For one thing, even before they ally with humanity, the Zentraedi seem like “real” characters rather than grim and soulless alien conquerors. They have their own personalities, bicker with each other, have several scenes told from their perspective, and express a range of emotions. They are not just props to show how awesome humanity is, but characters to like for themselves.
Furthermore, because Zentraedi were engineered for war rather than that being their natural, evolved culture, they avoided falling into the trap of being cheesy “warrior alien” types, and were instead fairly balanced and normal. Portraying the Zentraedi this way enriches the basic humanistic theme of the trope they embodied.
However, while this humanism is a very important aspect to the Zentraedi, the core of my interest was that I could empathize with them in some strange way, which began with the fact that the Zentraedi’s arc sent two comforting messages. The first was that music and emotion are potentially stronger forces than weapons, for that was what made allies out of some of them. Unrealistic, but as a feel-good metaphor it worked beautifully. The catalyst for the Zentraedi transition might just have been the male characters’ infatuation with Minmay, but Minmay’s singing is analogous to any other artistic pursuit, and to the general humanity of it all. She is a stand-in for a larger theme.
And I believed in it, ‘cause I believe that without artistic expression, life is worthless. Not everyone has to be an artist, but the opportunity to be one must exist in some form. Art is essential to human existence, even if it doesn’t seem like a physical necessity at first: without art, you have no heart, and no mind, and all you have is mere survival...just like the Zentraedi.
Though I later realized that the intention of the narrative was also to credit Minmay herself with being super-special, my view of Minmay as a metaphor remained, and this perception didn’t really diminish the power of what unfolded.
The second message of the Zentraedi transition is that you can become more than what you are. Through serendipity this actually became a minor theme in the other two segments of Robotech, and was seen with later Macross antagonists and even protagonists, but the original Zentraedi it were the most compelling example of such a motif.
I also saw an undercurrent of individualism within the Zentraedi story arc, since they took an active role in responding to the feelings the humans had engendered and tried to shape their own future themselves. This series of active movements on the part of the Zentraedi helped to further differentiate them from their norm, and to appeal more deeply to my own personal values. More obviously, the Zentraedi began to desire far more freedom and self-definition than they were used to having. It was not that the humans were intrinsically superior, but that autonomy was, and humans had that first.
I also view the Zentraedi story as a childhood’s end. Though clearly the major rite-of-passage themes revolve around the series' protagonist, Hikaru Ichijo/Rick Hunter, they are applicable to the antagonists as well. Because they know of nothing beyond what they have been taught, the Zentraedi are undeveloped: official Macross material defines the ordinary soldier as being about as intelligent as a “primary schoolchild”. They are not mindless and passive, can indeed be adaptive and active, but it is all in the framework of war, and so they can never make free adult decisions.
I was not a child when I viewed the series. But I had struggled for years with anxiety regarding my performance and capability in both work and home, with a persistent sense of my own arrested development and an incomplete psyche. I saw many possible mirrors to my own situation in the Zentraedi, viewing their story as an inspirational one of breaking free of the constraints of a previous life to build a new one on their own, an action that was prompted by humans but depended just as much on their own initiative. This highlighted my own urges to change rather than created them, but that was enough. It felt good to see an uplifting metaphor for my own desires.
However, I eventually realized that simply being thematically appealing was not enough to make me like the Zentraedi as deeply as I did. To really be attached to an image, there must be likable characters through which it is filtered. When it came to the Zentraedi, I ended up focusing the most on the eventually human-allied male Zentraedi characters from the original series, ones whom I later realized were largely ignored by the fandom and sometimes ill-treated by the narrative.