I was really excited to have stumbled upon a single by Kraftwerk – until I realized it was a single from much, much later in the band’s career. But let’s back up for a second. Kraftwerk are a German group, formed in Düsseldorf in 1970, who are widely considered one of the major innovators of what would eventually be known as electronic music. If you thought that Gary Numan’s “Cars” sounded futuristic, I could only imagine the reactions of casual listeners of their Autobahn album. Their simple, repetitive compositions, replete with the simplest of melodies and some positively inane lyrics, seem so simple now, able to be done by any kid with a computer and music-making software. Yet the electronic instruments they used from album to album – including keyboards, synthesizers, vocoders, and drum machines – gave them a unique sound, the likes of which seem nearly unmatched in the 70s. I find that the apex of their work is found in their 1978 album Die Mensch-Maschine, which finds the perfect common ground between their weird, spacey aesthetic and the more melodic synthpop that was starting to gain momentum at the time. They released music into the 80s and all the way into the 21st century, and while the group has consistently remained terrific music-makers, the novelty of their style loses its initial sizzle once the real world forms a more and more intimate connection with computers, via technological advances and the internet. Still, there’s no denying their being one step ahead of the curve in the early days of the electronic music age.
And this is from where the context surrounding this particular single arises. By 1999, Kraftwerk had become less of an underground novelty and held more of a status of legendary music-makers, akin to Chuck Berry and The Beatles in their innovations. It didn’t hurt that their “Tour de France” single was rereleased earlier the same year after being out of print for years, undoubtedly giving them a boost of popularity for a whole new generation of listeners. Moreover, “Expo 2000” was the first recording of new music from the group since 1986’s Electric Café, which is exciting enough for existing fans alone. As the title and year of this single suggests, this single follows with the trend of discussion that arose throughout the year 1999, with anxieties that occurred over the fate of the world once the dates entered a new millennium. With a world now run by computers and a programming error that had the world’s economy hanging by a string, it’s only natural that some interesting art would arises from this brief, interesting time in our history.
And thus, we get “Expo 2000”. For a band that has always had such a vivid imagination of a world run by computers and technology, this song couldn’t have come at a better time (well, except for today maybe, but I’ll digress). As interesting as it should have been, however, this single is not. By ’99, Kraftwerk had reached a level of infamy that had them imitated and even parodied countless times over, so maybe a brand-spanking-new single from the group was doomed for failure from the start. As the computer voice speaks signature empty phrases over a spacey synthesizer riff, it feels just so dull and uninspired, as if this was made by a kid with musical software and not infamous developers of a whole entire genre. Moreover, one of the best qualities about Kraftwerk is their seamless, seemingly miraculous ability to make the most organically beautiful tones and emotions come out of a bunch of cold, unfeeling machines. This is best heard in tracks such as “Neon Lights” or even “Computer Love” from their 1981 album Computerwelt. No emotion is to be found here, which I suppose is the point, but it doesn’t make for anything particularly interesting to listen to.
The one positive thing I can say about this track is that I really dig the main keyboard riff that drives this song along. The melodic line really sounds like something that could have come from Kraftwerk’s best work of the late 70s and 80s. Overall, though, it’s sad to say that I’m not too sure that a group such as Kraftwerk to exist to make new material into the 21st century. Their vision of a world run by unspeakable technological progressions seems so tied to the naive optimism of the second half of the 20th century, when people imagined that flying cars would become the norm once the year 2000 came around. As it stands, though, the technology of our world melded in much more effortlessly with society than anyone could have ever predicted, making any vision of further growth seem a lot less sexy in retrospect. Still, while I couldn’t recommend this song to anyone, the band’s material from the peak of their career is still undeniably beautiful with each and every listen. I doubt that any of these songs would date themselves into obscurity anytime soon.