unsuspecting journalists or documentary film crews fooled into thinking the band has provided a scoop on such works-in-progress as, say, "jackets with electronic lapels that can be played by touch," as they told the BBC's Tomorrow's World program in 1975 (the group have always been expert self-parodists).
Kraftwerk's puckish side is usually interpreted as comic relief -- fun little gestures meant to lighten the mood between their committed excursions into austerity. But lightness isn't really a Kraftwerk-ian trait. So I've come to believe these publicity stunts aren't so much shots of levity as they are careful distillations of the comedic impulse their records have alerted me to more and more through return listens.
Their wit is often microchip-dense with information. But if I had to single out the most relatable joke in all of Kraftwerk's discography, I'd probably go with the song that concludes the first side of 1977's Trans-Europe Express, "Showroom Dummies." The track begins with the most blatant on-record gag the band ever pulled, an affectless and unnecessary German-language count-in -- ein, zwei, drei, vier -- said to have been a nod to the Ramones, whose debut album came out around the time Kraftwerk recorded the song.
But the record's real wit is embedded in the way its lyrics and arrangement work at cross-purposes. The music is seductively mechanik -- pointillist disco, you might call it: Moroder painted by Seurat. "Showroom Dummies" is not only of the burgeoning Euro-disco moment in which it was written, it's a superior example of the species. Yet, the lyrics tell the story of a pair of department store mannequins who, after hours, break out and head to a disco, where it seems they blend in unnoticed among the other (one assumes "human") club-goers.
In one incredible pop song, between the Ramones homage and the Ballardian discotheque, Kraftwerk lay bare the pretentions propping up 1977, that famously heady year for music that exploded around Trans-Europe Express's arrival in shops. Yet, it's not right to say, in "Showroom Dummies," Kraftwerk skewer or satirize the scenes surrounding them. It's a deeply ironic humor. Like an Oscar Wilde witticism, "Showroom Dummies" works by giving us two opposing though equally weighted perspectives in one swoop.
If the totality of the group's wit isn't as apparent in any one joke as, say, "Weird" Al's, DJ Prince Paul's, or even Sparks is, that's because it isn't expressed through the means other music artists typically use. They don't deal much in parody. And outside the punning title of their album and song Radio-Activity or the linguistic primer on the word "robotnik" they offer in 1978's "The Robots" (revealing both its socialist and sadomasochist undercurrents), they don't do word-play either.
So is comedy really the right word to classify what Kraftwerk's brand of ambiguity? I believe so. Kraftwerk's humor is the closest example I know in pop music to what literary critic James Wood, in his 2004 book The Irresponsible Self, called "secular comedy." In contrast to what Wood terms "religious comedy" (the stuff of satire, farce, and most show-biz forms of comedy), secular comedy doesn't seek to judge; it doesn't aim to correct; if it has any aims, it's often a striving toward the broadest view, toward empathy if its in reach (Wood uses "tragi-comic" almost interchangeably in this regard); and its best exemplars tend not to even frame their work as "comedy," per se.
Like many of the novels Wood analyzes in his book, Kraftwerk's is an immersive type of comedy. And it's probably because I've become a more experienced and better reader of fiction over the years that I'm now able to discern Kraftwerk's mirth from its surface chill. Each year or two, as I cycle back toward their music for another listen, I've taken their entire discography on as if I were revisiting a long and cherished book. And what I found recently upon re-entering their airtight world was a mode of humor distinctly novelistic in that it's constructed around a few of the conditions that make the real world problematic for us. Throughout Kraftwerk oeuvre, this force is the constant push-pull between futurism and nostalgia. And for all the sci-fi iconography Kraftwerk peddle in their lyrics and album art, there isn't a square inch of vinyl they leave untouched by the tragi-absurdity of time, especially lost time.
This isn't the sort of comedy that craves a theater or studio audience: the Dionysian comedy of stand-up, improv, sit-coms, and sketch shows. Instead, it's slow comedy requiring space and solitude and finally time to blossom its most profound meaning, like a haiku, an aphorism, or a Duchampian gesture. This is comedy you grow into: the laughter of not-knowing. And anymore, it's the only kind of comedy my imagination hungers for, as I begin to feel very far removed from the undaunted teenager who used to stand with his mouth agape, watching the Capitol Records logo spin and spin around his turntable as Trans-Europe Express blared from third-hand speakers, next to a stack of books about Andy Kaufman.
Huh. I guess sometimes we're not as far removed from our past as we think. For better or worse.