Daft Punk. Daft Punk Alive, Virgin Records, 2007.
|In his list of evidence pointing to "the death of French culture," Time correspondent Don Morrison argues that French music--like French art, film and literature--has withered on the vine. Yes, the French may have some composers and conductors of "international repute," but, Morrison asserts, they have "no equivalents of such 20th century giants as Debussy, Satie, Ravel and Milhaud."
He continues: "In popular music, French chanteurs and chanteuses such as Charles Trenet, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf were once heard the world over. Today, Americans and Brits dominate the pop scene" (Time, Nov. 21, 2007).
Never mind that my students can't name a single contemporary American composer or conductor besides John Williams, Morrison is convinced that the lack of a modern Debussy signifies the death knell for French music. Of course, Debussy is still respected today precisely because he did not imitate his predecessors of a century before. And, though it may not saying much, given the number of highly respected French conservatories and work by contemporary groups such as the Parisian based Ensemble Aleph, Classical music is as alive and well in France (if less lucrative) as it is in the U.S. As for the "pop scene," there are French musicians who perform admirably in this American genre (Kyo, De Palma, and Johnny Hallyday to name a few), but the examples Morrison cites proves that he, like so many American journalists, prefers to conceive of French culture as a static caricature that has not evolved since World War II.
While I would contend that what Morrison calls French "pop" (given his examples a better term would be "chanson à texte," a lyrically driven, French brand of music popular since before Edith Piaf) continues to evolve and features numerous contemporary practitioners (my favorites are Camille, Vincent Delerm and Tété), the global influence of French music in other genres remains widely recognized. Most notably, French house and electronica groups have had vast influence in the world market and their success suggests that the French musical culture remains as vibrant as ever. Daft Punk has certainly been the most prominent, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg, with other French electronic groups--most notably Air, Rinoçérose, Justice and Télépopmusik--finding success outside of the Hexagon.
Daft Punk's new album, "Alive 2007" (recorded during a live concert in Paris on June 14, 2007 and released in November) brings together songs from their three studio albums ("Human After All," "Homework," and "Discovery,") but the group melds, distorts and energizes the songs in such a way that the resulting songs are more dynamic than the originals. The Daft Punk team of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo layer their old songs--sometimes three, even four deep--producing surprising new musical combinations and a driving, compelling sound.
The album begins with a stuttering, digitized voice repeating "Robot," then "Human," some twenty times. As the tempo quickens, the two words are juxtaposed while the the human crowd cheers in the background. This overture introduces the theme the album attempts to explore, namely, the line between humanity and technology. If the music is created electronically, can the Daft Punk duo be considered musicians in the traditional sense of the word, especially since they perform behind a bank of knobs and switches instead of behind guitars or pianos? Are they human or, working in a digital medium are they part cyborg (they always appear in public wearing robot masks)? Can the audience comfortably sing along with an electronic "voice" or strum an air guitar knowing the music is made electronically? The very title of the album, "Alive," and the ever present crowd noise suggests that the computer and its digital sound can indeed be brought to life. And the way the album is organized with one song merging into the next, with two and three songs playing together, suggests that the music is alive, sprouting new energy and life as it evolves. In fact, "Alive 2007" calls to mind Diderot's argument from D'Alembert's Dream that marble can become flesh and flesh marble, or more appropriately, that an inanimate harpsichord can become "sensible et animé." Daft Punk's electronic musical matrix is sentient and animate, suggesting a happy cohabitation of machine-like humans and human-like machines, a synergy between cyborgs and men.
Some of the album's new hybrids are particularly dynamic. "Around the World / Harder Better Faster Stronger," released as a single, remains the most popular, but the tracks that precede it, "Television Rules the Nation / Crescendolls" and "Too Long / Steam Machine" are just as innovative and perhaps more musically interesting. The latter song's accelerating tempo is, well, awesome. My personal favorite is "One More Time / Aerodynamic," the disco sound of "One More Time" overlays the arpeggios of "Aerodynamic," creating an absolutely thrilling piece. The final number returns to the theme evoked by the album's first two words: Human and Robot. "Human / Together / One More Time / Music Sounds Better With You / Stardust" begins with a computerized, monotone voice repeating "Human" over and over, strangely dehumanizing the word. This is overlaid by what is perhaps the most human voice on the album, a melodious, soulful female singing the word "Together," yet even here, the word is digitally truncated to "'gether" and it eventually becomes a rhythmic element that fades in with the other electronic sounds in the background. The repetition of "Together" continues through a reprise of "One More Time" and through the next overlay, a sped up version of "Music Sounds Better With You," the song Bangalter and others originally recorded as the group Stardust in 1998. Finally, "One More Time" is folded back in before the album ends with a grinding electronic buzz, leaving the listener feeling that it is certainly the robot--not the human--that has come "Alive."
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Lingua Romana: a journal of French, Italian and Romanian culture
volume 6, issue 1 / fall 2007