Men and Machines: How Kraftwerk’s Robotic Minimalism Redefined Masculinity in Popular Music
With their pioneering blend of electronic instrumentation, repetitive beats and simple yet effective hooks, Kraftwerk defied all expectations as a totally electronic German band that became a worldwide phenomenon in the mid 1970’s. However, Kraftwerk not only rewrote the rulebook on what pop music could be, but also defied the tired hyper-masculine rock clichés of the 70’s — and redefined what it meant to be a man in pop.
Before Kraftwerk broke through to mainstream critical acclaim in 1974 with their seminal track Autobahn, the perception of electronic music in the public consciousness could not be more different from what it is today. Electronic music existed only on the fringes of popular culture, either as novelty records (Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’, 1972), cinematic scores, or the foil of avant-garde composers and installation artists. For electronic music to have become the staple genre and approach to pop consistently over the past 40 years is in itself a testament to the influence of Kraftwerk. When Kraftwerk first arrived on British television in 1974, they appeared not on Top of the Pops, but on Tomorrows World, presented as charming if slightly ridiculous eccentrics. Within a decade, they were hailed as pioneers and inspirations by artists as varied as David Bowie, Giorgio Moroder, John Lydon and Afrika Bambaattaa, as well as pretty much every electropop and New Romantic British act from 1977 and beyond. As such, they are foundational figures in various genres, their musical DNA weaved throughout electronic pop, dance, funk, hip-hop, techno, house, post-punk, industrial and many more besides. Simply put, Kraftwerk exist in a higher pantheon of artists, the extent of their influence almost totally unrivalled. But it is not only their approach to music that made them so unique, or their style so influential. I would argue that Kraftwerk’s robo-pastiche unknowingly concealed a sly, ironic dig at traditional masculine stereotypes in rock — and by extension, challenged both the fraught political climate in West Germany at the time, and started more than one cultural revolution.
The Germany Kraftwerk formed in was characterised by an air of unease. Kraftwerk, like all of their ‘Krautrock’ peers, were members of the first post-war generation in Germany, and were the first generation to tackle their countries chequered history head on. West Germany was left destitute after the war — a mere 20% of the country’s urban landscapes were left — unscathed — a financial and political malaise only alleviated via the intervention of the US. With the aid of various trading and industrial bonds set up in the 1950’s between West Germany and the US, the country managed to achieve an unprecedented economic revival, so much so that there was no immediate pressure to address the events between 1933 and 1945. The German government’s decision to define Nazism as the inherent flaw in a select few, rather than a general sociological phenomena that engulfed near the entire population, resulted in many war time Nazi sympathisers retaining positions of power in many German institutions, including government, higher education and business. There was a cultural shift towards championing Germanic cultural traditions, whilst the Americanisation of the state concurrently introduced American media. This dual effect resulted in a cultural stagnation across Germany. The elder generation — those who were complicit and therefore hoping to forget their role in Nazi rule- favoured traditional forms of German music such as Schlager. Schlager, a genre based in traditional Germanic folk music, was wilfully anti-zeitgeist, and unintentionally kitsch. It was also, more worryingly, directly linked to Nazi-ism, as many of its biggest stars covered traditional German folk songs also evoked by the Nazis to convey some sort of national pride. Conversely, the German youth, in an attempt to push back against the actions of their parents, favoured American rock and roll such as Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Zappa, failing as a result to ignite any new sense of Germanic pride by neglecting German talent, and inadvertently supporting an economy directly complicit in helping their country supress its past. By the late 1960’s, tensions between the country’s youth and its elders reached boiling point, with acts of terror from either end of the political spectrum occurring in most major German cities, cultivating an atmosphere of tension and hostility. It was time for a new German wave, a need to create something ostensibly German (read anti- American), yet also totally dissociated from Germany’s past so that the country could begin to progress. It was in this environment of crushing social and political pressure that Kraftwerk was formed.
If Kraftwerk have received one continuous criticism over their 50 year career, it is that they have always remained coldly impassive, staunchly apolitical. This is a gross misunderstanding of their mission statement. They, like other experimental German bands of the time such as Can and Neu!, where not outright in their politics, but were more quietly subversive in their image and their chosen style. An element of Kraftwerk’s idiosyncratic style that is often overlooked is their use of wry, dry as a bone humour, subtly inferring their self-awareness. It is easy now to see Kraftwerk’s robotic, clinical appearance and style as totally Germanic — it is possible that this cultural stereotype largely exists because of Kraftwerk’s entry into the zeitgeist — but their image was at odds with the prevailing standards of rock music of the time. And if Schlager and ‘American Rock’ had anything in common, it was the central role of male posturing in either genre, the regressive standards of masculinity that both genres championed in their own ways. This was to be somewhat expected of Schlager, being a genre steeped in tradition, but it was even more apparent, and exponentially more disappointing, in rock music. Even the more socially conscious acts of the era, like Frank Zappa, were not immune to this. Hair was to be long and abundant (especially on the chest), guitars were to be slung low to be held at crotch level, and songs (when not concerned with politics or getting high) were concerned with the most stereotypically masculine topics — women, sex, cars and violence.
As children of the post-war generation, and as scholars of art, Kraftwerk were completely aware of this regressive approach to music. And once one opens themselves up to Kraftwerk’s sly sense of humour, every facet of their style becomes a rebuttal of the early 70’s rock star. Whilst stars like Jimmy Page and Genesis made objects out of people (mostly, if not entirely, women), Kraftwerk were inverting the system by personifying objects. Kraftwerk were equally enthralled by the imagery of the car, but whereas other rock stars use automobiles as stand in symbols of masculinity and virility, Kraftwerk were interested in highlighting the beauty of the machine itself, without any underhanded references to sex or animalistic pleasure. This is of course highlighted best in their breakthrough smash Autobahn (1974). Coming in at just over 22 minutes, this behemoth of proto-electronic pop is less of a song than a sensory experience, detailing a drive down an autobahn (motorway) leading out of Berlin through electronic sound manipulation that far predates sampling. The songs deceptively simple composition (a trademark of the Kraftwerk sound) belies a wealth of social commentary that highlights Kraftwerk’s sly subversion. Evoking both American popular music (the refrain ‘Wie fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn’ is supposedly ripped in part from a Beach Boys track, though members of the band refute this) and German industrial accomplishments (the building of the autobahns was completed during Nazi rule, a constant reminder of their presence in German development), Kraftwerk undermined both the mythos of their own country and the influence of American rock by paring it down to its bare bones. Kraftwerk even sang about women, on 1977’s The Model — but even here the feign attempt at evoking the male gaze (She’s a model and she’s looking good/I’d like to take her home, that’s understood) is undermined by the bluntly cold delivery of the lyrics, and the metallic, de-sexualised repetition of the music.
Kraftwerk’s lyrical preoccupations with the inanimate — nuclear energy, trains, calculators — was matched by a public image that to blurred the line between object and being. When Autobahn arrived in 1974, Kraftwerk had not yet adapted the robotic personae that they are now known for. In their initial TV appearances, they even smile. But even this earlier incarnation of the band represented a complete visual caesura from male rock stars of the day. Early Youtube footage proves that the earliest incarnation of the band — including both founding member Florian Schneider, and only remaining member Ralf Hutter — did sport the long haired, open shirt aesthetic of the time. By 1974, the hair was clipped and slicked back, their faces clean shaven, and every inch of flesh below the neck covered. Even without their robot schtick, Kraftwerk presented themselves as almost genderless by the standards of early 1970’s rock. British listeners, accustomed to the glitter and velvet glam of David Bowie and Roxy Music, as well as the hirsute gruffness of Prog and metal, would have been unnerved by a band who disregarded any sort of assertive gender identity that was either masculine or feminine. It was this that led to an uneasy British press referring to them as ‘robotic’, unable to comprehend a band who utilized no gender signifiers whatsoever. Over the coming years, Kraftwerk played into this trope, highlighted best on their 1977 classic The Man Machine, and especially its opening the track The Robots. Coupled with its promotional video, the song is a blatant parody of not only their public image but of rock stars in general. Sung through a heavy vocoder effect, the song’s lyrics (We are programmed just to do/Anything you want us to/We are the robots), together with band’s almost complete immobility, are a million miles away from the impassioned wails or overblown posturing of their rock star contemporaries. It is important to note that Kraftwerk’s subversion of masculine tropes does not equate with evoking femininity like the stars of glam rock — though one could argue that their power lay in combining feminine appearances with a musical style similar in its posturing to any other heavy rock band of the day — but by removing the notions of gender performance entirely. It is in this regard that the band’s image made a complete departure from traditionally image conscious rock stars of the past. Kraftwerk not only neglected to present or perform as masculine, but presented as entirely de-sexed.
All of these elements are united in their infamous musical style, which transforms their image and lyrical themes from parody into a holistic manifesto. Kraftwerk’s influence over electronic music, as aforementioned, is almost unfathomable, but electronics were not only revolutionary for their auditory properties. Every element of the Kraftwerk sound — incessant repetition, ingenious simplicity — corrupted the conventions of rock, which served wholly to accentuate the masculinity and virtuosity of its stars. The use of synthesizers is most significant — the role of the guitar in rock as a phallic symbol was long established (recall Bowie performing ‘fellatio’ on Mick Ronson’s guitar — even with its homoerotic undertones, the guitar remains a symbol of masculine virility). Guitars, worn low over the crotch and played by sliding ones hands up and down in an act of egotistic masturbation, also required their performers to be proficiently trained. The bloated, overblown guitar solo was the calling card of progressive rock, and with it the central role of male posturing. Kraftwerk did not dance, but it is hard to see how they could behind such unwieldy pieces of machinery. Their use of repetition also removed the opportunity for showmanship. It is telling that in their homeland of Germany, Kraftwerk were often dismissed by the German press as proliferating ‘disco’ music, something too far removed from rock n’ roll. Given disco’s intrinsic relationship with both black and queer audiences, it is clear what the press may have been insinuating with this comparison. They established electronic music as a genre separate from rock not only in composition, but in its intended audience. Ironically, given Kraftwerk’s propensity for absolute immobility, they highlighted that electronic music, pared down to its pure basics, was fabulous for dancing. The influence of this decision, and what it may mean for any musician who is not a heterosexual white male, is staggering. Giorgio Moroder directly references Kraftwerk’s pulsating electronic minimalism on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, and in doing so created not only an enduring queer anthem, but also opened the floodgates for electronic music to adopt more emotion than Kraftwerk’s approach could allow. Punk may have provided a space for women to find recognition for their own material, and disco may have spoken to gay men more than any musical genre before it, but electropop was the first genre to see real success with self-penned material from both parties , after years of being excluded from chauvinistic male rock spaces. Early electronica is most revered for its commitment to bending gender norms, with many of its earliest male stars — Gary Numan, Phil Oakey, Marc Almond and David Sylvian — adapting public personae that dabbled in gender bending to various degrees. And elements of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express and Computer Love where sampled heavily on Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa, one of the earliest electro-funk and hip-hop records. What all these artists shared in common was a recognition of the open accessibility of electronic music — much like punk, by removing the need for technical proficiency, those who had been previously excluded from popular music suddenly had a means of expressing their vision. Power could be found in minimalism, simplicity, not only in the wild histrionics found in the shredding guitar solos and production wizardry typical of prog. And not only did these bands inherit Kraftwerk’s disregard for rock tropes in their musical style, but also in their image.
Someone with a passing interest in Kraftwerk, or perhaps even some of their biggest fans, would perhaps scoff at the concept of evaluating the bands output through a gender and sexuality politics framework. I would agree that specific ideas of gender identity and performance were unlikely to be on Kraftwerk’s radar. Some critics have suggested some homoerotic undertones to their work — the phallic images of the train on Trans Europe Express, or the songs Pocket Calculator and Tour De France, which opens with the sounds of heavy male breathing. This would, if anything, be proof of their wry sense of humour, so subtle that it is often missed or misinterpreted. Their vision was more concerned with deconstructing public perceptions of both German people and German culture, rather than notions of gender. However, it is for this reason why Kraftwerk highlight the importance of an intersectional analysis, especially with regards to explorations of gender and sexuality. Kraftwerk’s work was primarily a rebuttal of American rock, yes, but in their doing so highlighted how central regressive ideas of masculine virility were (and are) in pop music. When it is removed, the result is something alien, and unprecedented, fresh and exciting. It is in how their electronic torch was carried by their successors that one can see the monumental addition Kraftwerk made in reducing the presence of toxic masculinity in pop and allowed men to explore alternative styles and approaches. It is not surprising that their earliest British champions — David Bowie and Brian Eno — were also artists coyly playing on the fringes of the experimental, in both music and appearance, whilst still operating in the realm of pop. Kraftwerk, perhaps more than any other band, can claim to have intrinsically altered the very DNA of popular music. It is time that their social and political contributions to our culture receive similar attention.