Food for Thought: Daft Punk – Legend of the Phoenix
Have you ever had that one musician or artist that you fell in love with when you were a kid? Maybe their discovery was a freak accident that you came across one day while looking through your parents’ music collection; maybe your best friend or older sibling showed them to you when there was nothing else to do; maybe you bought their album one day at the record store because you liked the look of their cover art. Regardless of how you found your first love, you clung onto them and never let go. For me, this happened several times in my life. One time I went through my sister’s CD collection in 2002 and found an album called The Eminem Show; I took a listen on my Discman just to see what it was about, and fell in love. Another time, I heard some weird but entrancing song called “Feel Good Inc.” on the radio in 2005; I asked my parents who the artist was, and they told me that it was someone called the Gorillaz. On another occasion, I was walking through Target, and I came across a really cool-looking CD; it was called Hybrid Theory, and it was by a bunch of dudes called Linkin Park. Each and every time, I was introduced to an artist that I really enjoyed, and I became a lifelong fan of each and every one of them. For a while, it was absolute bliss.
Somewhere along the line, however, I slowly but surely became disenchanted with my childhood heroes. After growing up with, and enjoying, the phenomenal The Eminem Show and its two predecessors The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, I couldn’t help but be extremely disappointed with his two follow-up records Encore andRelapse. The same happened with the Gorillaz and Linkin Park. After fawning over Demon Days for being, in my eyes, a modern masterpiece, I was taken aback when its successor Plastic Beach failed to meet my expectations as being a “worthy” follow-up. As for Linkin Park, the less that is said about Minutes to Midnight the better.
Understandably, everybody goes through a point in their lives where an artist or musician that they like changes too much for comfort. Right now there is a firestorm about how Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories (“RAM”) is an affront against nature, one person even comparing the album to maybe the worst possible thing that can happen to a child on Christmas Day:
“It’s like being a kid on Christmas, and running downstairs to open up the Sega you’ve been waiting all year for, only to find out that your parents are instead taking you to the vet, because you have to put the dog down.”
Ryansaar – Why the New Daft Punk Album Sucks – An Essay
Being a long-time fan of Daft Punk, I can’t deny that I was a little taken aback when I heard RAM for the first time when iTunes did a free stream of the whole album. Unlike the heavily electronic Homework, Discovery or Human After All, RAM veers in a completely different direction with a more analogue sound. This change was very jarring, and after the release of the album a huge amount of Daft Punk fans were outraged; instead of RAM being a hyper-energetic romp that would send everybody to the dancefloor, it is instead a lot more mellow and dreamy in sound.
For a frame of reference with those who are not familiar with Daft Punk, here are some of their best-known songs from Discovery, Homework, and Human After All.
In contrast, here are some tracks from Random Access Memories:
At first glance, the music on RAM appears to be so different that die-hard Daft Punk fans would endlessly seethe in anger. The streets of the internet would run red with the backlash against the pioneers of the Electronic Dance Movement. As one particularly disgruntled fan puts it, RAM‘s hype and eventual release would result in “[stirring their] robot-kilted fans into near-murder mania, in which they’ll stab each other to clasp their fingers around [Daft Punk’s] spandex wearing, auto tuned vocal pipes.” It’s particularly telling that even Daft Punk themselves might be resigned to the fact that not many fans would like their new album:
“‘In Scream 2, they have this discussion about how sequels always suck,’ Bangalter says. In this scheme, Random Access Memories might as well be Scream 4. “The thing we can ask ourselves at some point is like: We’re making music for twenty years. How many bands and acts do you have that are still making good music after twenty years? It always sucks—almost always, you know? . . . So our new album is supposed to really suck.”
Daft Punk Is (Finally!) Playing At Our House – by Zach Baron, GQ Magazine
However, the question that we should be asking ourselves is a simple one: is the backlash against Daft Punk really warranted?
If we were to look at this backlash objectively, what is the most prominent reason for why people are so upset? If the introduction to this article didn’t tip you off, it is that fans of a certain band are sorely disappointed because the band doesn’t sound the same as they did before. I admit, I have done the same thing with some of my favorite artists in the past; when I look back on that outrage, I get really embarassed. As an example, when the Gorillaz’ album Plastic Beach came out in 2010, I was angry beyond belief because it didn’t sound exactly like Demon Days, the album that came before it in 2005. While Demon Days was more grandiose and orchestral in scope, Plastic Beachenjoys a sound that contains a fusion of hip-hop and electronic dance music. On first listening, I treated this like treason. “How dare they,” I declared, “although the rabid fangirls . . . would tell you that this is the greatest, most genius thing that the Gorillaz have ever made, I have to say that they’re full of shit.” I said this of Plastic Beach in my review for CheshireCatStudios in 2010, and after three years have passed I’ve become outright embarassed of the bratty attitude I tried to pass off as a legitimate music review. Really, that makes me no better than the kid who wrote the “Why The New Daft Punk Album Sucks – An Essay” (cited above) because I gave no objective explanation for why I disliked Plastic Beach, and because, more importantly, I didn’t see the big picture.
See, when a musical act continues to produce music for an extended period of time, there inevitably has to be some change in the way that they sound. There are numerous reasons for this; as an example, when My Chemical Romance made the transition between Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, a rock album fixated on revenge, and The Black Parade, a theatrical rock opera, that change was made because they wanted to make their sound more dramatic and grandiose as a part of solidifying their identity. In the case of Daft Punk, their change in sound on RAM came from needing to make a statement about the current state of popular music:
“Its weird mix of champagne-sipping soft rock and lite-funk jazz-odyssey indulgences (all played by distinguished studio musicians instead of computers) is a reaction against the current sound of status quo [Electronic Dance Music], which derives in part from Daft Punk’s first two albums, 1997’s Homework and 2001’s Discovery.”
We, Robots – by Steven Hyden, Grantland.com
RAM is not the conventional Daft Punk album that many of their fans thought they were going to get when it was released earlier this summer. Does this mean that RAM is a bad album, though? Absolutely not, and the concept of this album “not being Daft Punk” is absolutely false. Just to look at this from a common sense perspective, when you listen to how RAM is composed, and how earlier Daft Punk albums are composed, you can tell that they were made by the same guys. One example is that you can still see the use of repetition in “Get Lucky’s” lyrics that was utilized in earlier Daft Punk works like “Around The World” and “Technologic.” As another example, while a lot of Daft Punk’s earlier albums had a lot of tracks that made you want to dance, they also had their fair share of more mellow tracks that you can relax to; Discovery, one of Daft Punk’s seminal works, has its fair share of dance tracks like “Once More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” and low-energy tracks like “Digital Love” and “Something About Us.” RAM has the same thing going for it, boasting head-bobbing tracks like “Get Lucky,” “Give Life Back To Music,” and “Georgio by Moroder,” and some slower pieces like “Touch,” “The Game of Love,” and “Within.” The only difference between RAM and Daft Punk’s previous works seems to only be that while the later albums were made in a livingroom on a computer, the French duo’s newest album was made in an actual studio with veteran musicians as collaborators.
Daft Punk, Niles Rogers (left), and Pharrel (right).
With all of that said, the biggest reason why Daft Punk decided to make a funk/disco record (though to merely call it a disco album is doing RAM a disservice) is because they wanted to take a stance against the very movement that they helped create, the electronic dance movement. In numerous interviews regarding RAM, the duo criticized contemporary electronic dance music as creating “a musical soundscape that is very uniform:”
“‘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.'”
Daft Punk Gets Human With A New Album, by Simon Reynolds, The New York Times.
Other well-known artists of the genre have spoken out against contemporary EDM, like Deadmau5, who said on Twitter that every EDM artist nowadays sounds the same:
“Good as in sounds like every fuckin other edm track out there good?,” he wrote. “I’m inb4 this whole ordeal gets oversaturated with ‘good’ music. Don’t make good music. Make music that matters to you.”
The significance of this is that while Daft Punk helped pioneer the EDM movement, they wanted to move away from it when they were making their new album. The duo compares the current musical climate to an energy drink, that is where the music is “energy only … [but lacking] depth. You can have energy in music and dance to it but still have soul.” What is especially telling is that Daft Punk scrapped demos that they had already created in 2008 when they realized that trying to make a new album with their old tricks wasn’t working. So what does this tell us? This tells us that Daft Punk wanted to exercise their artistic liberty to create something new and exciting, and to do that they needed to make the transition from their parents’ livingroom to an actual music studio. Additionally, something that music fans always have to consider is that artists don’t owe them anything; just because Daft Punk’s fans like electronic dance music doesn’t mean that the duo have to be pigeon-holed into just making EDM for the rest of their lives. While a musician or performer no doubt wants to please their fans, there also has to be a respect for a musician’s artistic integrity. As Nile Rogers, a collaborator on RAM, said in an interview, people are perfectly free to dislike the album if they don’t like it. However, Nile Rogers also said that this doesn’t entitle fans to try and limit Daft Punk’s artistic vision by forcing them to only make one type of music:
“Anybody can dislike Daft Punk’s record, it’s fine. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But to try and say that you want to limit a person’s artistic vision because you do things another way seems really not in the spirit of dance music.”
Nile Rogers Responds to Daft Punk Haters, by Elissa Bradley, Mixmag
At the end of the day, the backlash against Daft Punk seems to be unjustified. While some fans may be genuinely disappointed with how RAM turned out, we have to remember that musical artists should not be confined to only performing one type of music; if they want to change their sound and try something new, they are perfectly entitled to do so. If RAM turned out to be a lousy album, then I think that the fans’ negative reactions would be more understandable. However, it is actually still a magnificent Daft Punk album, and the simple fact of the matter is that the backlash against it comes from fans being utterly displeased with how it is not “danceable.” As I already said, while people are perfectly entitled to dislike an album, trying to force an artist to stay the same for their entire career is simply too unrealistic and unreasonable to ask.