Justin E. H. Smith in Unherd:
Among the most ingenious moments in Kraftwerk’s admirable oeuvre is the point in 1981’s “Pocket Calculator” when a human voice self-contentedly sings: “By pressing down a special key / It plays a little melody.” The melody follows in confirmation. The genius here seems to lie in the blunt honesty of the singer, owning up to the contemporary condition of music as an art form that has largely been outsourced to machines. It’s not that the German electronic band invented the technology, nor that they were the first to make use of it. They are simply among the first to figure out how to elevate it to self-awareness, and to press it into a gesture of timely irony and potentially timeless beauty; that is, to make art out of it.
The little melody in question is of course a pre-set. Its sequence of notes is planned in advance, and once the key is pressed, the machine may be relied upon to do only the thing it has been programmed to do. The melody, it goes without saying, is no Bach fugue. It is simple, naïve, kind of dumb; and within the context of the song, it is utterly compelling.
Several conditions — technological, cultural, historical — had to fall into place in order for this melodic interlude, with its verbal introduction, to come across to the critical listener as an expression of genius. All of these conditions might be cited in response to any philistine tempted to declare, of the pressing down of that special key, that “I could have done that too”. We are used to hearing such petulant ressentiment, especially in connection with the 20th-century avant-garde in the figurative arts: “I could have entered a urinal in an exhibition, too”; “I could have painted an all-white monochrome, too”; etc. The simplest response is, “Yes, but you didn’t”.