Perhaps the biggest theme rumbling around in our cultural subconscious over the past 30 years or so is the anxiety over humanity’s confrontation with increasingly intelligent and powerful machines. Could the machines really take over, making people obsolete, or worse yet, slaves?
Naturally, such anxieties have been dealt with most directly in the arts, and some of the most poignant sentiments on the subject have been expressed in song--and some of the silliest (see No. 5). Anyway, we’ve attempted to bring together the most memorable songs about computers.
Some really good music is here, and a few laughs, so if you want to listen to the original recordings, use this Grooveshark playlist: Songs about Computers.
We begin, of course, with HAL 9000.
1. Daisy -- HAL 9000, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
To show off HAL’s human-like sensibilities, the people at IBM taught him to sing a little song. This seems cute at the beginning of Act II in the movie, but takes on a chilling effect when HAL reprises the song as he’s being terminated later in the film. “Dave, I’m afraid.”
2. Pocket Calculator -- Kraftwerk
Kraftwerk, the German pioneers of today’s electronic music genre, were clearly commenting in their music about the coming machine age. The group wrote numerous songs about computers, and humankind’s relationship with them. One of the best ones, and probably the most popular, is “Pocket Calculator” from the 1981 record “Computer World.”
3. Gary Numan -- Metal
Gary Numan was really the first artist to bring electronic music to the charts with his 1979 hit “Cars.” But it’s the B-side of the “Cars” single that has grown on me over the years. Written from the perspective of a newly born computer, the song explores the moment in history when the machine has grown just smart enough to realize it’s just a machine, and can never be like the human being in whose image it was created.
“We're in the building where they make us grow, and I'm frightened by the liquid engineers, like you...the sound of metal, I want to be you, I could learn to be a man, like you.”
4. Jed the Humanoid -- Grandaddy
The Modesto, California, group Grandaddy has a very different take on machines. In Grandaddy’s world, the machines are often benevolent and fallible, even lovable, as in this number about the sad demise of a homemade bot.
“JED-E3 is what we first called him / Then it was "Jed," / But Jed's system's dead. / Therefore, so's Jed,” and a little later in the song: “Jed could run or walk, / sing or talk, and compile thoughts, / and solve lots of problems. / We learned so much from him.”
5. Styx -- Mr. Roboto
The first thing you ask about this video by Styx is, “What were they thinking?” But you learn to love this song and video somehow, and it’s probably the best-known song from the eighties about a robot. “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.” Here it is in all its splendor, Mr. Roboto, from the 1983 concept album “Kilroy was Here.”
6. Paranoid Android – Radiohead
Naturally, the androids in Thom York’s world feel sad, alienated, and resentful toward humans. In fact, the android protagonist in this song even denies he’s an android, à la Rachael in Blade Runner. "I may be paranoid, but I'm no android." Alienation--human or synthetic--is Radiohead’s lyrical sweet spot, and nobody does it better. “Paranoid Android” is the second song on the band’s 1997 breakthrough hit record “OK Computer,” and a high point of their live set.
7. Plug Me In -- Add N to (X)
The British synth trio’s entry here explores--I think--the sexual side of our relationship with the machines. Judging by the official video for the song, which is strictly NSFW, I’m pretty sure of it. “I’ve got two machines / I just plug them in. / They are my best friends.” Later a female voice, presumably that of one of the narrator’s “friends,” comes in and exclaims: “I just want to feel.” Great song.
8. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots -- The Flaming Lips
From the LP of the same name, the Flaming Lips roll out a fun, cartoonized version of the man vs. evil robot story. “Those evil-natured robots, they're programmed to destroy us!”
9. Blockhead -- Devo
This early Devo song is, surprisingly, the only one I could find that deals with artificial intelligence head-on. Not surprisingly, Devo’s android isn’t much more than a man-made mutant. “Cube top, squared off / Eight corners, 90-degree angles / Flat top, stares straight ahead / Stock parts, blockhead . . .” Then again, Blockhead could be about a modern man reduced to a sharply defined role on an assembly line. Either way, it’s a great song.
10. Computer Love -- Kraftwerk
Kraftwerk easily earns a second spot on this list with perhaps the most beautiful pop song recorded with analog synthesizers. As a side note, the song is about a lonely guy on a lonely night trying to make a real human connection using his personal computer.
Surely we've left some good ones out. What are your favorite songs about computers?