It is hard for a way of life whose priorities are secular, rationalist, materialist and utilitarian to produce a culture adequate to these values. For are not these values inherently anti-cultural? This, to be sure, was always a headache for industrial capitalism, which was never really able to spin a persuasive cultural ideology out of its own philistine practices. [Culture] is in danger of drawing attention to the farcical gap between its own earnest spiritual rhetoric and the unlovely prose of everyday life. A European Union anthem to the Almighty would be merely embarrassing.
This line from Terry Eagleton’s 2000 polemic The Idea of Culture has always struck me, because, after a fashion, the very idea of a European Union anthem is rather absurd. First, they already have one, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, but without Schiller’s An die Freude text. And this chosen anthem already has all the high cultural trappings that are contrary to many national anthems, being often more plebian affairs coming from the ground up instead of the top down.
Second, to me at least, the notion of a Europe unified by song (and not by a song from Eurovision) is treated almost like a farce (though perhaps unintentionally) in the idea of the simultaneous performances of the commissioned piece in Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs : Bleu, complete with reference to everyone’s favorite chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Eagleton’s concern for embarrassment, Beethoven’s ascent to European glory, and the farce of a Franco(-Polish-Swiss) anthem chase each other recursively, all pointing to the same thing. There is no cultural EU anthem, and appropriating high culture (or religion) for one banalizes the culture or the religion. The EU’s anthem should pay proper respect to the EU’s economic roots. So, then, let’s go from the ground up and build an anthem out of the banal.
For years I’ve felt that, if the EU needed an anthem, Kraftwerk’s “Europa endlos” would be a fantastic candidate. The opening track of Trans-Europa Express, an antedated EU concept album if there ever was one, the song has all the pageantry of an anthem (choral vocal tracks, say), with seemingly inscrutably banal lyrics:
Europa endlos (endlos, endlos…)
Das Leben ist zeitlos (Europa endlos)
Parks, Paläste und Hotels (Europa endlos)
Flüsse, Berge, Wälder (Europa endlos)
Wirklichkeit und Postkarten Bilder (Europa endlos)
Eleganz und Dekadenz (Europa endlos)
Are they really inscrutably banal, though? The first two lines, “Europe, endless / Life is timeless” suggest an open space, a utopian dream (this will not be the first time utopia comes up here). But that endless Europe is made up of parks, palaces, and hotels; rivers, mountains, and forests. These images, at once idyllic and anti-idyllic (we have both man and nature, after all), are then treated as the same thing twice.1 They are both reality and pictures from postcards. It’s a bit of a tease, then. This imagery exists both around us (we see it riding on the TEE in a later track, for example), but also in how we represent Europe back home, no matter where that home may be.
Those three man-made images, again, show a kind of capitalist control over the idylls that follow. The park is reforming nature, the palaces are the accumulation and defense of property (though from a pre-capitalist era), and finally there are the hotels. I’m not sure if there’s much trade in postcards of hotels, though the hotel here reminds us of the transient nature of a trip. Europe is endless, and life is ageless, so we keep moving on, displaced and moving free like trade. The bouncing octaves of the bass push us along, always just observing what is around us, without clearly stopping to act.
This is important, as far as a fantasy of the EU, because the EU is an observed artifact, seen out the window of a train. Kraftwerk give us no history, no account of battles that parks may commemorate or that led to the construction of palaces. The rivers of blood, mountains of corpses, and forests of spears that are millennia of European history get folded into images that are at the same time the world in which are living (hence, historical), and the contextless wish-you-were-here view of a postcard (somehow torn from history). And Kraftwerk keeps up the conflict of image and reality in the next two tracks, “Spiegelsaal” and “Schaufensterpuppen,” but the European center is a bit obscured.
As those two tracks demonstrate, though, this kind of human/(non-|anti-)human tension is present in lots of later Kraftwerk (“Die Roboter,” “Das Model”) to the point where the carnality of the heavy breathing in “Tour de France” jars the listener. But I’m getting ahead of myself.2
Travel and movement return to the center on the fourth, eponymous track of Trans-Europa Express. The rhythm chugs along like a steam engine, and the circling fourths sound like a train whistle. The band even uses a pitch bend to emulate the doppler effect of a train whizzing by. In any case, where “Europa endlos” is a bit paranoid lyrically, uncertain of how to manage reality and images, “Trans-Europa Express” crashes it all together into a European mishmash:
(Trans Europa Express)
Rendezvous auf den Champs-Élysées
Verlass Paris am Morgen mit dem TEE
In Wien sitzen wir im Nachtcafe
Direkt Verbindung TEE
Wir laufen ‘rein in Düsseldorf City
Und treffen Iggy Pop und David Bowie
That first couplet kills me every time, in its obliterated but unselfconscious mélange of French and German. It reveals the Franco-German axis that the utopian EU in Kraftwerk’s music rests on, but also sets a western edge for the utopia. No longer is Europe endless. The travel is endless, as TEE bounces from Paris to Vienna (the home of Franz Schubert, the namesake of the penultimate track of the album) and back.
But now it’s the travel itself and not the view that is banalized. Paris, Vienna, Düsseldorf–it’s all the same. Hanging out with Bowie and Iggy is no different than waiting for a connection at a café. There’s a flattening going on here that’s enhanced by the sequenced nature of the music itself, feeling less composed/performed than simply programmed. And the variable control of programming is reflected lyrically, as Trans-Europa Express predates the internet in being a locale-sensitive object, translated into English and French.
The i18n of the album is a subtle move, since it’s transparent, just like an internationalized website. This is another approach to utopian flatness, as it’s anti-pluralistic. It takes for granted different linguistic approaches and adapts to them, without the listener being forced out of his or her comfort zone, so it doesn’t celebrate its availability. Unlike, say, a Stereolab album, where some songs are in French, some in English, and some in both, which keeps the pluralism central by reminding the listener of the polyglot nature of the project, this Kraftwerk album hides it. In Germany, you get the German version. In France, the French one. The lyrics can be understood by “all,” without extra work, thereby removing a cultural barrier for entry. If we compare a multi-versioned national anthem, like “O Canada,” its performance in public is self-consciously multi-lingual asynchronously.3 There is no flattening, there is no opening, no embracing done outside of a pluralism celebrating linguistic diversity. The linguistic diversity in “Trans-Europa Express” is toponymic (Paris and Champs-Élysées) and international (“Rendezvous” later matched by “treffen”). And the effect is clear.
My relationship that I’m drawing between rail and openness and flatness might not be entirely clear, so I’ll offer a visual aid. Kraftwerk are part of the donor pool that started the electronic popular music family tree, and it’s probably not a stretch to say that their influence can be felt in almost all electronic music today. Chrissy Murderbot, for example, recently put together a mix of songs that simply have direct lineage to Kraftwerk, in the form of samples and the like.4 But it’s sometimes easy to overlook that influence when listening to current music, and it was only seeing Michel Gondry‘s video for the Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar” that reminded me of the debt.
Despite the numerous shots of endlessly reproduced polluting industrial parks, there’s a certain clean order to the video that works off the order of the programmed music. Gondry breaks up the patterns occasionally with natural images, but the plants are always planted, and the only non-human landscape, the mountain, is never reproduced with the music. But there’s a similarity (perhaps even a self-similarity) that Gondry creates. The “Star Guitar” video is the same as a Frenchman listening to “Trans-Europe Express” while a German listens to “Trans-Europa Express.” There’s local repetition (vocals, rhythms) and structure that’s reproduced on a larger scale (the localized albums, travelling on a train period).
And that similarity, then, is what I call flatness and openness above. The only way to run the EU is by flattening and opening it. Keeping every twist and nook in place leads to preening peacock moments from the like of Václav Klaus.
However, the problem with Trans-Europa Express is that it celebrates rail, and there’s something limited and not quite there in pursuing a banal, capitalist EU fantasy via rail travel. First, it’s determined. The track goes a certain way to a certain destination, usually on time. Second, it’s overdetermined, as the train becomes a bullet of positivism, and, at the same time, at least for me when I was younger, a bullet eager to puncture the German-Polish border in an act of war.
Can the automobile be equally flattening and opening? And can Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” (I, II, III), which came two years before Trans-Europa Express, show a different way into how the band powers a banal fantasy of the EU? Well, of course. But how?
Even risking absurdity at over twenty minutes, “Autobahn” is kind of a brilliant song, so I need a few moments to bask in its glory. I’m not a historian of German music, or of Kraftwerk, but, from what I gather, “Autobahn” was surprising in that it was a postwar German-language song that wasn’t in the Schlager tradition. Further, its conceptual scope was very specifically post-war West Germany, that of high-speed interconnectivity by automobile.
If there’s a US analogue to the song, it might be the contemporaneous “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers, but the song itself, with its chorus, alludes to the fun, fun, fun car culture of the Beach Boys. The lyrics are as upbeat and full of promise as the (again) bouncing octaves of the Moog bass:
Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn
Vor uns liegt ein weites Tal
Die Sonne scheint mit Glitzerstrahl
Die Fahrbahn ist ein graues Band
Weisse Streifen, gruener Rand
Jetzt schalten wir ja das Radio an
Aus dem Lautsprecher klingt es dann:
Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn
The car is rolling, rolling, rolling down the Autobahn, as a wide valley opens up below a shining sun. As with “Europa endlos,” nature is again reordered, but this time by late capitalism: the road is gray, the stripes are white, and our greenery is just the edge around the path forward. The passengers are called forward by the sounds they hear on the radio, which are the same sounds as they are creating by rolling down the Autobahn itself. The repitition of the railroad is now replaced by the feedback loop of listening to the same thing as one is creating.
But unlike the train, with its stops, Nachtcafes and meetings with Bowie, the feedback loop of the car emphasizes its being a closed system, a cell bopping down a vein. And this cell, unlike the train, has no fixed destination. Compare the lyrics. “Trans-Europa Express” gives us fixed cities with histories, but “Autobahn” points upward, to the future, like the UK cover of its album, based on the Autobahn sign.
Yet these cells move upward (or along) individually, like liberal subjects each transcending class at their own speed and their own time. The train, in contrast, even etymologically, is a puller. It pulls the people along with it, and these people all arrive at their destination at the same time (and it’s the same destination!). Oh, the places we’ll go once we liberalize this transportation metaphor!
It’s something of a cliché to discuss the dissolution of community that the automobile introduces. Lee Sandlin pretty much takes you everywhere you need to go, and whatever’s left over is vultured by Jonathan Richman and David Byrne, who says, as the narrator in True Stories, that “some” consider freeways the “cathedrals of our time,” a statement referring to the engineering prowess, public cost, and reverence with which the automobile has impressed itself on late 20th century society.5 There’s good and bad to it, but there’s also something rather American about it.
“Autobahn,” then, suggests a different path, but there’s more to it than just that it’s European (although that’s a large part of it). The car culture in the US is seen in parallel with the American Century’s apex after World War II. The fact that a car culture grew up in Europe at the same time, along similar axes, throws into doubt the exceptional Americanness of riding down the road on the interstate. Kraftwerk are being, as I mentioned, impishly allusive with their song, but they’re also making a bold, European statement by singing it in German. This is not “Fun, Fun, Fun,” after all, and those are German automobiles on the original cover of Autobahn. It’s a countermove, then. A reaction without the political overtones. Here is what late capitalism looks like in Europe: there are similarities, but the differences are important. Even so, the similarities get flattened out, TEE-style, at the end, as we’ll see.
But now I want to return quickly to human/(non-|anti-)human tension in the later Kraftwerk, captured clearly in Die Mensch-Maschine. Where I earlier praised Trans-Europa Express for being transparently multilingual (and, thereby, flat), Kraftwerk’s 1978 album announces its multi-lingual nature on the cover, which includes the album’s name in French and Russian in addition to English and German. Musically, “Die Roboter” features a bridge in Russian (in both the English and German versions).6 This bridge, “я — твой слуга; я — твой работник,” sets the stage for how the late Kraftwerk comes back to save the EU.
The bridge appears right before this verse:
Wir sind auf Alles programmiert
Und was du willst wird ausgeführt
Wir sind die Roboter
There’s a lot of coercion here. The robots are programmed to do everything, they explain, and that includes accomplishing whatever you wish. It’s alienating to watch that sung by humans, even humans pretending to be robots, but the Russian bridge further complicates the situation. A “слуга” is a servant. In the opening of the bridge, then, the speaker presents himself as your servant. A “работник,” on the other hand, is a worker. And despite its sharing an etymological root with “robot,” it is, importantly, not the Russian word for “robot,” which is, naturally, “робот.”7 So while Kraftwerk is playing a mechanical game of wilfull non-humanism in English and German, the Russian reasserts the non-mechanical nature of this source of labor. More clearly: what’s disposable mechanical labor in English and German is flesh-and-blood disposable labor in Russian. There’s a reading here that gifts a certain humanism to communism while critiquing its absence in capitalism, but I’ll put that aside. The point is that the listener cannot give over entirely to the fantasy of robots singing, so there must always be a certain unease over exploiting humans, over coercing them by convincing them that they’ve been programmed to fulfill your wishes.
The multi-lingual bridge also unsettles the flatness we had in Trans-Europa Express. The utopia of the EU we see going forward will look rather different. Kraftwerk are in the process of remastering and rereleasing their back catalog, and so doing has occasioned a new cover for Autobahn. The new cover is merely a more restrained version of the UK cover I included above. Gone, then, is the Mercedes and Volkswagen from the original German cover painting (gone, too, is the painting of the band). Instead, the cover is as sterile and as universal as the road sign it emulates. The German reaction to US car culture is replaced with a wider sense of a European car culture. After all, that sign is known all around the EU (but not in the US).
Let’s continue by watching a recent performance of “Autobahn”:
Note that the bandmembers have covered up their red shirts and dark pants, their servant uniforms, with bourgeois jackets. Class mobility! These are not robots singing and performing anymore, but, rather, people just like the happy families in their cars in the various pictures and film clips scrolling behind the band. The images, in fact, tell a story themselves, as they move from the irreality of the painted cover to historical footage of cars to modern images of traffic to stylized, idealized paintings of cars in the sky.8
“Autobahn,” then, reemerges as newly universalized in this, our Treaty of Lisbon Europe. It’s no longer a response to US car culture and a foundation of a European car culture. Now, instead, it’s an fantasy of the car as an amniotic sac moving cleanly through orderly, unified Europe, with national complaints and minority unrest brushed aside, or, at least, inaudible in the soundproofed chamber. The car becomes the delivery unit of hope and the future, as the closing image of the video, a smiling automobile, lets us know that we’re on the right path, even if we want to change it at any time. Nice and safe. And thus we have our banal anthem for the EU, an every nod to the late capitalism that got us to where we are, Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.”
- In the English translation, the natural features are replaced by “Promenades and avenues,” which asserts a Haussmannian turn to the human reappropriation of nature that is somehow anti-utopian, in my reading. The change is apparently to set up the rhyme with “postcard views” in the next line, but it changes the dreamscape of the song brutally. [↩]
- If one considers bicycling as the ultimate sport in terms of rendering the body to a machine, and with its reliance on cardiovascular measurement, a vehicle as a body extension, and pounding pace, it’s probably a good idea to do so, then Tour de France, despite claims made by Die Mensch-Maschine, might end up being the apex of Kraftwerk’s melding of human and machine. [↩]
- When performing, as one can see on the live album Minimum-Maximum, Kraftwerk will mix languages, including a bravura performance of “Taschenrechner” in Japanese, recorded in Tokyo. [↩]
- This video features my favorite recent appropriation of Kraftwerk. [↩]
- A few minutes later into his freeway sketch, Byrne’s narrator promises to explain the difference between American and European cities, but adds that he’s forgotten it. It’s written down at home. [↩]
- Kraftwerk keep up the multi-lingualism within the songs in later work. Sadly, the flat utopia of Trans-Europa Express does give way to some pluralistic gestures. At the same time, the work gets increasingly paranoid. But, then, these might be related responses to globalism. [↩]
- “Работник” has etymological ties to “раб,” the Russian word for “serf,” as does the Czech source of the original word for machine robot. [↩]
- A VW Beetle that seats five? This must be heaven! [↩]