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New New Wave

By Annalee Newitz

"This is a song about how if irony is your only critique then everything is really mediocre."

--Le Tigre

I CANNOT CAPTURE for you in words how blissful I felt in the wake of last week's Le Tigre concert. Fronted by Kathleen Hanna, whose wrathful voice in the band Bikini Kill inspired me to create a website called Riot Grrls! way back in 1994, Le Tigre is a queer nerd girl's dream come true. Like a gender-fucked version of Devo, Le Tigre screams and pounds its mixing boards, thrashing out the kind of psychotic, enraged synth music that hasn't been heard since the late 1970s.

Back when "new wave" was new, Yamaha synthesizers and primitive analog drum kits sounded cold, hard and as troubling as high technology itself once was. Computers hadn't yet been domesticated. They were bulky, inhuman monsters, mainframes and minicomputers whose command line interfaces spoke an alien language. The home PC and friendly GUI hadn't yet penetrated the consumer market. Electronic music wasn't silky smooth like ambient, and you couldn't dance to a controlled techno beat. In fact, when you danced to New Wave, you looked like a freaked-out spaz, a nerd on Jolt. New Wave dances--performed with churning legs, stiff arms and glassy eyes--were homages to robots and mannequins.

I first heard New Wave noises in elementary school, when the sound of kids singing "Whip It" at lunch time mixed with the distant machines building suburbs out of the rich Southern California soil. When I visited my father at work, he used to let me doodle on old punch cards. They were the spindled waste products of mainframes whose bodies rumbled like tanks or airplanes, potential weapons of mass destruction. At that time, computers looked and sounded menacing. And New Wave music perfectly captured the anguish of a culture poised on the brink of embracing something it found terrifying. Devo crashed like light industrial machines run amok; Missing Persons and Berlin sang like the robots we all felt we were destined to become if we found paradise by the cursor's light.

In a weird way, New Wave was a Luddite protest. Although it was all about celebrating technology, the angry bleeps and pared-down noises seemed to suggest that computers were instruments of destruction. These machines did not produce beautiful music. Hence, the computer aesthetic was called cyberpunk, in reference to another musical form whose aim was to rip away prettiness and get at the dark machine logic that lies beneath every polished surface in techno-capitalism.

These days, in the era of Le Tigre and other retro New Wave bands like Chicks on Speed and Adult., we know better. Computers are our friends. They create nice music. Computer animation is smooth and shiny. We decorate our kitty-sized laptops with stickers and snuggle up to our iPods at night. We have lost our fear of computers, but we have replaced it with something far stupider: unconditional love.

I'm happy to see the return of New Wave, in a much-modified form, because it's a critique of techno-culture that is more complicated than ironic horror. The information revolution taught us that computers aren't going to take over the world, and they aren't turning anyone into soulless robots. But our newfound adoration for these machines has allowed raw, unregulated capitalism to penetrate our social lives in ways that are increasingly painful and troubling. As Le Tigre points out in its songs--set to a jagged, twitchy synth beat--computers have become the battlefield where class warfare is waged.

In our boundless enthusiasm to buy the latest cool gadget, we tend to forget how people use machines against each other. The new New Wave wants us to remember that computers are ugly because state and corporate powers are using them to deprive us of freedom. Computer security has become an excuse to lay off non-U.S. laborers in the high-tech sector. Digital copyrights are used to limit our access to news, art and scientific discoveries. Playing on the web is tantamount to screaming, "Put me under surveillance!"

Technology ain't pretty. Use it, hack it, make it your bitch. But remember who controls it. And don't fall in love.

Wow, I think I just wrote my first New Wave song.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who says whip it, whip it good.

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From the March 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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