On Kraftwerk and Stubbornness

by Michael Ruggiero

When I was a kid I wanted to do something ridiculous: write novels. There was magic to creating characters, making real for the reader a narrative of what had never been.

Later on I became obsessed with music for many of the same reasons. Wood, wires, electricity, and magnets let you create something that would never had existed were it not for your trying.

Was any of it any good? The fiction I wrote? The songs I composed? At their best they were just ok. I didn’t stick with either of them because I didn’t love them enough, and that probably showed. I still love music, but the love is not so powerful that I’d give up everything to make it happen.

I once thought it was that kind of passion you needed to be good at something. But I now supect that passion helps kindle stubbornness, the unwillingness to give up or walk away, and it’s the stubbornness that makes endeavors more likely to succeed.

Kraftwerk makes a perfect example. Kraftwerk is the least likely rock band: intentionally faceless, sexless, bereft of any moves. If they identify with any cultural class, it’s the anonymous consumer. Their songs celebrate radioactivity, trains, pocket calculators, and drives on the Autobahn. No guitar solos, no love songs, all performances controlled reproductions rather than ineffable interpretations.

But Kraftwerk never gave up their vision. They may have tweaked it here and there, but the essential notion remained the same: they were not musicians, but music “workers,” a collective that sang about technology. That was it. Whether it was a gimmick or something they genuinely believed doesn’t matter, because they kept doing it for years. And they became hugely influential. As Sasha Frere-Jones writes, “plenty of people saw the machines coming, but nobody else has listened as carefully to them, or documented their strengths as lovingly” as Kraftwerk.

What any of this has to do with me is the fact that I’m still writing code, mostly because I haven’t had sense enough to quit. Technology excites the passions in the same way that songwriting and prose fiction can, where written abstractions (code) can create, whole cloth, human understanding (numbers). You can never unlearn the experience of bringing something to life that existed only in your imagination. You can never re-experience that first excitement of “it actually works,” but you can continue to approximate it by trying again and again. But only if you stubbornly refuse to quit.