Moon-Age Daydreams

Science-fiction metaphors invade popular music
  • Photo: Wendell Teodoro/WireImage.com
    Kraftwerk perform at the Global Gathering festival in Sydney on Nov. 30, 2008
  • Janelle Monáe in "Tightrope"
  • Photo: Jay West/WireImage.com
    Muse's Matthew Bellamy performs at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on Oct. 9
  • Photo: Robert Smith/PhotoWeb/WireImage.com
    George Clinton & The Parliament Funkadelic
  • Photo: Dove Shore/Getty Images
    Kraftwerk perform using four mannequin lookalikes at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on April 26, 2008
  • Photo: Matt Kent/WireImage.com
    David Weiss of Was (Not Was)
  • Photo: Micky Shirley
    John Shirley
October 20, 2010 -- 5:03 pm PDT
By Bill Forman / GRAMMY.com

"We are all interested in the future," intones the narrator in Ed Wood's 1958 film Plan 9 From Outer Space, "for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives."

Of course, what shape that future will end up taking is anyone's guess. While it's true that elements of George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World are all too recognizable these days, most speculative fiction— from Wood's no-budget interplanetary pie plates to cyberpunk's infinite virtual realities — is more escapist than predictive.

What's certain is the fact that, more than a century after the publication of H. G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds, the tropes of science fiction are still replicating themselves throughout our culture.

And popular music is far from immune.

In September, UK alt-rock band Muse turned a two-night residency at London's Wembley Stadium into an ambitious space oddity marked by the landing of a massive UFO prop complete with an acrobatic alien.

While Muse's stadium-bound dirigible recalls the floating pigs long favored by Pink Floyd, a more direct antecedent may be George Clinton's Parliament. After breaking through in 1975 with Mothership Connection, Clinton's space-age funk group launched a tour in which a "life-size" spaceship would descend upon the stage.

In fact, the use of science-fiction devices in popular music has a long history, one that dates back to jazz artist Sun Ra's decades-long insistence that he came from Saturn.

Take, for example, "21st Century Schizoid Man," the opening track on King Crimson's 1969 debut album. In an interview nearly 35 years later — just days after a uniformed "mission accomplished" declaration by President George W. Bush — British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as one of his all-time favorite songs. (The fact that Bush's "shock and awe" cohort held lyrics like "Cat's foot, iron claw/Neurosurgeons scream for more" in such high regard was not entirely comforting.)

A decade later, German electro-pop quartet Kraftwerk appeared alongside four mannequin lookalikes as they sang replicant anthems such as "The Robots" and "Showroom Dummies."

Science-fiction imagery has since been embraced by a diverse range of musicians that include synthpop star Gary Numan, techno-industrial band Front Line Assembly and hip-hop surrealist Kool Keith, aka Dr. Octagon.

At the moment, arguably the most celebrated and talented sci-fi standard bearer is soul/pop sensation Janelle Monáe. Inspired by Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, Monáe borrowed the name for her first EP, which is set in the year 2719 (numerical dyslexia, anyone?) and introduces characters and themes that are continued on her latest album, The ArchAndroid.

"There was just something about the imagery that led me to want to create a whole album around the concept of the haves and the have-nots, and how we can get along," says Monáe.

Monáe's lyrics center around her android alter ego, Cindy Mayweather, whose persecution serves as a metaphor for slavery, gay bashing and economic disparity.

"I come from a very working-class family, so I represent for the have-nots," says Monáe. "My mother was a janitor, my father drove trash trucks. And I want to make sure that [the the have-nots] have music that empowers them and motivates them and inspires them. That's pretty much the concept that ties it all in. And the reason why I believe that I connect with the androids is that they represent a new form of the 'other.'"

The video for Monáe's recent single, "Tightrope," finds her being followed down an asylum hallway by cloaked, mirror-faced figures. It's an unsettling image, one that was previously used in the early '40s by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren and again by Sun Ra in his 1974 film, Space Is The Place.

Monáe also has a tendency to make extraordinary claims about her own life, insisting, in an impenetrable deadpan, that she can travel through time — which would explain how she has successfully teleported Sun Ra's Afrofuturism into a new century.

"Sun Ra was the first interplanetary big bandleader — if you don't count Vsk-Mal Fenzz from Supernova X-22a," smirks David Weiss, a former jazz critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner who went on to pen his own hyper-imaginative songs with the band Was (Not Was). "I believe that Ra had half a tongue in his cheek at all times [and] a firm grasp on showmanship that was part Fletcher Henderson and part Marcel Duchamp."

Weiss speculates that Sun Ra's space motifs "might have had as much to do with avoiding military service as reflecting an actual belief that he came from Saturn. Either way, he was the first in the music world to create a fictional persona for the coming space age — long before Ziggy Stardust. For this alone, he was a visionary artist who grabbed the attention of the LSD era like no one else."

The hallucinatory potential of outer space was driven home by Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, a 1965 novel in which characters dose themselves with the hallucinogen "Chew-Z" in order to escape the hardships of life on Mars. Years later, in the song "Ashes To Ashes" David Bowie recast his beloved "Space Oddity" character in a decidedly different vein: "Ashes to ashes/Funk to funky/We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low."

"Science fiction offers alternatives, doorways out — even the [Rolling] Stones engaged in it with '2000 Light Years From Home,'" says John Shirley, a cyberpunk author who has written songs for Blue Öyster Cult (just as author Michael Moorcock had done three decades ago). Shirley agrees that science fiction can be "a bit druggy in feel, almost a psychedelic experience," and cites works by Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, Monster Magnet, 13th Floor Elevators, and Kool Keith as examples.

Shirley also views science fiction's metaphors as a way of dealing with the uncomfortable aspects of our own personalities. "We're afraid of our own savagery and we project it onto extraterrestrials," he says. "Clearly the aliens in [the 2009 sci-fi film] District 9 stand for third-world humanity, which is demonized by those who are more fortunate."

Shirley's Blue Öyster Cult songs range from the apocalyptic "The Old Gods Return" to the '50s film-inspired "X-Ray Eyes." Weiss, meanwhile, took a more satirical tact in Was (Not Was) songs such as "Needletooth" and "The Party Broke Up," with a setting he describes as "an inchoate future where alienation reigns and paranoia is a close cousin."

But even science fiction has its limits.

"I much prefer the bitter realism of Dostoevsky to the conceits of Asimov and Heinlein," says Weiss, who considers our earth-bound present to be at least as unsettling as any alien future.

"You ain't got to be green to be 'other,'" he adds. "Remember what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said of this planet: 'Earth is the insane asylum of the universe.'"

(Bill Forman is a writer and music editor for the Colorado Springs Independent and the former publications director for The Recording Academy.)
 

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