For decades, France’s biggest influence on American alternative culture was in film and fashion, an impossibly stylish people who needed to be seen to be appreciated. Lately, the country is dominating our ears. In 2013, the two sharpest focus moments from the whizzing blur that is the Coachella Festival were Phoenix’s on-stage duet with R&B superstar R. Kelly and Daft Punk revealing a fricking commercial for their new record Random Access Memory. Headline status for hedonistic Parisian pop was slow in coming, though. Some Serge Gainsbourg cultists among early-90s slacker collagists aside, French music wasn’t very ubiquitous until Daft Punk creeped into MTV rotation, clothing boutique speakers, and college dorm rooms at the end of the 90s along with original chill bros, AIR. Phoenix, linked closely to both bands, rose even slower as a rock band who rocked much softer than dance and pop acts. While these bands’ embrace of discarded sounds and styles that had been derided for decades now seems prescient, it took a good long while for it to become clear.
Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber’s original take of Daft Punk’s 2001 record Discovery is a music review as a scrunched nose. Shorter version: Tacky vocoder sounds? Ugh, is this Cher? Dominique Leone’s 2004 review of Phoenix’s Alphabetical is equally queasy over the idea that a new take on AM soft rock was a valid or necessary impulse. Pretty good dentist’s office cheese, but why would you want to make it? By the end of decade, tastes had changed significantly. Discovery ended up number 3 on the site’s “Albums of the 00s” list, as close as they’d get to a public apology. Phoenix became an indie rock headliner, while just barely getting harder edged.
So, what changed between the first half of the last decade and the first years of this one? A lot. More hits by unapologetic Frenchmen. Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” went for schoolyard MJ worship without further commentary. M83’s “Midnight City” was as puddle deep as it’s title, but those words do create a certain pang. With even fewer syllables, the French artists all over the Drive soundtrack made Gosling’s autistic avenger glow as much as the pink neon. But the unique prominence of Daft Punk and Phoenix right now just reflects the head start they got on an American underground where pop, disco, soft rock, and R&B has bled all the way back in, where even basement weirdos like Ariel Pink make yacht rock. It’s an end product of an Internet music culture where everything is available and that variety is honestly sort of suffocating in its weight. Repetitive hooks cut through the static. This dovetailed with a more pro-pop view in music criticism that sought to blow up the long-held suspicions that anything pleasurable should ever be guilty. And, maybe most importantly, years of war, destruction, sadness, economic collapse, barely contained panic. Feeling good didn’t sound so bad.