In thinking about the music of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, known across the world as the electronic music duo Daft Punk, I’ve noticed how the different phases of their career, particularly in conjunction with the four studio albums they have released, have coincided with different phases of my life and how my musical priorities and tastes have changed over the years. More specifically, thinking about these albums and the times they’ve been released into the world, I’ve come to realize that many of the attitudes I’ve held about music were judgmental, shortsighted, or prone to different forms of sonic prejudice that Daft Punk would play no small part in helping me to recognize and overcome. In short: in the years between the mid 90s and the mid 00s, I formed an staggering number of particularly heinous and embarrassing opinions about the music of Daft Punk, nearly all of which I would eventually denounce. Again and again, their music eventually sets me on the right path, but I’ve still had to live with the shameful memories of the first impressions I’ve had towards it, which I’ve always kept to myself. Until now!
Consider Homework, their first album. When I first heard it, I was underwhelmed by the “dirty” quality of its production, which I assumed was the result of technical incompetence, and its lack of any tracks resembling actual songs. “Da Funk” and (to a lesser extent) “Around the World” were radio hits. All the kids at school knew them and I remember hearing them being sing-hummed in the hallways. I was annoyed by both songs and considered them cloying, gimmicky crap, judgments based on misguided assumptions about the artists’ background and intent, a burgeoning, horribly ill-informed sense of musical elitism that I misunderstood as inspired wisdom, and a prejudice against anything that dared to sound so unapologetically goofy and/or fun. I latched onto The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy during the height of their brief ascents to American fame, but wrote off Daft Punk because… well, their sound seemed rooted in a musical realm that I assumed was “dead.” Electronica, big beat, drum and bass, trip hop… these were the “new” sounds that, at the time, made me feel like I was discovering a whole new world. I’m not going to try to list all my favorites from the MTV Amp era (I use this TV series as a convenient signpost, we did not have cable TV so I never actually watched it), some of which I still think are legitimately amazing, others which I never particularly want to hear again, but for whatever reason, I found vast swaths of this new scene to be absolutely compelling, while totally writing off Daft Punk as a passing fad that I didn’t need to care about.
Some years later (2000?) I finally heard Homework in full and my mind was blown. I don’t know how to account for this change in my perception. I certainly wasn’t getting smarter. If anything, my ability to authentically assess and enjoy music on my own terms was rapidly dwindling as I immersed myself in music media and mindlessly lapped up the opinions of others. I don’t remember any Daft Punk cultural revival happening at this point (eventually it would, just not until the mid 00s). I finally heard the album for myself, at last, and realized how great it really was. And how much of a twat I’d been been all that time, and for no good reason. A bunch of kids that I thought were assholes happened to like “Da Funk”? I guess that was all I needed to form my opinion.
Discovery arrived in early 2001. My first impression? I saw the video for “One More Time” on MTV playing on one of the lounges at college. I distinctly remember furrowing my brow and shaking my head in disgust. “Are you kidding me? Are they trying to make a parody of AMVs or something? And why is this song so gay?”
Yes, I actually thought that the video was tongue-in-cheek or ironic. No, I didn’t know who Leiji Matsumoto was. I was really ignorant and quick to criticize any dance music that wasn’t IDM, because clearly that was the only music that mattered in 2001. I wasn’t as violently homophobic as that quote might make me sound — which I doubt I ever actually said to anyone but might as well have — but was still stuck in the sort of boneheaded mentality that privileged all “serious” and “authentic” forms of music (electronic music, hip-hop, indie rock, etc) over the transient and unsubstantial pleasures of mere pop music. And hey, maybe I was homophobic after all. I’ m not going to go into the details but I was going through a lot of awful personal issues at the time while being stuck in a terrible religious school surrounded by prideful, prejudiced, suspicious kids that I was eager to emulate and impress. I feared God’s vengeance and beat myself up over every “immoral” urge or doubtful thought that ever passed through my mind. In hindsight, I might have been literally insane at the time. I might still be, although I’ve gotten over most the issues that made me such an insufferable sad bastard back then.
I won’t make any excuses for myself, I heard “One More Time” and thought it was corny as hell. I heard “Aerodynamic” and my mind was blown. Hadn’t they heard? The 80s were over! I think I was delighted by how much I was “offended” by this song; here was a rare chance for me to revel in how much I knew about music, what was “right” and “wrong” and how important it was for artists to break free from the sounds of the past… unless those sounds happened to be “properly” obscure or forgotten. The guitar solo, played in the style of “technical” metal or some other realm of similarly “difficult” rock music, seemed eager to celebrate its own complexity. For that I hated it! I’d given my heart and soul to punk and to indie rock. “Masturbatory” soloing like this, or anything that sounded difficult to actually play (even if it wasn’t), was everything that was wrong with music! I wrote it off on principle and didn’t give it a fair chance for a few more years.
I don’t remember much more from my first impressions of Discovery; my roommate owned the album but we spent of that year listening to Radiohead and Sigur Ros. I didn’t have much to do with the album for a couple of years after that, at least not until I got a retail job where I got to work with a bunch of cool people who liked lots of good music. Taking such a low-paying job that had nothing to do with my degree was a terrible decision, in hindsight, but at the time I was just happy to be around other people my age who weren’t judgmental religious zombies and who seemed to like me and actually wanted to go hang out. We’d listen to Daft Punk, Basement Jaxx, Talking Heads and Gorillaz at work, closed off from the rest of the store up on the second floor, which was always considerably less busy than downstairs. Around this time, Human After All was released. We added it to our regular rotation and it wasn’t long before customers complained to store managers about it. From then on, we were stuck listening to “approved” music, which was basically Josh Groban, Coldplay, and Norah Jones.
Human After All… well, it’s got “Robot Rock,” which I would often play on repeat and still love. The rest of the album, thought, was a very frustrating departure from the emotionally-moving songs and warm sonic palette of Discovery. “The Brainwasher,” “Television Rules the Nation,” and “Steam Machine” sounded positively grating in comparison to beautiful songs like “Digital Love” or “Something About Us.” I wanted this album to be as good as Homework and Discovery. Even if it wasn’t, I wanted to love it just as much. Were my expectations too high? I tried to give Human After All a fair shake, but after a few months, I finally accepted that it just wasn’t as good as its predecessors. Was it even a good album at all? I wasn’t sure.
The eventual release of Alive 2007 didn’t change my opinion of Human After All, but it definitely changed my impressions of many of the tracks. In the context of a live set, even the “worst” songs from the album not only play off the band’s more popular hits, but assert themselves with new-found energy and purpose. I don’t know if this truly qualifies as another instance of misjudging the band; most fans agree that it never was and never will be as enjoyable as their first two albums. But it definitely was a mistake to write them off at this point. Despite countless accusations from indie music fans and newcomers to the world of “EDM” that they’d lost the plot, this album was not a sign of things to come.
This brings us to Random Access Memories, released over two months ago to some of the highest expectations that any album has arrived to in quite some time. “Get Lucky” did more than meet those expectations; it reasserted the duo’s mastery of their craft, specifically, the shimmery disco funk that made Discovery the beautiful masterpiece that it is. Not that “Get Lucky” sounded like a lost Discovery track, but it was unapologetically pop, a tag that was difficult to pin to anything at all on Human After All. And not only was “Get Lucky” one of Daft Punk’s most immediately appealing and accessible songs, but it achieved massive crossover success, propelling Random Access Memories to the top of the charts all across the world.
Is the album any good? I’m not sure I should even attempt anything resembling a review at this point, at least not for a few more years, anyway. After all, my initial opinions of their music are usually dead wrong (for whatever it’s worth, my initial impression of this album was not positive at all, but that has definitely changed over the past few weeks).
Maybe I’ll write more music posts here. I don’t know. I’d like to take the time to reflect on stuff that I’m really into and talk about how I feel about it and possibly why. Don’t know if that interests anyone but expect more in the future!