I still really don't know what to think about Random Access Memories.
I'm not saying that in a way that's supposed to imply a negative feeling toward it. I just have these conflicted emotions whenever I think of it or listen to it or hear "Get Lucky" on the radio. I have assuredly never felt this way about a piece of music, and It's taken me a while to get up the courage to try and write about it, and even now, still, I don't really know what to say, or what the choices even are.
Let's take that last example. I'm sitting in a car and Daft Punk, yes, that Daft Punk, comes on the radio. Terrestrial radio - in fact, the contemporary pop station in DC. It's still kind of mind boggling to say that.
I mean, it's about time that the pro's got some mainstream coverage: musicians of every pop genre (and yes, there are pop genres: Pitbull and Taylor Swift are both pop music) have been cribbing off of electronic music, EDM, and more recently Daft Punk themselves, nonstop for the last year or so. Every week, some new song by some brat comes out and it's got so many of the quintessential ingredients of house music in it - establishment of rhythm, gradual build, drop, re-establish rhythm. It's not traditional pop music: the Chorus would traditionally go where the drop is. The song is about the drop, the ecstatic release, pounding bass, and hey look, someone's shouting/singing about some party. And they're all about some party, or some club, and they're all talking about the music that's playing in the club, and I think I know what's playing without them having to say it - the music from the producer that they paid to make their beats.
Lady Gaga's secret ingredient? Zedd. Look him up.
The popification of house music has also led to its, for lack of a better word, caramelization. It's distinctive edges melted away due to intense pressure and exposure, leaving only a sticky, saccharine sweetness, uniform and easy to package.
This had to make Daft Punk crazy. There is not one, and I mean not one contemporary pop producer who doesn't regard Daft Punk as a primary influence, or at least wouldn't say so. And the robots are supposed to sit and watch their decendents, the people they trusted to carry forward their legacy (and make no mistake, that's the way they think of this genre) reduce it to a sugary paste, ready for mass consumption? Kiss their robot asses.
If you were reading the tape around the release of this album, that's what they were saying about the state of music today.
"Electronic music right now is in its comfort zone, and it's not moving one inch," Bangalter says. "That's not what artists are supposed to do."
"Today, electronic music is like an audio energy drink," Bangalter says. "Artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyperstimulating music – it's like someone shaking you. But it can't move people on an emotional level. It's a way to feel alive, but . . ."
"It's not deep, it's surface," de Homem-Christo offers.
"Maybe it's the difference between love and sex, or eroticism and pornography," Bangalter says.
And that's all from one interview!
The appropriate way to hear Random Access Memories, then, is as a criticism of the current state of electronic music, not in the form of an essay, but a contribution meant to shake the genre into reason. This is either what they think things should be, or it's an extreme example of what they think we need to strive toward - a lighthouse far in the distance we can and should never hit, but so we can guide our ships toward it, changing course. After listening to the album, I can see where they were going with that.
I have two problems with this.
First, they did not go forward. They decidedly went backward. It was as if their thinking was that the way to show us where we'd gone is to embarrass us by showing us where we came from, as if we'd shudder to look at our purer, more artistically potent ancestry. Remember, that's what they think of us. Everything's going downhill, saccharine, monotony.
Except now we get an idea of where they started form, of what they consider our musical heritage - and it's disco.
Disco. It kind of makes sense, and I'll admit, I have a new appreciation for the Bee Gees now, one that my father, who was actually around when they were popular, expressed his displeasure with on our most recent visit. But take a listen to the two together, and the similarity is unmistakeable. One fair interpretation of Random Access Memories is that it's a disco album.
Granted, there are other ways to look at it. Disco had it's hand in a few cookie jars, most notably funk and Disco's european interpretation (I'm looking at you, Giorgio). And the line can be clearly drawn from disco to funk to R&B to house, or some combination thereof. But there's an undeniable disco current under the album.
Their two hallmark collaborators are Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, for Christ's sake. These are not the guys who are designing music's new direction, they're meant to remind us of something we forgot.
But did we forget it, or put it aside intentionally? Seeing Disco's influence on the album is kind of like Martin Scorsese admitting that his inspiration for The Departed was listening to, I don't know, a music video for Britney Spears, like the one where they're in space. The reaction is "...really? That?" It almost makes you appreciate where they went less, if you can't detatch yourself from your past impressions of it to develop a new idea.
A new way forward would have been really great for the industry. I mean, I can kind of see where they were going with what they were saying, but what I think we were waiting for with baited breath when all those sneak peaks were coming out was a place for us to strive toward musically. Instead, they wanted to remind us of where they think we came from.
Basically, that lighthouse is not in the distance, it's backlighting us.
My other problem with this album, and the idea behind it, is much bigger, and it's my biggest hangup overall. It's that I am having a hard time being convinced that electronic music needs what they're trying to offer, or that what they seem so convinced is happening to the industry is actually happening at all, at least to the extent they think it is.
All of the criticisms I gave of contemporary electronic music are valid, except they are really criticisms of contemporary electro-pop music (and it's subgenres of electro-rap-pop and electro-rock-pop, three terms I wish I never knew were words). If that was all there was, (and reading their interviews and hearing the names they mentioned, it's easy to take away that that's all Daft Punk thinks there is), I (and they) would be right.
Except that's so far from the case. To say electronic music (or even just EDM) has become complacent and saccharine ignores so much of what's going on today.
The same week that Random Access Memories came out, an album by a duo called Disclosure, called Settle, hit iTunes. It's a set of simple ingredients, massaged and finessed into a wonderful package that is both relaxing and invigorating, filled with an unmistakeable current of energy, but not in any way devoid of emotion or banal. It's fantastic, and I encourage anyone and everyone to check it out.
Those two albums coming out in such close proximity to each other made me think. When Daft Punk were out slashing and burning the industry, I began to wonder if Disclosure was even on their radar. Or Zedd, with the Clarity album (which I loved). Or Siriusmo. Devoid of emotion? How about Above and Beyond, or Kaskade? New, fresh, exciting? How about anything Diplo has done in the last five years? (I'm not even going to bother linking up that last one, because there's just too much, but you'd be smart to check out Major Lazer and his Mad Decent or Jeffrees imprints for new music.)
I guess I'd kind of assumed, or taken for granted, that Daft Punk had their fingers on the pulse of what was actually going on in the genre, but based on what they said about it, (and this is painful to write) I doubt they really have the contemporary musical background to leverage any real criticism. The statements they make lack credibility.
It's like a chef saying there's no good french food in New York City, so he opens an Italian place because "that's where it all came from, don't you know", and right next door, a fantastic French place opens up that blows your fucking mind. Did they even look around before saying that stuff? Did they do any more research?
While I was writing this, I checked iTunes for the Siriusmo link for "Last Dear" and saw he's actually got a new album out, and I clicked BUY, like a person with even half a brain should upon being given the opportunity. I'm listening to it right now. It's fresh, innovative in both composition and tonal range, and it fucking rocks. Great French cuisine.
I've listened to Random Access Memories at least twenty times all the way through since it came out. There's a lot of good things to be said about it. It's a production masterpiece, every layer and ingredient meticulously crafted. One way to make Daft Punk's message more relevant is to reduce it's intended audience to just producers, and their message to a cry to make the act of production more organic, to look into the analog world and see what's left to be discovered or at least appreciated. There's a level of truth to that: the thing their collaborators have in common is that they all primarily have a background in music production - there's a reason they got Nile Rodgers and not Bootsy, Pharrell and Todd Edwards and not, well, someone else. It's a producer's wet dream - listen to them gush about it in the Collaborators YouTube interviews. The pant-creamy nature of all of them is almost explicit. For producers, maybe it's a valid point, but to the rest of us, it's a misguided attempt to give us a talking-to for a crime we didn't commit.
It also needs to be said that Daft Punk excel at one thing above all, and its not something they could change if they tried - their outstanding characteristic is that they are inspiring. I bet we could look at music history and see a profound impact on the direction of electronic music after each of their albums, all of which go in different directions, and this one will not be an exception. What warmed my heart in the weeks before the album, after "Get Lucky" hit iTunes in its wave of disco glory, were the remixes that showed up on Soundcloud from amateur DJ's and producers, first a trickle, and then coming with a flood. It could have been an attempt to catch some public recognition, and yes, there was some opportunism, but some of them were just so good. It made me excited to see what the pro's could do with them, when they actually turn pure ingredients into modern electronic music.