The Sadness of Techno

When I’m at work I like to listen to techno on Pandora. It’s not that I like techno. I don’t collect it or talk about it or get excited about it really. Techno does not turn me on or make me feel the artist’s emotional moods, like rock often does. Nor does it even relax me and put me in a good mood, like jazz does. But techno does have one property that I like – it’s good background music for computer programming. My flickering screen merges with the drum and bass and sort of downloads my brain effortlessly through web sites, google search boxes, terminal windows, multiple desktops, lines of code and even odd unix commands. I feel nothing. I am reminded of nothing. I just move and work faster in a flurry of beats and flashing and circulating windows and HTML layouts.
I feel nothing. Or do I? As I sat absentmindedly listening to Pandora today, it occurred to me that techno is very sad. Oh, it’s not intentionally sad like Lou Reed’s 1973 “The Kids” –

They’re taking her children away
because they said she was not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
because of the things she did in the streets
In the alleys and bars, no she couldn’t be beat
that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn, anyone away

Now that’s sad, complete with children crying at the end. But it’s very literal.

And it’s not even sad like the early synthesizer songs, which sound sad to me because they are from a distant time when everything seemed hopeful and new and synth music seemed the key to a strange and perfect world.

Techno’s nostalgia is vaguer and more uncanny. It’s not the feeling of losing touch with one era, but with the entire history of human culture. All those tiny little beats and half-tunes and soulful but disembodied female voices work together to remind me of the entire history of pop music, fading slowly and collectively into the horizon. All those songs that remind you of getting laid or dancing in a club, or driving in your car, or getting stoned (or something else), or discovering some great new sound like punk or funk or rap that you think will set you apart from everyone at school and make you truly bad-ass. All those songs are leveled and reduced to one note each, millions of little bits-and-bytes in a futuristic digital map that pulls you in and then slips effortlessly and digitally just out of your reach. You can’t get a grip on it anymore, and that produces a strange longing for me at least.

The connection with recognizable songs is getting further and further out of reach too. In the 80’s when house and techno first came about, samples were longer and recognizable. The female vocalist sang whole songs, like “Gypsy Woman” with choruses and so forth. Or at least they sang whole sentences:

“I don’ want/a place to stay/get your booty on the floor tonight/make my day”.

Over time the samples became smaller. Now all you might hear is “make my make my make my” or even less…”ma-ma-ma” – but you’d still recognize the original song, or maybe you’d just recognize that it was once a song! The vocals are the saddest part of techno for me. The little barely audible bits still contain all the joy and pleasure – and therefore all the sad nostalgia – of the original disco divas who sang them but whose voices now seem to be on the verge of disappearing into the electronic sea surrounding them.

Techno is like being in a space craft and moving slowly away from earth. Like the continents, the samples become smaller and smaller and more unrecognizable. Finally you are left inside an almost entirely computerized environment looking back sadly at a distant impression of the human world that once surrounded you.

Of course the feeling of moving away from human music, or moving away from earth, does not need to be sad. It could be bright and hopeful, a fearless new post-human future on the horizon. Perhaps with time it will feel more brave and fearless. Then I will be standing bravely at the precipice of this spacecraft, moving toward my space destiny. But for now, I just feel too attached to the memories of all those sampled songs that are being left abandoned like empty buildings on the side of the freeway.