Wednesday, February 24, 2021

falling out of digital love

Here's my paean to "Digital Love" and Discovery, part of a terrific NPR Music multi-authored tribute to Daft Punk - which touches on the proto-chillwave / yacht rock anticipating retromaniac moves on that album, and then the back-to-analogue gesture of Random Access Memories. (As discussed further in this interview with the duo I did for New York Times). 


Here's a portion of a talk I did for the 2013 symposium Tomorrow Never Knows in Glasgow, that takes a deeper look at the themes and procedures of Random Access Memories

Probably the most high profile example of the uncanny temporality of the 21st Century is one of 2013’s biggest pop music events. One of the few that could honestly be described as an Event in the old sense of the word. But if Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories comes to define  2013, it’ll be through rejecting 2013.

It’s an album that is full of references to time, transience, the notion of a lost future, and memory.  The song “Fragments of Time”, for instance, is about instant nostalgia, this sort of future anterior syndrome when we experience rapture or epiphany, then immediately project ahead to looking back at it. The title Random Access Memories itself is a pun on computer memory versus human memory.

Musically, the whole project was informed by a paradox specific to Daft Punk’s own dilemma as artists who had done sample-based dance music in the late Nineties and early 2000s, and taken that as far as they could. How to go forward? Daft Punk decided the only way was to go back.  Partly because the sounds they’d helped to pioneer in the Nineties as prominent figures in techno-house culture had become the norm. Daft Punk-like sounds make up so much of what you hear on Top 40 radio in America today.  The future-rush that those kind of electronic and digitally processed transmitted to listeners in the 90s and which felt like a preview of  the 21st Century, that’s necessarily now gone. Becoming omnipresent and everyday has made these sounds banal and mundane – at best, not futurism but NOW-ism.

In reaction to digital overdrive and the burn-out it induces, Daft Punk decided to go analogue. Random Access Memories is a whole-sale reversion to the late 70s and early eighties: slick disco-funk in the vein of Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Chic, The Whispers and Earth Wind and Fire; Fleetwood Mac and Eagles style soft rock; late period progressive rock and New Wave at its most radio-friendly (The Cars, for instance).   The cut-off point for this time travel exercise is that point in the early-to-mid Eighties when Fairlight samplers, sequenced rhythms, and MIDI become the state of the art in recording studios.  All that, along with the kind of computer software that came later and that Daft Punk once used, is rejected, in favor of  high-calibre musicianship and live drumming from the session sticksman who worked for Michael Jackson.

Two of the hallmark impulses in modernism are the terror of repeating yourself, and terror of repeating something that another artist has already done. For Daft Punk those two impulses became at loggerheads: they didn’t want to repeat what they had done before (because in a context where their influence is legion, they would no longer stand out), so they were impelled to repeat and to remake styles of music that  were superseded over thirty years ago.

Geeta Dayal described Daft Punk’s approach as sampling taken to the next level: they reconstructed the sort of teams of skilled musicians and sound engineers that made the kind of music that Daft Punk in the 90s liked to sample  and rework into contemporary dancefloor anthems.  But I think they go even further than that: it’s as though they’re “sampling” the Zeitgeist of the late Seventies and early Eighties. They’re trying to reconstruct the episteme,  the larger cultural matrix that produced albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Tusk, or Off the Wall. Not just the analogue means of production, but  analogue sense of temporality. In particular, the Event, the mass synchronized experience of  “the whole world” tuning into some kind of cultural artifact: movies like Stars Wars and Saturday Night Fever,  records like Sgt Pepper’s  and Thriller.   Hence the much-discussed promotional campaign with its teasing hints and initial reliance on analogue-era techniques like billboards and television ads.  There’s a nostalgia here not just for the monoculture (“pop culture is the monoculture,” Thomas Bangalter insisted, when I interviewed Daft Punk)  but for monotemporality, for a shared experience of time.

This feeling of mass synchrony is inseparable, I believe,  from concepts like progress and the future. That is made clear on Random Access Memories with the two key tracks, “Giorgio By Moroder” and “Contact”.

 “Giorgio By Moroder” involves  a towering figure of 20th Century popular music looking back on his own looking forward.  Producer of Donna Summer amongst many others, and pioneer of the electronic disco style known as Eurodisco, Moroder was interviewed at length by Daft Punk. Two small snippets appear on the track. The key segment concerns the making of “I Feel Love”, an international number one hit in 1977, and notable for being the first  all-electronic dance track.

Moroder speaks of the Donna Summer album on which “I Feel Love” appeared, I Remember Yesterday, a sort of disco concept album about time and memory:

 “I wanted to do an album with the sounds of the 50s, the sound of the 60s, of the 70s –  and then have a sound of the future - – and I thought, ‘wait a second, I know the synthesizer -   why don’t I use a synthesizer, which is the sound of the future?’... –I knew that could be a sound of the future, but I didn’t realise how much the impact would be.”

And the rest, as they say, was  history. The history of future pop. Eighties synthpop and Hi-NRG and house, Nineties techno and trance, these and so many other things can be sourced back to this breakthrough, “I Feel Love”.

It’s totally charming that Daft Punk pay tribute to their ancestor-hero with “Giorgio By Moroder”, which may well invent a new genre, autobiographical disco. Interestingly, however, Daft Punk and Moroder  don’t collaborate musically. Instead they use his voice,  the one thing he’s not particularly famous for. And the melancholy implication of the collaboration is that neither Daft Punk nor Moroder felt  capable of making any kind of future music together or separately. What Daft Punk do instead is to make an accurate reproduction of  the synth and drum machine driven Eurodisco sound.

Fredric Jameson  described the modernist art work as a monument to the future . With “Giorgio By Moroder,”  we have a monument to a past future.  Nobody is going to rush out of the front door, like Brian Eno did with David Bowie, and tell their friends, “I have heard the future of pop”.  Rather, listening to “Giorgio By Moroder”, you  might say, wistfully, “Do you remember when music sounded like the future?”.

“Contact” is the finale to Random Access Memories, and it aspires to be a grand one. It starts with a sampled voice from a NASA transmission,  the Apollo 17 mission, from December 1972. It’s Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to stand on the Moon’s surface.  He’s talking about “a bright object, it’s obviously rotating because it’s flashing, it’s way out in the distance”. After describing it in some detail, Cernan says “there’s something out there”.

Right there, you have encapsulated all the romance of the space race, the final frontier. There’s that mystical inkling of something being out there that is our destiny as a species to find and make contact with. We must boldly go, it’s our nature, our calling.

What Cernan actually said when he actually climbed the ladder back into the lunar module and bid adieu to the Moon was this: “as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I'd like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow.”

“Contact” itself is a thrilling track, the least dated sounding (it could almost be a Chemical Brothers tune from the rocktronica golden age of 1997).  A wooshing rush of sound is sustained, modulated, and intensified for quite a long stretch of time. But then it sputters out anticlimactically, like the Space  Race did. 

[now this melancholy for the lost dream of Space is itself dated, with new images and sonic impressions of Mars, a burst of activity from multiple nations flexing their strength with probes to other planets in our solar systems etc etc)

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