Daft Punk have always sought to make a modern classic.
Innately modern and innately classic, the French duo’s retro-futurist fetish re-connected house with its disco roots, throwing in some off piste pop references for a peculiarly Gallic twist. It’s one of many dichotomies at the heart of robotic masks, that feeling of being in both camps – past and present, human and machine.
For a while, it worked perfectly. Two astonishing albums – and a mixed third – re-wrote the rule book, while a spectacular, technology-defying live show broke box office records and showed what could be achieved. A sobering but largely accurate thought: before Daft Punk came along most record companies thought that a ‘dance hit’ involved a keyboard, a DJ, and two dancers wearing bum-bags.
But then there’s ‘Get Lucky’. Released almost exactly five years ago and featuring both Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, it’s record-breaking sales and cross-generational appeal have been held up as signposts of creativity in an increasingly splintered age, but it’s a commercial event masquerading as a cultural success, an economic wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing. It’s the moment the machines won out, and began idly churning out dots, dashes, and sales figures.
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Daft Punk and Pharrell both triumphed in a peculiarly Millennial field, where the relationship between mainstream and underground could result in spectacular artists who could thrive in both arenas. Daft Punk’s Gallic take on disco-fied house helped spearhead the French Touch, establishing Paris as one of the true citadels of underground culture.
Except it wasn’t to last. The music industry shrank considerably when almost overnight highspeed broadband led to near limitless Pirate Bay fuelled bootlegging, laying waste to the middle ground and leaving two curious bullwarks of tiny, independent artists struggling to make a living and huge, colossal pop entities divorced from most forms of reality.
It was a different pop landscape that greeted Daft Punk on their return. The Disney sponsored ‘Tron: Legacy’ aside, ‘Random Access Memories’ was the duo’s first album in well over a decade, a time that had allowed entire genres to rise to commercial dominance, before fading away into an internet-sponsored ether.
The roll out was lavish, and almost interminable. Signed to Sony through the Columbia imprint, major label money was spent on spectacular, high visible marketing ranging from obtrusive, all-seeing posters to huge TV spots and a video preview at Coachella. That’s right: Daft Punk were so in-demand that the colossal desert event made do with a 30 second video snippet.
With this muscle behind it, then, it’s no wonder that ‘Get Lucky’ was such a safe bet – and it feels it. From the crisp, pared down Nile Rodgers guitar to the bubbling synths, it feels ready-made, arriving with a nagging sense that you’ve heard it some place before.
And perhaps you had, in a way. Arch samplers, Daft Punk rose and prospered at the tail end of the wide open sampling era, a time when Beastie Boys (through their production team, the Dust Brothers) could cram more than 1000 samples on to one album, and DJ Shadow could turn the whole affair into a near-orchestral art-form.
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In 2013, though, none of these artists could get away with such hi-jinks. Instead of sampling a forgotten relic, a long lost seven inch, Daft Punk simply lifted an entire culture – right down to the guitar player, Chic’s Nile Rodgers.
Where once Daft Punk crossed the open wires of differing cultural currents to see what explosions occurred, they now seemed content to operate the Venn diagrams of sales frequencies, creating commercial events that failed to move forward the culture they once dominated by one tiny inch.
There’s a weight of cynicism surrounding ‘Get Lucky’ that doesn’t escape the stellar cast. A lingering feeling that something isn’t quite right, an atmosphere that makes you check the date on the calendar, spurred on by era-defining box-ticking.
Released on April 19th, ‘Get Lucky’ provided the immense business-apparatus surrounding it with an incredible hit. Number one for four weeks, fledgling streaming service Spotify declared it to be the most streamed single in their short history, producing all manner of dazzling statistics and billowing percentage points to prove it.
But perhaps the most potent impact was in the way pop songs were constructed in its wake. Pharrell went on to enjoy equally cynical success with ‘Happy’, a piece of child-like, day-glo soul rejected by countless artists for its perceived lack of worth before he turned it into a karaoke staple.
Robin Thicke was taking notes, too, assembling the team for ‘Blurred Lines’. If Daft Punk sampled Studio 54 in its entirety, then the since much maligned Mr. Thicke aimed for Soul Train in 1975, delivering a funky bass-line that appeared remarkably similar to Marvin Gaye.
Surging to notoriety thanks to its much-discussed lyrical content, ‘Blurred Lines’ sparked a huge law-suit, with the estate of Marvin Gaye taking Robin Thicke and Pharrell to court, eventually winning a landmark case and every single penny the song made in the process.
It was the moment the legal eagles closed a loop-hole, the final demolition in the case in favour of sampling. In a way, maybe Daft Punk just got lucky.
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