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.
“Get Lucky”, the much-hyped first single from Random Access Memory, feels pretty good. It brings actual Nile Rodgers out of mothballs in its attempt to sound exactly like a Studio 54-era 12”. It’s destined to be a ubiquitous hit, because it’s more or less all hook, earnestly sung by an obviously real, live person. But if there’s nothing better on the album, it’ll come as a mild disappointment specifically because it’s so ruthlessly streamlined. It downplays the hint of futurism that once made the band a distinctive interpreter of old sounds. The single goes down so easy that it practically doesn’t exist. The ease itself is telling. Disco, from the depths of its dishonor, nudged all the way back in half steps, as a cutesy robot revival, as a counterintuitive element in our early-00s punk rock. Now, you don’t have to do anything novel to it to make it palatable. “Get Lucky” definitely doesn’t try to. Somehow, once again, uncomplicated disco just sounds like the most universal music possible. It’s first lines? “Like the legend of the Phoenix...”
Phoenix’s rise to big-deal rock band headliner status involved more active tweaking, not just perfecting the proof of their distillation to some pure old thing. Their early records are still shockingly unfussy in their Hall and Oates-y-ness. There’s no tasteful haze, no abstracting digital trickery, just earnest blue-eyed soul singing and soft rock bounce. If Toro Y Moi, or somebody, made Alphabetical two years from now it’d probably be hailed as the end point of an obvious arc, a thought finally completed. But it’s a funny starting point towards the slick, car commercial-strength New Wave that made them legitimately huge. You can’t quite reduce the hits on the band’s biggest record, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix to the aloof Strokes copying they’re sometimes accused of, and it’s not just because they don’t quite read as pure rock n’ roll. “1901” and “Lisztomania” would have been massive, career-reviving singles for the actual Strokes. It’d have meant that band was willing to clean up, write enormous hooks, and stop singing through a megaphone. They’re songs that felt instantly like a precariously occupied pinnacle. Stuff that sounds so easy is pretty hard to make.
The band’s new album, Bankrupt!, is the moment where their success is a set part of the story, where they’re forced to comment on the curiosity of their moment, even as they seek to continue it. Its first single, “Entertainment”, starts on aggressively tinny “Turning Japanese” synths. Intentionally or not, it makes me think back on that bit in Lost in Translation where their single “Too Young” is playing at a party, as the jet-lagged movie star and the ingenue dance in a weed-fogged Tokyo apartment in the blush of mutual affection. Even if the critics didn’t yet agree, Phoenix were meant to signify underground hipness in that scene, quick shorthand for possibility lurking in places you wouldn’t know to look. This new record tries to recast them as world-weary Bob Harris-es, caught up in a festival and late-night TV circuit they can barely comprehend. It’s a strange, ill-fitting sort of ennui. Daft Punk try again and again to get you out of your head. Phoenix now seem stuck in theirs.
Thomas Mars’s lyrical vagueness is one of Phoenix’s signature aspects, an internal life broadcast through a series of obscure gestures. So, a lot of the meaning is grafted on top of the music with help from biography, context. (The title’s gotta be spiritual, because it certainly isn’t financial.) It’s not so tough to make out, though. The best song, “SOS in Bel Air”, is literally a cry for help from the midst of suffocating poshness. “Oblique City” grasps for anything universal in the whirlwind, mentioning Coca-Cola and Rosetta Stone in the same breath, as if a brand name bottle was the key to cracking something incomprehensible. They could be talking about the language CDs, but the meaning wouldn’t be too different. The pervasive angst makes the record the heaviest thing they’ve done, though still not that heavy. But it does read as a traditional rock album. They finally make you feel like a spectator at an arena show, rather than a patient in a waiting room.
Taken together, you’re struck by the feeling that the end points of these French bands seem pretty familiar even if their rise was unusual. Daft Punk making a huge show of their traditional instrumentation and old studio hand camaraderie? Phoenix playing out a Behind the Music third act of music lifers getting torn up by the road? They helped shape our pop present, now all they want was the classic rock past.