Stereolab: Beeps, Boops and Bizarreness, by John Waterhouse
Looking through Stereolab’s discography, the most absurd song names jump out: “Prisoner of Mars,” “Les Yper-Sound,” “Emperor Tomato Ketchup,” or “Exploding Head Movie.” Taking a listen introduces an even more absurd sound — bouncy, funky, winding, twisting, grooving, moving music that is like nothing else in the world. The songs use beeps and boops, synths and snares, and instruments that Martians must love. Each song is a playground, an unstoppably fun experience that occasionally brings about an existential dread of our social and political reality.
The Anglo-French band started off in 1990 after the English Tim Gane and French Laetitia Sadier met. Ever since, Stereolab has been known for their emphasis on unique music, explicitly political lyrics, and shifts between English and French lyrics. In other words, the group makes weird music by and for weird people. The band remains active, with ten studio albums, despite never making it into the “mainstream.” Yet, it seems like the group never wants this large-scale commercial success. The philosophy of Stereolab is twofold: to make music that is more unique than anything else and to challenge the idea that music must be created based on previous norms of music.
So, what makes Stereolab, Stereolab? The band exclusively uses early synthesizers and electronic music systems that have more customization options. Sounds can be pulled apart, punctuated, reverbed, reversed and spliced until producers have an entirely new sound. Furthermore, use of unorthodox time signatures makes the music rhythmically unique from anything else. They follow signatures like 5/4, 7/4, giving way to unconventional and lofty beats. The vocals also play a pivotal role in Stereolab’s sound. Half of the discography is in French, which may be cause for an intimidating language barrier. Yet, hearing the French lyrics dreams up a completely new experience — the language flows off the tongue in a distinct way, flowing like a creek of honey.
Using their fun and creative style, a wide range of music unfolds. Need something calm? Songs like “Rainbo Conversation” and “Contranatura” take your mind out dancing beneath the moonlight. Need something that explodes and drives? “John Cage Bubblegum” and “The Noise of Carpet” take your soul and launch it across the cosmos, flying faster than light. Need something weird? “The Flower Called Nowhere”, “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” and “Miss Modular” take your body, melting and playing with everything between your ears. Stereolab is nothing like you have ever heard before, and the themes of their music are in still step with our time.
Stereolab deals with themes of existentialism throughout their music. Mainly, they wrestle with concepts of free will. The best example of this is “Lo Boob Oscillator.” The lyrics describe the moon as being free, above everything else: “La lune est libre je crois,” meaning, “The moon is free I believe.” Yet, the moon follows the same orbit endlessly. How could this possibly be freedom when it has to follow the physical necessities of the cosmos? Thus, Stereolab reflects upon the ideas of freedom: Is there really any such freedom for any of us?
Their other works deal with similar concepts, such as “Anonymous Collective,” which describes the frustration that we are seemingly created by forces out of our control. This song, with a droning bass and ominous percussion, contains two simple lines repeated:
“You and me are molded by things / Well beyond our acknowledgement.”
Once again, existentialism is at the forefront. The self is constructed, and we do not have free will over who we are. We are molded endlessly by things that we might never understand. Time and place of birth, where we grow up, who our parents are, our genes, and most things are not choices that we have made, yet determine most of what becomes of our person. For instance, the neighborhood we grow up in can accurately predict our life expectancy, profession and many other basic aspects of life.
Stereolab is perfect for the listener going through an existential crisis, watching as the world around us untangles into absurdity. Especially in a post-2020 world, many of us continue to scramble for meaning, often finding little to no answer. Let this be the soundtrack to your existential crisis. Their existentialism only goes so far, leading to their social criticisms.
The lyrics of many Stereolab songs have an explicit political theme, describing frustration with contemporary social structures. “Tomorrow is Already Here” describes how our social systems seemingly do not serve us, but rather, we serve social systems. They muse:
“Originally, this set up was to serve society / Now the roles have been reversed / That want society to serve the institutions.”
These lyrics express an anguish against current social structures. They ask: What happened? Are these institutions not put in place to serve, uplift and help the people? Why do the people serve those in power? Today, we continue to live these frustrations, with lack of safety nets and rampant inequality.
Other songs go to extreme lengths to describe political angst. “Jenny Ondioline” follows a bouncing rhythm and vocals, the chorus follows:
“I don’t care if the fascists have to win / I don’t care democracy’s being fucked / I don’t care socialism’s full of sin / The untenable system engenders rot.”
These lyrics express pervasive attitudes at the breakdown of U.S. politics. At times, it is so unbearable to face the endless list of problems before us that we break down into apathy. As we face the myriad of continued political injustices before us, we ought to recognize that not caring will not solve anything. This song is a call to that apathy, to admit that you do care.
Stereolab is the perfect soundtrack to 2023, spiraling around strange and unique sounds. We are unable to deal with the existential and political crises that we live through everyday. Tune in to any of their albums next time you find yourself sitting alone at a café, struggling to do the dishes, or just tired of the norm. First time listeners will especially like the albums Dots and Loops, Emperor Tomato Ketchup, and Refried Ectoplasm.
Stereolab is a perfect prescription to an especially grotesque headline, excess in absurdity, or deficiency in weirdness. Turn it up, and let yourself melt away.