This is a lightly edited transcript of the first hour of my 11/14/20 radio show: for links to corresponding Spotify and Apple Music playlists for that day’s show (as well as the recommendations for further reading on this topic that Prof Carter mentions at the end), go to this blog post.
Kayla Beardslee: This is 88.7 WHCL FM Clinton, New York and you’re listening to Pop Excellence with Kayla Beardslee. I have a guest on the show today, if you want to just briefly introduce yourself?
Ryan Carter: Hi, I’m Ryan Carter, Assistant Professor of Music [at Hamilton College]. I teach music composition and theory and digital media, and I am myself primarily a composer, so I write music that other people play, and I often write music for mobile devices that can be used with audience participation. I do acoustic music and electronic music, and all of it is sort of experimental: I end up developing a lot of my own technology for the music that I compose.
KB: The theme for this week is something I’ve been sitting on for a while: we’re going to be talking about songs that have lyrics about technology, because that’s kind of Professor Carter’s thing. I wrote down some general guiding questions, just to keep in mind for us and for whoever’s listening as we’re talking about these different songs: first of all, how do these songs approach the lyrical theme of technology? Specifically lyrical—I said that, because if we can play a song on the show that’s available digitally, then technically you could argue it’s a song about technology—but that’s too broad, so we’re sticking with lyrics. What are the different themes and approaches that these songs take; why aren’t there actually that many pop and pop-adjacent songs about technology? (I had to dig kind of deep to find some of these songs.) What’s unique about using music as a medium to explore topics of technology, and how do these songs deal with the ideas of humanity versus technology and the—I don’t know—technological anxiety that comes from that? These are some of the guiding questions to keep in mind.
This first song was one of the very first ones I thought of for this playlist a long, long time ago, and I see it as sort of a framing device for this whole show. It’s only two minutes and it’s the intro, really, for the album it comes from, but it encapsulates basically every question I just posed for this hour. It’s by Janelle Monáe [nice job including the accent for me, Microsoft Word transcription feature], whose work has actually dealt a lot with themes of technology. This is the only project of hers I’ve listened to, but I know her previous two albums were concept albums about [the character] Cindi Mayweather, who I believe is an Android fighting against an oppressive society, so there’s lots more stuff that could be delved into there.
Janelle Monáe has dealt a lot with this kind of topic in her music, and we can talk a lot more about this song after it plays. But basically, it sort of—positions, theorizes, whatever—that humans are corrupted (i.e. dirty) computers, that technologies (not people) are the foundation [of being], and that the concept of being a dirty computer is what makes us human. I—eh, you’ll see what it means. Anyway, do you have anything to say about this song before it plays?
RC: No, not before it plays. We can talk about it after, but yeah, let’s hear it.
KB: Ok, this is Dirty Computer by Janelle Monaé featuring Brian Wilson.
KB: This is honestly just a really good song. It’s short, but it’s one of my absolute favorite from the album [also called Dirty Computer]. So, what were your initial thoughts when you listened to this song?
RC: Well, in reaction to a couple of the questions that you had posed, these questions about why there aren’t more pop songs about technology, and why this is a subject that doesn’t get approached that much—at least not in a lot of the popular music that would be on the Spotify Top 50 or something—I was listening to it thinking about that question and how, you know, when you think of music that’s on the charts, it’s a lot of times about love (and I think we’ll also see this in some of the other songs on this playlist). Love is kind of the default subject for popular music, and pop songs generally steer away from topics that are complex and make people uncomfortable. The thing about this song is that when it talks about dirty computers, and it positions a person in this place of, you know, being framed as their own corrupted computer instead of an organic, sentient being, this is something that makes us sort of uncomfortable. I think a lot of these questions that we bring up are both complicated and slightly uncomfortable, but then at the same time the song has some familiar tropes from standard pop music that bring in themes of love. You know, that moment when it feels almost like a romantic kind of experience with the computer?
KB: There’s a couple other songs on this playlist that use technology as a medium to talk about love (RC: yeah). Sort of familiar vs unfamiliar things.
RC: Right, that was one of the things that that struck me.
KB: Also, I think one thing that helps this song address the topic of technology in an interesting way is that it’s the intro and the title track to the album that it comes from. It’s not just one song in a vacuum: Dirty Computer is like the thesis statement for an entire body of work, which I think helps it gain a little bit of nuance if you look at it in the context of its album as a whole.
My interpretation of this song was that it presents the baseline of being an average, unremarkable person as being like a computer, and then the flaws and quirks that make each person unique are what make you a “dirty” computer, which is kind of interesting because it’s not—if you’re like, “Hey, you know what I think humans are like? Dirty computers. Yeah”—if you just brought that up in a conversation, it would sound weird, and it’s not an entirely flattering thing. But I do feel like it’s saying something positive, since as a whole Dirty Computer is an album about—self acceptance? Maybe self understanding? And it’s certainly much more about Janelle Monaé’s personal life than her last two concept albums.
RC: Yeah, I think it frames the whole album as being kind of patient with imperfection (KB: yeah!), which is something that we can use in dealing with ourselves. And it’s something we’re forced to deal with especially when using emerging technologies that are maybe less tested, or that we’re less familiar with. I think that probably resonates particularly right now (KB: laughs), when so many people are dealing with Zoom failures and Internet connections dropping, and there’s all these things that, you know, on the one hand it feels like digital technologies are supposed to be kind of perfect. I mean, computers, when it comes down to just the calculations, they don’t really make mistakes, and so we think of computers as something that should be perfect, when [in reality] our experience of them in these very complex technological systems very frequently involves failure. I think the notion of the dirty computer kind of sets up both angles: the idea of a person as being imperfect, and that’s OK, and our use of technology being imperfect, and that has to be OK, too.
KB: Plus, I mean, technology stems from people trying to make their inventions do what they want, so those imperfections are kind of intertwined with each other.
RC: Yeah, mm-hmm.
KB: OK, we can move on to the next song, I think, but that was—I feel like it’s already been longer—(laughs). Every single time I put together a playlist I’m like, Oh, what if we don’t talk for that long about these songs? And then it’s 10 minutes in (RC: laughs) and we’ve gotten through one song. It’s fine, listen, I have so much free reign in these playlists when I record remotely.
So, this next song is by Marina and the Diamonds (or just Marina), and I put it after Dirty Computer because it’s also kind of exploring the topic of humanity intertwining with technology in a similar way to Janelle Monaé. Do you have any comments before this starts, or should we just play it?
RC: No, let’s just play it!
KB: OK, this is I Am Not A Robot by Marina and the Diamonds.
KB: What were your thoughts on this song?
RC: Oh, I mean, I think this is a fun song in that—on the one hand, the sonic, musical content and the repetition of the lyric “I am not a robot” feels kind of flip, kind of trivial, but then you don’t have to dig very deep below the surface to see that there is this feeling of persistent anxiety over whether the singer is maybe in fact a robot, or believes that she might be.
KB: Yeah, protesting too much.
RC: Yeah, there’s this one particularly revealing lyric, “Can you teach me how to feel / Real?” So it would seem that the song addresses this underlying anxiety about our evolving relationship with new technologies and our increasing dependence on them, and whether that changes who we are. You know, not necessarily literally into robots, but if we’re constantly holding a computer in our hand and we’re constantly using that computer, at what point are we changed by that computer? At what point are we something getting closer to being to a robot? So it’s a fun song on the surface, and then just below the surface there’s a lot of anxiety.
KB: That’s a lot of Marina songs, actually.
I noticed while I was listening to the song, there’s also—I think mostly in the chorus—that vocoder effect on “I am not a robot,” which seems, you know, very deliberate in that—well, the whole point of it is that vocoder sounds really robotic.
RC: Yeah, exactly, and the processing of the human voice is one musical trick for communicating a sense that there is something nonhuman acting. I think we’ll encounter that with another track later on this playlist too.
KB: One of the reasons I especially wanted to put this song in the playlist is because I usually really don’t like lyrics that like define themselves by what they aren’t, because it’s generally not a very informative way of writing. But in this case I think it works, because you can tell so specifically what Marina as the narrator is actually worried about in this song. I think the “not,” in this case—the denial is more interesting than just flat out stating whatever she’s trying to say.
There’s also another Marina song from the album this comes from called “Oh No“—actually, I played it a few weeks ago on this show. It’s a really good song, and one of the lines in the chorus is “I know exactly what I want and who I want to be / I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine.” I like that song a lot, and I think about it when I listen to “I Am Not A Robot” because there’s a really obvious—not necessarily very calculated reference to that song, but the same recurring theme of anxiety, as you brought up, and questioning identity and such (RC: yeah).
Also, I thought it’s kind of interesting that this song starts with the “smoking a lot of cigarettes” line, which is a very blunt, stupid, human thing to do, you know?
RC: Uh huh, yeah, and distinctly something that robots can’t do, right? (KB: yeah.) Robots don’t eat or drink or smoke, so it positions the singer as defiantly human from the get-go.
KB: Oh, also, one more interesting note about the lyrics of this song. There’s a “you” and there’s an “I,” and it’s not entirely clear what’s happening between them. My interpretation—or maybe it’s just the simplest interpretation that first comes to mind—is that the “you” and the “I” are the same person, and they’re just the two different halves of the narrator’s personality that feel more robotic and more human. But that’s just one interpretation, and it’s very vague, which I think is interesting (RC: yeah). Because at first she says “you are not a robot,” and then “I am not a robot,” and there’s a weird, undefined interplay between them.
RC: Yeah, I can definitely imagine that being a conflicted conversation that the singer is having with herself, because otherwise it’s not clear who the interlocutor would be.
KB: Otherwise it just becomes, like, “ma’am this is a Wendy’s, why are you talking to me?”
RC: Yeah (laughs).
KB: Do you have any more notes on this song?
RC: Uh… no!
KB: OK, we can move on to the next one, which is a little quirky (laughs). This song—I asked a group of people who have a good knowledge of deeper cuts in pop music for song suggestions when I was brainstorming for this show, and one of those people suggested this song [thanks Will A of TSJ!]. It’s so perfect: it is, in the most literal sense, a song about technology, specifically about a [secondhand Cotillion] synthesizer that the singer Gotye’s family bought for him and how he just really likes this synth. The lyrics are him name dropping a bunch of different presets and features of it, and the music demonstrates those different facets of the technology he’s singing about. This is State of the Art by Gotye.
KB: A lot happening in that song. What were your reactions to this, especially in terms of the music?
RC: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot happening sonically and thematically here. It’s a song about a synthesizer that can play a whole bunch of different sounds, so on one level you’ve got Gotye just trying to use a whole bunch of the sounds that can be made by this instrument. There’s a very wide variety of different synth patches—different simulated instruments, little bleeps and bloops (KB: laughs)—some sounding more natural, like an acoustic instrument, and some of them sounding more artificial, like a synthesizer. So sonically, there’s a lot happening, and it has a not particularly contemporary feel because—despite the title of the song—this is not a brand new instrument. This is an instrument that’s been around for a long time, and you can kind of tell just from the nature of the sounds. They have a little retro feel to them.
I was especially struck by how the voice is transformed. This is another case where the voice is transformed in a way to make it sound more artificial, less like an actual human, and I think that was the most striking moment for me musically: when the voice first comes in, when we first hear vocals, and it seems kind of like they were produced 20 years after the instrumentals (KB: laughs).
So there’s a lot going on like that sonically, but then in terms of what the song is about, these lyrics—”state of the art”—I think are describing in some ways a similar kind of underlying anxiety to previous songs we’ve heard. There are the lines about “Now, you know, we can all just stay in, and we won’t have to go out,” there are references to these simulated sounds being better than the actual, original acoustic sounds, and there’s the closing line about how nobody was actually playing any instruments, it was just pressing of buttons. I think, again, there’s this underlying anxiety about “what if we’re merging with technologies in ways that make us lose our humanity?” That’s still there, but in this case there is a way of addressing that anxiety by recognizing that as things feel really new, as they feel state of the art, they are still constantly changing in ways that we have previously gotten used to.
You know, in the very first line about how as soon as they got this instrument, they threw out their television—it reminds you of an earlier era when there was all this anxiety about the television. For young listeners today, that might not resonate (KB: laughs), but when the television was first invented and it first became a staple of the American home, there was a lot of anxiety about the television, just, wrecking people’s brains, wrecking people’s eyesight, wrecking, you know, family cohesion, and now that feels almost quaint, to be worried about TV. So I think, in a way, there seems to be this deliberate positioning of “the state of the art” as something that is perpetually renewed and that the current notion of what is state of the art will, at some point in the future, be viewed with this kind of nostalgia.
KB: You mentioning that makes me think of the people who are like, “Ugh, back in my day, it was all real music… yeah, everyone played guitars…” (RC: uh huh, yeah). That’s what it makes me think of. But yeah, one of the things I thought was most interesting about this song is that it’s about a secondhand synth from the 80s, so it’s not—this song is from 2011, so at the point that Gotye wrote it, [the synth] wasn’t really state of the art, and [the belief that it was] is just from the perspective of the narrator. And that made me think about how because technology is constantly evolving, what’s state of the art now isn’t going to be state of the art or presented as state of the art a couple of years down the line. So there’s that contrast between defining new, shiny technology in terms of those cycles of consumption versus just defining what’s state of the art as what feels fresh and exciting from your individual personal perspective, regardless of its actual time of production or technological capability. That’s what it made me think of—I don’t know, capitalism.
RC: Right, yeah yeah yeah.
KB: When in doubt, just blame capitalism. That’s what I’ve learned as a Gen Z kid.
RC: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean, there are all these different kinds of anxieties that underlie our relationship with emerging technologies. Part of it is the notion that maybe our humanity is changing, but then that turns out to be an anxiety that has been with us for a really long time. Back in grad school, when I was researching this—particularly this topic of what if humans are no longer needed to make music because computers could make all the music—I came across this book by Timothy Taylor called The Artificial Ape, the subtitle of which is “How technology changed the course of human evolution.” Basically, Taylor’s thesis is that technology itself, prehistoric technology—we’re talking now of things like fire, you know, that was a technology at one point—preceded even the evolution of the human species, and that we would not be the species we are without certain kinds of technology. Containers—the ability to just carry something from one place to another—or the ability to cook food, which, apparently there’s evidence that that played a role in the evolution of our digestive system. So, it’s been the entirety of human experience that technology has changed who we are. That’s not anything new, as it turns out. But then, when you’re thinking in terms of how what is state of the art now is going to be obsolete in a few years, there is this other side to it, which is that [cycle of] consumption: the fact that we’re constantly consuming new things, and that it would seem we’re facing, you know, possible ecological catastrophe within our lifetimes, and that’s a whole separate level of anxiety.
KB: (Panicked laughter) Yeah, let’s not go too deep into that.
RC: (Laughter, probably also panicked) So yeah, there’s all that.
KB: Before we move on from this song, there’s one more thing I want to talk about, which is the music video. It’s animated and has this story about the Cotillion synth: it shows the family buying the synth, getting all excited and playing it, and then gradually the synth takes over the family’s house, destroys it, and turns them into robotic parts of its mechanism. And then it goes into space and, like, colonizes a planet or something, I’m not entirely sure about that last part (RC: laughs), but focusing on that first part, it seems like the music video takes an outwardly much darker approach—it sort of expands on the “we don’t wanna go out” lyrics and stuff like that from the song, and turns them into the major story of the video, about how the family is taken over by this synth.
RC: Yeah, that seems to be how they’re framing things, from the first lyrics about throwing out the TV to the end where the kind of old timey TV announcer is talking about how you don’t need real instruments anymore, it’s just pressing buttons. It is this notion that the synthesizer has an alluring quality that captivates the family and prevents them from living their real lives.
KB: And I do think there is a bit of a tongue in cheek approach to it (RC: yeah). Because, I mean, first of all, the line “when the Cotillion arrived, we threw out the television” is just innately funny.
RC: Uh huh, yeah (laughs).
KB: Yep, once you get a synth, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t need TV, it’s fine!” And also, since the whole song is musically based around this synth, it’s not all demonizing it. There’s a fun—well, maybe fun isn’t the right word, but it’s not all doom and gloom.
RC: Yeah, there is some fun in this one, and I think this song seems to be more peacefully reconciled with the technology than the last couple that we heard.
KB: Yeah, definitely.
OK, I guess we can move on to the next song. I didn’t actually think about this when I put in the playlist, but technically we’re going from a song about an 80s synth to an actual 80s song with a synth, so, there you go, unintentional transitions. This song is by Kate Bush—also produced entirely by her—and it’s from 1989, but it doesn’t really sound like it. There’s one line about ordering a computer program from magazine, but other than that, it’s very prescient [mispronounces “prescient”]. This is Deeper Understanding by Kate Bush.
[This song was another TSJ writer suggestion, ty Katherine!]
KB: What were your thoughts on this song when you listened to it?
RC: I think, on some level, I did notice the—I guess unintentional—transition between the song that preceded it that had a lot of 80s sounds and this one that also had an 80s sound (which, in this case, is just because it’s from the 80s). I was really struck on a musical level by, again, the use of the voice, but a different use from what we’ve seen in the previous tracks. In this case, there’s a really stark difference between how the vocals are mixed in the verse and in the chorus. In the verses, you can very clearly understand what she’s singing, you can very clearly understand the lyrics: the vocals are the clearest sonic layer, which is the standard approach to mixing. But then, in the chorus, the vocals kind of get dissolved into a chorus of other vocal layers and synthesizers, so it’s hard to pick out what sound is what, and also harder to understand just what the lyrics are. [Editor’s Note: that matches the idea of the computer promising understanding to its audience but never quite delivering it!]
We get this vague sense that it’s an appeal to a deeper understanding, but there’s this ambiguity of what the voice is saying in the chorus, as well as the question of what is the understanding that she’s talking about? Deeper understanding of what? There’s this ambiguity about what it is the computer is offering, which I guess makes sense in that these lyrics come from an earlier time, a time when the role of the computer is not as clearly defined as it is now. But there’s still a lot of these lyrics that are really prescient [Kayla silently cringes as she realizes she mispronounced this word earlier]—about, you know, a computer being something like a friend, something that could keep us company.
KB: And specifically the computer, not the programs on it or anything like that. The actual physical thing.
RC: Right, yeah yeah yeah, the computer [itself] is something that kind of keeps us company, which is definitely a theme that we find later producers and thinkers and songwriters returning to.
KB: I feel like the narrative arc of this song is that the narrator turns to the computer to get this deeper understanding, gets addicted to it, and then never gets to the point they were hoping to reach in regards to whatever that understanding was. In the first prechorus, there’s the line “Are you lonely? Are you lost?” that then gets flipped in the second prechorus to “But I was lonely, I was lost,” and this time the narrator goes back to the computer and she’s still feeling lonely and lost: it turns into this addiction that doesn’t have an end. And then at the very end [of the song], there’s also the line “I turn to my computer like a friend / I need deeper understanding,” so there’s a sense of constantly needing more from it, but never being able to reach that point—like, what is the end goal of deeper understanding? You can’t really define that.
RC: Yeah, I’m reminded of another author—there are a bunch of technology critics I like to read that are relevant to this, and one of them is this author Sherry Turkle, who’s a professor at MIT but also a psychotherapist, and she has written a lot on this subject. She has a book called Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, and it’s a really good book because it looks at how we’re using emerging technologies like social media for communication in ways that frequently short circuit deeper forms of conversation, but at the same time how we’ve been relying on new technologies to take over more of what humans previously did for each other, and how the two seem to be merging toward each other. Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, another great book to read on this subject.
KB: I guess in that context, the thing that the computer offers in this song isn’t necessarily deeper understanding, it’s just more understanding (RC: yeah), which isn’t the same thing. What I thought of when I listened to this song, primarily, as someone who has a Twitter account but also hates Twitter—which is a large percentage of Twitter’s userbase—it makes me think of how, just in general, our ridiculously expanded access to information [thanks to the Internet] kind of dulls and confuses our ability to actually process that information and empathize with the knowledge we’re exposed to. You know, like how the computer promises knowledge and kind of love, but then that promise just ends up getting twisted into obsession and an inability to keep living the normal life you had before you were given this access.
RC: Right, and how it results in—
KB: Like I said, it’s a song from 1989, but it’s very contemporary anyways.
RC: Yeah, yeah, it’s very forward looking. Right, this access to information tends to result in a broader access to information and not deeper (KB: yeah), because if you really want to deeply engage with a topic, you need time to sit back and do nothing and reflect on it, and that’s the exact opposite of going and seeking out additional input. And so I think what we have is a really broad access to information that is easily experienced superficially, and we lack the time, the permission to give ourselves time, to just sit and really get a deeper understanding of a single topic.
KB: Also, I feel like one other sort of theme in this song is escapism. Like that second verse about how “I neglected my bodily needs / I did not eat, I did not sleep”—you know, the narrator goes to the computer and it becomes a second world, but not in a positive way. Escapism in general is another big theme around technology (RC: yeah). OK, do you have any more thoughts on this song, or you do want to move on?
RC: No, yeah, let’s listen to the next one.
KB: OK, we’re gonna do a real hard transition, tonally. I mean, technically I would say this song is sort of a satirical take on some of the same themes as Deeper Understanding, except with some added, joking romantic themes. Anyway, yeah, this is a whole thing: this is Computer Boy by Poppy.
KB: What were your reactions to this song?
RC: Well, I mean it’s funny, you know (laughs). It’s a funny and fun song, and it fits in with the rest of the songs that we’ve heard in that it positions a computer as a source of joy—potentially our only source of joy—and it then extends that further into something that is just kind of patently ridiculous (KB: laughs), which is the notion of having a romantic relationship, a literal romantic relationship, with a laptop computer.
It feels to me like this is another way of approaching this underlying anxiety: I think underlying a lot of these songs is this sort of anxiety over whether our humanity is being changed or we’re becoming too dependent on technology and these sorts of things, and I think one way of addressing that is to make a song that is so ridiculous that you just go, “Oh yeah, that couldn’t happen because that’s ridiculous. You can’t actually have a romantic relationship with the computer, so we don’t need to worry about whether these things are changing us.” That’s kind of how I read it. [Editor’s Note: I realized neither of us pointed out the lyric “I don’t care, and I won’t change myself” when we were discussing this topic, but it plays into this analysis too.]
KB: For a little bit of context for this song, Poppy was, I guess, a project [slash social experiment?] run by the singer we just heard and another guy who worked with her behind the scenes. The project is no longer going because the other guy behind it is a terrible person [although the singer is still putting out music under the name Poppy after shifting genres], but she had a whole YouTube channel where she would post videos of her having, like, an Uncanny Valley personality. I didn’t watch the YouTube channel because it was weird, that was the whole point, but from what I know of it, [the singer playing] Poppy would stare at the camera with a weird smile, say strange things in a monotone voice, talk about random anecdotes from her life—you get the general idea.
It was basically an attempt to build a very consciously artificial and weird kind of pop star persona that really plays into the themes of technology. A bunch of other song titles from the album Computer Boy comes from are Interweb, Software Upgrade, Let’s Make a Video, My Microphone… there’s also just a song called Pop Music, in case the titles couldn’t get any more blunt. So yeah, Poppy’s music and her persona in general were very much about taking weird approaches to technology and pop music and combining the two of them. That’s what’s going on there, but also I think the music itself is a lot more upbeat and sort of… mindlessly boppable, if that’s a phrase that I can coin (RC: right), than the videos themselves.
RC: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, I think it is trying to take the most conventional pop music formulas, which normally are used for songs that somehow deal with the topic of love (because that’s what most pop songs are about), and use those musical features to make it even more silly that this is a love song to a computer.
KB: What this makes me think of is a song that I didn’t put on this playlist, because I thought there might not be the context needed for it, but do you know that Black Mirror episode with Miley Cyrus?
RC: Yeah, mm-hmm, yeah. That was a good one (laughs).
KB: (Pleasantly surprised the reference landed) Yeah, that one. When I was initially brainstorming this playlist, On A Roll was on there (laughs). I decided I wouldn’t include it because it needs too much explanation for a full song slot (RC: right), but the song On A Roll from that [Black Mirror] episode is about… it’s very not subtle, but Miley Cyrus plays a pop star working under a big corporation, and she’s trapped into making fun pop music when that’s not really what she wants to do. She has to break away from the company, which totally isn’t represented by a mouse (RC: laughs), and finally gets to make the music she wants. But there was this actual [commercially released pop] song produced for and used in that episode that a lot of people who follow pop music unironically liked, and it’s fine—it’s like a 5 out of 10 (laughs)—but it makes me think of that same thing. About making satirical or comedic pop songs that on one level are still just songs you don’t actually have to think about: you can choose to engage with their topics or whatever, or you can just sort of turn your brain off and bop to it.
RC: Yeah, you can very easily listen to this song and just say, oh it’s fun and it’s dancey and it could be on in the background at a party (slight pause) if we could have parties again.
KB: (Laughs) I don’t know how I would feel if I went to a party and this was playing.
RC: Well, I mean, I think—(laughs)
KB: I’d probably seek out the person responsible for the playlist and be like, “Poppy??”
RC: Yeah (laughs). I think most people at the party would just disregard the lyrical content and just listen to the sonic components of it.
KB: But yeah, that’s something—that’s a whole other topic, really, that we don’t even have the time to dive into (RC: yeah), but there’s this whole other conversation about pop music that can operate on two entirely separate levels, and you can choose whether or not to engage with it. But anyway, this was a more outwardly fun and joking take on the themes of technology.
OK, so we have just one more song left, and it has a slightly different take on lyrics about technology. This is a Billie Eilish track that’s sort of indirectly about today’s theme: it’s called Ilomilo, which is the title of a video game from 2010, and the premise of it [the game] is that there’s two characters, Ilo and Milo, who get separated at the start of each level and have to work together to reunite and finish the level. This track takes a pretty casual, referential approach to technology, and I just wanted to talk about a song that addresses the topic in slightly different way. This is Ilomilo by Billie Eilish.
[Fun sidebar: here are the Google search trends for Ilomilo in the last five years… one guess as to what caused that one massive search spike]
KB: I picked this song—well, it’s kind of a cherry picked example to make a point, but I wanted to have a song with a very contemporary perspective on technology. Billie Eilish is sort of Gen Z’s resident representative in pop music right now, and I feel like this song alludes to technology, in this case a video game, very casually: it’s in the name of the song, but there’s no need to explain the reference or anything. It’s just there and taken for granted, which I think is a pretty contemporary perspective.
RC: Uh huh, yeah, and I think it’s an important reference if you’re going to understand [the song] in the proper context. This is the one song on the playlist I’ve heard a whole bunch of times before (KB: laughs)—I mean, it’s a great song, I like listening to it again, and it’s a great album. I’ve listened to this whole album [When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go], and I had no idea that this is a reference to a video game. I’ve never encountered this video game—I don’t really play video games, I’m a little bit older than—
KB: I didn’t know what it was til I looked it up either, so—
RC: (Laughs) So, it completely reframes the lyrics when you know that these are just characters in a video game and not real people.
KB: Or it could be a metaphor, too. I see this sort of as a metaphorical thing.
RC: Yeah, I mean, it could definitely be a metaphor. It definitely—if you know that it’s about a video game and you know what the video game is about, then the whole thing feels a lot more innocent. Even if you maybe understand it as a metaphor, it feels a lot less urgent than if you were interpreting this as an actual person talking to another actual person, you know? So in a way, it kind of culminates this theme we’ve been exploring of merging with new technologies—with emerging technologies somehow changing who we are as humans. And here we have a song where I’ve always taken it to just refer to actual people, and it turns out it’s referring to characters in a video game and I did not know that.
KB: (Laughs) Hey, you can keep going with the metaphor interpretation, I’m sorry.
RC: Yeah (laughs).
KB: Another reason that I picked this song is because—I mean, there’s a lot of fodder out there to look through for a song with a contemporary perspective on technology, but I feel like in the last… I don’t know, less than a decade, there’s been such a rise in songs about how social media is b a d and technology is sapping our b r a i n s. And I don’t love most of those songs, because every artist thinks they’re the first person to say phone bad, guys (RC: laughs), but they’re not. For example, Kate Bush did that literally three decades ago (laughs). So I tried to go with a slightly more unconventional theme for this last song, within that kind of contemporary mindset. That’s why I picked Ilomilo over—nothing’s coming to mind, but some other social media song.
RC: Yeah, and I think, kind of bringing everything together, the song about deeper understanding—it happened to be the oldest one on the playlist, but it points to how complex issues have to be dealt with through, you know, long periods of reflection and deep engagement with other sources, with other people who have been thinking about these topics. It’s not really the job of a three minute pop song to say anything too revelatory about these complex topics in its lyrics, because you can’t. There are entire books—and that’s why I think you’re going to end up with people who may be coming to sort of superficial conclusions, of which the two easiest are either: technology good, or technology bad, right? (KB: laughs)
Those are the easy things to come up with, when in reality I think the situation is much more nuanced, much more complex, and I think ultimately, how we determine the proper relationship with these emerging technologies like social media, like mobile computing, like the fact that we have a computer that’s network connected in our hand at all times now—how we deal with these is a personal question, but there are lots of right answers, and they won’t be the same for everyone. The authors that I’ve spent a lot of time reading on this subject tend to be ones who know what they’re talking about because they’ve been involved with these technologies. Sherry Turkle is a professor at MIT, and she knows technology. She’s also a psychotherapist, so she knows people and psychology. Another really great technology critic is Jaron Lanier, who wrote a book called 10 Reasons Why You Should Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, which has a title that takes one approach, “technology bad,” on the surface—I think it’s almost a clickbaity title, right—
KB: It sounds like a “buy the book” title.
RC: Exactly. It’s a buy the book title, and then you dig into it and he is a technology critic who is also a technologist. Lanier was one of the founders of virtual reality—he’s one of the people who actually made up, who pioneered virtual reality—and he’s been working in tech, in Silicon Valley, for decades and really knows his stuff. And even he comes up with a much more nuanced conclusion, so that I think this is a great book to read even if you don’t ever intend to delete your accounts: even if, for example, you just want to think more critically about how you use social media. These are really complex topics, and it’s worth the time to invest in thinking about them critically, reading what other people have written about them, and having conversations with friends about our use of these technologies. There isn’t going to be a simple solution from a three minute pop song.
KB: Should I link a reading list on my blog post with the playlist this week? (laughs)
RC: Yeah, sure. I can give you some titles, yeah.
KB: I’ll do it. I mean, this seems like a pretty good place to end it on. Well—relatively speaking. It’s complex!
RC: It is complex, yeah.
KB: I should outro this—well, it’s not the first hour anymore—this first hour and 15 minutes, however much it ends up being. As usual, the playlist for these songs, I guess with some reading recommendations too because why not?, will be up on my blog as usual. The rest of this second hour will be either a grab bag or a release roundup playlist. I don’t know right now what it’s going to be—if you’re reading you’ll know sooner than me [it’s the latter]—but it’s going to be a chill way to end the second hour.
[To Professor Carter] Thank you for being on the show! I feel like this was really good.
RC: Yeah, thank you, this was fun!
KB: I was afraid of not being able to say smart things, but I feel like we did. [Editor’s Note: Should I have cut this? Well, here we are.]
RC: Well, there’s lot to say about this (laughs). Yeah, thanks for having me, this was really fun.
KB: Alright, I am now going to transition to whatever playlist is coming next!
[I won’t be doing a transcript for the last 45 minutes—no need—but if you want to check out the songs I included in my release roundup playlist, my other blog post has links to it, as well as links to a playlist of the songs we talked about during this theme and the promised reading list.]