Who’s afraid of laptop musicians?
Music stories are more exciting when there are eight-foot-high walls of flames and hype to match. But what when it’s all just a special effect? And when does mystique trump the actual music in music journalism?
The new Daft Punk record is perfectly likable. It is at times arguably polished to the point of being over-thought, the opposite of the original duo’s personality that was “punk” and not just “daft.” But their new, sparkly-shiny persona is guided by a sense of their musical taste, and the earworm-y hit single is a reminder that, with pop, getting lucky really isn’t a factor. These guys know what they’re doing. It’s may, yet we already know 2013’s “summer jam.” (Your brain will, sadly, be enslaved to this track as a result. I’ll bet it’s already in your head, and I didn’t even really mention it. Let’s sing something else – “London Bridge is Falling Down,” anything.)
The problem for music journalism is, what’s the narrative?
Let’s see: Daft Punk are still hiding in bike helmets. They apparently got bored with electronic music production as they had done it in the past, so they swapped sampled parts for studio musicians. Only, because of the fame they’ve accrued, their Rolodex – erm, iPhone – has “studio musicians” like Giorgio Moroder.
Well, that’s clearly not enough. The press story has to be as big as the band. There is something genuine to pop stardom, artificial as it may seem: there are lots of people who are deeply emotionally connected to them, in a real way. And those people are your readers – and, often, writers.
So, what’s the story? Fortunately, the artists known for being masters of disguise are ready to fill in the blanks. As marketing, it’s brilliant. But it can cause the press to fall back on tired cliches about what technology and music making mean – mangling history in the process.
Enter Pitchfork, with a massive cover story showing off their Web coding chops. Here, it’s literally an orchestrated stunt, completely with fireballs. The fact that the writer describes the scene of shooting that stunt – oh, no, will someone Instagram the new outfits? – is the musical equivalent of a behind-the-scenes Blu-Ray featurette extra on your copy of Avatar. It doesn’t really dig into the meaning or substance of what you’re watching.
There is a message to the Pitchfork story, though. See if you can spot it. I’ll help – emphasis mine:
In the lead:
After 20 years, the world has finally caught up with Daft Punk, so the helmet-clad retro-futurists are embarking on a new mission: to make music breathe again.
In the story:
It’s an instinct to keep the idea of mystery alive at a time when it seems to be in historically short supply.
Everything was recorded onto analog tape in rarified recording palaces like New York’s Electric Lady and L.A.’s Capitol Studios. Human spontaneity was coveted; computers, with their tendency toward mindless repetition, were not.
(Mindless repetition? Good thing we have Daft Punk to save us from that! We’re up all night ’til the sun ‘cos your song is stuck in our heads, but, okay…)
To Daft Punk, the album is something of a corrective to a style of music that they believe is caught in a computer-addled rut.
See the pattern?
Music is apparently not breathing and lacking in magic, and only Daft Punk can save us. These are the writer’s words, not Daft Punk’s. It’s not to single out this story, either. It seems everything from conversations over beer to blog entries returns to reminiscences about music of yore.
What to Daft Punk actually say? Bangalter makes it clear that there is a self-conscious effort to do something that fans can’t:
Pete Tong did a better interview for BBC Radio 1, minus the fire effects. It’s worth a listen.
I hear two different stories from the Daft Punk duo. One is, they weren’t feeling inspired working in the traditional way with samples, and they were feeling inspired by working with instrumentalists. I wouldn’t pit Ableton Live against an 85-person orchestra (under the baton of Gavin Greenaway, on Tron: Legacy). The feeling is unparalleled; if you don’t feel inspired by an orchestra that size, ask someone to check your wrist for a pulse.
But… while not everyone can have access to a symphony orchestra, finding instrumentalists isn’t limited to an elite. There are these fantastic things called microphones and audio jacks that connect computers to the outside world. You can even use them in your bedroom, with your laptop.
So what are they really talking about?
Here’s what Bangalter has to say:
“Technology has made music accessible in a philosophically interesting way, which is great,” says Bangalter, talking about the proliferation of home recording and the laptop studio. “But on the other hand, when everybody has the ability to make magic, it’s like there’s no more magic—if the audience can just do it themselves, why are they going to bother?”
Now, I don’t bedgrudge Daft Punk of trying to do something only Daft Punk can do – that’s their job. But the press? And other artists?
Why would any of us be so afraid of basements and underground and DIY, and so affectionate for the 70s or other decades’ mainstream, commercial, industrial music?
Hard-hitting music can be made independently by people using technology. Just ask Daft Punk – no, not 2013 Daft Punk, this Daft Punk:
The golden age of music did have, at least, a good industry going for it. And just as bandstands in the early part of the century employed lots of musicians before they were killed, in part, by recording, the record industry employed more artists and musicians for a time. That merits consideration.
But we risk being nostalgic for times when average producers couldn’t afford studio time, about the era of payola and big FM stations, record labels and industry music, or more recently, corporate-consolidated radio. When we talk about the music of the few, this is the industrial world we mean.
And to say that it’s a problem that anyone can make music – that seems criminal.
The very essence of music is that anyone can make it. In every culture, in every corner of the world, in living rooms and bars and showers, people make music, and always have. The desire to stifle musical experimentation and freedom is the stuff of dictatorships, not culture. Not all good music is naive, and not all naive music is terribly good, but if you believe in free people, you are open to the idea that music can come from anywhere.
The age of the people typically writing for today’s music Web outlets means that they’re part of the Napster and/or iTunes generations, depending on when they went to college. Broadly, this is the age of Internet music. But that was supposed to bring democratization: more underground, more basement and bedroom, not less.
Instead, we get a version of electronic dance music history that warps where the whole music came from.
To their credit, Daft Punk are still name-checking Chicago house. But in Pitchfork’s world, you need giant disco pyramids and big-budget shows to be inspiring – everything that so frustrates dance music lovers about the present obsession with the American festival scene. Here’s Pitchfork again:
Skrillex, whose blinding live setup has arguably come closest to matching the pyramid’s legacy over the last few years, recalls going to see Daft Punk by himself in 2007, buying a ticket from a scalper for $170, and having his mind rearranged—without the influence of drugs or alcohol. “It was definitely that show for me,” he says. Panda Bear has called it the best concert he’s ever seen. As the tour’s official photographer, DJ Falcon got to experience around 40 shows from an enviable viewpoint.
$170 tickets and big stage effects. Got it. This is what Pitchfork describes as the “acceptance” of dance culture in the US, rather than what might to casual observers seem only like the big-budget capitalization of that culture.
David Abravanel has a stinging analysis on his personal blog. I’ll cherry pick one line, though please check it out in context. He notes that, relative to early disco, “it’s pretty ironic that Daft Punk chose to go the “we’re richer/better connected than you” route.”
Don’t mistake this for jealousy. On the contrary, I believe that there are lessons to be learned in music making from big acts. I love pop music, and I can have a great time at a big festival. Reverse snobbery, I believe, is also a crime (and read David’s article above in full, as he’s not doing anything of the sort).
No, I worry only about the anti-technology bent in the press, about its obsession with whether or not America is getting dance culture (having endlessly rehashed that question for the last 30-odd years), and mostly about a fear that anyone can make music.
And that’s because I believe democracy and magic are compatible, as are knowledge and magic. Bangalter is speaking about PR and buildup here, and I expect has a point:
“When you know how a magic trick is done, it’s so depressing,” he explains. “We focus on the illusion because giving away how it’s done instantly shuts down the sense of excitement and innocence.”
But – at some point I draw the line.
I’ve spent almost a decade making my living entirely through this question of how the illusion is done.
I feel no less excited, and no less innocent.
And that’s because I remain surprised and delighted by the music that people can make, and the fact that anyone can.
Maybe even on laptops.