The idea of the mechanical man has captivated human imagination for as long as the first cornerstones of civilization were set. Toiling in turnip fields from dawn to dusk and hoisting gallons of water in clay pots back to the village from the river two miles away may have had a big part in this.
One might just imagine a Stone Age Lucy Ricardo pausing in the heat of a cruel, red sun as she rests her cotton basket on the cracked mud at her feet. Leaning wearily toward a stone age Ethel Mertz, she sighs and says: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could create some unthinking, unfeeling, and totally obedient creature that could do all of this backbreaking work for us while we go gallivanting off to Palmyra for the weekend?” (An effort to do just this would result in some serious ‘splainin’ to do by the episode’s end. In the interim, hilarity would ensue.)
Of course, enslaving fellow human beings from other villages was still a perfectly acceptable way to avoid getting one’s own hands dirty until fairly recently, so the notion of building artificial people to help around the house didn’t really catch on until the Industrial Revolution.
Sure, antiquity had its stories about golems, homonculi, and anthroparions. Even the stitched-together monster from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein could be counted as a foray into the speculation of what might happen if artificial people could be created. It should be noted that most of these are cautionary tales; I don’t think that most religions have ever been down with the idea of man trying to play the role of God, and those questioning the ultimate authority in such matters have been dealt some pretty severe consequences for their trouble. And while posthumous apologies made centuries later by the offending organization are of fairly cold comfort to the deceased, every now and again some guy (invariably wearing a big hat) at the head of such an organization will stoop to bravely declare: “Oops, our bad.” So even if you have a more than passing belief in science, there’s now a better chance than ever that you won’t be tortured and/or beheaded by your faith of choice. Just because you believe in Adam and Eve doesn’t mean that you can’t also believe in (and strive for) a world where, as C.S. Lewis would say, the “sons of Adam” and the “daughters of Eve” cohabit with robots.
And if you love the idea of robots, then you must have a favorite song or two that celebrates (or warns against) them. Here are my top 10 songs about robots. You’ll know that this was written by a human being because it’s in no particular order; robots can’t stand disorder!
Arling & Cameron brought forth this 2001 ditty from the neon-drenched streets of what I imagine to be the well-populated, non-windmilly parts of the Netherlands. As an alternative, there’s a more recent version of this song as covered by the Lemonheads that features Kate Moss if undead supermodels scare you less than Dutch people.
“No, I don’t care for your metal looks… I don’t care for your bleeps and bloops…”
Who’s sorry now? Those flesh and blood boys who toyed with Connie Francis before she wised up to their sneaky, snaky ways. Now, she only dates robots. Seems like a safe and totally sane way to solve a problem commonly presented by romantic human interaction.
“He’d never dance with anyone but me… I’d just have to wind him with a robot key…”
If you were a North American who didn’t learn how to say “thank you very much” in Japanese by the spring of ’83 because of this song, you weren’t paying attention. In a future where rock and roll music is outlawed, a rebellious Dennis DeYoung has got a secret (secret — he’s got a secret). He can give robots unbearable headaches just by getting really close to their faces and howling at them like a lady. (Humans, too, it turns out.) It’s endearingly cornball in the way that only a rock opera can be.
“The problem’s plain to see: too much technology… Machines to save our lives. Machines dehumanize…”
The aloof, Cold War aesthetic of Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk perfectly complements the music of a band that, beginning in 1970, was oodles ahead of its time in laying the groundwork for pretty much all electronic music that followed. And “work” is the appropriate word, as the members of Kraftwerk are famous for hiding away from the outside world during the time it takes to attack a musical project to their satisfaction. They even use robots in place of themselves during live performances. So whether you’re hearing “Wir sind Die Roboter” or “we are the robots,” your disbelief doesn’t have to travel too far down the Autobahn to be suspended. Now’s the time on Sprockets when we dance!
“We’re charging our batteries. And now we’re full of energy… We are the robots. We are the robots…”
In Isaac Asimov’s approximately eight zillion (he was prolific) science fiction stories about robots, there were three laws by which all robots were bound:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Servotron, a band of killer robots intent on the destruction of humanity, decided to flip Mr. Asimov the bird (a shiny, metallic bird, one might assume) and imagine a world where such a contract could be shredded along with the remnants of the tiresome human race. They’re not nice.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an actual picture or read Isaac Asimov’s biography, but he has massive amounts of hair growing out of his ears. It is a very unattractive sight and that was the reason why we had to kill him.”
Not only was Isaac Asimov prolific in writing science fiction when he was alive, but he’s been successful in appearing on this list of top ten songs about robots twice — not bad for a fellow who’s been lain to perpetual rest since 1992. Appropriately enough, Ben Weasel may just be the Isaac Asimov of punk rock with 19+ albums released as a solo act and with various bands (most notably Screeching Weasel). Is he American? Is he a Gilligan? No, he’s not human, according to this song — named after an Isaac Asimov collection of robot stories from the ’50s.
“I am a robot. I never have a doubt… I live inside a circle and I can’t get out…”
These blokes from Sunderland betray sentiments far more human than robot, and they may awaken the same feelings in you if you’re ever in doubt of your own allegiances. If all goes well, this band may have a lifespan of “nigh on hundred years.”
“I’m programmed to follow you; do exactly as you do… Now my nervous system’s blue; I feel fine…”
Comic book artist, writer, and musician James Kochalka finds a lot of ways to occupy his time. One of them seems to involve wondering what it would be like if Monkey could ever settle his problems with Robot — or if such a thing is even possible. For now, it seems like they may fight eternally. Sigh.
“Monkey mate in the jungle. Robot replicate in factory… They both love their mother. Why must they hate each other?”
Servotron (see above) would not care for the implications of this song one little bit. A future where “robots obey what the children say” would probably be the worst kind of Hell imaginable — for robots and humans. It would be like that episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone’s afraid of the kid who can change reality with his very will (as I remember, it didn’t end well for anybody). You know even the most benevolent of children would occasionally be unable to resist the urge to have their robot knock down a building or crush a city bus every now and again. It’s just what kids (with giant robots to obey their every whim) do.
“There’s electric cars. There’s electric trains… Here comes a robot with electric brains…”
Dan Mangan’s a Canadian who crosses more borders than James Bond on a bender — not because he’s a spy or even a criminal, but he’s a very hard-working musician who likes to tour a lot (which qualifies him as spy and a criminal in some circles, I suppose). The video is really what sells this to me as a true robot song. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.
“Tried to be the robot king and settled for a robot boy… Ring the bells that still can ring and sing your stupid head off to the ones who are not listening…”
This could easily be a top 20 list about robots (it would have been a top 11 if I could have found a recording of that blasted Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song). Ah, well. What are your favorite songs about our shiny metal friends (and foes)?