It's been almost 50 years since Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider formed Kraftwerk in Dusseldorf, Germany, and it seems like the world has changed so much in that time, yet sometimes barely at all. As our technology develops at an exponential pace, we're saddled with many of the same social issues that have plagued us for centuries. The relationship between technology and society has been the central theme of Kraftwerk's music throughout their long and storied career, and the questions their music asks are more relevant now than ever.
On a musical level, the hook-happy bleep-bloop of Kraftwerk's experimentations in between pop and computer music have influenced multiple generations, in styles ranging from techno to hip-hop, and their seeming immortality suggests that they might actually be a product of the computers they've made sing for so many years rather than just their austere German masters.
Last night at the majestic Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Kraftwerk reminded us of their greatest trick: That their vision of the future was so accurate, and their their musical representation of it is as fresh as it was way back in that last, analog century.
Nestled into a crook just over the freeway from the Hollywood Hills, the Bowl leans back with 17,500 seated tickets. Mostly filled, the seated arrangement makes sense for orchestral performances, but to be experiencing dance music (even a minimalist, proto-dance music) sitting down was a novel condition. With our 3D glasses strapped on, we dove into Kraftwerk's vision of future, from the past, but performed in the present.
Sitting down to watch a show changed the way you experience it. There's less of a visceral, physical engagement, more of a studious study of a spectacle. Thankfully, with everyone in attendance decked out in 3-D glasses, Kraftwerk's glitchy retrofuturism tackled themes like data, surveillance, space travel, and uh, the Tour de France in vivid surreality.
Kraftwerk operate in a paradox that very few acts find themselves in. Their music has always been based in modernity and futurism, looking forward to what technology may be capable of in the near future. Now, in 2016, their vision is perceived as retro-futurism, but try telling that to last-remaining original member Ralf Hutter, dressed in what looked like some kind of holographic wetsuit, as he, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and Falk Grieffenhagen cherrypicked tracks from an immense catalogue of tracks––like "Man-Machine" or "The Robots––that would read as modern, futurist music even if released today.
Still, at times the set did lapse into "screensaver music," stuck somewhere in a Windows 95 purgatory of prescient and dated at once. Has any 3D experience ever actually been great? I think the answer is no. In the very, very near future, we will look back on this fad of 3D in movies (and now in musical performances) as laughably archaic, but somehow, for Kraftwerk, it made perfect sense.
Kraftwerk's vision of the future has been prescient, and it's astounding that they're still around to soundtrack the future they so accurately painted in music. In tracks like "Radioactivity," Kraftwerk's message was ominous, listing the locations of nuclear distasters around the world––Tcherynobyl, Harrisburg, Fukushima––and somehow we were all smiling and nodding, lost in the vivid glow of 3D. Perhaps that's something of a message in itself.
Either way, not bad for a bunch of old guys in wetsuits! Seeing Kraftwerk should be a rite of passage for any dance music nerd worth their salt, and their 3D experience is a deep dive into the theme of futurism in electronic music and the group's far, far, far reaching influence in the music world. There would be no Daft Punk without Kraftwerk, no Detroit techno, maybe even no Pulse Radio. That we can still see Kraftwerk, the original robots, in the flesh and not in hologram is a gift we should all make use of.