Every Song Tells A Story: Corporate Robot
I enjoy humor in music. There are times to be cerebral and there are times to be just plain funny. I like making people laugh with a goofy lyric or idea. This song was meant to be humorous, of course, but underneath it all lies a thinly veiled satirical commentary on corporate America.
The underlying theme in “Corporate Robot” is of conflict. I’ve been working in corporate America now for a long time but I’m not a fan of the corporate mentality that you find in some places. I’ve worked for many companies; some of them big giants and some smaller. In each, I’ve found a different “company culture” statement (written behind closed doors in some HR department) which in most cases totally contradicts what goes on in the hallways and at the water coolers.
Some companies I’ve worked for were so rigid and quiet that there was hardly any communication at all except via computer or at meetings. In other places, there were definitely cliques of people and if you were not in that group, you lost out. At some jobs you didn’t dare talk to someone who had an office unless they came to speak to you (which was rare). At other jobs, the top dogs were the friendliest people, while the mid-level managers were micromanaging, power hungry ego maniacs who basically did nothing all day, much like Lumbergh from Office Space.
In fact, Mike Judge hit the nail so hard on the head with that film that it’s a wonder that film didn’t change the company culture of corporate America as a whole. Like a wake-up call. But I digress.
I’ve also had some good experiences in corporate America but to be honest, it’s just not a fun place. Depending on where you are, you have to basically sit around for a year or two and just observe people before you know who you can talk to and who you can’t. There are walls everywhere.
There’s also this false sense of what they call “professionalism” which apparently means you can’t be human. Everything has to be sterile and controlled. Mechanized. By the book. Robotic.
So after a few years out there, I realized that I don’t really work with people, for the most part. I work with robots. Corporate Robots. At times, I’d notice that as you went up the ladder, this applied more and more. It seems that folks got phonier the higher they climbed the company ladder. They became more clueless and detached somehow, like celebrities who have lived so long in their little bubbles that they can’t be real people anymore when they go out into crowds. They have an alternate sense of reality and can’t adapt.
Now, I’ll admit that the place I’m at now is not really like this. There are definitely walls and some rigid people but for the most part everyone’s cool, all the way up the ladder. The project I’m working on, actually, is going to try to break down some of those walls. So that makes me excited.
Still, all these years in corporate America (especially jobs I had before this one) have affected me and my thinking. I’ve seen some strange stuff and some really odd behavior from people who were paid very well and claimed to be “professionals”.
So that’s basically what this song is about. It’s about having to pay the bills and being stuck in corporate America doing so. Let’s face it. We all have dream jobs and for a high percentage of us, what we’re currently doing is not what we’d like to be doing. I’d sure like to be able to make music all day long, whether it be scoring films, making records, writing for other people, and so on. That’s just not going to happen for me at this point (without being able to dedicate 100% of my time to it), so here I am doing web design and managing portals. It’s decent work but not as fun as playing guitar. Hence the lyric, “I’m stuck in this world.”
The song is also about the creepy people you sometimes see in the hallways that pretend not to see you, the bosses who can never leave their work at the office and enjoy life, and the feeling like you’re slowly becoming one of these people; part of the machine.
Again, it’s meant to be humorous and I got a little serious while writing this. It’s not that I’m feeling all of this at the moment. I actually just liked the term “Corporate Robot” (I had been using it for years) and the rest of the song just sort of flowed from there. Maybe I was having a bad day at work. Who knows.
I tried to throw in some “corporate speak”, as it’s called. Offices have this strange little bit of vernacular that they like to make use of. Phrases like “low hanging fruit” (the goals easiest to achieve in a shorter time) are heard regularly. Of course, I had to throw a Starbucks reference in there. Corporate America basically keeps that place in business and Starbucks itself is pretty much the IBM of coffee.
The bits about the admins and conference rooms are all based on real events that got stuck in my head. People will walk past you in the office, look you in the eye, and not acknowledge you. It’s like they have to have a reason to say hello. Usually that reason is that they need something from you. I could go on all day.
Sometimes you just have to laugh. Or write a song.
“Corporate Robot” was actually a fun song to record. I knew from the start that I did not want cymbals on it, outside of hi-hat. I wanted it to be stiff and robotic but I did not want to use a sample of myself or a loop. The song is more about the conflict and trying not to become a robot than about the existing robots themselves. So I wanted the drum track to be stiff and robotic but still somewhat human. Besides, I’m not really that into drum loops. I’d rather just play a drum track than sit there and edit fills for days.
I recorded the drum track, fighting the urge to hit the crashes on the one or wherever my gut would tell me to. I already had the beat in my head so it was easy to bang it out. I just sang along to myself in my head to keep track of where I was. I had a guide chart on a stand to help me.
I added the bass shortly after, which I also had in my head. I wanted the bass to drive the song because I knew there wasn’t going to be much guitar on it. I wanted a funky guitar chord that I would bang on the two with a little variation here and there. I worked out some chord that sounded right and fired up the tele with a nice clean sound. Before I knew it, the basic tracks were done.
It felt like it needed something else, though. Enter the Rhodes. I had purchased a used 1970’s Fender Rhodes some time in the early 1990’s and had been lugging this thing from home to home for years. If you’ve ever seen one of these beautiful monsters, you know they’re big and heavy. I even had a huge road case with wheels for it. Well, at that point in time I had been trying to sell it and had it set up to take a few pictures. It was almost as if it were saying to me, “Hey, I know you don’t want me any more but why not use me one last time?”
So I plugged the thing directly into my Mac and it sounded beautiful. I had fun coming up with some little parts for the song. The bridge is just straight chords. The little solo piece after that really added some life to the song, but not too much life. I even harmonized it a little for fun. Then there’s a different section for the outro based off some E chord. It all just fell together.
Of course, a few days later the Rhodes and the road case were sold and shipped off to Romania. Wild! I used most of the money to pay off some of the Mac and with the rest I picked up a midi controller so I could add things like pianos, horns and strings to anything I wanted to record. One door closes, another opens.
When it came to vocals, I had two ways I could go. I could have sung it normally or robotic. I opted for the latter but I had this issue where I wasn’t sure if people would get the idea. I knew it would sound very “monotonic” and I had hoped that people would know this was on purpose. I didn’t want people to hear it and think, “Does he really sing that poorly?”
So after a good 30 seconds of deliberation (I don’t like wasting time with decisions like that), I just went and sang it like a robot. I even added a little deep robot backing vocal here and there. Tons of fun, really.
“Where’s the plug? Come on pull it,” came out of my subconscious while I was ad-libbing at the end, but I guess it really does sum things up in a way. Unplug the robot. Be human.
Don’t wanna be no corporate robot
Don’t wanna hear about low hanging fruit
Don’t wanna kiss up to a bitchy admin
So I can get the better conference room
Walk past you in the hallway
Look you right in the eye
You look anywhere but my way
Would it kill you to say HI?
Corporate Robot – you’re lifeless and cold
Corporate Robot – you do what you’re told
Corporate Robot – you live by the code
Corporate Robot – it’s old old old
Every day that I’m here
I feel a piece of me slipping away
Replaced by wires and machinery
Transformation is taking place
When you go home to your dependents
Do you know how to be human at all
Do you forget you’re not in the office
Schedule some kid-time to throw around a ball
Got a meeting
Got a voice mail
Got a budget to pass
Got a new hire
Got a new tie
Got a stick up my ass
Got no time
Got no humor
Got no changing moods
Got no patience
Got no guts
Got no idea what I do
The corporate robots line up every day
They get their Starbucks and they pay pay pay
Corporate robots talk in dull corporate speak
Corporate robots think they’re smarter than me
There’s no humanity
There’s no reality
It’s like a B-Movie
It’s killing me
I’m stuck in this world
Gotta find me a corporate girl
Where’s the plug?
Come on pull it