The Popstream: Our Friends the Robots


Ever since man first gazed upon the stars and took in the vast, almost infinite possibility of space, he has wondered what it would be like if robots played music. Why this required staring up into the sky, I don't know. History is strange like that. Science-fiction author and speculative robotician Isaac Asimov once said in 1976 that "A robot musician is a certain ideal; its reception to programming may mean that it would require less time to master its arts than a human who requires countless hours of practice to reach even rudimentary skills. As an additional bonus, robots do not smell bad and drink until violent; subsequently the ways and habits of flesh-and-blood musicians of a popular-hits ilk must certainly necessitate an android-based succession if music is to survive into the 21st century." The bitterness in this statement may have arisen from the fact that Asimov lost his coveted Mr. International Celebrity Muttonchop King title to Neil Young two years previous, but one look at the state of the music industry as it stands right now may prove his predictions of a non-robot-based record industry's collapse to be all too prescient. Not that there wasn't a concerted effort to see this glorious vision of automaton-created pop music over the decades...

England, 1963: While there may have been precursors, it is generally agreed that the Tornados' "Robot" is the first true attempt at establishing a 100% entirely inorganic pop-combo of mechanical men. While the musical end result is a fascinating bit of early electronic-skewing rock music -- rendered prematurely quaint and cast into the "novelty" category once those meatbags in the Beatles came around with their aging process and their digestive systems -- the robots themselves are a bit clumsy and inefficient at expressing themselves in a physical sense. Note how these shambling examples approach a group of women and are making it unclear as to whether the robots are flirting with them or threatening to annihilate them with their ocular-deployed Z-Rays. As a tragic postscript, which is captured on film here, these robots were all subsequently arrested after several of the women attempted to make out with them; England's laws against mixed-sentience relationships were pretty draconian back then.

Germany, 1978: Robot musicians fell out of favor in the English-speaking world in the 15 years since the Tornados song, largely because the spectacle of humanoid machines holding guitars and playing drum kits struck most people as hideously grotesque. But in the 1970s, a band from Düsseldorf hit upon a revelation: if you replace the guitars with synthesizers and drum machines, the Uncanny Valley can be breached and people will prove to be more receptive to robotic musicians. Subsequently their doppelgangers, which were built from department store mannequins and spare Porsche parts, somehow invented techno music, which is proof enough that the inevitable mid-21st-century robot uprising will at least be soundtracked by music that's fun to get high to.

United States, 1986: Unfortunately, not all efforts to establish robots as a viable market presence in the music industry paid off. America, already lagging in the tech race behind Japan and reeling from its difficulty in building a car that wasn't a total crapheap, saw another setback in the mid 1980s when they misguidedly put millions of dollars of efforts into creating an animatronic pop musician and inexplicably decided to put all their R&D into replicating Lou Reed during that brief window of time when he wasn't very good. Captured here for posterity is the first test run of model L-R33D.86, which, while attempting to perform "No Money Down," malfunctions and self-destructs by tearing off its own face. Engineers later admitted that this should have been a foreseen incident, since human test subjects frequently attempted to do the same while exposed to this song.

France, 2006: Thankfully, it appears as though we have finally reached the state-of-the-art in robomusicians, as Daft Punk's PyramidTronLazerScan Wireframe Interface v.9xZ (Revision 2) was a rousing success in its 2006/2007 deployment across the globe. Scientists assure us that the possibility of a catastrophic SkyNet-style AI disaster is extremely unlikely, and that if such a thing were somehow to occur, the most harm these robots could do to a human populace is inflict an incomprehensible and slow-moving art film upon it.