At 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday there was no more coveted piece of New York City real estate than standing room in the Museum of Modern Art’s Marron Atrium. And so it shall be for the next seven nights as Kraftwerk, the German electronic outfit from the 1970s, plays to a scant crowd of about 450 lucky souls. That this quartet, which includes just one of its original members, can command a showcase like MoMA – and sell out in a drumbeat – provides a useful lesson into technology’s risk of obsolescence.
It would be easy to dismiss Kraftwerk as a relic from the dawn of the digital age and its ardent fans a weird cult in turtleneck sweaters and 3D glasses. But MoMA’s eight-night retrospective of the band helmed by Ralf Hutter provides surprising insight into why some innovations fade and others flourish. Ultimately, success in technology – as in art – is derived from the expression of big ideas, not simply a mastering of its circuitry. It is an example that businesses, too, can learn from.
Kraftwerk is best known for harnessing new gadgets, primarily synthesizers like the Minimoog, to create industrial rhythms and electronic drumbeats that broke new ground in pop music. Kraftwerk’s sounds have been copied, built upon and sampled by artists from Afrika Bambaataa to Pink Floyd to Jay-Z. Today’s auto-tuned pop stars owe a direct debt to the musical sequencing that Hutter and his former partner Florian Schneider pioneered at their Kling Klang Studios in Dusseldorf four decades ago.
Yet funky sounds alone fail to explain how Kraftwerk’s four musicians – looking more like engineers in Tron-era spandex suits – can rivet the attention of New York’s cultural elite for an entire week. That speaks more to the larger concepts embraced by Kraftwerk, chiefly the power of technology – specifically computing, transportation and communications – to transform human relationships and, particularly in the German context, erase the scars of a dark past with visions of a unified, harmonious Europe.
Take Tuesday’s performance of the 1974 breakthrough Autobahn. The song, with its signature electronically modified vocals, “wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn,” against a rhythm of padded drumbeats, is sonically unforgettable. But so, too, is the song’s message – enhanced at the MoMA by 3D screens looming behind the stage – of a peaceful Europe where new highways cut through green fields and the edifices of a modern industrial complex compete with church spires in the middle distance. Like the space-agey sounds emanating from Kraftwerk’s instruments of the era, the limited torque of a 1973 Mercedes diesel sedan might seem obsolete to us today. Yet the freedom of the open road remains an eternal longing.