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Links between popular music and science fiction the focus of research

SOUNDS OF SCIENCE FICTION: Professor Ken McLeod of visual and performing arts probes the connections between music and science fiction. (Photo by Caz Zyvatkauskas.)

by Anjum Nayyar

When David Bowie came up with his famous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, he likely never anticipated that this sci-fi “Martian messiah who twanged a guitar” with a futuristic sound would be considered dated only decades later.

That’s what Professor Ken McLeod of humanities at U of T Scarborough says he finds so fascinating about his research on the links between popular music and science fiction. His current work looks at a variety of topics: classical music, synergies between sports and rock music and how images of aliens and space travel permeate rock and pop.

“There is an increasing confrontation between man and machine and increasing reliance by man on technology. I study how the repertoire sounds and how it relies on today’s cutting-edge technology; 10 years down the line ironically, those works often sound dated precisely because they are so rooted in today’s technology,” said McLeod, who teaches music history and culture. “The idea in a lot of these works is to point to the future. But it is often a real marker of the moment of the era we’re in now.”

Many of us have read science fiction but may not have realized that we have listened to a significant amount of science fiction inspired music over the years as well. “One of the earliest ever rock songs is Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 and it immediately linked space travel with rock n’ roll, just as Bill Haley and his Comets also reinforced the idea that rock n’ roll was new, alien or from outer space,” said McLeod. This can also be seen in many African-American forms of music, he said.

“In Afro-Futurism there is a tendency to focus on Intentional misuses of, or broken, technology. The most common example of this is in rap or hip-hop. Turntables, which are usually used to play records, are used instead to produce sound.”

McLeod, who is an electric bass guitar player in addition to being a musicologist, finds that many influential artists use space and extraterrestrial themes to represent the possibilities of future political, racial or sexual liberation. He said David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust was a good example of this “I looked at David Bowie and how he used an alien character and images of space in songs like Space Oddity as a metaphor for his own sexual alienation.”

McLeod said it is also important to note that science fiction and music cross-pollinations encompass a variety of forms and media. These relationships can be found, for example, among artists and songs that incorporate science fiction themes, in the importance of music in science fiction movies, television and video game sound tracks and in the influence of futurism on musical styles and genres.”

McLeod said the manifestation of science fiction is still present in contemporary music. “This notion of Afro futurism is still cogent in songs like Kanye West’s Stronger, for example, West samples the techno group Daft Punk and his voice is digitally altered to sound robotic.

In addition, the video quotes the Japanese science fiction anime movie Akira. The song also references both the Olympic credo Faster, Higher, Stronger and the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man (“We can rebuild him…better, stronger, faster”). There is a direct confrontation in that song between man and machine and a problematization of technological performance enhancement.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough