None of these twelve songs are about real robots — the self-propelled mechanical lackeys that vacuum our homes, deliver our packages, and show us the surface of Mars. But some of the songs do mock our fears of the little Frankenstein monsters we’ve created, or the bigger ones we might someday. Some are inspired by fictional robots. And the rest use robots as stand-ins for tackling other topics. But if anything ties these songs together, it’s the idea that robots don’t serve as fingerposts to the future so much as reflections of who we are now.
(Scroll down for the Apple Music playlist. Click on the titles for lyrics at genius.com.)
1. The Robots – Kraftwerk (1978)
Kraftwerk is the original “robot pop,” proto-Daft-Punk band, started in the 1970s, when synths were analog and therapy was king. So no surprise that this song sounds like an affirmation: We are the robots/We are the robots/We are the robots/We are the robots. Pretty straightforward first-person robot fare.
2. Hey! (Rise of the Robots) – The Stranglers (1978)
Hey! Get out of their way! Hey! Way their of out get! That’s the mixed-up warning from the punk/post-punk band The Stranglers in this song from an early album. Even back then, the rise of the robots looked inevitable, and the Stranglers give plenty of evidence, including this nugget: You won’t have to grease their palms/Shorter hours longer arms. It’s a sendup of the robot takeover genre, and yet sung so earnestly, with a class-war agenda.
3. Robot – The Futureheads (2004)
I have no mind, why don’t I have a mind? Introduced by hard-hitting drums, the robot in this song thinks like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz… except that it really does have no brain. Ironically? Still, as long as robots are oiled regularly, they’ve got advantages: When you age I will not change/I think I’ll be around forever if you don’t mind.
4. Robots – Flight of the Conchords (2008)
Musical-comic geniuses Brit and Jemaine play the robots in this one, and they sing about a zany robot uprising that leaves all humans dead. We poisoned their asses. Actually, their lungs. The result? Earth is better off: There is no more unhappiness… There is no more unethical treatment of the elephants/Well, there’s no more elephants, so…. Oh, and anyway the Earth now has only two kinds of dances: the Robo, and the Robot Boogie. Laugh-out-loud fun.
5. Marvin I Love You – John Sinclair (1981)
Robot-on-robot crush. A bright, thumping, novelty song featuring Marvin the Paranoid Android, the irrepressibly depressing but lovable robot in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. He’s an eternal pessimist, and in his case, “eternal” has real weight — he waits millions of years for his human companions in the parking garage at The Restaurant at the Edge of the Universe. In this song, he almost finds love after accidentally pushing a button on his dusty old databank, and then can’t track down his secret admirer. But hey, ultimately, robots don’t have the capacity to love each other anyway, right? Which brings us to…
6. I Love You (Miss Robot) – The Buggles (1979)
Human-for-robot lust. Decades before the movies Her and Ex Machina, The Buggles imagined a human being’s physical attraction for artificial intelligence, in delicate detail: Touch the seam on your silver skin… Of course, the reason the human being loves the object of his attraction so much is because it (she) operates at his whim — by design. By the end, however, he’s craving something human from it, which of course it’s unable to give: his affection returned.
7. Breakdown – The Alan Parsons Project (1977)
This song comes from the Alan Parson Project’s album I Robot — inspired by Isaac Asimov’s novel I, Robot, but lacking the comma (and other specificities) in order to avoid legal troubles. Asimov apparently approved the band’s concept but had already sold rights to his Robot series. The protagonist (I imagine) is a robot who finds itself unchained from its programming, suddenly facing the complexities of human imperfection, freedom, and loneliness. “Breakdown” is at once emotional *and* mechanical — what is metaphor in human terms becomes literal for robots. A mesmerizing bass line (a signature of the band) fittingly merges the idea of the robotic with the mystery of being human.
8. The Body Electric – Rush (1984)
1-0-0-1-0-0-1. Geddy Lee sings part of this song in binary! No doubt to appeal to his robotic listeners. Seriously though, it’s inspired by a Twilight Zone episode and short story written by Ray Bradbury (who took the title from a Walt Whitman poem) about a Mary-Poppins-like electronic grandmother who provides a family with love and stability. But Rush, no stranger to philosophical themes, and a little like the Alan Parsons Project, was more interested in robotic breakdown, possibly echoing a fear of the unknown that was closer to the heart: Memory banks unloading/Bytes break into bits/Unit one’s in trouble/And it’s scared out of its wits.
9. Mr. Roboto – Styx (1983)
I’m Kilroy. Kilroy. That’s the chant at the end of the song, when the protagonist reveals he’s not a robot after all. Styx had a flair for dramatic kitsch, so this episode of robot denial is the climatic chapter in an album-long story about Kilroy, who was using Mr. Roboto’s identity (and body) for his own revolutionary political purposes. The message maybe was a little trite: The problem’s plain to see:/Too much technology/Machines to save our lives./Machines dehumanize. But Kilroy (and we) are grateful for his metal friend’s sacrifice, expressed in the unforgettable 1980s-era refrain: Domo ari gato, Mr. Roboto.
10. Paranoid Android – Radiohead (1997)
Radiohead takes our friend Marvin (see above) and turns the dilemma of robotic melancholy on its human head. I may be paranoid, but not an android: the singer’s persona wants to believe this, but do we, really? Of course not! A multi-part opera of soft acoustics and layered distortion, this song seems to be about the internalization of social conformity and other modern insanities. Witness: Ambition makes you look pretty ugly/Kicking, squealing Gucci little piggy and The yuppies networking on me/The panic, the vomit. But actually, Thom Yorke was apparently at a party and someone really threw up on him. I can’t help but imagine Yorke running into Marvin in that parking garage, and the two of them droning on at each other over the course of centuries.
11. I Am Not a Robot – Marina and The Diamonds (2010)
The song that hooked me on Marina Diamandis’ music, and a heck of an anthem. We don’t really know if she’s singing to someone else or to herself (You are not a robot… I am not a robot.), which adds some instability to her certainty. The song makes a plea for personal freedom and release from social pressures, but Marina’s declarations are so emphatic and so operatic that you almost want to believe that she is a robot, trying to convince herself otherwise. After all, there are no “Diamonds” in her band. The diamonds, like the robots in all these songs, are us.
12. Robot Boy – Linkin Park (2010)
On an otherwise dismal-in-tone yet beautifully epic album about the possibility of human apocalypse (A Thousand Suns), Linkin Park holds out hope in this track that individuals can resist the dehumanizing forces that threaten to turn us all into functions of the machine — even if those forces have surrounded us so thoroughly that we’ve internalized them. You say, the weight of the world/Has kept you from letting go./And you think, compassion’s a flaw/And you’ll never let it show. Like the previous song, it’s an anthem that stems from personal crisis. But more so, our protagonist’s humanity contains the seed for uprising. But someday, the weight of the world/Will give you the strength to go.