I always feel a pinch of unease whenever someone begins busking on the subway. Part of this is born of a purely selfish anxiety, a personal calculation of whether I should compensate this performance or merely pretend that I’m not listening. But mostly, my discomfort owes to how strange it is to witness something so naked and earnest in a space that is so broad and impersonal. The riders of a train avoid making eye contact with each other, yet once someone starts singing, we cohere into an audience, if an unwilling one. It feels uniquely cruel to ignore something so heartfelt and unafraid in such close quarters.
I was on my way to see one of Kraftwerk’s multimedia performances at the Museum of Modern Art when a middle-aged man with longish hair and a guitar boarded my train and began singing David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” He strummed his guitar like someone who had been playing since he was a teen, and there was a ragged beauty to his voice, as though the words of this song were not inscrutable but in fact described his own melancholy. I was hypnotized by his impossibly sad rendition of a song I’ve heard hundreds of times but never understood. As the train skidded into the station, I regretted how short this leg of my journey was. I chased down the guitarist and gave him a few dollars. A guy in a hooded sweatshirt remarked to him, “Hey man—you should be on X-Factor.” Searching the crowd for anyone else who had shared in this soulful interlude, he caught my eye. “He should be on, right?”
I thought about this passing moment as I stood in line at the museum, where a light giddiness united all the strangers awaiting entry. Tickets for this eight-night retrospective of the German electronic music group’s career had been released online in February. A necessary pain of modern-day concert-going, fans spent hours waiting in a virtual queue for tickets on the MoMA Web site; unfortunately there were no virtual clerks to inform them that tickets had sold out within minutes. By that afternoon, scorned Kraftwerk devotees had taken to the Internet in mild protest, producing Kraftwerk-styled YouTube videos and putting up (presumably) fake Craigslist ads. My favorite was the one that offered a ticket to Trans Europe Express, one of the most sought-after nights, for a thousand dollars: “You will have to legally change your name to my name since only the purchaser (with valid ID) will be let in. I’ll let you know what your new name will be upon funds clearance into my account.”
Kraftwerk formed in Dusseldorf in 1970. While postwar youth worldwide flocked to rock’s promise of efficient thrills and erotic liberation, Kraftwerk—like many of their peers in the German experimental community that would come to be known as Krautrock—sought a detour from this tradition. Though rock’s influence was inevitable—there were riffs, hooks, melodies, solos—Kraftwerk self-consciously excised all the components that gave rock its urgency. What if the lyrics were delivered without affect and spoke not of love and devotion but of radiation, telecommunications, the idea of the nation-state? What if psychedelic textures were stretched and deconstructed—could music be made out of ambient effects? How long could one conjure a groove before it began to seem uncomfortably machine-like? If rock music celebrated postwar abundance—of high spirits, sexual energy, leisure time—then Kraftwerk and their peers explored the possibilities of minimalist forms.
The MoMA retrospective promised to deliver a full album each night, with specially commissioned visuals to accompany the show. Entrants to the museum’s indoor atrium were issued 3-D glasses and a commemorative booklet. It’s safe to say that the fervor these shows inspired had more to do with their location and scale than the music on offer: by now, Kraftwerk has whittled down to original member Ralf Hutter and three stand-ins, and the shock of seeing four men do little more than press buttons no longer holds.
As the curtain dropped to the analog fanfare of “Trans-Europe Express,” with a line drawing of a train slicing across the screen’s wide-open blackness, I was reminded of how overwhelming certain kinds of live shows could be. The acoustics of the atrium were surprisingly good, each kling-klang reverberating cleanly through space and body. There was so much to take in, from the widescreen, animated visualizations of Kraftwerk’s album covers to the band themselves, squeezed into matching, form-fitting, glow-in-the-dark body suits. There was a synesthetic thrill to the way the music and animation assisted each other. A torrent of information, everywhere at once. In place of love and faith—the glue of most popular music—here was a different kind of connectivity: the crackle of a Geiger counter; the erratic clatter of Morse code; the metronomic gallop of train tracks; a thousand motors, firing down the autobahn; the imagined flash and zing of the circuit board.
Opening the show with “Trans-Europe Express” was a clue—it is fourth on the Trans-Europe Express album. They played “Europe Endless” (one of my favorites), “The Hall of Mirrors,” and “Showroom Dummies”—other cuts from the epochal 1977 album. But when the car door and engine purr of “Autobahn” (off the album of the same name) began, a guy next to me blurted out, “Now I’m confused.” The remainder of the two-hour show would be a medley of Kraftwerk favorites from the rest of their back catalogue, which seemed to defeat the purpose of coming here just to hear Trans-Europe Express.
Still, these are amazing songs, among the most important of the past forty years. The histories of hip-hop, electro, Bass, and pretty much all of modern dance music are histories of finding Kraftwerk in unlikely places—a sampled phrase, a mimicked percussion line, a process. You might say that Kraftwerk’s retreat from rock was a rejection of a certain kind of naked desire—for sincerity or authenticity, escapism and reckless abandon, riot and peace, for the man strumming the guitar and singing his heart out. Instead, this was music born of austerity, made by people who exhausted the possibilities of the machines available to them.
Perhaps this desire to stand just outside such familiar conventions is what made the show a deeply impersonal experience, the equivalent of listening to a Kraftwerk mega-mix on a zillion-dollar sound system while screen savers come at you in 3-D. As I stood watching them perform old classics (“The Model,” “Numbers,” “Computer World,” “Computer Love”) and revive overlooked moments of their back catalogue (the “Radioactivity” remix, Electric Cafe), I wondered whether any of this was pleasurable in the conventional concert-going sense. It’s hard to lose yourself when the four men onstage seem to be standing perfectly still, impervious to the swells of sound they are conjuring with their machines. But maybe this was the point. Anyone with a microphone and a guitar can rouse a crowd and offer them an array of feelings to choose from.
During “Techno Pop,” Ralf began to show signs of life, though he displayed the lateral quickness of a reanimated corpse. There were moments during “More Fun to Compute” when the backdrop seemed to be a swath of plaid coming to life, when it was almost too intense to bear, the verge of something beyond rational thoughts or feelings. The sound, the vision: a diffuse, overwhelming jumble, a garden of ever-forking paths we might call the present. It was the feeling of everything happening at once—toxins scattering in the air, multilingual babble, bandwidth limits being exceeded.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is a staff writer at Grantland and is currently completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.