Punk: Francobots Manufacture Music for Export
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 -
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
"Discovery" is starting strong in the
United States. It was the lead review in a recent issue of
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
effects from an old
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
The essential thing is to be aware that French songs with
no French in them are being recorded by robot-men in time machines.
Related articles: Daft
Punk (1997 article in French with photos)
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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