MGMT’s song about phone addiction joins a long march of tech-phobic pop music

MGMT’s little dark age.
MGMT’s little dark age.
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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The title of the American rock duo MGMT’s newly released (Feb. 9) album, Little Dark Age, should be enough of a hint: It is a record about technology. More accurately, it is a record about the dystopia of technology, joining a swell of Black Mirror-like entertainment that rails against the modern world and its addictions to all sorts of screens.

Take “T.S.L.A.M.P.,” or “Time Spent on My Phone,” an uneasy synth-funk track that serves as one of the highlights of the album, despite its on-the-nose name. “I’m wondering where the hours went / As I’m losing consciousness,” muse MGMT’s two vocalists—who are both 35, the rough upper age limit of the millennial generation—in the song.

“T.S.L.A.M.P.” represents a particular strain of tech ennui, but the dismay it expresses isn’t anything new. It’s the latest in a long, long tradition of pop music expressing angst and dark prophesy about a tech-driven society. Some musicians are so tech-phobic that they eschew technology in the recording process (Daptone Records is one of several labels to have preferred vintage equipment, for example), or keep away from personal digitization in their careers.

On the flip side of all that is the attitude of mainstream hip-hop, which embraces the latest Silicon Valley developments with enthusiasm. By no coincidence, hip-hop and rap are overtaking other genres in popularity, these days, and at record speed to boot.

Below are some of the best tech-paranoiac songs of the last several decades. You’ll find more here.

The Flaming Lips – “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 1” (2002)

Perhaps more fairy-tale than dystopia—but there is untethered catastrophe hinted at in this beautiful song: “These evil-natured robots, they’re programmed to destroy us—she’s gotta be strong to fight them, so she’s taking lots of vitamins.”

St. Vincent – “Digital Witness” (2014)

“If I can’t show it, if you can’t see me / What’s the point of anything?” St. Vincent asks her audience to confront its social-media-driven fear of missing out, in a song both catchy and uncomfortably trivial.

Buggles – “Video Killed the Radio Star” (1980)

Pop stars sing about their own tech-driven demise in a constantly transforming and ruthless industry, in an appropriately meta reflection of the times.

Styx – “Mr. Roboto” (1983)

A classic—if not the classic—musing on the tech apocalypse. “Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto” is the catchiest and most-repeated line of the song, but forget not the more chilling ones that follow: “The problem’s plain to see: too much technology / Machines to save our lives / Machines dehumanize.”

M.I.A. – “Internet Connection” (2010)

M.I.A.’s inspiration for the track, as she told Rolling Stone magazine: “I was having issues with my cable and wireless, and I was on the phone [with tech support] for three hours, and I thought, ‘Maybe this needs to be part of my music, could you just learn these lyrics and sing it down the phone to me?’ Ten phone calls later, I have Internet that sticks and a song.” (It features Filipino Verizon Wireless workers singing the hook.)

Green Day – “Desensitized” (1997)

The screaming in the beginning of the track is an articulation of harassment in the internet age. “Go ahead and kill yourselves / It all amuses me.”

Talking Heads – “(Nothing But) Flowers” (1988)

The best of musical satire, imagining a false, returned-to-nature world that actually laments the sprawl of urbanity.

Radiohead – “Paranoid Android” (1997)

Has there ever been a better opening lyric than “Please, could you stop the noise”?