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How Daft Punk Saved Pop Music (and Doomed Us All)

Boards of Canada and Daft Punk / Photo by Getty Images (Daft Punk)

“There’s a tidal wave of laptop kids making music at the moment, which on the one hand is a great thing, because it’s a whole new generation being encouraged to create. But on the other hand, it seems to have become a bit of a pissing contest between non-musicians who are more interested in computer components than art, all trying to elbow each other around to create the most impressively detailed, clicky sci-fi sounds. [But] at the end of the day, emotional melodies are going to last a lot longer than impressive drum programming.”

Can you guess who that is? You probably can. It’s a press-shy duo who has just returned to the scene after a lengthy break between albums, a group known for its innovative viral campaigns and a nostalgic fondness for the sounds of the 1970s and 1980s.

Daft Punk, you say? Sorry! But close: It’s Boards of Canada’s Mike Sandison. Of course you could be forgiven for the mix-up; his comments are strikingly similar to the rhetoric Daft Punk have employed regarding Random Access Memories. Consider these statements by Thomas Bangalter from recent interviews:

“‘Those tools [computers] were very good at many things,’ Bangalter says, but they were worthless in terms of ‘generating emotion as musical instruments.'” (GQ)

“‘Computers were never designed in the first place to become musical instruments,’ Mr. Bangalter said. ‘Within a computer, everything is sterile — there’s no sound, there’s no air. It’s totally code. Like with computer-generated effects in movies, you can create wonders. But it’s really hard to create emotion.'” (The New York Times)

“I think [contemporary EDM producers] might be missing the tools. The problem with the way to make music today, these are turnkey systems; they come with preset banks and sounds. They’re not inviting you to challenge the systems themselves, or giving you the ability to showcase your personality, individuality… We really felt that the computers are not really music instruments, and we were not able to express ourselves using a laptop. We tried, but were not successful.” (Billboard)

But here’s the thing: That interview with Boards of Canada is from way back in 2002. What does it say about the state of contemporary music (or at least the discourse around it) that Daft Punk’s highly publicized move away from computers has been greeted as such a radical strategy, when it echoes a sentiment that has been in the air, even within the electronic-music scene, for at least a decade, if not much longer?

The pessimistic view — the one taken by Homework stans who regard the French duo as traitors, turncoats, sellouts — is that they’ve given up on electronic music and the futurist, progressivist logic that has animated it since its early days. (And which has clearly informed their own career deeply — just look at those robot costumes.) In this version, Daft Punk have absorbed the vehement technophobia of what we might call the entrenched humanist crowd — like the Los Angeles back-to-basics crank John Wood and his “Drum Machines Have No Soul” stickers, or Michiko Kakutani’s 1997 warning about a grave new world that “relies on computers, synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers to purvey a cold, distinctly antihumanistic agenda.”

I don’t think that’s the case. Daft Punk deserve more credit than that. For one thing, they’ve clearly succeeded in their ambitions to create a monumental tribute to the sprawling, gatefold art-pop of the 1970s and 1980s, projects fueled by hubris, expert musicianship, astronomical major-label budgets, and cocaine (in its prelapsarian days). Whatever your feelings about Random Access Memories‘ songwriting or level of taste, the duo clearly achieved what they set out to do. And, despite their measured critique of digital tools, Daft Punk are hardly Luddites. As Bangalter told SPIN, “We are questioning the limits of artificial intelligence and of digital-music programming. On the one hand, this album sounds like it could have been made before the age of electronic music, but on the other hand, this wouldn’t have been possible. We are hiding the machines on this record maybe in a similar way that Peter Jackson tries to hide the machines in his Lord of the Rings movies. On the album, you have a track like ‘Touch’ that doesn’t sound like a technological song at all, but there were 250 individual tracks used for this song and this wouldn’t have been possible without digital technology.”

Or, indeed, you have a track like “Doin’ It Right”: On the surface it might sound like a Panda Bear showcase, but the real star is that 808 pattern, the crispiest, boomiest drum-machine track you’ll hear this year. It’s the only sound that could have framed his inimitably wonky, yelpy croon; slipping from note to note, forever on the edge of dissolving into vapor, he needs that steel-girded structure to keep him grounded. The declarative, bedrock beat turns out to be as expressive, even in the inverse, as Panda Bear himself. Drum machines have no soul, mon cul.

Nevertheless, Daft Punk’s comments about computers tie into a widespread (and, judging from Boards of Canada’s 2002 comments, longstanding) dissatisfaction with the current state of pop and electronic music (which are, increasingly, the same thing). From the mainstream to the underground, you can’t swing a USB stick without hitting someone complaining about presets or plugins or crappy, identikit EDM productions cranked out on cracked copies of Ableton.

In many ways, these complaints are a backlash to the very “democratizing” effects made possible by samplers and synthesizers and the glut of music that has followed. Electronic music, in its foundations, was a radically democratic platform, as much if not more so than punk rock. As Mute’s Daniel Miller told eMusic, talking about the late 1970s, synthesizers “were much easier to play than a guitar. You didn’t have to learn chords or anything boring like that — it was more about messing around on it until you created a sound you thought was really good.” And as the tools have migrated from hardware to software, they have become even easier to use in a reasonably convincing way, giving even amateurs the ability to sound like seasoned pros.

With the right software, it’s relatively easy to churn out a convincing pastiche of tech-house or trance or dubstep — even easier when simply dragging and dropping sounds sourced from sample packs — amateur-friendly toolkits with names like “Mainroom Elements Vol. 1” or “Trap N Drop” or “Tortured Dubstep Drums.” These are, as Bangalter rightly points out, “turnkey systems.” While the possibilities of software like Ableton are nearly limitless, the platform (and, even moreso, the virtual instruments designed to be run on it) has been designed largely according to the specifications of pre-existing tropes and genres.

But they are only a part of the reason for the current glut of unimaginative music: The other, and far more important, is the “democratizing” effect of platforms like MySpace, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Beatport. Even in the days of hardware synths, there were plenty of musicians churning out forgettable, derivative genre studies; the difference then was that their output largely stayed in the bedroom. Now, a track can be uploaded to the Internet, whether for streaming or for sale, in less time than it takes to render the final audio. What Boards of Canada’s Sandison identified as a “tidal wave of laptop kids” back in 2002 has grown into a tsunami of biblical proportions.

The tools, in fact, are a red herring. There’s nothing wrong with the state of electronic music, in part because its most innovative (or at least most thoughtful) practitioners are well aware of the traps posed by the tools. Just look at Four Tet’s live tutorial from a recent Red Bull Music Academy session, and you’ll see how carefully he has thought through all the potential pitfalls of digitally-determined music. Deeper underground, the scene is full of musicians who have returned to hardware devices and real-time play as a way of escaping the Tetris-like cul-de-sac of endlessly rearranging bricks in music software. This strategy is not without its risks, either: If we’re drowning in a glut of preset EDM, we’re also dangerously close to being overwhelmed by the rising tide of straight-to-tape 808-and-Juno jams. None of this is new; James Murphy was already on top of electronic music’s knee-jerk rockism when, in 2002’s “Losing My Edge,” he intoned, “I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.”

Many artists clearly didn’t get the message. Avicii recently hired a bunch of country musicians, apparently having decided to make a Mumford and Sons record. When Zedd performed on Letterman, prompting his fans to hail it as a breakthrough moment for EDM, he tickled the ivories on a grand piano, with just the faintest whisper of a click track providing the only link to “electronic” music. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Zedd’s performance proved that his music works just as well, if not better, without all the filter-swept bells and whistles and drops. But his appearance said nothing about electronic music’s newfound standing, aside from the fact that someone decided that audiences would be better suited to an unplugged performance. (If anything, it suggested that mainstream audiences weren’t ready for a full-on EDM assault; the billing was a Trojan Horse for pop traditionalism.)

I hope that the takeaway from Daft Punk’s success isn’t that what we really need is a return to “real” instruments and “real” musicians. Because part of what makes Random Access Memories such a triumph is that Daft Punk had enough money in their pockets (sans record contract!) to rent out a fantastically equipped recording studio and fill it with some of the best musicians in the world. What other musicians have those means? (Aside, apparently, from eager-beaver Avicii, who has announced that he too is working with Nile Rodgers. Way to innovate, kid.) Daft Punk could do it because they’re freaking Daft Punk. The 99-percenters, on the other hand, will have to make do with the tools they can afford and the talents they possess.

I’m reminded of Radiohead’s pay-what-you-will campaign for 2007’s In Rainbows. It was greeted as a radical move, but, as many critics pointed out, its radicalism may have been undercut by Radiohead’s privilege as one of the biggest bands in the world, with an enormous and devoted fanbase built up over the years in which they benefited from major-label largesse. Pay-what-you-will may be a lovely ideological statement, but it’s not a particularly viable business option for artists who don’t already have strong followings.

In fact, the real demonstration of Daft Punk’s incredible privilege was not the fact that they could afford to spend what has been said to be as much as $1 million on recording their album; it is the way they promoted it. Because before anybody was talking about their rejection of computers, they were talking about the viral campaign: The sly announcement that they’d signed to Columbia, the billboards and wheat-pasted posters, those SNL ads, their sneaky credits reveal on a video screen at Coachella, the “Collaborators” videos, Pharrell singing “Get Lucky” three times at an April show in Brooklyn. Daft Punk got everybody talking about them because they’re freaking Daft Punk.

But give them credit for investing their cultural capital in productive ways. The pre-release game of viral Whack-a-Mole may have gotten tiring, but, like Boards of Canada’s recent attempt to evoke the mystery of a phenomenon like “the Footage” (from William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition), at least it sparked the imagination. Many critics have bemoaned the erosion of the so-called “monoculture,” but the Random Access Memories campaign, with its visual nods to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, not only successfully evoked an era when pop music played a central role in popular culture; it also invoked it, bringing it back to reality (or at least a convincing illusion of it). I’m as sick as the rest of you, I’m sure, of the wall-to-wall Daft Punk coverage that the SEO era has enabled and encouraged, but I’ll admit that it’s been refreshing to have something to talk about that unites us all.

Contrast Daft Punk’s takeover of the Internet with a recent attempt at a viral campaign by the members of Swedish House Mafia. They know a thing or two about controlling the conversation, having spun their well-publicized “breakup” into a manipulative and interminable “farewell” tour. (Their first single was released in September of 2010, and they announced their disbanding in June of 2012, and proceeded to tour until March of this year. That means they were active for just 21 months before announcing a farewell tour that lasted another 10 months, or roughly one-third of their entire official career as a trio.) Earlier this month, they piqued fans’ curiosity with a series of short video clips featuring the three members of the band moping, separately, around the same rainswept seascape. Were they really getting the band back together? As it turns out, no: The whole thing was just a promotion for a previously unreleased version of their single “Leave the World Behind,” this time with vocals by a singer named Lune, which also happened to serve as the soundtrack for a Volvo ad starring the brand-savvy Swedes. As James Murphy might put it, “I heard you and your band broke up, and are now selling cars.”

The real risk presented by Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories isn’t that it gives Luddites ammunition for tirades against computers or digital culture; it’s that, right now, scads of project managers are sitting down with fame-hungry musicians trying to dream up similar campaigns designed to hijack the Internet’s ever more distracted mindshare. Forget about the tidal wave of laptop kids; there’s a viral hurricane on the horizon that will make Daft Punk’s project look as refreshing as a spring rain.