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Daft Punk and the virtues of mystery

I so wanted to write that “Nothing in their career became them like the leaving of it”. Daft Punk, the electronic music pair, retired this week with a message that was, comme d’habitude, wordless, faceless and sumptuous. But their career became them quite enough, thanks. Over three decades, the Parisians took a problem — how to infuse synthetic sound with feeling — and solved it to the tune of six Grammys and legion sales. When Emmanuel Macron hosted Donald Trump for Bastille Day, the army band struck up a medley of their hits.

Lasting success is rare enough. It is the retention of mystique all the while that distinguished Daft Punk as precious beings in a chatty age. Headgear — first masks, then chrome helmets — meant their “public appearances” fulfilled neither word in that phrase. Naked-faced, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo can ride the metro undisturbed in their own town. (Imagine Adele on the Northern Line.) There is likely no one more famous who enjoys more privacy. Given their less than Stakhanovite output — nine years without a gig — silence was a risk. Their punishment: matchless credibility.

Daft Punk showed the world the advantages of reticence. The world babbles on regardless. It is there in the verbose smarm of corporate “engagement”, both with customers and staff. It is there in the abasement of the governing class through sheer availability. I lived through the shift in Britain from cold politicians to please-like-me merchants with a studied knack for the demotic. Tell me, has it disarmed the public or increased their mistrust? Have attitudes to business softened or hardened since corporate PR became so vast in scale and simpering in style? In both realms, the best that can be ventured is that things would have been worse without the charm (how telling a word) offensive.

What Daft Punk fathomed, I think, is that some chamber of the human brain does not just tolerate but actively favours aloofness. A measure of distance piques curiosity as much as resentment. It avoids the air of desperation that is as emetic in a vote-seeker or product-seller as in a lover. It may even skew our estimation of the substance itself. With four studio albums in 28 years, one of which flopped, would Daft Punk be retiring to such praise (“The most influential pop musicians of the 21st century”) had they been grinningly accessible? Or was it that who seemed most kingly were kings?

A band is not a company, but it is a commercial proposition. It is not a political party, but it does have an image to curate. For all public-facing entities, Daft Punk, the best-managed brand in pop, were a lesson in the uses of remoteness.

America’s least-trusted institutions — Congress, television news and big business, says Gallup — are remorselessly heard-from. The most trusted are the military (a closed box to most citizens) and small business (too poor to advertise at scale). I don’t suggest that executives or politicians emulate Homem-Christo, a man who communicates in large part through the medium of pout. But I wonder what there is to show for the Uriah Heep strategy. The feeling of your pain, the stakeholder-flattery: ingratiation has been the way of public and private elites during the exact era that trust in them has dropped. With exquisite circularity, the answer to the cynicism is to try all the harder to “connect”. It is a double folly. What they forfeit in grandeur, they do not make up for in affection.

For such outward modernists, Daft Punk were in at least two senses men of the past. One was their zeal for old, shunned music. (For the de-stigmatisation of disco, the Bee Gees owe them a piece of their restored reputation.) The other was their rejection of the connectedness of modern life. Just as humans acquired the means to be in constant contact with each other, the band chose withdrawal. No act of their size and longevity has so well avoided contempt through familiarity. To pull this off in an era geared for disclosure and omnipresence is a technical feat as well as a moral choice. In not trying hard to be adored, they were. The opposite trick is on show all around us.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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