March 10, 2015
by Niek Hilkmann
It seems quite a while ago that Simon Reynolds published his much-discussed book, ‘Retromania’ in 2011. Much has been made of Reynolds’ analysis of popular music since its release, and it must be said that its argument was appropriated by music journalists with an enthusiasm that they rarely exhibit for the records they review. In ‘Retromania’, Reynolds tried to illustrate the idea that popular music has become a self-referential medium, obsessed with its own history and not moving forward, or thinking about the future anymore. With a touch of melancholic drama, he recalls the days when he felt music still held promises for the future and he wonders if contemporary music will ever bring back that feeling again.
Two years after Reynolds published his stream of thought, Daft Punk released an album that almost seems to be tailor-made to illustrate his ideas. The album was fittingly called ‘Random Access Memories’ and the title of the first song displayed the (impossibly?) high goal they were aiming for: ‘Give Life Back To Music’. The dynamic duo call the listener to arms by crooning the following lyrics:
Let the music in tonight
Just turn on the music
Let the music of your life
Give life back to music
There are two kinds of ‘music’ present in this short stanza; Actual music, presumably blasting through a stereo, and ‘the music of your life’, which appears to be vague, metaphoric fodder for whoever wants to read more meaning into the lyrics. Whatever the case may be, this ‘music of your life’ seems (to me at least) to be just the thing to bring contemporary music to life. Without it, music in general will be devoid of meaning. Perhaps Daft Punk merely look to make the general assumption that life should be lived, but the album seems to take the lyrics literally. The ‘original’ creators of ‘the music of our lives’, the music we already know and are accustomed too, are present on ‘Random Access Memories’ and collaborate with Daft Punk. Giorgio Moroder, Paul Williams and Niles Rodgers got roped in to show their skills. As such, all the associations the listener might have with these artists also get sucked into the record. Daft Punk used a pre-existing nostalgic musical framework to create ‘new’ music that fits our ‘retromaniac’ day and age.
The idea of borrowing from the past to create something new is a well established one. In fact, there are many predecessors to the retro-obsessed age that Reynolds describes, even during the ‘futuristic’ times he pines for. A very obvious example of this is the bootleg disco culture of the late seventies and early eighties. In 1978 a Dutch popstar called Theo Vaness decided to release his first disco record. It was called ‘Back To Music’. The record starts with the sound of machines rattling and beeping in the background while a voice declares:
This is the year 2501.
Our world is no longer a place where you can dream of the future.
Only of the past.
We use our time machine now and then to go back to nature, back to music.
After this a disco beat starts thumping and a countdown commences. Year after year passes, until the listener reach 1978, the year ‘Back To Music’ was made. The journey through time is far from over, as Theo Vaness starts singing a medley of Beatles songs and other popular hits from the fifties, sixties en seventies. After a couple of minutes the trip reaches an euphoric climax and the listener is safely transported back to 2501, the year where there is no place to dream about the future and people go back in time to experience music. The story that ‘Back to Music’ tells can be seen as a mere piece of science fiction, but Vaness’ thoughts on how music might be perceived in the future isn’t so far off from Reynolds stream of thought, or what Daft Punk illustrates on ‘Random Access Memories’.
There are however, differences between how these two artists approach the past. Daft Punk made a meta-album that represents ‘classic’ artists. By appropriating artists, popular melodies and styles, they attempted to make a ‘new’ record with an historical sound. Theo Vaness however, made an idiosyncratic disco record about a speculative future. The musical past he appropriates is adapted to a contemporary disco style, which was a standard at the time. In this way it only speculates what meaning music of the past may hold in the future, instead of actually trying to recreate the sound of the past. This aspect may be the defining gap between the two and highlights one of the big traps of recursive music. When a third record gets thrown in the mix this will only become clearer.
In the summer of 1979 Willem van Kooten, managing director of Red Bullet Productions stumbled on a disco bootleg pressing by Passion, called ‘Let’s Do It In The 80s Great Hits’ that featured a sound byte of Shocking Blues’ ‘Venus’. Van Kooten owned the copyrights to this song, but he was not paid any money for this bootleg release. To teach these rascals a lesson, he decided to bootleg the bootleg and got Jaap Eggermont to produce the first record of what later would be known as the ‘Stars On 45’ series. These bootleg disco records feature soundalikes who sing bit parts of popular songs and artists. For instance, ‘the greatest rock and roll band of the world’ features seventeen Rolling Stones songs accompanied by a relentless disco drumbeat that goes on and on and on. The beat regulates and unifies the songs and takes them out of their context.
The ‘Stars On 45’ records were scorned by critics, but made a lot of money. The first record, comprising of Beatles hits, sold over a million copies in America and went gold in several countries. In essence, ‘Stars On 45’ appropriated existing melodies to a contemporary sound, much like Theo Vaness did. However, like Daft Punk, there is a recursive mechanism at work. The lengths the producers went through to make the records sound ‘alike’ are quite extravagant compared to today’s standards. It takes some skill to distinguish a ‘Stars On 45’ sample from a snippet of the real deal. There surely is some art involved in making inconspicuous covers, but with current sampling technology this whole process has become so easy that the process, or even ‘recognition of the ambition’ of sounding alike is not that interesting anymore. This makes the Stars on 45 a little anonymous nowadays and it’s hard to feel any form of nostalgia towards the records.
While Vaness is still in the centre of his medleys – by singing the songs himself – the artists on ‘Stars on 45’ pose as mere substitutes for the ‘real music’ they imitate. It could be said that this commercial, ‘mindless’ appropriation of a musical past is the true precedent of shuffle culture and spotify and YouTube music consumerism. As opposed to Vaness there’s no personal flavour involved in travelling back to other musical times. The past is relentlessly normalised, decontextualised and stripped of any meaning. As such, the music becomes a depersonalised container of everything we want to put into it. ‘Stars on 45’ are now no longer necessary with digital shuffle players around. Without personal flavour, one could just as easily play the original.
Daft Punk is aware of this socio-technological shift, and that is why they tried to make ‘new’ old music. Instead of merely trying to sound like commercial records from the past, they invited the very people over who made the originals, in the hope they could push the right buttons. The guest appearance of Paul Williams in ‘Touch’ doubles as an ode to ‘Phantom Of the Paradise’, a 1974 satirical movie directed by Brian Da Palma in which the music industry is portrayed as a recursive monster that is afraid of getting old and ruthlessly appropriates past styles to gain money and success. ‘Random Access Memory’ could function as an alternative soundtrack to that. Paul Williams was, after all, part of the recursive ‘smoke and mirrors’ industry that Daft Punk try to bring back to life. In that way they attempt to bring back the mirrors instead of their effects, in the hope that we appropriate them as our new contemporary culture. The image of a snake eating itself pops into mind. A re-establishment of a past discourse will not be a proper attack on recursive culture. Instead, we might need to look towards the past without dissembling and representing it. The disco utopia that Theo Vaness dreamed about was destroyed when the disco backlash sidled round the corner. Artists such as Daft Punk and Stars On 45 were only ever watching from the side-line in awe. And one would much rather join them observing Theo Vaness than listening to their own wheezy gasps at the spectacle.