After watching Interstella 555 and enjoying it, despite its many defects, I’ve decided to try and listen to Daft Punk, a band I had always been sceptical about. And I chose to start from Discovery, their most famous album, the same one that backs up the story of Interstella, to see if it would be just as enjoyable without visual accompaniment, or if it would lose its appeal like many soundtracks do.
Possibly because it wasn’t exactly a soundtrack in the first place, I’ve greatly enjoyed the album, maybe more than the film itself, even though the second half tends to be less interesting compared to the first energetic handful of songs. (Let’s be honest: without the film, Veridis Quo becomes boring after about 30 seconds of its almost 6 minutes) But overall, I was just surprised that I had let such a unique band slip past my ears (except for the viral videos of various anatomical interpretations of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger). The melodies are ok, but the sounds with which they are produced are simply unique, and the rhythms on which they are laid are great, (varied, interesting, never banal) in a way that reminded me, despite all their differences, of 65daysofstatic. How can you remain indifferent to the tapping of Aerodynamic? They managed to distract me from my reading material, rather than becoming background noise to the page in front of me: my mind was captivated and positively surprised.
For a while. That is, before I started paying closer attention to the lyrics.
My disappointment was gradual. The first song that made me turn to the lyrics was, for obvious reasons, “Something about us”. As a ballad, the sung part calls for closer attention. When I’ve heard the part starting with I need you more than anything in my life/I want you more than anything in my life/… I was still ready to give them credit. I thought it was a piece of brutal honesty, more simple and direct than many artists dare do, but poetic just because of its simplicity. Actually, it’s the kind of song it’d probably blush hearing side to side with anyone, whether I’d actually want to say those words or not (Usually it’s the latter case, and then I tend to blush harder… I’ve had the same effect serving at the till of a shop: James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” in the background, you look at a customer, embarrassment ensues, and the only thing you can do is try to pretend it’s not there, to avoid further awkwardness) But the fact that I was prepared to give them credit didn’t mean I wasn’t going to look for confirmation, that that trust was justified.
In Discovery, only 6 out of 14 songs have something I can reasonably call lyrics. Which is totally fine for me, I enjoy lots of instrumental music that either has nothing to say lyrics-wise, or simply decides to let the music express everything, or whatever reason they have. In other words, it’s ok if you don’t do something and still deliver a work that feels complete. What is not ok, for me, is that you put something in your art work that feels superficial or uncared-for. The perfect piece of art makes me want to say “I wouldn’t change a thing”. Well, Daft Punk’s songs with lyrics, with one notable exception, make me wish either that they were instrumentals or that someone else had written the lyrics. The melody of the voice is fine, the voice itself is technically good. What I have a problem with are just the raw words that are sung, with an interpretation that is frankly appalling, an interpretation that I can only assimilate to the figure of an actor/professional singer, rather than an artist believing in her work; because I can’t possibly think Daft Punk can be proud of that bit of their work.
“Something about Us” as I’ve said, is a simple (or simple-minded?) love song. What are the other songs about? Well, let’s take “One More Time”: a song about partying and dancing. And “Digital Love”: it tells of a dream about seducing someone at a party, while dancing (very simple-minded, definitely masculine, totally not erotic, and romantic only through stereotypes: barely, barely passable). “Face to Face”: guess what? A supposedly romantic encounter on a dance-floor. And it seems that dancing is solving all the pent-up problems this couple has. But I’m not summarizing: this is all there is in these songs.
“Too Long” is a peculiar example: a song about ‘that feeling’. Can you feel it?, the song asks repeteadly. Feel what? It’s never specified, or hinted at, or talked about. It reminds me of this line by Steven Wilson The Curse of There Must Be More in “Anesthetize”. The whole first part of “Anesthetize” is about the common practice of dressing nothingness up as something deep and meaningful.
When I come back to the exception, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, I don’t even know what to think anymore. I’m still talking lyrics-wise: the song seems a masterpiece in many ways, with the sentences broken down and repeated ad infinitum like it’s some kind of compartmentalised work, the musical equivalent of the division of labour in a factory, where each man has to do the same, small piece over and over again without ever seeing the final result. It’s a post-modern interpretation of the opening of Modern Times by Chaplin, in which that way of working has contaminated even what is supposed to be art, creativity, uniqueness; it’s a parody and a critique of it… or is it? I would like to say it is, but all the other songs are telling me that Daft Punk couldn’t possibly have put so much depth into their lyrics. Maybe it really is an exception, the masterpiece of an otherwise bad or careless lyricist. At this point I’d be more inclined to say that the fact that I could read it that way is purely a coincidence, that the merit is mine for seeing those things in it, rather than in the artist for putting them there; maybe, even, that the song is that very thing that I thought it was parodying, because I find it so despicable I wanted it to be a parody rather than the real thing.
Tom Bissell said that art is “comprehensively intelligent”. These 6 songs in discovery have tried to engage me on many levels. Musically, they succeeded. Lyrically, they didn’t. And the result is that the bad half of the album has ruined my enjoyment of the other half, and of the whole, and now I feel ashamed when I listen to it again.
It’s a very common issue, one that I’m also sometimes guilty of in my own works. I guess it’s normal, when one is learning, or finding one’s way, that one focuses more on one thing rather than the other. In literature, it’s often content without style, or, even worse, style without content. (I’ve seen billions of words of fascinating style and little to no content in my days in the tumblr writing community – which is now dead as far as I’m concerned). In films, it’s the same: production value with no plot. In music, it comes about in a number of ways: music without lyrics (I mean, of course, music with lyrics that are stupid and meaningless), technical ability without passion, sounds without rhythm, outstanding mastery of one instrument and banality in the use of another. In videogames, the plague is fine-tuned, addicting gameplay without any plot or other meaningful content to give it substance.
I like to call this the problem of specialized intelligence. It is what we are more and more used to: knowing one small thing in the universe, and being totally ignorant of its place in the world, of its ramifications, of its causes and consequences. It is, again, like Modern Times, and like the Daft Punk song, knowing your small bit without ever seeing the finished product. (One of the things I love about philosophy is that it’s so inherently interdisciplinary and interconnected that it’s almost impossible for it to make this mistake.)
Specialized intelligence is being a rhythmical genius and not knowing how to use that genius, that power that your music has, in order to convey something meaningful, to do something good. Specialized intelligence is studying economy without giving any serious thought to what you think a good life is, for the world as a whole as well as for individuals, so that you end up knowing all those difficult numbers and names, but you let them take you where they taught you they should take you, rather than towards your idea of good. It’s like knowing medicine, but having no idea of your own about what state is “healthy” and what isn’t. (Luckily I haven’t seen that yet) Specialized intelligence is precisely the Orwellian “Smart enough to do the job, dumb enough to not ask questions”.
Possibly the biggest case of specialized intelligence is living without ever seriously thinking about what a good life is. In the most general sense (I really don’t think that “I just want to be happy” refrain would hold under serious questioning for many of those who profess it) as well as in more particular ways. Especially when it comes to computers, tablets, smartphones, internet, consumism as a whole, how many people actually asked themselves “is this good for my life?” before using something, before opening their Facebook account, spending hours hooked to some stupid game? I don’t even think that it makes them happier.
I will not even go into the issue of acting according to what one thinks. That’s a complicated process, and a harder thing to do than it seems at first. But I would like to see more people asking themselves more often: “Is this good? Is it at least good for me, for my life?”