808’s and Heartbreak

I recently heard a DJ enthusiastically introducing Kanye West’s new song, of course she loved the album but felt that it was a curious choice to make an album with such highly emotionally charged themes (of recent breakups and his mother’s death) yet use such a technologically infused sound (his voice is highly altered in a very obvious manner throughout the album.)

Then she announced the song, 808’s and Heartbreak.

For the uninitiated, 808’s refers to the sounds produced by the original digital beat machine the Roland TR 808.

808’s have never sounded like real drums. Many sophisticated drum simulating machines have since been created since, yet musicians like West continue to use (or emulate) the 808 for its raw emotional electronic sound. The sound has come to represent a certain honesty, simplicity and energy from it’s iconic use in tribal music, hip-hop and R&B. Is it really that surprising that West would also use the 808s heartbeat to express his emotion?

Because perception is dependent on our bodies physical ability to process, be it through cones in our eyes or reverberations against ear drums, our relationship to them will always be complex. Each of these texts refers at some point to an emotional experience created by the physical interaction with the medium. Video gamers feel fear, surprise, pride and it’s genuine. The telegraph was no sooner invented than it was making love connections and of course, breaking hearts. Just last week my iPhone got the nickname Yenta2K for helping to bring two people together in an unlikely manner.

As long as we are using these technologies to mediate our communication with other humans there will always be an emotional connection to the apparatus. Hearing and seeing through new media may alter some behaviors and expectations that go along with them but they cannot change what is essential to human-ness. What separates human machine from technological machine is that physical emotional connection. While we have bodies with systems that can be metaphorically linked to technologies we create, we are still separated by fact of this connection. Our bodies are literally our minds.

Great little doc on the 808. Note that the first producer talks about the physical feeling of the sound.



One Response to “808’s and Heartbreak”

  1. I really like your use of analogy with West’s album to describe perception. Its extremely difficult if not impossible to be aware of our own though processes and how our bodies perceive things. I suppose I do have a rather emotional connection with all music, not just West.

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