Here, There, Everywhere
I'm out of school for the summer, so I've had a chance to do some leisure reading. I'm currently re-reading Nelson George's The Death of Rhythm & Blues mostly because I hadn't read it in about 15 years and it was in my line-of-sight when I scanned the bookshelf. As such, I don't remember much, so it's been a pleasure revisiting the book. It's an obvious read for the historic observations, but a better source for observations on the changes in the music industry, particularly radio, that phased out rhythm & blues and introduced rock & roll. Like a lot of George's writing, it's heavy on opinion, but there are some great insights. The part about the decline of the Negro Baseball League and the tradeoff of black business sovereignty potential in the face of Jackie Robinson and integration in the Major Leagues is pretty great.
Unexpectedly, Death has been a great resource in thinking about EDM and the new Daft Punk album.
First, a point about EDM and DP.
Part of the chatter leading up to Daft Punk's 'return' (from where exactly?) has been to historicize the group's relevance. Take for example The Guardian's framing of the Random Access Memories release announcement as a grand affirmation of the group's status as "EDM Godfathers." This pat narrative suggests on Day One ('96's Homework? '01's Discovery?), there was Daft Punk and sometime later in the week/decade, Skrillex, wackawackwackwacka, dubstep, EDM, The End. Of course, this is ridiculous, but this is the land of marketing language, not journalism or history writing.
Oddly enough Daft Punk weathered a similar conversation around the time of its first album when the chatter-of-the-day was about "electronica," the catch-all-term for The Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Orbital, and anything that came out of a club/open field. Little surprise that Guy-Man would respond to a question about EDM artists Skrillex & Deadmau5 with this gem: "At first I thought it was all just one guy, some DJ called EDM." Marketing and cultural terms like EDM and electronica are rarely of significant use for an artist, but the conversation about where the group fits into the EDM, electronica or whatever narrative is interesting, because they provide cues about where the market would like to place the group.
Electronica's distinction was its broad market push. In Los Angeles, it (both the term and its artists) was pushed on diverse outlets ranging from KCRW (the grown & nebbish) to KROQ (the young & horny; remember Jason Bentley's one-hour slot on the station?). The term failed to stick, perhaps the messaging got muddled, i.e. the music couldn't reconcile being both young and old. On one hand, these artists had roots in the clubs and rave scenes. However, the effect of William Orbit producing Madonna's Ray of Light was not so much a reinvention of the artist, so much as an aging of the relatively young club art.
Which may explain EDM's tighter focus and appeal as a youth form. Although the stupidly generic term "electronic dance music" does a better semantic job of capturing the myriad types of club/rave/dance music (as opposed to sounding like the Esperanto-ish "electronica"), EDM is not meant to speak to the past club-goers and older heads who can talk about Paradise Garage, the Loft, or any person, song or place mentioned in Michaelangelo Matos's great piece on NYC house. It is meant to alienate my middle-aged mother friends who ask, "Who is Molly?" It is meant to alienate me, simply because I was never within spitting range of EDM's target demographic.
Which brings us back to Daft Punk and why it is a) ridiculous to even place the group within the canon of EDM, simply because they've been around too long; and b) though the group plays coy with their cute "Who is Mr. EDM?" comments, Random Access Memories is turning out to be a great inversion of what electronic dance music can encapsulate.
Let's pivot quickly and bring in Mr. George. Early on in Death, George makes a point about the contrasting appeal and 'soul' of rhythm & blues versus rock & roll (emphasis added):
The generational schism and teen-eye view that has always been the crux of the rock & roll ethos was mostly foreign to black consumers, young as well as old. That is not to say that all blacks rejected rock & roll, both as a business term or social attitude, but R&B made a connection to black listeners that was both musical and extramusical. Music made by the white bands was inevitably (and often deliberately) adolescent, addressed to adolescent ears about adolescent fears. Black teens might listen, but their heads were in different places, and R&B articulated that difference not just in vocal or aural effect but in attitude. Rock & roll was young music; R&B managed to be young and old, filled both with references to the past and with fresh interpretations, all at the same time (68-69).Surely, there's room for argument here, but George makes an interesting point about how rhythm & blues had been pushed to all ages, whereas rock & roll was strictly for the young, dumb and blue-balled. George points to the rise of black radio and its open branding of stations as gateways to black communities—not communities of teens versus adults, but whole, black communities. WXLW proudly proclaimed it was "serving and selling 328,000 Negroes in the St Louis area since 1947." Jackson, Mississippi's WOKJ called itself "the ONLY way to the 107,000 Negroes" of that community. The name "rock & roll" alone makes clear the contrast, as it is code for fuckin'—rockin' and rollin' all night long... More telling are the specific examples. George quotes Robert Palmer's point about the shift in Leiber and Stoller's songwriting, "There is a definite progression in the Coasters records, from an in-group (black) humor o a more universal and teen-oriented sense of fun" (66). In sum, "if rhythm & blues was the discovery of the black market, rock & roll was the exploitation of white teens..." (George, 67)
What irks me about the supposed conventional wisdom of electronica and EDM is the familiar notion that music must be either this or that, simply because to suggest otherwise wouldn't make for a neat narrative. And, because we're all marketing geniuses courtesy of Don Draper's folk wisdom, we should all wonder, "Why does everybody need to talk about everything?" Because we need to sell these nylons, dammit.
The brilliance then of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories is its throwback not just to different artists (Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams, Nile Rodgers) or recording styles (live instrumentation), but the idea of music for multiple generations. Certainly, this is not a dance record in the popular, contemporary sense. In all of the chatter leading up to the album's release, the pair made it clear their direction was both backward and forward, not now. Which, like all things different, is difficult to reconcile at first. Diplo, another major face in the EDM world, posted reactions to the album on Twitter, which were characterized as "trashing." Sure, suggesting Julian Casablancas should be replaced by Eddie Adams is hardly a complement. But looking at the Twitter posts in chronological order, you can see a progression in conflicted feelings, ranging from a familiar nostalgic twinge ("Reminds me of when I was 19 really high and listened to kid a over and over again but I don't know if yung kids will get It") to confusion ("These guys are way smarter then me.I'm definitely missing something.") to dismissive/makesmybrainhurt ("This album makes me not like LA now I jus wanna hang out with mexican kids and tag ur car"). Given that Diplo has built a career on nowness, yet is also old and knowledgeable enough to understand a good chunk of Daft Punk's reference points, his range of reactions should hardly be surprising. It is not au courant to be a little of this and that. Random Access Memories certainly hits notes on a number of scales.
Sidenote: Diplo's subsequent non-apology is yet another nod to the current trend of non-apologies.
I'll close by noting I'm still, like you, listening to a shitty, low-bit version of the album, so it's hardly fair to give a full assessment. I also don't have much else to add to the chorus of accolades for the songs themselves. That said, here are some Twitter-sized random thoughts:
- The Paul Williams joint "Touch" is pretty Muppets-y, which I dig.
- I didn't get the album until "Fragments of Time." Todd Edwards channeling his inner #yachtrock. YES.
- Daft Punk doesn't make music for fucking. It's cool. It's very listenable. But in spite of the hard guitar work on "Lose Yourself to Dance," Daft Punk generally doesn't inspire fucking.