#02 : Porter Robinson – Sad Machine

A/N: Making these posts on a weekly basis has made me realize just how fast time flies without us knowing. Without further ado though, here’s my take on Robinson’s Sad Machine. 
Warning: The following video contains flashing images. If you aren’t comfortable with that in any manner whatsoever, check out the other link below for an audio-only version.

Alternative link: https://youtu.be/pAGVvPfwdCY

A little bit of insight?
Released back in 2014 as the second single from the debut album, Worlds, Sad Machine has been described by Robinson himself as a track of a “fragile and vulnerable… but wistful and nostalgic” tone.

A self-taught producer and American DJ, Porter Robinson currently resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In Sad Machine, his nature as an avid fan of Japanese culture is brought forth by the use of a voice taken from the Vocaloid voice synthesizing software.

What’s up with the lyrics?

Who survived? Somebody new?
Anyone else but you?
On a lonely night was a blinding light
A hundred leaders would be borne of you

While much of the track lies open to interpretation, Robinson has described it as a “duet between a human and a robot”. As the explanation of the song requires an orderly approach, let’s explore the verses in depth.

Sad Machine begins with the lively voice of AVANNA (a vocaloid) greeting a human with an energetic “Hi!”, then shifting the focus to some questions regarding humanity’s plight. AVANNA assumes the role of an AI (artificial intelligence) that has been left behind in a presumably post-apocalyptic world. The AI is evidently surprised at having met someone after so long.

The AI then comments that there was “a blinding light” on a “lonely night”. Reading multiple interpretations of these lyrics has led me to believe that the aforementioned blinding light refers to an explosion of some sorts, a disaster that was capable of wiping out the remainder of humanity.

And though I know, since you’ve awakened her again
She depends on you, she depends on you
She’ll go alone, and never speak of this again
We depend on you, we depend on you

With the human having awakened the AI from her slumber, the chorus depicts the journey of the two as they venture across what remains of the world. And as it is just the two of them, they take comfort in the knowledge that they have each other.
However, the latter part of the chorus which contains the words, “she’ll go alone” refers to the eventual passing of the human and the abandonment of the AI, ending with her sealing her memories of him at the back of her mind.

There’s a permanent sense of impermanence that’s prevalent throughout the track. Somehow, it’s a bonus to the beauty behind the lyricism, evoking strong emotions within the listeners.

I don’t know much about your life beyond these walls
The fleeting sense of love within these God-forsaken halls
And I can hear it in his voice, in every call
“This girl who’s slept a hundred years has something after all”

With the second verse being sung by AVANNA, the AI’s lack of human interaction is placed emphasis on through her enclosure within a capsule of some sorts. And the passing of time has only served to make her lose any sense of familiarity regarding/towards human emotions.
But with the arrival of this human, she seems to be regaining her emotions, leading him to remark that despite having slumbered for so long, she “has something after all”. In a way, there’s something quite poignant about the fact that she’ll lose everything when he passes away.

There’s nothing much left to comment on for the remainder of the song. The chorus is repeated, replacing “she’ll go alone” with “I’ll go alone”, thereby placing emphasis on AVANNA’s role as the AI of the song.
What’s up with the music?

Sad Machine is classed under electronic pop, though a more accurate term for it would be synthpop. Written and produced by Robinson himself, as mentioned earlier, the track includes a voice from the Vocaloid voice synthesizing franchise. A more accurate description of the track is available on Wikipedia, which is what I’ve copied down below:

“The track is 88.5 beats per minute, half of 177, the latter of which Robinson wished to imply with the lead synth in the beginning of the song. He stated that he wished for the listener to anticipate a drum and bass beat and become caught off guard when the song revealed its actual tempo.”

Towards the latter part of the song, the instruments grow fewer in number until there’s only the sound of something that’s vaguely reminiscent of a harp, playing in the background. This could represent the AI’s feelings of comfort and security, being in the presence of one she’s grown to love. Prior to this, the track has something which I like to call the ‘staircase effect’ with a few notes in close proximity being played in succession.

I like to think that the music following the chorus represents the inner turmoil of the AI at having to deal with the likelihood of losing the only source of familiarity, yet again. But I also believe that it could be a portrayal of what this human makes her feel, adding color to the dull and repetitive nature of existence.

And the video?

The video begins with the materialization of a landscape, presumably the one which the AI has awoken in. Movement towards the horizon leads to the formation of a pixelated object which soon transforms into the AI’s hand. Interestingly enough, the use of white pixels create a ‘loading’ effect, making it seem as though she’s being downloaded into the world. Either way, day becomes night and yet the AI doesn’t stop, continuing her journey towards an unknown destination.

When the music after the chorus begins, the familiarized landscape shifts into a seemingly unknown territory which takes a while to load completely. This highlights the AI’s emotional (and possibly, physical) journey as she searches for any signs of existence/ sense of familiarity.

By the end of the second verse, we see Robinson’s trademark kaomoji (Japanese emoticon) of 【=◈︿◈=】situated at the end of the current world, which then shifts back to the first landscape with the arrival of night. Following the final chorus, the AI continues to move between multiple worlds, eventually returning to where she began. But this time, there are shapes floating in the sky along with another hand awaiting for her at the very end.

Finally, the human hand grasps that of the AI, providing her with companionship and the sense of familiarity that she was seeking in the past. And with that, the video ends, simultaneously presenting the viewers with the idea that her journey’s complete, having found what she was looking for.


Some other things worth mentioning:

  • Sad Machine was the first track of Robinson’s to feature his vocals.
  • The track includes the use of soundfonts (low-quality emulations of real-life instruments) to emulate the music of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
  • It’s also one of Porter’s works to include the voice of a lesser-known Vocaloid, referred to as AVANNA.
  • The song peaked at the 29th spot on Billboard’s chart of Dance/Electronic songs in the US.

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