Techno was born free—but everywhere it lies in chains. Electronic music today has largely come to be associated with the blistering heat and piercing lights of the rave hall, the occasional ambient track playing in the background of the airport lounge, or bizarre moments such as David Guetta including a Martin Luther King Jr. sample in one of his beat drops. This picture is not so much incorrect as it is incomplete. The ravers and David Guettas of the world have just as much a claim to electronic music as anyone else—but their close connection with the genre has come to obscure its past as both a mirror of society and a site of resistance. Nowhere was the genre’s role clearer than in Germany at the end of WWII.
Besides the diesel engine and Marxism, electronic music is perhaps Germany’s most influential export—and the seeds for its emergence were first planted as part of an anti–communist marketing scheme. The first great battle of the Cold War didn’t take place in a divided Korea or the straits of Turkey, but in the late–night dive bars of a divided Berlin. Split between the Western and Soviet occupations, different bars in Berlin were subject to different regulations, especially regarding mandated closing times. The Soviets decided to move their curfew an hour later in order to let bars in their occupation zone pick up the late–night traffic of people kicked out of bars that had been forced to close in the West. Not to be outdone, the Western Allies chose the nuclear option and abolished their curfew entirely, letting nightlife establishments operate at whatever hours they chose. The 24–hour bars this decision spawned, which would later grow into the nightclubs that make Berlin famous to this day, proved to be fertile ground for a cultural revolution.
Before it took root in the club scene, electronic music arose from the musique concrète scene of the early 1950s, whose primary participants were oddball composers and sound technicians who sought to make new compositions out of old recordings using the era’s most cutting–edge recording technologies, such as the tape recorder. Eventually, however, an offshoot of this movement rejected the use of sound originating in the real world altogether, instead constructing entire works based on noises produced by electronic devices. It’s here, with composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and his band of researchers in Cologne, that the history of “electronic music” per se can be said to have truly begun. Listening to Stockhausen’s work now, however, it may seem more like a monkey jumping on a soundboard’s buttons than a true composition in any recognizable sense.
But the penetration of electronic music into the mainstream was not far off—and no one did it quite as successfully as Kraftwerk. Emerging from a musical milieu that combined experimental rock with early electronic instruments, Kraftwerk brought electronic music into its mainstream. With musical technology that they helped develop, Kraftwerk was able to portray a world where technology constantly seemed to be revolutionizing itself. On albums like Radio-Activity, Computer World, and The Man-Machine, Kraftwerk’s songs all revolved around the various ways in which the postwar economic boom and the scientific discoveries that came with it completely upended people’s everyday lives.
Replete with dry, repeating synth lines and monotone vocals, songs like “Computer Love” also portray the dark sides of the technological revolution, offering an almost prophetic vision in which the ubiquity of advanced technology leads people to feel alienated and withdrawn from their own lives. Electronic instrumentation gave artists a new ability to represent what it was like to live in a world where unprecedented technological growth seemed at once thrilling and terrifying.
In his very German Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote that “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.” If Kraftwerk and their ilk provided an interpretation of postwar capitalist society, it would take a bit longer for someone to try and tear it all down. Although the democratic reconstruction of West Germany had liberalized its political system, it was still a deeply conservative society. The frustrations of a generation of German youth who felt constrained by their reactionary society were palpable in the music that they produced, especially after the collapse of the student protest movements that ravaged Europe in 1968. Going into the ‘70s and ‘80s, a clear bifurcation emerged within the electronic movement. The question of the age seemed to be—where do we go from here? One answer was given by “coldwave.” In an age where student activism had seemingly failed, coldwave’s detached instrumentation signaled the alienation many young people felt with the direction of society. The German–speaking Swiss band Grauzone expressed the frustration of a generation with their hit “Eisbär”, shouting desperately that, “I want to be a polar bear in the cold polar / Then I wouldn't have to scream anymore.”
While coldwave seemed to give up on the possibility of defying a stifling social order, a new generation of avant–garde musicians continued to experiment with musical forms as a means of subversion. Electronic instrumentation, no longer separate from traditional musical mediums, became just one tool out of many for the dadaists of the time. The band Palais Schaumburg (their name itself a reference to the headquarters of the West German government) combined mechanical noise with heavy brass on their track, “Wir bauen eine neue Stadt”, signaling explicitly their intention to “build a new state.” Regardless of their rhetoric, the detachment of Grauzone and the erratic experimentation of Palais Schaumburg pointed to the same sentiment among the German youth—a deep disillusionment with a society that didn’t represent them.
Marx’s “real movement to abolish the present state of things” would only truly arise following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the early 1990s. Though capitalism had seemingly won the great clash of civilizations, not everyone was satisfied with this new world order. In the wake of reunification, the clubs and raves that Berlin had become famous for only grew in size and were even seen as venues for a “social reunification” that would bring together people East and West—but a small crew of defectors believed that the rave scene had lost its way. It was in this context that “digital hardcore” arose in Berlin. Artists like Atari Teenage Riot and Ec8or sought not only to make people dance, but express their hatred for a society built on inequality and racism.
The rage that came out in songs like “Hetzjagd Auf Nazis” and “Destroy 2000 Years of Culture” was often just as personal as it was political—rather than lay out any coherent vision of society, the Berlin radicals were largely content with destroying a world they saw as deeply unfree and figuring the rest out later. The radicalism of their rhetoric could only be done justice by an artistic form just as outlandish. The searing drum rhythms, metallic screeches, and haunting drones that defined digital hardcore were only made possible by the development of high–tech electronic instruments. In the wake of bureaucratic socialism’s grand collapse, hardcore electronic music channeled the rage of a generation that sought freedom not just from “government tyranny,” but from the abstract domination of capital that ruled the Western world.
Through their versatility, synthesizers and other electronic instruments have wormed their way into every modern musical genre—in a way, all of our music is at least a little bit “electronic.” But none of this would have been possible without the work of the German composers, engineers, and social critics that allowed electronic music to penetrate the mainstream at all. So the next time you're at a rave, or even hear what you suspect might be a drum machine in the background of a Taylor Swift song, give a quick shout out to the Allied Powers.