content by

Joshua Starr

Planet of Sound: Robyn, “Fembot”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

There’s this thing music geeks like to do, where we point to a lesser-known artist with a catchy pop sensibility and say, “Look at them! If only more people heard them, they would be huge stars already.”

In the case of Robyn, a Swedish pop singer who’s technically more indie than the Arcade Fire, the lament may be unnecessary; even after leaving a major label to release her albums herself, she’s had a couple worldwide hits and the love of a significant portion of the music-listening Internet. But, to Robyn fans, that doesn’t seem like quite enough – nobody mentions Robyn along with Rihanna, Beyonce, or Lady Gaga, and her album sales are miniscule by comparison.

Most likely, the things standing in her way are some of the same things that make fans love her: her down-to-earth relatability, her oddball humor, and the sense that she’s not “larger than life,” but in fact just life-size – your size. But there’s also the reason we’re gathered here today on her continued fondness for robots and science fiction metaphors.

Sci-fi’s gone mainstream now, sure, but I’m still not certain Top 40 radio is ready for an idol who goes on about androids quite as much as Robyn does.

[Fembots and robotboys and time machines, oh my…]

Planet of Sound: The Mae Shi, “Pwnd”

Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.

Here’s a post for those of you who like the weird ones: from the album HLLLYH (pronounced either “Hallelujah” or “Hell yeah”) by experimental Los Angeles punk band The Mae Shi, a cacophonous chant-along about the Second Coming and the Rapture, titled with a juvenile gamer joke which seems to suggest that God views life on Earth as something similar to a violent video game.

Well God gave me very specific instructions, he said,
“Go down there and start some eruptions and floods and mass destruction.”

[Read more]

Planet of Sound: Kanye West/Lady Gaga/Michael Jackson, “Monster”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

What is a monster?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to break out the Merriam-Webster’s on you. It’s just that Halloween’s a-comin’, and for’s Monster Mash I wanted to offer something other than a covers collection for the Bobby Pickett hit. And while thinking about “monster music,” I realized that two of the most controversial, fascinating performers in the current pop music landscape Kanye West and Lady Gaga both released tracks with that one-word title, “Monster,” in the past couple years.

And then, with a little bit of Spotify-ing, I saw that the progenitor to them both, Michael Jackson, had a song with the same title on his 2010 posthumously released album, Michael.

[A whole bunch of Monsters…]

Series: Monster Mash on

Planet of Sound: Danger Doom, “A.T.H.F.”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

There’s a certain segment of the population—let’s take a stab and guess “geeks and stoners who graduated high school between around 2000 and 2006″—for whom the initialism A.T.H.F., and therefore the subject matter of this chilled-out alternative rap track, will be immediately recognizable, but for the rest of the populace, perhaps I should explain.

A.T.H.F. stands for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which was the name of an animated show on Cartoon Network/Adult Swim that showcased the adventures of anthropomorphic fast food items Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad, along with their neighbor Carl. (The show still airs, but has since been renamed Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1—and has, to most accounts, diminished drastically in quality.)

The show was sci-fi, I suppose, in that aliens and robots and suchlike made regular appearances (also in that its protagonists were anthropomorphic fast food items), but mostly it was related to the genre in the same way, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was—its brand of absurdist, sometimes silly, sometimes surprisingly dark humor garnered a cult following that included many of the same sorts of kids who’d have spent late nights in the basement playing 1st edition D&D in the 70s, and Magic: the Gathering at the turn of the millennium.

[But where does the rap come in?]

Planet of Sound: Devo, “Space Junk”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

In recognition of the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, which fell to Earth this past weekend, here’s Devo, one of the world’s great art-rock bands, weighing in on such phenomena with “Space Junk”—a jittery new-wave lament/ode to the truism of what-goes-up-must-come-down.

“Space Junk” appeared on Devo’s 1978 debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are Devo!, which released a bit less than one year before Skylab came crashing to ground amidst a frenzy of media hype in July 1979. Considering the dates, I don’t believe Devo would have had Skylab itself in mind when writing the song, but the timing seems fortuitous nonetheless. The song begins:

“Well she was walking all alone,
Down the street, in the alley.
Her name was Sally.
I never touched her.
She never saw it…”

[What happened next?!]

Planet of Sound: Nellie McKay, “Clonie”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.) 


“This is about the evils of science, so I think it’s perfect…”

Nellie McKay‘s introductory comment before performing “Clonie” at a February 2008 TED Conference, where her audience was surely filled with people who put quite a lot of faith in science, does not actually tell us much about the song itself… but it does tell us something about Ms. McKay, who has always enjoyed putting provocative statements in unexpected contexts.

To be unfairly broad about it, her 2003 debut Get Away from Me was all about delivering heavy leftist satire via eclectic cabaret pop. And while it would be a rather cheap trick if the only kick in the music came from that contrast, the real thrill was in the mischief, glee, and cleverness with which McKay invested her tinkling piano melodies and warm show-tune vocals.

[Read more]

Planet of Sound: The Apples in Stereo, “Floating in Space”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature)

You don’t always have to go for the masterpiece.

Not every album has to be an opus. Not every track has to command the undivided attention of the room the moment it bursts out of the speakers. There’s something to be said for the small-scale success, the perfect execution of something more subtle. That’s something indie-pop innovators The Apples in Stereo and frontman Robert Schneider have always understood, and knowledge they put to good use even in the middle of a sci-fi-themed, not-quite-concept album entitled Travellers in Space and Time.

[Ever want to go floating in space?]

Planet of Sound: The Pogues, “Turkish Song of the Damned”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Such mighty oaks from little acorns grow….

Shane MacGowan, founding singer for The Pogues, one of the most beloved Irish bands of the 80s, has said that “Turkish Song of the Damned” got its name and initial inspiration when he misheard a German fan’s question about another punk band of the era, asking if he liked “The Turkey Song” by The Damned.

But sometimes, such odd genesises geneses result in unanticipated brilliance; would anyone have expected a movie based on a theme-park ride to be as excellent as the original Pirates of the Caribbean?

[I promise, there]

Planet of Sound: Tokyo Police Club, “Citizens of Tomorrow”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Most of the songs thus far featured in Planet of Sound come from bands and singers with lengthy, well-respected discographies, which I’ve liked for a long time and am simply enjoying the chance to revisit in a new light and potentially introduce to a new audience. However “Citizens of Tomorrow,” a handclapping emo-pop elegy of robopocalypse, comes from Tokyo Police Club, an Ontario-based band whose members have all been alive for less time than Warren Zevon, Tom Waits, or James Taylor have played music.

This is a single song that caught my attention from a band I hadn’t previously heard anything else by, and it’s especially interesting both for the completeness with which it commits to the sci-fi dystopian narrative in the context of a mainstream-indie song, and for the utterly pessimistic attitude these young’uns  take, at least in the space of this one song, towards their own future.

[Read more…]

Planet of Sound: James Taylor, “The Frozen Man”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative fiction music feature.)

Last thing I remember is the freezing cold

Water reaching up just to swallow me whole

Ice in the rigging and the howling wind

Shock to my body as we tumbled in

James Taylor, the original JT, may not be most people’s idea of cool these days—but what’s cooler than being cool?

How about being frozen?

Inspired by the exhumation of the ice-preserved body of John Torrington, Taylor gave us the first person narrative of a 19th century sailor not merely exhumed, but revived, in “The Frozen Man,” off his 1991 album New Moon Shine. In other words, the man the New York Times referred to as the “foremost contemporary composer of what you might call American lullabies” here offers a gentle, folksy song about primitive accidental cryonics.

[Lord have mercy on the frozen man.]

Planet of Sound: Tom Waits, “Black Wings”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Tom Waits is one of music’s preeminent storytellers, and the stories he tells fit the voice he tells them in: whiskey-soaked, growling, broken-down, and sinister. Waits has been rasping out tales of the desperate and the damned since the early 70s, and as he’s aged, he’s done the opposite of mellow—he’s gotten even darker and more dramatic.

An admission: when I first heard Waits’ voice, in high school, I boggled that anyone could even listen to it, let alone love it. It seemed both abrasive and jokey; I thought he had to be trolling, seeing what sort of ridiculousness he could get away with passing off as “singing.” But over time, I’ve come around. For the right songs, that voice fits like nothing else.

“Black Wings,” the bleakly cinematic tale of a Stranger Come to Town, is one of the songs that voice is made for.

[Read more]

Planet of Sound: Devin Davis, “Giant Spiders”

(Planet of Sound is a bi-weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Devin Davis moved to Chicago at the turn of the millennium, without any friends or musical connections in the city, and recorded his debut album over several years in a home studio, playing ten instruments and a giant gong along the way. He stuffed the album full to bursting with compact, propulsive guitar pop songs, wrote with a lyrical sensibility determined to find the humor in every heartbreak, and titled it, see above, Lonely People of the World, Unite!

Get it? Because if the lonely people of the world united, then….

[Yeah, you get it…]

Planet of Sound: Mastodon, “The Last Baron”

(Planet of Sound is a weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

Something you may or may not know: there are a whole lot of metal bands that like a whole lot of fantasy. Horror, too, of course, right back to Metallica’s Lovecraft-inspired “The Thing That Should Not Be” and beyond, but not only death metal horror and gore. Quite often songs from major heavy metal bands involve fantastical narratives that, in a rock or pop song, would relegate the band to “geek” or novelty status.

One of the foremost modern metal bands (at least as far as those who cross over to other rock audiences) is Mastodon, and Mastodon’s most recent album, Crack the Skye, is a halfway-metaphorical conceptual project about astral projection, wormholes, and a journey through the spirit realm that takes a totally wrong turn into Tsarist Russia.

Um. Maybe I should let lyricist Brann Dailor give his own explanation?

[Read more…]

Planet of Sound: Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London”

(Planet of Sound is a weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

The title of Warren Zevon’s song “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” was appropriated for a 1995 crime drama, but “Werewolves of London” is the one that really could have cashed in on cinematic treatment.

In his biggest hit, Zevon does for werewolves what Anne Rice did for vampires—except Zevon was writing in the 1970s. Brad Pitt’s a bit too shaved-chest smooth to star in this one. It’s more a Burt Reynolds role:

“I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s / His hair was perfect.”

[Read more…]

Planet of Sound: Pixies, “The Happening”

(With a hat tip to Frequency Rotation, Planet of Sound is a new weekly speculative-fiction music feature.)

I can trace the inspiration for Planet of Sound, a new SFF music column on, to one song, so why begin anywhere but at the beginning?

Pixies, the band, are indie-rock legends, cited as an influence by everyone from Nirvana on down, with a critical reputation about as solid in their field as, say, Isaac Asimov’s in the genre. However, frontman Frank Black had a bizarre attraction to the most hokey science fiction ideas—the kind more likely to appear in the National Enquirer than Analog. And somehow, what he does with them elevates both the music and the stories to something transcendently weird.

[Read more]

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