More on Daft Punk: canonizing a history of EDM

This past week I got to talk about Daft Punk with Jason and Cassie at ABC’s The List. We had a great time talking, so much so that there was a lot that we discussed that couldn’t be fit into the final broadcast.  There’s one thing in particular that I want to follow up on: the role of Daft Punk as curators of EDM’s past.

90s hip hop, especially (but of course not limited to) Dre’s West Coast G-Funk, functioned as a curatorial and canonizing take on 70s funk and soul. Their samples reactivated classic funk and soul licks, making them great in new ways, and thus reinforcing the canonical greatness of their original versions. I was born in 78, and though I do remember listening to early 80s radio in the car with my parents and rummaging through my dad’s stack of Motown LPs, my knowledge of 70s funk and soul comes primarily through my interaction with 90s hip hop. (I actually talk about this a bit here.) I suspect that this is common among gen-Xers & millennials (is it? fellow x/millennials, lemme know!).

I think we see a similar move happening in Daft Punk’s revisiting of 70s disco (Rogers, Moroder) and Y2K-era R&B (Williams). Their selection of collaborators traces a trajectory through the last 30ish years of dance music, anointing these collaborators (especially Rogers & Moroder) as the Mozart & Beethoven of 70s disco. I just want to pause for a second and consider how unqueer this version of 70s disco is…If this is indeed an attempt at canon-making, it’s really interesting how people like Larry Levan are written out of the story. The canonization goes both ways, I think. DP’s choice of collaborators reaffirms Rogers, Moroder, & Williams’ place in the canon, but these are already pretty prestigious figures in the first place. Their prestige rubs off a bit on DP, further legitimating them as canon-makers.

But if you think about the choice of Rogers & Moroder also in terms of their legacies–Rogers’ work with Chic leads us directly to commercial hip hop (“Good Times” is the sample on which the first commercially-released rap record, “Rapper’s Delight,” was based), and Moroder leads us directly to EDM (e.g., this). In Daft Punk’s history of pop music, hip hop and EDM are what we get from 70s disco.

Think also about their choice of Todd Edwards as their fourth collaborator. His work in the 90s is seen as a sort of precursor to grime & dubstep. So this is UK-based EDM.

Rogers, Williams, Moroder, Edwards: What’s missing in this history of EDM? House and techno (or, the American Midwest), and Madchester (again, flyover UK territory). Again, the absence of house can be read as a detour around queerness, especially queer blackness/black queerness, and the presentation of a really heterosexualized blackness/black masculinity. The absence of techno is more interesting–in a way, this can be read as a detour around Kraftwerk (Juan Atkins and Derek May often talk about the band’s influence on their early work), that is, around a certain experimental approach to electronic music. It may also be read as a detour around the history of blacks and explicitly electronic dance music. There’s a way in which Williams & Rogers represent a type of “analog” or “human” element, which stands in contrast to DP’s own digital/robot schtick.

So perhaps we get this specific story of EDM because blackness functions, in this record, as a sort of signal of authoritative, canonical importance–of the authorized history of pop music–and not the unauthorized, rebellious, outsider avant-garde. Atkins and May are left out because they’re too futuristic, too explicitly digital? Their music is too posthuman? And blackness here is supposed to signify “human-ness”? That’s not new. But perhaps what is new is the way in which blackness signifies human-ness: not as historically “primitive” and undeveloped, but as historically significant and qualitatively superior to “degenerate” contemporary pop? As Edwards says at the end of his “Collaborator” video, with this record “two androids are bringing soul back to music” (Edwards). Are their collaborators meant to be channels for this “soul”? [We also have to think about the absent referent here–Donna Summer. Moroder’s most important EDM track is “I Feel Love,” which features Summer. Obviously she’s not available to put on this record, but it is worth considering the absencing of black femininity–or well, women in general–from this record and its history of EDM.)

It’s also worth considering the difference between the black collaborators DP chose for this record, and the black collaborators that the other big French EDM artist works with. David Guetta collaborates with the young, fresh black vocalists: Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Flo-Rida, Luda & Usher, etc. So there may also be a need for DP to stake out different territory for themselves. This may also in part explain why Kanye doesn’t appear on this album, but they will appear in his forthcoming work (or so people say).

I obviously still have a lot to think about on all these issues. But I do think we need to understand the new DP album as curating a history of EDM, and consider what that history is, who’s included and excluded, etc.