Through A Note Darkly: Loving Pokémon with Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express"

Through A Note Darkly is a weekly feature on in which contributor Chris Villalta searches for lessons in an album he's heard a lot about, but has never heard in full before

An 8-bit boy rises in sync with an 8-bit sun. After taking a big stretch and refreshing yawn, he looks out his window. Same old backyard with grass as trim as his schoolboy haircut, but today he notices something different. Beyond the white picket fence are silhouetted tufts of wild grass spiking the horizon. The 8-bit boy’s just turned 10 years old, so the spikes strike a strange mixture of fear and attraction, fear that they will prick his body and attraction to the idea of surviving such a pricking.

The young man goes downstairs to eat the smells that tickled his nose awake: bacon, eggs and waffles. “It’s gonna be a big day, kiddo, so eat up,” says his 8-bit mom, petting and parting with the neat hair she so wished she could preserve. When he comes back today, a few hairs will be out of place. Tomorrow, a few more. In a year, as tangled as his aged personality, but not unwelcoming.

Nodding, the boy scarfs down his food. He brushes his teeth, feels the bristles tickle the recently vacated gums. He looks at himself in the bathroom mirror. He never noticed himself before. Yes, reflections had been useful in the past to eliminate a stain on his face his mother had asked him to remove, but never before had he inspected the him reflected in a mirror at his own volition. At the tip of his cheek he notices a rising red. He squeezes the minuscule pimple in hopes erasing  to avoid embarrassment. As he squeezes, something in the eye of his reflection seems to say “goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” replied the 8-bit boy, disappointed by his squeezing’s lackluster results. He didn’t know why the pimple bothered him; it would have no effect on his Pokémon training, he was sure. But it was there, it was proof of imperfection, mortality. The pimple racked his brain as he made his way to Professor Oak’s lab to get his first Pokémon until he noticed that the steps he took towards the spiked horizon did nothing to the spiked horizon. It did not recede or increase in size with his steps. It simply stayed put. And that’s when it hit him. It would always stay put. Nothing he did would effect the horizon. His pimple did nothing to it, the receiving of a Pokémon will do nothing to it. He is simply a tourist exploring the never ending thing called existence on the UFO that is the human body.

Why Pokémon? It’s really all I could think about while listening to the charming digital notes which give “Europe Endless” that feeling of infinity. Such a feeling, I realized, is one I feel most prominently when I start playing a Pokémon game. There is a sense of excitement for adventure, the same a child might have when they pack their backpack for the first day of school. This excitement, however, is quelled by a sense of dread so masterfully captured by Kraftwerk with the inclusion of a bass note underneath the trebly digital ones which define the first minute and a half of “Europe Endless.” This dread, this bass note, is easily ignored by youth, but it was heard, it is there, and it will grow as more pimples come. Soon, the excitement about living a life of adventure is replaced with a ego-clogged personality concerned more with what’s reflected in a mirror than what is done by the person being reflected (“The Hall of Mirrors”). People who play Pokémon, including myself, showcase such vanity by becoming showroom dummies in the game, dummies who train Pokémon in hopes of beating gym leaders more so than for the joy of training Pokémon.  

The vanity is understandable. The fact of Europe’s endlessness is frightening, it is a sign that life will live on after yours, that the horizon is in no way affected by your 8-bit steps you take towards and away from it. To counteract the fact of one’s meaninglessness, one falls in love with himself. He looks in the mirror and is angered by a pimple; he trains Pokémon in hopes of beating gym leaders. The thing about Pokémon though is that it doesn’t end after you get all eight gym badges; life isn’t won when the pimple is popped. Trans Europe Express, with its condemnation of vanity and goal-setting through demented soundscapes over fame-obsessed lyrics such as meeting Iggy Pop and David Bowie, and absolute neglect of formulaic pop song structure, mimic life. It is exciting, boring, and endless, an endlessness that ultimately says it does not care very much about the listener. Much like a train with its passengers, a Pokémon game with its players, life with its livers, this record does not care whether you are listening or not because this record knows that you do not matter. You are a blip. The best you can do is hop on and enjoy the scenery as kids do before their first pimple and elders do after getting over the pimples, but most cling onto a sense of meaning through inflation of the ego through goal setting, gym badge earning, showroom dummy becoming. I am one of the most. I know I’m a tourist in this thing called life. but I think I can be more than that. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think I could beat life’s indifference towards me and my existence, and Kraftwerk wouldn’t have created Trans Europe Express if they didn’t think they could be the best group in the world. Beautiful things do come out of ego inflation, and sure they are impermanent things, but at least in the moment they seem permanent they instill some joy.