Jack's blog

Why are pop singers so hostile to technology?

Dad is still on a high from OMD's 30th anniversary gig last week (OMD = Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Top 1980s pop act, made synthesisers accessible, transformed music for all time, blah blah blah).

Dad's been going on about them for weeks. "A real thinking man's band. Never wrote about slush. Songs called 'Electricity'! And 'Radio Waves'! It's about technology. How man can transform the world."

I rolled my eyes.

"What does your band sing about then?" he asked, a bit aggressively.

I hate it when people ask this question. I can never properly answer it without feeling pathetic. I'm like: "Well, uh, girls, and, erm, how life sucks and, uh, feelings and, like, the system, I guess." D'oh!

Surprisingly, Dad didn't laugh - he just looked sad. "Pop's a funny thing," he began. "It's so simple, so powerful and yet all they want to sing about is rubbish."

"Oh, come on, Dad," I said. "What about all the songs about cars and bikes and riding on the motorway? What about Springsteen?"

Springsteen is a god in our house, so we looked up the lyrics on the album sleeves. And he just can't keep on message. One moment he's talking about racing in the street - "I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor", I could feel Dad literally twitching beside me - then he's on about his baby crying and how life is rubbish. Poor Dad. It's like a priest reading Richard Dawkins and realising he was wrong all along.

I said he shouldn't give up yet and we went into his record collection. Vinyl! I'm not kidding!

And what we found was that pop musicians mostly hate cars. And transport. Which is ironic, because without tour buses they wouldn't be able to do gigs and gigs are what sells albums. But they all sing about being stuck in cars in the rain (Del Amitri) or on the Greyhound bus (Simon & Garfunkel).

Anyway, top three lyrics where the internal combustion engine has betrayed us:

"Crawling from the wreckage, crawling from the wreckage, into a brand new car" (Dave Edmunds).

"And if a double decker bus crashes into us..." (The Smiths).

"Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out! (Crasssshhhhhh)" (Shangri Las).

There's more, but we were on a roll now. We honestly couldn't find one song where musicians actually like technology. Everything's always a disaster ("Ground Control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there's something wrong, can you hear me Major Tom?")

We did come up with the 'Wichita Lineman' ("I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road") by Glen Campbell. "See," said Dad, "that's a proper job. An engineering technician's job. There should be more like that."

"But when do pop bands sing about jobs, Dad? They know sweet FA about doing a proper job," I said.

Even the saintly OMD don't exactly celebrate our technical world: after all, they might sing about Enola Gay but that was hardly technology's finest hour. And 'Tesla Girls' has electric chairs along with the dynamos. Although Dad will forgive anyone who uses the sacred name of Tesla in a song and get it to the top of the charts. I also got the speech about technology being morally neutral, it's just the way man chooses to use it.

We had a break for tea and toasted sandwiches and ignored the tweeks' suggestion of 'Bob the Builder' (although, with lyrics that read "digging and fixing, having so much fun, working together, they get the job done", it's not a bad idea).

 "Aha!" we thought. "Radiohead! They call their albums names like 'OK Computer'!" Honest to god, it was the same thing. They like playing with technology - they use ZX Spectrum sounds and stuff like that - but otherwise it's all doom and gloom. Typical lyric, from 'House of Cards': "The infrastructure will collapse, voltage spikes".

"I think he really means overvoltage," says Dad, disappointed. Radiohead are wrong on so many counts: you can't tell an engineer that the infrastructure will collapse without him sniggering.

"They're all so suspicious of technology," said Dad. "And yet technology has made them what they are. What would they be without amps and mixing desks and digital recording? A bunch of acoustic folk acts. Singing about mining disasters, probably."

To cheer him up we looked up Coldplay, who have promising song titles ('Speed of Sound', 'The Scientist', etc) but their lyrics are just a bunch of feelings all strung together.

The trouble with pop songwriters is they're so vague. And I suppose engineering is so specific. Maybe they aren't meant to be together.

After hours and hours of searching, we had a small pile of Kraftwerk albums. "Now they really liked technology," said Dad. "Autobahn actually recreates the sound of the motorway. As a good thing! And look at the lyrics to 'Home Computer': "I program my home computer, beam myself into the future". Perfect. But mad as a box of snakes."

And we had this: (www.youtube.com/watch?v= 6kJD2N2gvqw [new window]). It's called 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' by New York band They Might be Giants. Apparently they love technology. This one's about a nightlight,the blue canary in the outlet by the light switch. It never rests, it watches over you, it's part of the great technology story, from electron flow to lighthouses, all at the service of mankind. It's sweet, sort of nonsensey and if I put a really heavy bass riff under it and some screaming feedback, we could do it in the band. 

Jack's blog was translated by Jane Maltby

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