There are very few individuals that have the power and influence to completely disappear between creative releases, only to reemerge surrounded by even more attention, buzz and expectations than they left with.
Imagine if J.R.R. Tolkien were still alive, and after completing the final The Lord of the Rings book hid himself away for half a decade without a word. His towering base of international readers both young and old would be waiting with bated breath for any inkling of a sign that pointed towards his return. What story would he be concocting under the cover of secrecy? Would it continue the journeys through Middle Earth that had captivated and inspired generations of fans, ones that laid the foundation for thousands of stories and creations to follow? Would it tread into uncharted territory and place Tolkien’s incredible writing and immersive storytelling in a completely new environment? When would we get the chance to pick up another of his books, hold it in our hands and lose ourselves in a world outside of our own that only he could forge?
Now, imagine that after years of waiting and wondering, Tolkien’s name finally pokes out through the foliage. He’s back, the headlines say, and it looks like he’s holding pages with writing on them! Our prayers are finally being answered, they say. After working in silence for so long, whatever he’s got is bound to be amazing. This’ll be well worth the wait, we say, as we stand in line around the block waiting to purchase our copy of Tolkien’s new masterpiece.
But as we approach the shelf and open the cover, all we see is a book-club romance novel co-written by Twilight‘s Stephenie Meyer about three teenage girls who all have a crush on the same boy…
We flip frantically back and forth through the pages, muttering to ourselves and whipping our head around trying to make sure we grabbed the right book off the rack. Yep, there’s his name right there on the cover . . . what the hell? We read each line of the book carefully, searching for some sort of inside clue or nudge that tells us where the real Tolkien book is, but there’s nothing. It’s literally a middle school romance piece. With directionless adrenaline now pumping through our bodies, we dart back and forth and twitch as if our owner had just pretended to throw a ball for us but kept it in his hands as we sped off after it. This is it?
The feeling you can imagine is similar to the one that I and many others received upon listening to The Weeknd and Daft Punk‘s single, “Starboy.” Coming as the leading track from The Weeknd’s approaching album of the same name, the song was meant to be a twofold explosion of hype that would both catapult the R&B vocalist’s work into the mainstream eye and reintroduce Daft Punk back into our view after years of radio silence. The days leading up to the song’s release were treated exactly how you would expect. Headlines and news reports across every medium announcing the return of the electronic legends, forehead-gripping excitement at the prospect of such a powerful collaboration, relentless Internet arguments and theories regarding the duo’s hopeful resurgence of touring in 2017, laughter and smiles and dolphins and puppies. But on Thursday morning, as the song was made available for streaming, the thrill and nearly religious levels of euphoria within myself and many others were quickly paralyzed.
The track begins with an encroaching, distorted swell of noise that suddenly breaks into a tight and crisp percussion section offset by The Weeknd’s airy and gentle vocals. Light piano phrases and atmospheric background synths add to the introductory mood, preparing the listener for the eventual switch into something more grand and worthy of a Daft Punk feature. But it never comes. The percussion remains static throughout the piece, and while we do receive a few harmonies dressed in the nostalgic robot-voice from all of the French duo’s previous work, they aren’t nearly enough to convince us that it’s a real “Daft Punk song.” The only point during the track where the arrangement changes with any significance is at 2:39, when the drums are briefly stripped away to leave a repeated Weeknd verse alone with the piano from earlier. If you click around to random points in the song while letting it play, it sounds as if you’re visiting different parts of the same 16-beat loop. And that’s exactly what it is.
Minimalism and expertly tailored repetition of similar musical phrases are techniques that can undoubtedly make for a truly artful and innovative track. Countless examples exist of subtlety being employed to add meaning and weight to each pass of the cycle. But a very fine line exists between graceful subtlety and downright blandness. Listening to “Starboy,” from the first time to the 20th time, has led me to believe that The Weeknd and Daft Punk fell on the wrong side of the line.
What is most frustrating about the song, however, is not its boring qualities or safe structure, but the wasted potential of Daft Punk’s highly capable production abilities. Especially during a time like this when, regardless of where their project will eventually lead them, their first release is the most important thing to get right as they return from the void. The song was billed as The Weeknd’s own, and came from his album, so attempting to reprimand the group for leaning it more towards his known style and emotional undertone would be unfair. But then, why even feature Daft Punk in the first place if they are not given far more creative freedom over its arrangement? They are not a supporting act, and never have been. To witness their production capability squished into a lukewarm safety cone as a representation for the celebrated reemergence of their act is disappointing to say the least.
What I’m getting at here is that Daft Punk’s name alone is not enough. The duo’s esteem comes from much more than just their iconography and name recognition. It has been their unique approach to songwriting, masterfully fusing the old and nostalgic with the futuristic and unheard, that has led them to such worldwide respect and admiration. They are unlike many of popular music’s figureheads, as they’ve made a history of refusing to compromise their sound and ideas for the project. Years are spent waiting between releases, and even more between live tours. They have the status and reputation to do things their way, and are celebrated for it. Including Daft Punk on a track in the featured position without allowing them to completely take over control has thus shown itself to be ineffective. Their names will get you plays, sure, but will listeners return to it with as much passion and consistency as they would a formal Daft Punk song?
This is where I believe things get complicated. What’s the strategy behind this move? If we look at past trends, we can suppose that this release was only the first part of a master plan created by Daft Punk to slowly edge their way back into the spotlight once again. Taking into account their activity leading up to Random Access Memories and Discovery, I sincerely believe this to be the case. A single is released, their name is out in the field, and the word spreads. Eventually, they reveal something more concrete, a picture or video or billboard or clip, that implies, “Yes, we are back and it’s for real this time. Hold on to your hats, folks.” More singles are released until we find ourselves with a new album. If the rumors are true, this also means a tour announcement is somewhere in the near future. Everyone’s happy.
But if this is the case, and we’ve already begun the emotional road towards the newest era of Daft Punk, why have they kicked it off with something so lackluster and uninspired, something that they weren’t even the top-billed name on? “Starboy” can’t touch “Get Lucky” or “One More Time,” both of which launched the appeal and attention around their respective albums to the moon. They were each the silence-breakers that reminded dedicated fans and first-time listeners alike why Daft Punk had spent so much of the previous years in the studio. “Starboy,” despite technically being a Weeknd track, is our 2016 equivalent of such singles. It is the first one of the season, and the one meant to hurl us into another round of unmatched Daft Punk goodness.
Listening to “Starboy,” for me, is like seeing Jimmy Hendrix brought back to life only to perform back-up guitar chords for another band. Sure he can carry the rhythm, he isn’t taking anything away from the group by being on board. He’s a solid band member. But it’s JIMMY HENDRIX and he’s back from the DEAD! He should be center stage surrounded by glowing swans as they slowly ascend to the sky. The band should spontaneously switch their name to Jimmy Hendrix and the Other Guys. They should let everyone in the audience know who’s on stage, and let him construct the performance with as much oversight as he wants. In this situation, Daft Punk is most certainly the star of the show.
The Weeknd is a fantastic and immensely talented artist, someone who I’ve followed since his 2011 House of Balloons debut. His gradual climb towards the top has been an inspiration to watch, and his recent collaborations with more electronically inclined producers like Cashmere Cat have only given me more reason to praise him. His sound has evolved as he has, culminating in a place that I feel is deeply deserving of his new status. This is something I wholeheartedly believe. But in the same breath, I also don’t think that it’s too outlandish or offensive to say that Daft Punk’s career milestones and following greatly, greatly exceed those of The Weeknd. After having waited so long for any indication of their return, hearing them play a cautious back-up to the Weeknd’s vocals is subsequently frustrating and confusing.
As far as The Weeknd goes, I think his work with Cashmere Cat far outplays “Starboy.” While their collaboration, “Wild Love,” is something that more fairly balances the two artists’ styles and influences, I feel “Starboy” to be more of a convenient grab for The Weeknd’s hype train and a strange, unnecessary and compromising decision by Daft Punk.
As the months continue and we confront the possibility of original Daft Punk productions, tours, and other announcements, I foresee “Starboy” slipping into oblivion and out of our memory. While it was fun for a moment to listen to Daft Punk in a new way, I still find myself waiting for the real return of the group many of us have grown up with and love. Until the day comes, and we get the chance to hear what’s truly been in the works all these years, I’ll keep RAM and the oldies on repeat to tide me over.