I'm just back from a one-week European swing that took me through the Amsterdam airport to Oslo, for a conference on popular music, then back through Paris to Montreal. As I moved from airport, to train station, to restaurant, to hotel (and, to be honest, to the occasional nightclub), I was followed everywhere by Daft Punk's "Get Lucky," the ubiquitous song of the moment. Shazam, the music recognition app, has already predicted that "Get Lucky" will be the song of the summer, and as I write this it sits at no. 2 on Billboard magazine's "Hot 200." (Random Access Memories, the album from which "Get Lucky" is taken, is no. 1.)
The inescapability of "Get Lucky" is part of the story. Whether you like it or not, its chorus will recycle through your head even when it is not actually being played anywhere in your vicinity. Hearing it in Europe, I was reminded of how, for 20 years or more, I'd always hear Double's "Captain of my Heart," with its tackier but equally insidious hook, within two hours of landing on that continent.
The "bigness" of "Get Lucky" has also become part of the story. It's hard to turn a musical corner on the Internet without finding Daft Punk praised for the mastery with which they've made the track go viral or trashed for their claims that they have set out to save popular music. Random Access Memories arrived surrounded by headlines about a return to warm, "human" songs in electronic dance music, and this re-humanization is being used to explain the album's massive success. The easy critiques of these claims simply point out how much of the music on the album is machine-produced, but this doesn't take us very far. (The soulful garage house of the mid-1980s was almost entirely machine-based, but is revered for producing moments of almost religious togetherness among those who danced to it.)
More even-handed reactions, like that by Spin's Phil Sherburne, point out that electronic dance music has been going warm and human for a couple of decades at least. These reinsertions of human warmth into electronic dance music are often packaged or understood as returns to 1970s disco, and disco revivals have been a constant of dance music culture since Dee-Lite gestured towards the 1970s in their 1990 breakthrough album "World Clique." One of the things keeping "Get Lucky" viral is the clip which syncs the track with dancing from the seventies television program Soul Train.
I've been doing research on the ways in which Montreal night-life changed in the 1960s, when discothèques slowly edged out the cabarets and dance halls which had been so central to the city's reputation as a late-night capital. The discothèque, where you could hear records imported from France or the United States, was quickly embraced by young people who felt that records offered a stronger connection with music and performers than the live orchestra. Records, it was argued, carried the original, "true" version of a song, sung by the singer who had made it famous and whose personality stamped it as human. Cabaret orchestras and bar bands, on the other hand, were seen as false, lifeless, simply going through the motions. "Live" music, at this point, was music played without emotional commitments, while records were the carriers of genuine human expressivity.
Ten years later, at the height of disco music's popularity, live musicians would condemn it as music made by machines or Svengali-like producers and decry its lack of warm, human qualities. Disco revivals ever since have set the music against musical backdrops which appear even more cold and contrived. In the current moment, as electronic dance music conquers Las Vegas and is both massively popular and invisible to most media, Daft Punk's rootsy embrace of disco in its most cherished and above-ground forms seems very savvy.