Sunday, August 7, 2011

Daft Punk: Homework (1997)



When you're a young adolescent music fan, everything is us versus them. That's part of the fun, really. It's why kids in the '70s ignorantly shouted that disco sucked, it's why pogoing teenagers loved it when the Clash yelped "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones / In 1977." Splits, beefs, dichotomies that seem downright silly a few years later attain great overzealous truth. So it is that the forces of evil pop music had been challenged in 1977 by punk (which I still partially believe, to be honest), defeated in 1991 by grunge, briefly, and now we were to wait patiently for the next Movement which would make everything good again, against the suffocating tide of Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. But of course now that's all laughable -- not only do I now think the grunge bands were turgid and unimaginative, I think the Spice Girls were a brilliant group. The Backstreet Boys weren't quite so special, but they did record a few of the all-time greatest pop songs, which in another time would've been enough.

But when I was 14, I wanted something new, something to get swept up in. And that year, 1997, happened to be the point at which electronic music came closest, ever, to being fully accepted and embraced by the mainstream. I hadn't yet come to realize that recorded pop music doesn't function, now that it's passed its developmental stages, as a continuous narrative -- more like a thorny and complicated Möbius strip -- and I liked the idea that things were leading somewhere, that there was a "progression" to be discovered. Of course, that's the kind of logic that gave us Genesis, and jazz fusion, and a whole lot of classic rock bands that I know I should like but don't. Nothing against any of those, but it's not my thing. It's significant that at the time, I didn't know that yet. And electronica seemed like the Movement, the Big New Thing, that I should attach myself to, to which I should become a partisan.

This mindset was being pushed hard by music magazines and TV shows of the time, and by being sort of interested in the postrock-leaning alternative of Radiohead and Beck I had a foot in the door. I stayed up late to watch MTV's now deeply missed techno showcase Amp, usually on Sunday nights around 2am, and I can actually credit it with not only broadening my horizons to dance music but exposing me to hip hop back when the Jay-Z records I treasure now would have made me wince. Some of the stuff I saw I hated (such as Moby, who I later came to love), some was a little too far out for me (Crystal Method, Atari Teenage Riot), but much of it really intrigued me -- Amp's Wiki page lists Aphex Twin, Faithless, Gus Gus, the Orb, Orbital, Tricky, all of whom I remember seeing on the show and greatly enjoying. And that's discounting the dozens of forgotten lesser-knowns I probably saw.

Had I grown up a few years later, I probably would've immediately taken to the internet and investigated these artists through file-sharing. But in 1997, I was limited to what my allowance could buy me on compact disc. And of course, there were all those CDs by shitty alternative bands I couldn't dare miss. But when I was feeling adventurous, rather than delving deeply I stuck to the tip of the iceberg of the MTV electronica units, the ones popular enough to get airplay outside Amp. I never liked Fatboy Slim much, Prodigy was too aggressive for my tastes, so the first electronic CD I bought was Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers -- possibly the best initial exposure to Big Beat anyone could have. I genuinely loved the album and caught up with Exit Planet Dust more quickly than I anticipated, especially since I'd heard not one of its songs prior to purchase.

Well, Dust was really something. It might be the reason I ended up not really appreciating Kid A as much as a lot of my peers -- when it ended, I had that revelatory moment of boundary-expansion that a lot of folks describe about the Radiohead LP. And if at no other point in my life, that was when I wanted everything to be electrifying dance music; it was one of those times when other music doesn't even exist anymore. I think it was that same week that I saw Daft Punk's "Around the World" video on MTV Live, a loose sort of proto-TRL also hosted by Carson Daly. So the then-mysterious French duo caught me at the perfect time. The video's brilliant, a marvelous showcase for Michel Gondry (whose name wouldn't of course have much significance to me for seven years), but it was the song's alien hook and bubbly joy that blew my mind. Homework shot to the top of my list of must-buys, and by the time I got the chance to pick it up, I'd also become familiar somehow with the even more beloved house single "Da Funk," though I can't recall how I heard it (because I didn't see Spike Jonze's oddball video for the song until many, many years later).

"Around the World" was the special one to me. It made me want to be a hedonist. It made me long for the kind of drugged-out rave moments it conjured up in my head. More than anything, despite its childlike exuberance, it made me want to be an adult -- the mirrorballs and strobe lights and warm bodies it suggested being so completely at odds with florescent eighth grade Monday mornings. And at less than four minutes, the single edit is just long enough to set the feet ablaze without becoming as annoying as a looped vocal over a d&b track might be. That's why I still find it a bit unfortunate that the song actually runs more than seven minutes.

Homework isn't nearly as accessible to the teenage electronica novice as the Chemical Brothers' first two albums. Daft Punk's early work is rather serious business. Though Homework is undeniably a great party record, I've never been much of a party person (even at the scattered points of my life when I sort of wished I was), so I've never heard it in that context. And fuck, anything is a great party record, even Pink Flag (proven).

Homework was conceived by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo as a series of DJ singles. This comes through in its content. Though it opens with the cohesion of a Chems record (the smashing mindfuck intro "Daftendirekt" and introductory "WPDK 83.7 FM," with its quaint interpretation of U.S. radio), a certain repetition is quickly apparent. The majority of the songs operate in the same manner: crushing, insistent beats against loops that are first ill-fitting, gradually irresistible. The process usually takes around five minutes, sometimes six or seven. The first two examples, "Revolution 909" and "Da Funk," operate in very similar fashion, though "909" bursts out more impressively while "Da Funk" slinks around with a certain erotic obnoxiousness. With some exceptions (some divine like "Teachers," which finds time to namecheck both Dr. Dre and Brian Wilson amid an army of Detroit DJs, some oh-god-turn-it-the-fuck-off like "Oh Yeah"), the majority of the other tracks operate from the same framework, which suggests they could work better individually than as a group -- at least as personal headphones listening, which was my only option then. A bit more seasoned now with dance music, and having spent some time DJing myself, I can now detect sharp variances between "Phoenix" (sinister atmosphere, goofy bassline) and "Fresh" (surf music reimagined as acid house) that were impossible to detect when I was 14. But the heartbreaking thing is that whatever age I am, the album version of "Around the World" still feels much too long. Even when people are dancing to it (I used the single edit at my sessions).

Seven minutes is not, however, too long for "Rock'n Roll" and "Rollin' & Scratchin'," which I would still argue are Daft Punk's finest moments shy of 2000's "Face to Face." "Rollin' and Scratchin'" plays a feverish night out as a dramatic crescendo, building until it washes itself over the listener like a wave of glitter. Headphones are no obstacle to participating in this triumph. But "Rock'n Roll" is better still, for the opposite reasons. It isn't a celebration, it's claustrophobic -- the most relentless, frenetic beat I'd ever been exposed to, a rubbery loop stretching and contracting more and more unbearably until you fear it must pop, the tension sustained across seven harrowing minutes. It is to dance music as "Sister Ray" is to garage rock -- it takes every vague implication of the genre to its ugly, challenging conclusion. It's the most difficult song here. And oddly enough, I loved it even when I first heard it.

On the whole, though, Homework wore me out a bit. It seemed too long (74 minutes), too much of the same thing. Individual cuts exhausted their welcome, too, especially during the back half. I sensed that an electronic cultist would find far more there than I could, which inherently disappointed me because the thing was that I wanted to be in a cult, I wanted to be a seasoned dance-techno expert. Did this mean I couldn't be? I stopped trying to branch out, putting off various Orb and Leftfield CDs I was interested in and delving deeper into college rock (it was shortly after this that I became an obsessive R.E.M. fan, typically for me just as everyone else was getting over them). In retrospect, though, it seems that the Chemical Brothers and MTV Amp fixation probably played a larger role for me than I long suspected. By 2000, I was a cultist -- for synthpop, to which I remain deeply attached, and I can sense that the appreciation for abstraction, artificiality, and beats had its birth here. Even if the continued Chemical Brothers preference only proved that I needed songs, at least at first. (When Surrender came out, I loved it just as much, even though I'd mostly moved on.) Better yet, from synthpop I found disco, which is important to me like little else. So thank you, MTV. For once. Oh yeah, thank you for Beavis and Butt-Head, too.

I like to think that I've expanded enough now to hear Homework differently, and when I listened for this entry I did find it a lot more fun than I used to, at least in part because I had it on the speakers and wasn't by myself. It's still too long -- 74 minutes is too long for any album that stays this locked in a groove -- but the songs emerged more individually, and if you pretend it's a compilation it works really well. As background music, too (which is the closest I come to "party music" utility), it is flawless. The way it periodically presents itself heard from another room, or just during some other activity, really brings out its core -- I'd never noticed before, for example, what a perfectly constructed piece of work "Alive" is. And even "Oh Yeah" was tolerable, but it was Friday night when few things aren't.

I wish it was Friday now, and what's curious about Daft Punk is that that's an emotion -- a longing, vague nostalgia -- they conjure up, against all the "logic" that dance music is cold and detached and inhuman, another high horse I came to detest during that same period. I don't have a classroom to escape now. My life's great, I do what I want, and the mature security of adulthood is mine. But when I hear this music, I still feel myself wanting something, or at least celebrating it. Those flashing lights, that sense of freedom, that indescribable world apart from all routine and drudgery -- loud, young, restless, laughing, it's the opposite of Galaxie 500. But I need it for the same reasons.

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