The world has seemingly gone Daft Punk daft (as it were). Their new album has apparently caused music journalists the world over to experience a collective aural orgasm the likes of which has not been seen since… since… well, since David Bowie released his new album just over two months ago, actually. Which rather undermines my attempt to present this as some kind of epochal moment. Still, there’s a blog post to be written, and if some misfiring attempts at hyperbole are the price for that, so be it.
I’m slightly taken aback by this since I didn’t realise, in my ignorance, that there was pent up demand for new material from the band. I had mistakenly assumed DP were one of those dance-y acts, like Propellerheads, who no-one was really interested in once they’d had their brief period in the limelight. I only really know DP for one track, ‘Around The World’, which I not only dislike but find actively annoying. It’s one of those songs that seems tailor-made to be used as ammunition by anyone trying to argue that dance/ electronic music is dull and soulless: it’s thinly produced, lacking in ideas, and the instrumentation is almost parodically cheap and nasty.
But each to their own – just because I lack the ability to appreciate DP’s oeuvre doesn’t mean that others are similarly limited. I’ve never been one of those who thinks that there are absolutes in cultural taste, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that their music is bad, just that I don’t enjoy it. Neither do I begrudge them their success (although I do find it a little hard to take when they are praised for their ‘alternative’ credentials at a time when they are selling so well they are the clear definition of mainstream). I am, though, struck by how easy a ride they are being given in some quarters. It’s almost being suggested that they are doing something new – terms like ‘ground-breaking’ are used with dismaying regularity – when they are obviously just the latest iteration of a number of long-standing trends.
Take, for example, the question of their image, which sees them hiding behind masks, as part of assuming a robot identity. Some people think that’s exciting and novel, to which I can only say two things. First, Daft Punk are not the first electronic act to assume a robot identity – that would be Kraftwerk, whose track (we are) ‘The Robots’ was released in 1978. Second, they’re not the first musicians to perform in masks; loads of people have done this, but David Soul was a prominent example in the 1960s. I appreciate that fans, many of whom will not have been born until the 1980s or later, may not be aware of all of these previous explorations of the same territory, but music journalists should be.
There are plenty of examples of this tendency to treat the band as though they are pioneers when they are simply the latest to tread a well-worn path. In many cases, the things they are praised for are things already done by one band in particular – the Pet Shop Boys. The parallels with that band (one of my all-time favourites, as regular readers know) are in any case quite pronounced: they’re both duos, and they both found their niche walking the line between underground dance music and mainstream pop. The major differences between the bands are that PSB started a decade or so earlier, and DP lack the (initially closeted) gay sensibility that defines the elder statesmen of synthpop. (Personally, I think the major difference between them is that PSB are worth listening to and DP aren’t, but that’s a subjective opinion, of course.)
A good way of drawing out these parallels is to look at a recent interview with/ profile of Daft Punk. Here, for example, is the journalist, Dorian Lynskey, describing the band in his introductory paragraph:
At a point in their career when most bands are on a downward slope, Daft Punk have just celebrated their first number one single, “Get Lucky”, and are somehow bigger than ever.
Well, that sounds quite like the Pet Shop Boys, who surprised music journalists by securing their first number one album with Very when they were roughly the same age as DP are now (late 30s) – an age at which lazy music journalists also thought they should have been ‘on a downward slope’.
And how about the terms in which Lynskey eulogises Random Access Memories, Daft Punk’s new album?
First there’s the cast of guests […]. Then there’s the sheer sonic opulence, attained by snubbing computers in favour of veteran session musicians, legendary studios and a 70-piece orchestra.
Well, that sounds quite like PSB again. They pretty much wrote the book on collaborating with guests: David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Elton John, Liza Minnelli, The Killers, Kylie – and, in the near future, Example. When it comes to snubbing computers, back in 1990 the Pet Shop Boys followed up the hardcore computer-generated dance of Introspective with the legendary-studio-recorded, orchestra-bestrewn Behaviour, which was seen as pretty ground-breaking at the time: Melvin Bragg described it as ‘the new classical music’ on The South Bank Show. In fact, that was the start of something of a pattern, with the band ‘snubbing computers’ on several albums, including last year’s Elysium. No PSB album is a completely computer-free zone, it’s true, but they even give guitar bands a run for their money on 2002’s Release, on songs like ‘I Get Along’, ‘Birthday Boy’ and ‘Love Is A Catastrophe’.
As for the session musicians, Pet Shop Boys can see Daft Punk’s legendary guitarist Nile Rodgers and raise them legendary guitarist Johnny Marr – not once, but repeatedly, even to play on obscure single B-sides. And when it comes to orchestras, well, Pet Shop Boys have worked with so many, including the London Philharmonic and the Dresden Sinfoniker. In fact, as I pointed out a while back, they’re the electronic dance-pop act who’ve recorded with orchestras so many times they can put together a 90-minute concert entirely made up of songs originally recorded with orchestras.
What about the way they occupy themselves when they’re not writing and recording studio albums?
Daft Punk stopped thinking about albums. Instead they mounted a groundbreaking world tour, their first since 1997, that did for live dance music what Pink Floyd did for stadium rock. They made an inscrutable, wordless art movie called Daft Punk’s Electroma. They scored Tron: Legacy for Disney.
At the time of Daft Punk’s supposedly ‘groundbreaking’ world tour, in 2007, Pet Shop Boys were in the middle of their third (as I write, they’re coming to the end of the South American leg of their fifth). Unlike Lynskey, I’m wary of using the term ground-breaking inappropriately, but PSB’ first world tour in 1991, Performance, was apparently significant enough to garner its own Wikipedia entry, created 20 years after the event. It may be regarded as significant because it was the point at which it became apparent that bands like the Pet Shop Boys – bands who make their music on computers, and don’t have ‘rock star’ stage presence – could mount a successful global tour. You could argue that a band like Daft Punk are only able to tour because PSB first persuaded international concert promoters that tours by such bands were both feasible and profitable.
When it comes to inscrutable art movies, it’s interesting to note that Pet Shop Boys released theirs – the absurdist film It Couldn’t Happen Here – in 1988, fully 18 years earlier than DP. As for scoring films, Pet Shop Boys provided a soundtrack for the classic silent movie Battleship Potemkin in 2004, six years before Daft Punk got round to scoring theirs. As I understand it, DP are yet to compose a ballet score, which PSB have. Possibly they need more time before they’re ready to duplicate that particular achievement; when they do, no doubt some will hail their ‘unprecedented’ move into ‘virgin territory’.
This is, of course, just the way music works: bands are influenced by their predecessors, before going on, in turn, to influence their successors. Pet Shop Boys certainly weren’t cut from whole cloth either – they were clearly influenced by, among others, artists ranging from Kraftwerk to Bobby Orlando, and from Soft Cell to Visage. So there’s nothing wrong with Daft Punk borrowing from their predecessors, even if the extent of their borrowing from PSB is truly jaw-dropping: how else to describe it, when seemingly even their demeanour in interviews (one articulate, the other surly) is modelled on the elder band? All I ask is a little historical perspective before the term ‘ground-breaking’ is deployed.
The problem arises because music journalists constantly try to interpret music through the prism of punk. They’re always looking for the next revolutionary, ground-breaking development, and they get so desperate to find it that they’ll see evidence of it in even the most derivative of music (as anyone who read a review of Oasis in the mid 90s can confirm). The problem is that punk was exceptional: music is much more of a continuous tradition than it is a sequence of revolutions. For the most part, each successive wave of artists builds on their predecessors, recombining and recapitulating earlier ideas to create something that, even when it’s new, is not revolutionary. (And even with punk you can make a case for continuity over revolution: it was a big contrast to prog rock, but compare it to 60s garage rock and it’s much harder to spot the disjuncture.)
Pop music from 1913 sounds markedly different to pop music in 2013, but those differences stem from the long accumulation of incremental changes, not from a process of endless revolution. So of course Daft Punk’s new record isn’t revolutionary (except in the sense that it goes round and round, if you buy it in a physical format). In fact, as a conscious attempt to emulate and build upon the past, it’s intentionally the opposite. It would be nice if that fact was recognised, and Daft Punk were instead praised for what they’ve achieved: making a safe, risk-averse, quintessentially mainstream record.