On Mac′s birthday, reviewing computers in song | Music | DW | 22.01.2014
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Music

On Mac's birthday, reviewing computers in song

Launched on January 24, 1984, the Macintosh changed consumers' relationship with computers forever by rendering them sleek and practical. Meanwhile, songwriters have been both enchanted and repelled by computation.

These days, it's difficult to imagine a time when people didn't have computers in their homes. Electronic brains were once just the stuff of science fiction - existing in real life only as multi-million dollar giants that filled entire rooms.

The origins of the computer can be traced back to the mid-1800s when British mathematician Charles Babbage devised the difference engine, a hefty mechanical calculator that was too complex to be built. Logician Alan Turing described the principles of the modern computer in 1936, and his concepts influenced the design of the first digital electronic programmable computer, the top-secret Colossus, in 1943.

While the idea of a personal home computer can be traced back to the 1960s, the first-generation Apple Macintosh from 1984 introduced standards to the mass market that exist to this day: a sleek, compact design, a desktop-based interface inspired by a real office and a mouse.

But how have computers, machines and artificial intelligence inspired musicians? Initially, songwriters inspired by science-fiction themes tended to look towards the stars, penning songs influenced by the space race and the moon landings. As computers began to play an increasingly dominant role in society, though, pop singers latched on.

An 1990 Macintosh Classic

The early Macintosh was a style icon

Fascination and fear

One of the earliest mentions of computers - and their potential threats - can be traced back to the 1960s. On their hit "In the Year 2525," US duo Zager and Evans predict a dystopia due to human dependency on technology.

"Your arms hangin' limp at your sides / Your legs got nothin' to do / Some machine's doin' that for you," were among their lyrics that struck a chord with the 1969 counter-culture movement.

One year earlier, French singer France Gall offered a very different take on electronic intelligence. Her 1968 German-language single "Computer Nr. 3" tells the story of a computer's ability to speedily process data to find Gall the perfect partner.

"Computer Nr. 3 looks for the perfect boy for me, and love is guaranteed," she sings, predicting the proliferation of online dating sites by some 30 years.

But is there a band more closely linked to all things tech than Kraftwerk? The Düsseldorf four-piece experimented with electronic sounds from their earliest releases, and their obsession with artificial intelligence peaked with 1981's "Computer World." Regarded by many as their creative pinnacle, the album - which featured tracks such as "Computer Love" and "Pocket Calculator" - deals with themes surrounding the rise of computers within society. It can be interpreted as both a celebration and a warning on our dependence on technology.

Kraftwerk on stage

The ultimate computer band, Kraftwerk

Words of warning

1977 saw British progressive rock band The Alan Parsons Project release the concept album "I Robot." Inspired by Isaac Asimov’s "Robot" trilogy, the record took a philosophical look at artificial intelligence. The liner notes caution: "The story of the rise of the machine and the decline of man... a warning that his brief dominance of this planet will probably end because man tried to create robot in his own image."

Canadian musician Neil Young is arguably best known for his distinctive brand of falsetto melancholia, as typified by his classic 1970 LP, "After the Gold Rush." With 1982's "Trans," he baffled fans and critics by working with electronic gadgets like the Synclavier and vocoder and introducing vocal effects and computer sequencing. The album featured the track "Computer Age," which considered a society rendered homogeneous and anonymous by technology.

British musician Gary Numan first hit big in 1979 with his third album, "The Pleasure Principle," its success due primarily to its homage to isolation, "Cars." The album also featured the track "Metal," a science fiction song inspired by the works of Philip K. Dick telling the story of an android's futile wish to be human: "Here inside I'm like metal / Aren't you? / All I know is no one dies / I'm still confusing love with need."

The 1984 science fiction romantic comedy "Electric Dreams" tells the story of a love triangle between a man, a woman and a computer. This bizarre relationship was summed up in the movie's title track, a collaboration between producer Giorgio Moroder and Human League frontman Phil Oakey, on the smash "Together in Electric Dreams."

Two silhouettes holding computers against a blue and white background

Man and machine: an unhealthy relationship?

Unhealthy relationships?

British musician Kate Bush explored unhealthy attachments to machines on her 2011 track, "Deeper Understanding." The story details the increasingly intense relationship between a lonely person and a computer. Bush said in an interview: "This is about the modern situation where more and more people are having less contact with human beings. We spend all day with machines; all night with machines. People really build up heavy relationships with their computers!"

And the list of musicians inspired to write music based on the dominant role computers play in today’s society goes on. Everyone from Röyksopp to Prince, Datarock to Daft Punk have taken a stab at both celebrating and denouncing our relationship with computers. What started life as a cumbersome calculator in the 19th century, is sure to fire the imagination of musicians long into the future.

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