In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, as part of our salute to artificial intelligence, we’re looking at songs about robots and/or computers.
Critics have long accused Ladytron of being too remote and unemotional, musically speaking, to really connect. It’s a case of missing the forest for the trees, because the band connects with the listener precisely because of that initial iciness, not despite it. Ladytron crafts smooth, shimmering slices of electro pop, all hard edges and monotonous vocals on the surface, but with a deceptive warmth and gothic poetry that draws listeners in through repetition. The group’s average song possesses a driving beat and sing-song lyrics, simple structures and verse-chorus-verse patterns, but what seems a shallow pleasure takes on depth as it’s reiterated. Lyrics like “What you touch, you don’t feel / Do not know what you steal” (“Destroy Everything You Touch” off 2005’s Witching Hour) come across weak on paper, and surprisingly profound when echoed over the group’s dark electronic constructions.
Thus, it was a near-perfect fusion of artist and subject when the group wrote “Deep Blue” for 2008’s Velocifero. The song addresses the idea of computer love with the kind of no-nonsense, stripped-down lyrical simplicity that characterizes all of Ladytron’s best work. With a simple, almost tinny drum beat and swooping synths, it’s a fluid concoction reminiscent of early ’90s techno-pop. On its surface, the song’s narrator is addressing the famed chess-playing computer that beat Garry Kasparov in 1997, a computer that was then retired and dismantled by IBM after its victory. Mira Aroyo’s vocals make her suggestive pleas to the computer into a purring come-on. “I’m sorry for the news the other day / Let’s go and play before they take you down,” she sings. “Deep blue, let’s get a train out of town / To a place that’s easier to get around.” She’s calling for a connection with an unemotional robot.
Only not so much. The repeating chorus drives home the idea that something else is going on, a reaching out that uses Deep Blue to suggest there’s more to this whole technology thing than meets the eye. “Deep Blue, I want to give it all to you / Deep Blue, I know that scares you.” Soon, Aroyo’s telling the computer to find its smile, that she wants to make it laugh, that together they can find a way to be strong. It all sounds a bit ridiculous when you spell it out, but the music and vocals give it a languid plausibility that’s affecting and potent. You can read it as an allegory for all sorts of things if you like, and it works just as well. But I’ve always enjoyed it in its most literal form: trying to pull feeling out of something that can’t give you what you want. In a world where we tend to anthropomorphize our technology more and more, what could be more plaintive and touching than seeking a human connection somewhere it will never be?