Shelter in Playlist: “Coin-Operated Boy”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the fourth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Coin-Operated Boy,” The Dresden Dolls

Image courtesy of MySpace.

I positioned Panda Bear’s “Take Pills” next to “Coin-Operated Boy” motivated by both sound and theme. We ended the last song on a train; we open this song with a similar staccato rhythm. After the staticky revelry of a 303 sampler, the dreamy travel of Monster Rally, and the grand hiss of the locomotor carrying us god-knows-where, we are plunked back indoors for a live performance, featuring the unmistakable tink-tink of toy piano. Yes, in this playlist as in life, we are always compelled back inside. Almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the four walls of our own homes; almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the instrumentation of this Dresden Dolls song. As the song builds, the percussion can barely keep up to the speed of the singer, crashing down onto the circus melody like a stack of Tupperware from the highest cupboard. Its chord structure plays out dizzy and circular, up and down the stairs like a sea shanty.

Like “Take Pills,” “Coin-Operated Boy” is about using artificial means to find joy. “Sitting on the shelf, he is just a toy,” vocalist and composer Amanda Palmer sings in a wistful, conversational tone, “But I turn him on and he comes to life / Automatic joy / That is why I want a coin-operated boy.” Pardon me while I get NSFW for a second: many listeners wonder if this “automatic joy” is referring to certain machinations of self-pleasure. While I can follow the logic of this reading, the Dresden Dolls themselves refute this in an old, archived FAQ, and I choose to believe them. For the purposes of this playlist, in any case, the coin-operated “automatic joy” is prescient of a much broader force in our current lives, a monetized, ever-ready dopamine-dispenser, the prevalence of which 2007 Amanda Palmer could have never predicted. I am talking, of course, about our devices.

“Made of plastic and elastic, he is rugged and long-lasting…” Though not long-lasting enough not to strategically break so we have to pay to update our models every year, the time we spend with our phones and tablets is likely more continuous than the time we now spend with flesh-and-blood people. Before the pandemic, this was somewhat by choice. Now it’s the forced norm of leisure time, especially for those of us who live alone. Sure, I take walks, have socially distanced picnics, read books, throw things in a pan. But the majority of my connection with others is mediated by screens, the mechanics of which are designed to keep my eyes locked on something or someone while a tax-evading company collects data for targeted ads. When you realize the “coin” of this “coin-operated boy” is paid unwillingly via sleight-of-hand, the dark carnivalesque trilling of the Dresden Doll’s piano becomes all the more appropriate.

The “boy” of the “coin-operated boy” is the promise of love and care behind the tricks. Though I resent my reliance on technology, I still use it to reach people. I feel genuine warmth when I see my friends’ and family’s faces on screen, when I hear their voices on the phone. This kind of technologically-induced joy is real, body and soul, and will endure even after in-person visits are not a risk. New relationships, on the other hand, are a different beast. I admit, on nights when the sitcom on the big screen isn’t enough to keep my attention, I go to the other, smaller screen and root around in the ol’ dating app. The situation for single people during quarantine is a sad kind of funny, or funny kind of sad. For my part, the irony is the worst. Just as I was ready to enjoy my new, post-grad school free time and maybe even find love, it becomes borderline illegal to go on dates.

And yet, there’s a part of me who shares the resignation of the speaker of “Coin-Operated Boy.” Perhaps it’s simpler this way, to keep humans at arm’s length while I enjoy the simple give-and-take of Netflix and The New York Times Tiles game (seriously, Tiles is so fun and relaxing, I highly recommend it). Entertainment on my schedule, according to my whims, adhering to my limits, for mere dollars a month. Nobody else’s dirty dishes in the sink, nobody’s farts to smell, no one’s taste to contend with, no giving up my shows for some organized crime drama, no boring talky podcast blaring from someone’s phone while I’m trying to read. This is lonely, but it’s also “love without complications galore.”

As Amanda Palmer begins listing the benefits of romance with a robotic boy“Many shapes and weights to choose from / I will never leave my bedroom / I will never cry at night again / Wrap my arms around him and pretend”her declarations begin to reveal the desperation of the speaker’s circumstances; “I will never cry at night again” seems more like a wish than a certainty. Just as the health and wealth and desires of a real boy might change, so, too, do the joy-giving capabilities of technology. Mirroring a stuck record, the song begins to repeat, “…and I’ll never be alone.” I agree with Genius contributor Matthew Durant: “Palmer’s broken record repetition of this line suggests something breaking down, like stuck clockwork. Despite all the benefits of a mechanical boyfriend, he’s still only a machine, easily broken – and she knows it.” Perhaps our pleasure-giving devices are subject to failures both mechanical and existential because, after all, they were invented by humans with their own existential and mechanical failures. 

Though the song’s predictions laid out how seamlessly we can begin to eschew messy, everyday meatspace and instead occupy ourselves with coin-operated systems, the emotional breakdown and general self-convincing tone of Palmer’s lyrics also suggest there will never be a satisfying substitute for loving a real, live person. What Palmer couldn’t account for, however, is the seduction of control in the midst of chaos. Pressing play and swiping left ensure that automation and algorithms stand in for the risk of failure, the vulnerability of choice and consequence. Sure, randomness can sneak in, but when it does, there’s always a back button. Always a back button on the micro level, that is.

Globally, we’d probably all like to press rewind on the last three months. Then we’d know how to prepare. Protect loved ones. Isolate cases. Gather supplies. Pressure our politicians to shut the country down earlier. But we can’t do that. So, I press play and let the four walls of my house disappear into the four sides of a screen. I watch people laugh and hug and fight and kiss. I let my attention drift from one screen to the other, where someone is on the other end, reaching out in the best way they know how. I type something in reply, bracing as I send, knowing I can cut him off at the first sign of anything disagreeable, anything that might interfere with my reality.

Meanwhile, on the other screen, romantic miscommunications are being cleared up. Rivalries turn into allyships. Wounds heal. If I’m worried my attention is too split, there’s no need. When I miss something important, I can always go back.

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