Well, domo arigato to you too

I have a few questions about a milestone of a cultural event from my childhood (which stretched from 1971 to five minutes ago, when I shaved for the first time). It's not Band Aid, Live Aid, Farm Aid, or AIDS Aid, or even the first time I heard Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction. No. I'm talking about Styx's brave diversion from synth-prog to New Wave with their best ever tune, Mr. Roboto. Nothing beats Roboto for early '80s techno-anxiety (unless you count the entire output of Devo), with its vision of a cyborg delivering a message of personal freedom to an exhausted dystopia. A cold hard look from twenty-five years down the time tunnel prompts me to wonder, though: Is Mr. Roboto a jaw-droppingly stupid song?

I did a bit of research and found out that the perplexing lyrics and Casio bombast of Mr. Roboto can be traced to a Styx rock opera called Kilroy Was Here, a chilling story of a rock-deprived future in which an imprisoned rock star named Robert Oren Charles Kilroy (R.O.C.K.) escapes from prison for Rock N Roll misfits in the disguise of a servant robot named Mr. Roboto. In the process he may or may not bring down the evil empire known as the Majority for Musical Morality (MMM).

The MMM is headed by the fiendish and tight-assed Dr. Everett Righteous, who no doubt never grooved to songs like "Plexiglass Toilet" or "Babe". In a truly shocking turn of events, Kilroy Was Here made people stay home and hide under their beds instead of paying money to watch yet another bunch of '70s rockers wail about Grand Concepts. You can read more about it on the Kilroy Was Here Wikipedia entry. There's an official site and a fan forum as well, but I'm going to leave those well enough alone. Also, I'm going to take the song on its own terms, just as I heard it back in 1983, when my shirts were velour and my acne was all a' tingling.

So let's take a walk through the lyrics:

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,
Mata ah-oo hima de
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,
Himitsu wo shiri tai

That's Japanese, dontcha know. And it translates as follows:

Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
Until we meet again
Thank you very much, Mr. Roboto
I want to know your secret

Ah, so that's why they start off in Japanese. Because an English-speaking audience would rip out the eight-track and drag Dennis de Young by his perm into the sea (not to say that a Japanese audience wouldn't try the very same thing). But aside from that, what we have here is a classical chorus. In the equally hallowed forms of Greek tragedy and rock opera, this is a device for highlighting themes or commenting on the action. In a three-minute pop single, it's a strangely excessive and kind of self-serving way of building an audience into the song. Which is a bit odd.

Whoever this chorus is, we know that a) they're grateful for the actions of a man with a strange name, but b) they're prepared to retract their gratitude upon the next meeting, and c) despite their repeated gratitude, they're still imposing on him with pissy synth-washed demands that he reveal his 'secret'. I'm not sure how I feel about the chorus.

You're wondering who I am (secret secret, I've got a secret)

Well, no. I wasn't. I think you're referring to the passive-agressive chorus there. But the direct address, removed from the dramatic context, implicates me in the world of the song. So I'll bite. Who are you?

Machine or mann-a-cannnn (secret secret, I've got a secret)

If you're a mannequin (or mann-a-cannnn, as you prefer) then I'm out of here. I'm not interested in the secrets of mannequins. Unless it involves leaking bisphenol A from your plastic skin into the environment, I don't care. On the other hand, if you're a talking machine, that's pretty cool. But clearly it's not your secret. And why is the chorus singing the "I've got a secret" backup? Aren't you the one with the secret, Mr. Machine... or Mann-a-cannnn?

With parts made in Japan (secret secret, I've got a secret)

With a name like Roboto, I'm not surprised. This better be going somewhere, because this sounds like it was shoehorned in for the sake of a rhyme.

I am the Modren Man!

You're the what now? "Modren" man? What is "modren"? Maybe the singer is so modern that even the word modern is bending under the insane pressures of modrenity. Clearly we are dealing with a brave future, full of Japanese kitsch and metathesis.

I've a secret I've been hiding, under my skin

Yeah, we know. And ew.

My heart is human -

Good.

My blood is boiling -

Worrisome.

My brain IBM

What? They make brains now? You realize that, since this is 1983, your brain is likely the size of five football fields and needs its own nuclear reactor to function?

So if you see me acting strangely, don't be surprised

Ah, we're way past that now. You go smear yourself in strawberry jam and hoot for pancakes, I'll go listen to my Ultravox albums.

I'm just a man who needed someone, and somewhere to hide
To keep me alive - just keep me alive
Somewhere to hide to keep me alive

Then I recommend you hide in a hospital. They probably have just the thing for that whole 'boiling blood' problem. Are you hiding in a microwave, maybe? Or the cold vacuum of space?

I'm not a robot without emotions - I'm not what you see

You're not - what I see. Then you are - what I don't see? I'm thinking that you're introducing the medieval concepts of essence vs. accidents here. And it's too late in the song to introduce such a weighty idea. You need to include this in your thesis statement, taking into account the influence of medieval thought on crazy cyborgs moaning about identity crises.

I've come to help you with your problems, so we can be free

Ah-ha! You're a hero! A saviour!

I'm not a hero, I'm not a saviour, forget what you know

Oh. Never mind.

I'm just a man whose circumstances went beyond his control
Beyond my control - we all need control
I need control - we all need control

Congratulations Mr. Roboto, you've skeeved me out but good. What kind of message are you sending the children of America, with your creepy cryptofascist fetishization of authority?

I am the modren man, who hides behind a mask
So no one else can see my true identity

It's pretty clear that Mr. Roboto functions as an Everyman (or Erveyman), embodying certain universal traits that we may all recognize. Isn't it true that we all hide behind a 'mask' to keep others from seeing 'our true identity'? Could it be that we are 'not what you see' because of the submersion of identity beneath 'masks'? Hold on a second, it's chorus time!

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto, domo...domo
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
Thank you-thank you, thank you
I want to thank you, please, thank you

I don't think so. I've already heard enough from the chorus to know that their thank-yous can turn into petty demands at any moment. Especially when you consider that they're thankful for the fact that he does jobs that nobody else wants. What does he do, pick garbage? Pick fruit? Supersize your shake? If there's one thing I learned during my years of labour and retail, it's that people are not grateful for your efforts. They're waiting to visit the petty humiliations of their days on you.

Curiously, the voices of the chorus blend into Roboto, who ends up thanking himself for helping him escape. If you're following the rock opera plot, you'll know that Rock N Roll prisoner Kilroy disguised himself as a robot to escape, so this line is a lot less confusing if you've seen the film and bought the album and kept the 3/4 sleeve t-shirt for the last 25 years. If not, then this bit makes no fucking sense.

The problem's plain to see: too much technology
Machines to save our lives. Machines dehumanize.

Here Mr. Roboto seriously throws his audience for a loop. Besides the fact that you can't have too much of an abstraction like 'technology' (maybe he's referring to an over-reliance on certain technological products?), isn't a bit strange for a singer who is either a machine or mann-a-cannnn to pinpoint technology as a problem? It's a bit like you or me coming out against kidneys or something.

The time has come at last

Three minutes in and the time has come? This is my kind of rock opera.

To throw away this mask

Whoah! That's what makes you modren!

So everyone can see
My true identity...
I'm Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy!

Um. Great. That's so unbelievably... UNDERFUCKINGWHELMING. You've already told us that you're some kind of whacked-out cyborg with superheated blood and a machine brain, that you represent the modern human condition, that you refuse the mantle of saviourhood... just to tell us that your name is Kilroy? Well, la-di-da. I'm Mickey the Tube Sock then. Doesn't that just rock your world?

*

Even though I didn't link to any of the Styx or Kilroy sites I found sprouting along the manicured paths of the internet, it's still possible that a devoted fan will find his or her way here. If you're one of those fans, and you're very upset, please take a moment to read the open letter below:

Dear Offended People:

You are right. I am jealous of Styx. I envy their success and their longevity and I have nothing better to do than sit in front of my computer all day and tear down other people's accomplishments. The members of Styx have all been through so much. Dennis de Young and Tommy Shaw and Lawrence Gowan are great musicians with impressive careers, and nothing I do could ever match their accomplishments, they are so talented. I could never write "Plexiglass Toilet" or carry it off with so much verve. Styx was a pioneering band and they continue to define the boundaries of great music and Gowan is so sexy, zOMG. Ha ha, I did not even know that de Young is no longer part of Styx, he had too many creative differences and a unique vision that did not fit with the other members of the band. And I am ignorant that Dennis de Young used Oberheim synthesizers, not Casios as I imply, and this is egregious because classic Styx is synonymous for many fans with the sound of Oberheim synthesizers! Mr. Roboto explores many different themes. It is a searing exploration of modern life. Anyway it's just a song, so the joke's on me for devoting so much time to it. Moreover, I am ugly and my ugliness has made my sexuality questionable.