Daft Punk – Random Access Memories

It has been alleged that we are living in a golden age for creative artists. The argument goes: Kickstarter and its crowdsourced ilk have made it ever-easier for artists to obtain funding for their projects, which in other eras would have been shoved aside by various gatekeepers of taste and cost-control. This apparent sea-change has enabled niche hardware projects like the Pebble smartwatch to be funded, manufactured, and distributed, and it has also abetted the revival of the ancient adventure game genre – a genre which enjoyed a golden age back when software came in boxes, boxes that specified that the floppy-based game would only work on “color Macs.”

Of course, both projects benefit from the hyper-specific demographics that would be aware of their existence in the first place: people who use Kickstarter AND who want email on their watches AND/OR who were old enough/curious enough to have played classics like Quest for Glory IV. That’s a small, and dare I say élite, demographic. This isn’t so much democracy and it is aristocracy or oligarchy (depending on perspective and your interpretation of Greek roots) – it is a system that rewards individuals and organizations who are either already tied-into a specific demographic (as above), first/early-movers, or independently famous. It’s the same set of reasons that explains why there are so few true grassrootsily wealthy YouTube celebrities.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of music services (driven by “the internet,” natch) like Spotify, Rdio, and Google’s new Google Play Music All Access, the consolidation of the book world into Amazon’s ereader + distribution empire (in which objects are not sold but licensed, and in which alternative currencies serve to likely degrade the value of real money over time), and the centralization of “the internet”‘s apparently meager knowledge into the anonymity of Wikipedia has, as referenced in my previous entry, made it such that artists are given less reward for their work or contributions.

Coherent statements like albums or books once had the weight of momentous events: the object (and the importance of its physicality, as a disc or paperback or whatever, can’t be overstated) had an unambiguous provenance, it was something that belonged to the creator and to which others could only have access via payment or proximity (i.e., going to a concert or hearing it via radio), and, most importantly, it wasn’t consolidated and decontextualized by being forcibly folded into a stream of similar works.

The decontextualization of albums, for example, within the vast sea of Spotify is less an indictment of information overload than it is an indictment of the increasingly screwy economics of the music business. Record labels have had a rough century, having seen unbelievably profitable CD sales dry up in the face of the advent of iTunes, as well as the “open” access provided by Napster and its pirate descendants, but now they seem to be clawing back, slowly: they are the licensing gatekeepers for every streaming service (Spotify, Rdio, All Access), and those services all pay artists ever less money, meaning that the primary benefit of music being accessed (even randomly) no longer goes to the artist, but to the stream provider and to the label. As usual, the “progress” provided by the ease-of-use of these services disguises the rather harsh economic power-grabs by the persons who made them possible in the first place. “Progress,” despite all of its connotations, has no clear moral dimension.

So against this strange economic backdrop, we see odd artifacts like this:

RAM

A Random Access Memories poster in Chicago

An album poster with a label’s name (Columbia, in this case) so prominently featured feels like something from a different era: the 1970s, perhaps. The album it advertises – Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories (hereafter “RAM”) – is already one of the biggest musical and cultural phenomena of the year, even prior to its proper release here in America next Tuesday (May 21). But the pizzaz and conscious rusticity of its marketing is hardly the sign of a sea-change in how the majority of artists either make or sell their music; rather, it’s a bright emblem of how, here at the end of the rainbow of technological “progress” (the democratization of music-making via software and of music-consumption via filesharing and broadband networking), we can see capitalistic inequality writ large (I guess I could use a “pot of gold” metaphor, which would fit with the rainbow theme, but we’ll just leave that alone). In other words, ironically, only artists as big and fiscally secure as Daft Punk could afford to indulge the older, more democratic, and more label-centric model (from the 1990s and earlier) of music’s economics (physical units sold for higher prices) that is under siege from those labels and technologists.

The New York Times summarized the current situation as such:

Of course, the intangible qualities of feel and vibe exalted by Daft Punk are out of reach for most of today’s young music makers, whose do-it-yourself dance tracks rely on the technology that propelled Daft Punk’s career in the ‘90s. A kid in a bedroom with a laptop and software can make records that sound like a million bucks. Making music the way Daft Punk has for “Random Access Memories” actually requires a million bucks, or more.

While it’s arguably true that DIY synths and setups have allowed thousands of persons to make high-quality dubstep and house music during the 2000s and 2010s, Daft Punk themselves were never particularly reliant on “technology” (here assigned the agency that I recently ruminated on and rejected) or a particular workmanlike ethos. Even their early work attracted much attention from labels, and Virgin Records ended up bankrolling their debut, Homework. The mid-1990s were a time of label largesse, when much money was spent to market expensive, elaborate records in genres that paradoxically both demanded and wouldn’t have existed as we knew them without such generosity – I’m thinking mainly of the widescreen drama of that era’s drum and bass (Goldie, Roni Size, et al) alternative rock (Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the eventual refinement of early-90s rave and house (the type deftly reprised by Zomby on his original Where Were U in ’92; coincidentally, Zomby, now bankrolled by 4AD, is on the verge of releasing a grand double-album this summer, which is as a good an artifact of the current era as RAM) into the self-aware album-sized units created by the likes of, well, Daft Punk.

So it isn’t really “technology” that has led to the current dichotomy, in which we have DIY artists with dayjobs, technically simple music (whether bedroom dubstep or, perhaps most tellingly, the indie rock of Grizzly Bear, whose financial travails are detailed in great detail here), and anonymizing distribution channels like Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud on one side and wealthy artists who can afford to really explore the vagaries of “the album” and genre on the other. Rather, it’s that newfangled “technology” called money. The former category described above has had to work ever-harder and produce more and more music with ever-less reward, while the latter category has been able to bide its time and release grand artistic statements at intervals usually longer than two years. The elite, basically, now operate a model that used to be the default for everyone. The much-bemoaned death of the album is the product not of technological “progress,” but of economic disparity.

Daft Punk’s career is one long cliffs notes to the economic history of modern music. They’ve spent the last decade growing increasingly famous while “doing” basically nothing – prior to RAM, they’ve released only album, the widely panned Human After All (hereafter HAA), in the past decade, while dabbling in projects like the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. They were sampled by Kanye West and fetishized by LCD Soundsystem. Their fame accrued not via the release of material or frequent touring, but by their idolization by the music press and their fellow prominent artists. This tack recalls how America’s rich gain income via methods like carried interest, rather than the traditional, more optically pleasing means of income tied to work-hours and visible exertion.

So how should we understand RAM, eight years after HAA? There probably won’t be another album this year (other than perhaps the ever culturally-aware Vampire Weekend’s third album) that requires more backstory and context to digest. Basically, RAM is the next part of a conversation that began on HAA and maybe even partially on 2001’s strangely acclaimed Discovery (“strangely,” because opinion was so divided at first and only seemed to swell as the cultural hubbub around the band grew over the subsequent decade). HAA was described by its creators as “pure improvisation,” perhaps not the most intuitive (to listeners) terms in which to analyze an album marked by its almost robotic repetitiveness and overwhelming irony borne out in songs entitled “Emotion” and “The Prime Time of Your Life.”

But HAA was aesthetically raw, with tape hiss on songs like “Make Love” and prominent cheap-sounding 1970s guitars on “Robot Rock,” tied together by its almost comical but seemingly authentic love of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” It was a human effort, in terms of its ties to consciously “analog” sounds like guitars, uneven production/mastering, and occasional freakouts (the ending to “The Prime Time of Your Life”), but it used these relatively low budget techniques and approaches in the service of making a statement about the trends toward homogenization and automation in contemporaneous big-budget music (they were right: the likes of Drake, David Guetta, and Calvin Harris all dominate heavy-rotation radio formats with many of the same homogenization techniques and nods to electronica predicted on HAA, plus the latter two in particular have benfitted from the EDM festival circuit that Daft Punk brought to life after HAA). Now, with RAM, they’ve flipped the script by using expensive, painstaking production (often requiring theatrical effects) to inject humanity (artificially, it could be argued) into an overblown record whose clearest genre roots are in the infamously anti-human/anti-authenticity disco genre.

Yes, disco. Anyone even mildly interested in RAM has likely already heard “Get Lucky” played to death, likely on Spotify, where it broke all sorts of records. Jaron Lanier has posted some thoughts on the anonymization made possible by Spotify and similar services: that they have made it less easy to discern the source or author of certain material, due to the decontextualization made possible by “unlimited” music that taps into a bottomless pit of material. And, with “Get Lucky,” I got that feeling, since it really has almost nothing to identify it as a “Daft Punk” track, other than some robot voices near the end. Otherwise, it’s all Nile Rodgers disco guitar-plucking and Pharrell Williams’ libidinous come-ons. It’s catchy, but it’s just another serviceable track to throw into your Spotify stream. The Verge wondered if Daft Punk could bring back the album with RAM, and I think the answer is “probably not,” not for lack of trying, but because it has an internal identity crisis.

“Get Lucky” is the exception rather than the rule on an album marked mostly by long, mawkish nods to synthpop and disco. The endless “Giorgio by Moroder” is a monologue by the titular producer when ends in some gratuitous guitar noise, while “Game of Love” and “Within” have a studious sadness reminiscent of The Buggles, except more grating and boring. Pharrell’s other contribution, “Lose Yourself to Dance” and the return of Discovery star Todd Edwards on “Fragments of Time” contain the most obvious nods to the band’s past, particularly Discovery, which thanks to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and “One More Time,” remains perhaps their most culturally prominent album. If the theme of HAA was a self-contained band making improvisational music, then RAM is the opposite, filled with guest stars who seem to be on different pages and who, at the same time and paradoxically, seem to lose some of their distinctiveness as they all sink back toward a common blandness and homogeneity. The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas appears on “Instant Crush,” which with its murky vocal filters and well-controlled Cars rhythm, is, well, basically a Strokes song. The orchestral “Touch” features Paul Williams but has a portentousness that doesn’t quite fit the album’s overall air-headed nature. It still grates, but in a different way from the rest of the tracks here.

The album seems best when it features only the core band. “Motherboard” is lushly reminiscent of P-Funk, and closer “Contact” deftly uses a sample of astronaut Eugene Cernan’s voice. Opener “Give Life Back to Music” is spritely and energetic, fusing the roboticness of HAA with the pop of Discovery; its title also seems to sum up the album’s credo.

But the band really already “gave life back to music” in their previous three albums, which (sequentially, from Homework to Discovery to HAA) excavated 1990s house, 1970s/1980s synthpop, and loose-limbed rock. They challenged (if only naively) the notion that there was a coherent “past,” “present,” and “future” in music by pitting Black Sabbath riffs against ProTools or Barry Manilow samples against sequencers. It all rose above mashup or hybrid, too. The band’s NYT interview reveals a noble goal for RAM: to achieve a brand of craftsmanship that disappeared from the mainstream after the advent of digital music with the CD, in turn perhaps showing that the alleged never-ending wave of technological “progress” has done little to enhance the emotional value of music.

Sadly, I’m not sure that they succeed in this project, not only due to the album’s scatterbrained musical palette and array of guests, but due to weaker tracks like “Doin’ It Right,” featuring the characteristically annoying/acquired-taste shout-chant vocals of Panda Bear, or palette-cleansers like “Within” and “Beyond” which seem to overstay their welcomes. There are, to be sure, tons of nice details in this music, from the scratchiness of its guitars, to the wind instruments on “Motherboard,” or the glittering opening of “Give Life Back to Music,” which for me recalls the very 1970s pomp (Eagles, Fleetwood Mac) that the band have cited as inspiration. But the album is caught in an odd no-man’s land, having neither the coherence and flow (and economy – something that 74-minute RAM lacks) of a would-be pre-CD model like Rumours or Hotel California, nor the feeling of novelty (however superficial – it is the in-the-moment sensation of newness that matters here, I think) that electronica has been able to provide, via technically sophisticated methods, for nearly 20 years now.

So RAM is a defiantly anti-progressive work that tries to eschews the conventions of contemporary dance and electronica, but for the first time in Daft Punk’s career, it shows them breaking their usual agnosticism toward the flow of time (as described above): they too visibly give up the present to try and dredge up traces of disco, 70s AOR, and even of the careers of artists (Casabalancas, Pharrell) whose careers arguably peaked over a decade ago. RAM is nice retroist record, but it could have been more.

Ultimately, I think we have come to expect too much of this band and its abilities. We want their music to be some grand commentary on humans and robots, on emotion and automation, but I hope that I’ve succeeded here in pointing out that the most notable aspect of Daft Punk is not their music, but their cultural status and the ways in which musicians, writers, and listeners try to inject their own confusions about life from the 1990s forward.

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