Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In Defense of the Robots

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Why Masked Performers are Good for Music
by Christine Campbell
When my dad watched Daft Punk win Album of the Year in January’s 56th annual Grammy Awards, he scoffed as though my brother had worn a baseball cap at the dinner table: “Really? They don’t even take off their costumes for this?” Even more reprehensible to him, it seemed, was the need for Random Access Memories collaborator Paul Williams to deliver the band’s acceptance speech on behalf of the “robots,” because they couldn't (or wouldn't) speak for themselves at the microphone.  The French electronic duo, who have been performing and touring together for over twenty years, are known widely for their unusual band aesthetic; both members don elaborate robotic helmets and uniforms for nearly all public appearances and live shows. Though there are a few circulating photos of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter—the men behind the masks—in their plainclothes and natural faces, their personal lives have been kept remarkably well hidden from the public’s prying eyes. 
Daft Punk is not, of course, the only group to mask the identities of their central members while performing—Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band that performs in bright colors and balaclavas, is the most memorable in recent headlines, but others include electro artist DeadMau5, the animated band Gorrillaz, and Swedish duo The Knife, who wear birdlike venetian masks and rarely make public appearances.  Though their goals and intentions are not unified in type or scope-- Pussy Riot, for example, uses anonymity as a tool for feminist political expression and protest, while Gorrillaz initially aimed to critique the vapid 'MTV culture' of the late 90's -- nearly all of these groups cross the boundaries of music into social and political realms. Because Daft Punk has moved beyond the status of niche art band or cult favorite and into the Billboard Top 40, collaborating with artists like Julian Casablancas and Pharrell Williams, they are an important group to consider in just how effective using masks to emphasize an outside agenda can truly be.  Rather than succumbing to materialism and superficiality with their artificial personas, in reality, Daft Punk tackle our cultural obsession with musical megastars, the way they present themselves, and how they fare in the fickle world of the public spotlight.  
Being a talented musician is no longer enough, for many performers—they grace the covers of magazines, sell copy upon copy of ghost-written memoirs, star in Oscar-winning films, and essentially give their lives over to the public for a shot at fame and fortune. Their public image and persona are just as much a part of their success as the musical work they produce; any major music star in our current charts, regardless of his or her inherent musical talent, would have very a different career had they not piqued and satisfied our seemingly endless desire to know the inner workings of celebrity life. It's not a very radical notion to contend that this is a problem with our culture; I refuse to believe that anyone watches Keeping Up With the Kardashians non-ironically, though perhaps I am blindly optimistic.
In some ways Daft Punk’s extravagant costuming, intricately designed stage performances, and over-the-top light shows threaten to distract fans and critics alike from well-produced and innovative songs. One could argue, perhaps justifiably, that their appeal originates from the visuals; when Daft Punk performed live at the Grammys with Stevie Wonder and Pharrell Williams (whose oversized brown hat has drummed up just as much buzz as the robots’ helmets), my dad was again somewhat perplexed—“are they even playing anything? Do they just dance?” Granted, their digital music pads looked something like a cockpit in a futuristic jet plane, but how could a man from the age of Ziggy Stardust could be all that shocked by DJs in shiny suits? Daft Punk is certainly a visual group by nature, inherently more memorable than a pair of middle aged white guys pressing buttons on a stage; as such, it is tempting to group them with the hoards of other bands that use appearances and celebrity status to cultivate something iconic and perhaps unwarranted by their music alone.But time and time again the robots have stressed that their unusual outfits are only intended to direct attention away from the performers themselves and towards the very music they produce. 
In another era, the appeal of Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead were just as much about mystifying light shows and a flourishing drug culture as they were about the tracks on Dark Side of the Moon or Shakedown Street, and if those accompanying elements were removed, one can only hazard a guess as to how their cultural legacy may have been shaped. Many artists today aim to create similar touring ‘experiences’ for their audiences as a way to enhance an album conceptually as it moves from recording studio to stage, but the effect is often unproductive and distracting, turning focus towards frontmen as rockstars or moguls and away from an aesthetic experience as a form of art. When Arcade Fire announced a formal dress code for their upcoming Reflektor tour, for example, encouraging fans to dress up for packed arena shows, they encountered immediate pushback from fans who claimed the move was pretentious and presumptuous; only after their lead singer Win Butler issued a statement explaining that the dress code was, eloquently put, “super not mandatory,” did tensions slowly subside. 
The inescapable link between music and the visual components of performance is certainly not one that has been left unexplored; in a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on March 31st 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono introduced (in their characteristically enigmatic style) the tenets of ‘bagism,’ an approach to performance which addresses themes of concealed identity and emphasis on unbiased communication. They spent the entire conference inside of a large bag, their figures hidden, exchanging words with the press and refusing to emerge for any reason. The idea was, according to Lennon, that by removing someone’s access to visual information about a singer or speaker, a listener would need to be necessarily unbiased in his or her reception of whatever message was being communicated. “If we have something to say or anybody has something to say, they can communicate from one room to another, and not confuse you with what color your skin is, or how long your hair’s grown, or how many pimples you’ve got.” This was particularly relevant in the 60s and 70s, when hippie culture reached its height, and something as arbitrary as a hairstyle could be used to classify and categorize performers into a rebellious youth counterculture. 
The power of anonymity, whether provided by a bag or a helmet or an animated cast of music video characters, is one both embraced and repudiated by Daft Punk’s image; while their alternative personas are perhaps some of the most recognizable and respected artists in their genre and industry (Album of the Year is no small feat), they are able to simultaneously lead normal lives outside of their work without the expectation of constant exposure or total transparency. In a 2004 interview with the website canoe.ca, they explain, “…we want the focus to be on the music. If we have to create an image, it must be an artificial image. The combination hides our physicality and also shows our view of the star system…we don’t want to get recognized in the streets.” By acknowledging the split between persona or ‘image’ and the everyday performers behind popular music, and making the distinction as obvious as they do, Daft Punk remind us to embrace music and performance as a combined aesthetic experience without becoming absorbed in the unrelated daily minutiae of celebrity lifestyles. They aren't superficial or 'gimmicky'-- they're role models for young bands who just want to put on a good show. 

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