Thursday, November 09, 2006

Mr. Roboto

Mr. Roboto, which most recently resurfaced in popular culture through its use in a Volkswagen commercial is no mere collage of pleasing words, but rather tells part of an extended science fiction tale which is less about the future and more about the 1980's.

Mr. Roboto's the leadoff track of the 1983 Styx concept album Kilroy was Here. There's a villain named Dr. Everett Righteous. A charismatic cross between a televangelist and Tipper Gore, Righteous runs The Majority for Musical Majority. That group opposes rock n roll, for "its permissive attitudes were responsible for the moral and economic decline of America." He leads a protest at a concert at which one of the MMM protesters dies.

The hero of the record, Robert Orin Charles Kilroy (and what four letters did his mother etch in his underoos?), the leader of the band playing that night, is blamed for the murder, convicted of the crime, "and sent to a prison ship with other rock 'n' roll mistfits..."

Mr. Roboto the song starts here. "Mr. Roboto" is a kind of brand name, for in Styx's fertile 80's-oriented imagination, this "is a future where Japanese manufactured robots, designed to work cheaply and endlessley, are the caretakers of society." The 80's also produced Gung Ho and were a time when the Japanese worker drone society was going to rise up and swallow America. With respect to the racial politics of the story, I would also note that Mr. Roboto is that rare robot of the bucktoothed variety:



In any case, Kilroy whacks one of his robot prison wardens, hollows out the thing and hides inside. He escapes prison, and the song narrates his thoughts:
You're wondering who I am-machine or mannequin
With parts made in Japan, I am the modren man
I've got a secret I've been hiding under my skin
My heart is human, my blood is boiling, my brain I.B.M.
So if you see me acting strangely, don't be surprised
I'm just a man who needed someone, and somewhere to hide
To keep me alive-just keep me alive
I'm not totally sure what "modren" means, but Wil Wheaton speculates that it has something to do with mullets. I imagine it means "I would like this to rhyme." I suspect that the narrator says that he has a computer brain for much the same reason.

The memorable chorus of the song, "domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," expresses ROCK's gratitude to his dead robot captor for aiding the escape:
Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
For doing the jobs that nobody wants to
And thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
For helping me escape just when I needed to
Elements of the story are portrayed in its fairly Blade Runnery video. This Styx site provides the lyrics of the song as well as the text of the Kilroy was Here album insert explaining this scifi censorship parable.

Because, as the 80's taught us, you can't stop the spirit of rock n roll.*

*What is music for, I guess, if not for making you feel like you're fighting for something, as the Baxendale song Music for Girls put it.

1 comment:

Jason Goldman said...

Awesome explication. But are you sure Mr. Roboto isn't really about singing "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto" as loudly as possible.

Because that's pretty much what the song means to me.