My life is increasingly mediated by the internet, even more than it was in college. I’m blogging more, using OKCupid, and repping the shit out of my writing all over Facebook. I stay up late drinking and chat with people, which is what I also did when I was in middle school (without the drinking). It’s in times like these that the lyrics of Gary Numan seem to speak to my lifestyle, one that I’m sure many share.
Gary Numan, the enigmatic, robotic man behind the hit single “Cars” (’79), might just have been a great visionary during the ’80s and inadvertently predicted things like the internet and Facebook – in the film world, the same might be said of David Cronenberg; his films Scanners (’81) and Videodrome (’83) surely have a special spot in media theory paradise.
With Numan’s first album, Tubeway Army (’78), it was already clear that Numan’s songwriting was concerned with the relationship between man and machine and what we would now call the post-human condition. It includes lyrics like “Me I’ve just died / but some machine keeps on humming / I’m just an extra piece of dead meat to keep running,” from the track “Life Machine.” Anyone listening to a lot of Gary Numan will notice that the word “me” figures heavily in his lyrics. The song “My Love is a Liquid” from the same album features the lines “can’t meet you face-to-face / There are no corners to hide in my room / No doors, no windows, no fire place.” In our times, this is a blatant comment on the way the internet mediates social relations.
Numan’s following album, Replicas (’79), couldn’t be more drenched with prophetic visions of the internet and Facebook. The opening lines of “Me! I Disconnect from You” – in itself a charged title – are metaphors for botched Facebook relationships: “The alarm rang for days / you could tell from the conversations / I was waiting by the screen / I couldn’t recognize my photograph / Me, I disconnect from you” – the line about the screen doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the late ’70s, unless Numan was specifically talking about an imagined form of communication. It practically goes without saying that “disconnecting” from someone entails ending a Facebook relationship or, even worse, de-friending someone. It doesn’t even require analysis to see why the following track, “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” is rich with Facebook meaning. The track “You Are in My Vision” anticipates critiques of television by theorists like Marshall Mcluhan, Jean Baudrillard, and though not a theorist, naturally Cronenberg in Scanners and Videodrome, with its lines “Fade to screens of violence / Like a TV screen but silent / Where the victims are all paid by the hour.”
The Pleasure Principle (’79), recorded after Replicas, is Numan’s most lauded album and surely his most popular, mostly because of the hit “Cars.” Again, this album is like a treatise on the post-human condition, and its song “Metal” looks to the Japanese cyberpunk film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (’89), featuring the lines “the sound of metal I want to be you.” The follow-up to The Pleasure Principle, Telekon (’80) is similarly ripe with songs and song titles that are evocative of the internet, such as “I Dream of Wires” and “Joy Circuit.” It’s not difficult to make the case that these early Numan albums in particular are highly suggestive and obvious metaphors for something that didn’t even exist yet as we know it now.
After Telekon, Numan’s popularity diminished until he started to gain a new audience interested in various subgenres of music like “dark wave” and industrial with the 1997 album Exile. During his period of relative unpopularity, however, he maintained his fan base and even released a live album entitled White Noise in 1985, the same year Don Delilo’s postmodern novel on media saturation and consumerism, White Noise, was published – yet another curious affinity with cultural currents and trends.
Like Cronenberg in the film world, Numan produced songs and albums that have a surface appeal for their spectacle and trendy sounds (Cronenberg’s film have the appeal of being gross-out horror films while also making compelling statements about media and society) that at the same time emit of a near prophetic, insightful vision of a culture increasingly mediated by machines.