Kraftwerk’s The Robots has been an electro-pop classic ever since its release–on Kraftwerk’s classic seventh album, The Man-Machine—in 1978. My brother and I discovered Kraftwerk at roughly the same time, and, like many other schoolboys, quickly became entranced by its revolutionary blend of synthesizers, vocoders, and electronic percussion. Some thirty years on, I still get a kick out of strapping on the earphones for The Robots (and turning up the volume to eleven); I don’t dance to it but the temptation never quite goes away. (I’ve only seen The Robots performed live once, when I saw Kraftwerk at Sydney’s Enmore Theater in January 2003.)
Besides triggering the urge to flop around in slightly demented fashion, there are two juvenile fantasies of mine that The Robots gives comfort and succor to: One, as as part of a grand book tour for A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, I would make a presentation centered on the book that would feature The Robots playing in the background as I walked on stage (I don’t need smoke machines or lasers). And, wouldn’t it pretty nifty if I could get an e-book version that would play The Robots when the book file was first opened? Trust me, I spend time thinking about this stuff.
(In the summer of 2006, I played The Robots for Brooklyn high-school students at the conclusion of a summer ‘camp’ that had introduced them to, among other things, robotics and cryptography. I had taught the cryptography track but thought the young folks that had worked on robotics kits would appreciate both the track and the fact that computers and music were connected in ways other than downloading. I’m not sure it went down all that well; most of the students in attendance found the sound perplexing, so at least for that generation, or that demographic, the track had not aged well nor come across as relevant.)
There are many good versions of The Robots out there; this soundboard-recording from a Birmingham (UK) concert on 15 July 1991, from the Dynamo Deutschland CDs is particularly good. The Russian lines “Я твой слуга” (Ya tvoi sluga, I’m your servant) and “Я твой работник” (Ya tvoi rabotnik, I’m your worker) come across particularly clearly; the lyrics in this live version are also slightly, interestingly, different from the standard lyrics. (Since this is a soundboard recording there are also some irritating sections where concert-goers can be heard talking!)
The most memorable part of this live track are the sing-along chants, between 1:55 and 2:15, for the chorus “We are the Robots”. In performing the sing-along so vigorously, the Birmingham concert-goers perhaps make two kinds of statements: one, an acknowledgement, in this hyper-corporatized and industrialized age, of the enduring relevance of the two lines in Russian quoted above; and second, a vocalized bridging of the gap between the robots and themselves, perhaps even a joining of communities. The former is appropriately disturbing, but the latter at least can be optimistically read as a denial of difference. (As I often sought to remind my interlocutors during the recent online symposium on my book, we are often more like robots than we might imagine.)