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Daft Punk: Francobots Manufacture Music for Export

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 18 May 2001 - Listening to Western pop music, it is not possible to expect too little. Those responsible always manage to come up with less. And less is not more in this case.

As with everything else, there are always exceptions - certain Brazilians, Eminem, perhaps. But the mass-produced CDs that sell in the zillions and that represent the common denominator of musical taste are less worth talking about than ever. Pop melodies are ever more unhummable, lyrics unmentionable, and it's forever the same old song. Machine-made dance music for machines only, not even fit for humans to march to. The music goes round and round and it doesn't come out anywhere. Only now, on top of all of this, come the French - an interesting development.

With the help of ever improved machinery, the French seem to have learned how to make pop music bad enough to compete in the export market. A band called Daft Punk is worth a listen or two (three might be stretching it). Other French pop bands are exporting too - Air, Laurent Garnier. It's being called a movement. Daft Punk's first album, "Homework," sold more than 2 million copies. The second, "Discovery," is widely expected to do better.

Their catchy licks cross stylistic and national frontiers, or so they say. They come from disco by way of Prince and progressive rock to heavy metal and Kraftwerk and none of the above. Never before has there been such a successful fusion between music and anti-music. Dance beats hit nails on the head. Through earphones, it's more like a nail inside the head. The sound of a needle stuck on some old 78 RPM record. Thanks to modern technology, the surface is not scratchy however. The needle is stuck in cutting-edge fidelity. We can hear nails hammered inside heads with unprecedented digital clarity.

Daft Punk is two Parisians - Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo and Thomas Bangalter - who disguise themselves as robots much of the time. They make a big deal of remaining personally invisible, allowing almost no interviews and addressing photo-ops in robot costumes. Robots make robotic music, naturally: What you see is what you get. They give no concerts, conduct no tours, contact with the public is minimal and usually online. Appropriately enough, the name of one tune on "Discovery" is "Digital Love." They have had only one official photo session, ever. Visual anonymity was a condition of their contract with Virgin Records. Still, anonymity or not, "Discovery" was reviewed as nothing less than "the greatest album ever" by the British dance music journal Mixmag.

Anonymity as a sales tool is easier on the consumer than overexposure. Not having to look at Daft Punk is an unexpected pleasure. Their Gallic, boyish, pop-star features are seen neither in videos nor on the pages of fashion magazines or tabloids. So it seems as though pretty faces are no longer necessary. Be grateful. We owe the boys one for that.

Trade magazines have called their business practices "revolutionary." When you buy "Discovery," for instance, you get a membership card in what's called the Daft Club. Members can download, free of charge, supplementary tracks. The band is still recording them. It's sort of like buying an opera in process. Instead of touring this year, the duo will work in the studio constructing new tracks that will in principle be able to reach their fans within hours. Talk about communication.

The Sunday Times of London said, "We now live in a Daft Punk world." The paper pointed out that everything is turning so French that Madonna even hired a French producer. This seems to be the Year of the French.

"Discovery" is starting strong in the United States. It was the lead review in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine. The boys dropped a Barry Manilow vocal loop over a bass-heavy pseudo-stomper as an in-joke. The French work harder than most of us at preserving culture.

It's not that Daft Punk's music is bad, it just isn't. Which was maybe the idea. Vocoders, filters, samplers and drum machines sound more and more like people and the people more like machines. The overlap is a bit relentless. Just think - French samplers are suddenly singing in unaccented English. How has this come to be? The language is not really English, though. (One thing sure, there is not one word of French.) The grunts and groans and the filtering and distortion results in a language of it own. Too much reverb and then - pop - up we go into outer space. All the "boing-boings" and "putt-putt-putts" sound like Don Martin sound effects from an old Mad magazine.

The lack of anchorage is interesting. It keeps you floating, at times on the edge of nausea. Obviously this is custom-copied not custom-made. You're just not sure of the planet or the century. Time and space no longer appear to have anything to do with the art of music. Being trapped in eternity listening to Daft Punk is one definition of hell. You appreciate the music's charm much more after it ends.

The essential thing is to be aware that French songs with no French in them are being recorded by robot-men in time machines.

Daft Punk Discovery

Daft Punk: Discovery




Daft Punk Homework

Daft Punk: Homework



Related articles: Daft Punk (1997 article in French with photos)

Related links: Daft Punk Site





Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz and world music editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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