This week I’ve set myself the challenging task of illustrating the astrology of electronic music. I’ve sat in a lot of astrology classes and have been pained by generalizations about the music of "my generation" based on album sales and top forty hits. One of the favorite narratives astrologers like to tell about popular music is the rise of punk rock in the late seventies. All those kids born during the dramatic conjunction of Pluto and Uranus in the 1960s grew up to invent punk rock, a genre characterized by its use of taboo lyrics and iconography (Pluto), and its rebellion (Uranus) against both musicianship and commercialism. Here was a scene which embodied the liberating force of Uranus and the more nihilistic end of Pluto. Armchair pundits will tell you that punk rock had a social conscience, but that seems to me to be a later development – the people who were vibrating to this scene in the late seventies and early eighties were more drawn in by a sense of social alienation (Uranus) expressed musically with the Plutonian force of aggression, and lyrics of unflinching honesty.
If you’ve noticed a discrepancy here, so have I. Almost every performer who rose to prominence in punk rock was born in the 1950s, not the 1960s. Without derailing this blog into a speculative exercise about precisely WHEN the artistic-cultural stamp of a generation will show itself, which is a huge topic, I’d like to suggest that it was the innovations appearing immediately after punk rock which have had the more lasting impact on the music of our generation. It’s important to remember that that Pluto-Uranus conjunction took place in Virgo, which, among other things, has proficiency with GEAR and TECHNOLOGY, and may be ascribed the archetype of the PROGRAMMER.
For the first time in recorded history, our culture is identifying artists and performers as "musicians" who may have no kinetic relationship to sound – meaning that they’re not physically strumming a guitar with their fingers, blowing into a flute with their mouths, or jamming on timpani with mallets. A pop song can be generated entirely by a computer with a programmer at the helm. Purists may scoff and claim that electronic music isn’t real music, but if top forty radio shows the way the wind is blowing for the culture as a whole, the younger generations don’t seem to be too particular about the distinction between electronic and so-called "real music."
When I was a teenager in the nineties, there was a popular bumper sticker making the rounds that read, "Drum Machines Have No Soul." And I was troubled by this because I enjoyed both the sounds made by live drums, and the programmed rhythms of the electronic and industrial music I was just getting into. I thought that maybe there was something wrong with me because electronic music seemed to me to be, well, just as soulful as any other kind of music. A wonderful Discovery article (Is Electronic Music Real Music?) explains how the mass implementation of electronic music today has effectively de-stigmatized the idea of programmers as musicians. The article further points out that, after its development, the piano was considered a controversial piece of musical technology because it made it so dang easy to produce beautiful sounds. One didn’t even have to develop finger calluses to play well, where’s the skill in that?!?
For my purposes here today, it’s extraordinarily telling that the piano was also developed during a conjunction of Pluto and Uranus, appearing around 1710 when these planets met in Leo (performing arts) before moving together into Virgo (practical mechanics). The piano has had quite an impact on all kinds of music, from orchestral to jazz, even serving as a source of family entertainment in the days before TV. It’s currently one of the most popular instruments in the world. The rapid elevation of the piano as a staple of instrumental music makes it fairly easy for me to speculate that these other Pluto-Uranus innovations – purely electronic instruments like the synthesizer and the drum machine and all their rapidly evolving derivations – will be prominent features of music in the generations to come.
Pluto and Uranus meet in the sky in a conjunction only once every 125 years or so. Typically this conjunction corresponds to radical upheaval in the social order, as we witnessed in the 1960s with the convulsions of the Civil Rights movement and the sexual and cultural revolution. It should not surprise us that 1848, when Uranus was approaching a conjunction with Pluto in Aries, is remembered as the "Year of Revolutions." The drive toward social equality (Uranus) and the destructive power of Pluto cut a swath across Europe and parts of Latin America when these planets were in antagonistic Aries, champion of the underdog.
As a scholar it pains me to say this, but the Wikipedia article on electronic music is actually quite excellent and thorough, distinguishing between electromechanical instruments like the electric guitar (a blend of the electronic and traditional instrument), and purely electronic devices like the synthesizer. As the article makes clear, the 1960s – when Uranus and Pluto were hovering in Virgo’s frequency in the sky – was the watershed decade for electronic music. A sort of critical mass of avant-garde artists and inventors perfected their electronic creations, and these innovations went on to influence the progressive rock of the nineteen-seventies, leading up to the explosion of synthesizer pop music in the nineteen-eighties. After perhaps a bit of a backlash in mainstream music against overuse of the synth, the proportion of electronic music in top-selling albums has steadily increased thanks to the popularity of rap, house, and other dance genres.
I’m taking a lot of inspiration from the BBC documentary Synth Britannia, which I encourage you to view if you can find it. It traces the rise of synthesizer music from the German pioneers Kraftwerk in the 1970s, to the wildly popular electronic albums of Depeche Mode in the 1980s. It’s fascinating to hear about how early innovators like Gary Numan (see video above) were panned by the press for not performing "real" music, and how they were perceived as both anti-social (Uranus) and transgressive (Pluto). It’s also quite striking to hear groundbreaking electronic bands like the Human League, OMD, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire talk about how they admired punk’s iconoclasm but deplored its methods. In other words, the alienation first voiced by punk could be better expressed by the disembodied, soulless (if you will), hollow, droning, and repetitive sounds made possible with electronic instruments. Synthetic sounds (Uranus) were a more accurate reflection of a mechanized, industrialized urban lifestyle than traditional instruments, and they permanently transformed (Pluto) popular music.
I think up to this point most astrologers would agree with me, in connecting the dots between Uranus (technology), Pluto (transmutation), and the proliferation of electronic music in late twentieth century culture. But I think the occurrence of this conjunction in the sign of Virgo is also an important part of the equation. The rise of the "tech geek"-cum-musician is clearly Virgo’s legacy, as is the appearance of performers whose only musical accompaniment is a laptop. Sadly, the only thing most people know about Virgo is that she is a virgin, giving the sign an exaggerated connection with purity and perfection. In fact, Virgo’s virginity is an expression of her self-sufficiency and competence (think of the famous Virgo virgin Queen Elizabeth), and is more accurately depicted by the archetype of the craftsman and his tool.
One of the first astrology books I ever read lamented that the "true ruler" of Virgo had yet to be discovered, and that the earthy nature of the sign was not well-represented by busy, intellectual Mercury. The writer went on to theorize that when Vulcan, Roman god of smithing and craftsmanship, was discovered (!), Virgos everywhere would embrace their natural mechanical skill and craftiness and leave off their mercurial criticism and carping. Sadly, that day has not come, although some astrologers give the recently discovered asteroid Chiron rulership over Virgo, a proposition to which I am sympathetic.
In my experience, the difference between Mercury-ruled Gemini and Mercury-ruled Virgo is that Gemini consumes knowledge for its own sake, while Virgo prefers knowledge to be practical. Knowing how to change a tire, fix a friend’s computer, or help an elderly relative file her taxes can give Virgo an immense amount of satisfaction. Flighty Gemini knows a little bit about everything, but Virgo’s knowledge tends to be deeper and more oriented toward service and a usable skill. Astrologers will often attribute anything to do with technology and computers to the planet Uranus and the sign Aquarius, but it’s important to remember the association of Aquarius with the future and with innovation. At this point it’s become de rigueur for every active member of society to have access to a computer and a high-speed internet connection. In other words, computer technology no longer falls under the banner of the futuristic, but has wandered into Virgo’s realm of simply knowing how things work.
If you think the very modern archetype of the condescending IT guy who looks down his nose at you for lacking basic computer literacy is a far cry from the smithy who lovingly hand-forges his tools, I suppose I would have to agree with you. But try on another late twentieth century archetype: the gearhead. Most of us can see the archetype of the craftsman in the guy who works on old cars on the weekend, in all the time he spends in mechanical tinkering and in his emphasis on getting the whole system to run smoothly.
The musical tech geek is a function of the same archetype; who else but Virgo could systematically memorize the technical functions of the dizzying array of gear which goes into setting up a live show, from amplifiers, monitors, and mixing boards, to tube amps, equalizers, and effects pedals? I’m enjoying the multiple meanings of the word "gear" here too, in that the gearhead is not simply concerned with having lots of equipment or "gear," but in getting each device, a metaphorical gear or cog, to run in harmony with the entire system. Virgo’s practical know-how comes in very handy when you’re plugging in all your cables and power-sources, and in fact much of contemporary music performance would be closed to you if you failed to master these basics of electronic technology.
Even though the members of Kraftwerk (video below) were born a whole generation before the Pluto-Uranus conjunction in Virgo, the music they pioneered on the heels of this conjunction in 1970 perfectly encapsulates the energy of the Virgo tech geek as musician: four clean-cut guys in modest suits, in sharp contradistinction to the glam look which carried the day in the 1970s, efficiently performing their music behind four electronic machines. Their name might literally mean "power-station," but isolating some of those Anglo-Saxon word-roots on which the English language was built, "craft" and "work," provides us with a convenient shorthand for understanding how the Pluto-Uranus conjunction of the 1960s came to fruition in humble, mechanically-minded, and methodical Virgo.