After reading this feature in Pitchfork on Daft Punk, plus listening a few times through to their new album, I’ve about had enough. Since their press downplays the actual music, I will too.
Let’s talk about their elitism and authenticity, then.
Before hearing the first note of Random Access Memories, I knew how important authenticity was to the album. Daft Punk, while simultaneously arguing that keeping processes mystical makes the music better, made damn sure that listeners knew there were no computers involved in recording or processing this time around. All effects were analog, everything cut to tape, all synth parts done on a custom modular. Almost all drums acoustic, done by session musicians. Legendary studios - Capitol, Electric Lady, among others.
Authenticity further extends to the collaborators: Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Todd Edwards, Paul Williams. Going to disco, house, pop and ballad innovators to get the right vibe. It was a 70s thing - never mind that this hyper-nostalgia-ized “70s” was also the time where The Bay City Rollers and “Afternoon Delight” were popular. Let’s just focus on sunny memories. It was going to be like Discovery, except instead of sampling, they were going to do the originals themselves. They had the money, the access to world-class instruments, studios, and session musicians, and the connections to famous friends to pull it off.
Also? You don’t have any of that. See, that’s important - the songs here are frankly secondary. Regardless of your intentions, you don’t know Nile Rodgers. You can’t get Electric Lady on the phone, nonetheless afford studio time there. You can’t afford ad space on SNL.
Do you see what this is? Daft Punk started as shit-hot kids. They were brats, barely out of their teens, deriving their name from a negative review of a high school band. There’s still a punk feeling in revisiting the early work - the distortion on “Rollin’ and Scratchin’”, the intensity of “Revolution 909”.
The problem with being a shit-hot kid, though, is that you grow up. You grow up, and other shit-hot kids on labels like Ed Banger start taking your place. You still get respect, but I imagine it hurts more than a bit to have Justice called “the new Daft Punk” when you never went away (and are only in your early 30s). Then something called “EDM” explodes, with even more shit-hot kids, and you decide to go full-uncle - you might not have the shock of the new on your side, but you have more connections, historical knowledge, and money than those kids.
That’s the impression I get from observing the campaign around Random Access Memories. Of course, they couldn’t go full nostalgia - instead, we get an album ostensibly born of an obsession with the 70s featuring…Panda Bear? I can hardly think of a band that screams “Millennials” more than Animal Collective, but okay, sure. Having previously guested on the insanely awkward “Speed to My Side” with Pantha du Prince, Panda Bear’s most recent foray into dance-esque music (hard to figure out how else to call all of it) fairs about as well. Pharrell does a serviceable job singing, though his vocals are recorded in a thoroughly modern style that kind of shits on the illusion. Julian Casablancas makes sense as a collaborator - his band might be obsessed with a different kind of 70s vibe, but it’s still the 70s - but sounds entirely unnecessary on “Instant Crush”.
Back to authenticity again - the robot getups make a lot of sense this time around. What started as a gimmick has pretty clearly become a way for two nervous personalities to hide. This album, and the hype that’s gone with it, is a history/vanity project trying desperately to justify its existence and relevance. To do this, Daft Punk and collaborators (check Chilly Gonzales’ comments in the Pitchfork story) have resorted to making nostalgia into some kind of divine mission. In the process, if they can lord their superiority complex over kids with laptops and other musicians who aren’t in their shoes? Icing.
One final point - while most of Random Access Memories looks to adult contemporary, disco is also ostensibly a touchstone. If that’s the case, it’s pretty ironic that Daft Punk chose to go the “we’re richer/better connected than you” route. Going back to the innovators behind disco, you find broke, mostly-queer outcasts recording in dingy studios. Sylvester never had a 60-second ad spot playing at music festivals. I’m not arguing the superiority or authenticity of any music made in poor/underground circumstances, but for an album made by straight men with tons of money, connections, and fame, it’s ironic to look at their influences.
Lastly, to fully counter the laptop argument, here’s the latest Sensate Focus single - listen to Mark Fell and Sasu Ripatti making defiantly digital music that hits you hard:
ETA: The Chilly Gonzales quote does not appear in the main Pitchfork story, but in their outtakes. Here’s the quote in full, on the impact of the album: “It will lead many musicians out of the cul-de-sac they currently face. And those that do not understand will be cursed to make disposable music on laptops forever.”