The Curious Meaning of ‘Computer Love’ by Kraftwerk

In the field of prophetic works of art, Kraftwerk occupies the same space in music as the novelist J. G. Ballard (1930-2009) occupies in science fiction. Ballard’s short stories of the late 1970s and early 1980s, most notably ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ and ‘Motel Architecture’, foresaw our own world of videocalls, online meetings, internet dating, and much else, several decades before those things became a reality.

These stories were both included in Ballard’s 1982 collection, Myths of the Near Future, whose title was borrowed by another K-band, Klaxons, for their 2007 debut album.

Around the same time as Ballard was writing and publishing such stories, the German electronic group Kraftwerk was giving us a glimpse of a similar ‘near future’, via their beautifully wistful song ‘Computer Love’.

‘Computer Love’: summary

In keeping with many of Kraftwerk’s songs, the lyrics to ‘Computer Love’ are minimalist. The introduction and chorus are just the title, ‘Computer Love’, repeated. In addition to this, there are two verses, and they both begin with a repeated phrase.

The first verse centres on the lonely night of the song’s speaker, spent staring at the television screen. The speaker is lonely and feeling lost amidst this apparently meaningless life spent in front of a screen. It’s something that Ray Bradbury, in his wonderful short story ‘The Pedestrian’, had explored some thirty years earlier, albeit with a different focus. The song’s speaker longs for a ‘rendezvous’ or romantic meeting with another human being.

The second verse sees the speaker calling a number to arrange such a rendezvous, or ‘date’. The last two lines of this second verse are identical to the last two lines of the first, reinforcing the sense of hopelessness, and the longing for companionship, felt by the speaker of the song.

‘Computer Love’: meaning and analysis

Computer World (1981) is, in many ways, Kraftwerk’s most perfect album, outdoing even its predecessor, The Man-Machine, for internal cohesion and artistic polish. Where ‘Neon Lights’ – at over nine minutes long – threatened to dilute its shimmering brilliance by outstaying its welcome, no track on Computer World, not even ‘Home Computer’, is a second longer than it needs to be.

That album is, in many ways, a ‘concept album’ of sorts – perhaps the first great electronic concept album of the 1980s – and its themes remain relevant to our own world, over forty years on. When Kraftwerk recorded Computer World, the band didn’t even own a computer, only acquiring one – an Atari – after they had completed the tour that accompanied the album.

Now, of course, computers are an integral part of our daily lives, and data collection (and retention), online dating, and our reliance (over-reliance?) on technology (see ‘Pocket Calculator’?), all of which feature on the album to some extent, are concerns which we live with now more than ever, as the authors of 1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die observe.

Online dating didn’t exist in 1981, of course, and even the worldwide web itself was still a decade away. But the song throws us into this technotopia, this future world in which computers are both the cause of and solution to our loneliness, conjuring a futuristic world, a world not yet born when the song was recorded, all with just a few lines of song lyric.

‘Computer Love’ is the centrepiece of the seven-track album that is Computer World: it is to the second half of the (original vinyl) album what ‘Computer World’ is to the first half. ‘Numbers’ is largely an additional riff on ‘Pocket Calculator’, while ‘It’s More Fun to Compute’ does the same for ‘Home Computer’ on the song’s second side.

But ‘Computer Love’ is the most interesting song on the album, lyrically, and the plaintive tone of those lyrics is well served by the soft synths, and the infectious musical riff (borrowed by Coldplay for their 2005 song ‘Talk’, after Chris Martin wrote to the band asking for their permission, only to receive the laconic one-word reply, ‘Yes’) suggests the ringing of a telephone, evoked in the song’s second verse.

It’s something the band would do again, less subtly, on their long track ‘The Telephone Call’, which occupies the same space on Electric Café (1986) that ‘Computer Love’ inhabits on the previous album. But the subtleties of ‘Computer Love’, the exquisite loneliness where the loner is at once at home with, and at odds with, their solitude and alienation, would never be bettered.

For our money, it’s a track that is even more beautiful and catchy than the band’s most successful UK hit, ‘The Model’, which began as the B-side to ‘Computer Love’ before being promoted to double-A-side status.

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