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Culture

Daft Punk becomes the all-American French pop group

© AFP

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2014-01-30

Even though Daft Punk is immersed in US musical influences, sings English lyrics and is propelled by the North American marketing machine, the duo’s triumph at the recent Grammy Awards was hailed at home as a success "made in France."

The French media, hyper-sensitive to possible "French bashing" in the Anglo-Saxon press, seized the opportunity to swagger after the "French electro duo" Daft Punk ran off with five awards on Sunday night. Surely this triumph was a biting response to those who proclaim a Gallic decline both in France and abroad.

France awoke on Monday to a chorus of crowing in their media. Always quick to associate themselves with French success, particularly when it is in the United States, several politicians joined the enthusiastic cheering. Prime Minister Jean- Marc Ayrault sent out a jingoistic tweet of congratulations: "Historic Victory of #daftpunk at the Grammy awards France is proud of you!"

Of course, the Gallic rooster has every reason to puff out its chest. Never has a French group won so many trophies at the high mass of American music .Daft Punk collected its awards to applause from some of the starriest names of Anglophone pop culture: Paul McCartney, Jay- Z, Beyonce and Katy Perry.

On one level, the two members of Daft Punk are unquestionably French. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo are both from the wealthier suburbs of Paris. These days, however, they work, mostly, in the United States. There they produce tracks sung in English assisted by such ubiquitous American artists as Pharrell Williams and the master of disco-funk Nile Rodgers. From "Homework" in 1997 to "Random Access Memories," the album that dominated the Grammys, none of their records shows a trace of influence from traditional French "chansons".

Clearly, the "robots" of Daft Punk are a long way from embodying the Francophone culture that the French government would so much like to see broadcast worldwide.

Stéphane Jourdain, author of "French Touch", a book named after the musical movement from which Daft Punk sprung, compared them to older, iconic French pop artists who did not export so well.

"Daft Punk has achieved what Telephone and Johnny Hallyday were never able to do: produce a global success. It is clear that we don’t reach this market by singing in French on the Eiffel Tower or Montmartre,” Jourdain told FRANCE 24.

 

If Daft Punk is selling something French, it is not their musical output; it is their style and their attitude.

Post-national 'je ne sais quoi'

"We must separate the French way of doing things and presenting yourself as French,” wrote Slate’s French web site shortly after the worldwide release of "Random Access Memories" last May. “The reality is that Daft Punk is a post-national group. Their music is of Anglo-Saxon inspiration, the lyrics are in English and the musicians are all Americans. Their 'made in France ' is rather a 'je ne sais quoi' that distinguishes them from rival producers. "

So what is this "je ne sais quoi" that lifted  the French duo into the international musical pantheon?

First, there is a well-honed marketing sense symbolized by the famous retrofuturist helmets. By concealing their faces, limiting their public appearances to dribs and drabs and surrounding their productions in secrecy, the duo has created a genuine aura around their work and themselves.

"Whether we like Daft Punk or not, whether we buy their marketing strategy or not, they are now the only people in our solar system who can afford this kind of behaviour. They are both frustrating and fascinating at the same time,” wrote Rockyrama, a French web site. “Like Disney, ‘Star Wars’ or Marvel Comics, Daft Punk is an engine of fantasies. It is carrying it off very well.”

This strategy might be worthy of the great American brands but is it compatible with the French spirit?

"In view of the importance they give to their image and their well-put together outfits the French side plays an important role. Daft Punk is more glamorous because they are French rather than Swiss," said Jourdain.

"When you see their performance at the Grammy Awards, where they appear as demigods directing the great figures of American pop music like Rodgers or Stevie Wonder, they are clearly in a kind of Hollywood delirium,” said Étienne Menu, the music critic of Audimat. “Daft Punk has fully assimilated American culture."

Pushing it to the limit

It is an assimilation the group pushes to the limit on its  discs. The duo is great lovers of the funk and disco years of the 60s and 70s. They recruited an army of technicians, engineers and musicians from that era to give "Random Access Memories" the sound of a golden age of American music.

"Daft Punk, of course, a reminder that you, too, can win oodles of Grammys if you’d just spend a couple million bucks making sure your album sounds like a 1977 cutout record,” wrote Jon Caramanica on the New York Times live Grammy blog.

"Daft Punk is one of those Americanophile groups dazzled by the American music industry,” said Menu. "Americans admire France and its relationship with culture. When it is the French who are, in turn, paying homage to American culture, that gives them, in the eyes of Americans, more prestige. It excites them. Clearly, this is a win-win swap. "

Daft Punk’s five Grammy Awards were reminiscent of the five Oscars won in 2012 by "The Artist," a silent black and white film by Michel Hazanavicius, a French director, who conquered Hollywood by paying tribute to some golden age of American cinema.

Even though this nostalgia has a rosy glow it rather compromises the avant-garde image supposedly embodied by the two figureheads of the "French touch."

"It's unfortunate that to get there they have created a museum of music and invited Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers. Instead of developing something new, they have repeated what has already been done,” Menu said. “I cannot help but see in their approach an urge to protect a small part of their cultural heritage. That, at least, is very French."

For Jourdain, the American recognition of Daft Punk lifts them above their French predecessors.

"These guys have invented something, it has a real power that counted,” Jourdain said. “The international awards are the logical outcome. These Grammys are a small epilogue to the 'French touch'."

This triumph means Daft Punk can write the next chapter in their story. Nothing suggests it will be in French.
 

Date created : 2014-01-28

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