French disco revivalists Stardust recently announced earlier this year that they were going to release a remastered version of their breakout out-hit wonder ‘Music Sounds Better With You’. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary on July 20, Ryan Alexander Diduck looks back on the Chaka Khan-sampling curiosity to figure out what it meant for us then – and what it says about us now.
“We do not repeat because we repress, we repress because we repeat.” – Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition
There are a number of superficially noteworthy things about the 1981 hit ‘Fate’ by the Queen of Funk, Chaka Khan. The personnel: as if one legend wasn’t enough, Khan’s backup band features Herbie Hancock and David Foster on keyboards; Hiram Bullock, who Paul Shaffer would hire the following year to play in David Letterman’s Late Night house band, covers lead guitar duties. The song’s lyrics confidently describe the chance meeting between two lovers as no mere coincidence: “And the moment I held you I knew it / What we do is decided before we do it.”
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about ‘Fate’ is how Stardust, the short-lived French trio consisting of Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter, Alan Braxe and lyricist Benjamin Diamond, took a seconds-long spoonful of 1980s disco stew and fed it to the world with their 1998 one-hit-wonder, ‘Music Sounds Better With You’.
At the time, the song sounded startlingly out of step with what was concurrent in electronic music — the accelerated pace of, say, Photek’s razor-sharp break beats and Aphex Twin’s snare rushes, or DJ Shadow and Fatboy Slim’s reconstitutive, plunderphonic aesthetics. ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ gestured toward a generation that had until then endured nearly universal disdain: to rockists and night-clubbers alike, disco still sucked. While other artists contested the confines of historicity approaching the new millennium, Stardust doubled down on the past.
Was this parody? Was it pastiche? Whatever it was, Stardust capitalized on a zeitgeist that was already underway in cinema, via films like Casino, Boogie Nights, and 54, the cultural current that Simon Reynolds termed “Retromania.”
Stardust’s neo-disco anthem unofficially marks the start of a regressive tendency that characterized the majority of pop production well into the twenty-first century. While Reynolds’ 2011 book doesn’t mention it by name, a thread beginning with ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ can be drawn straight through the retromaniacal era, concluding in 2013 with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, when the motif fully achieved self-awareness. As Bangalter’s full-time project would do, Stardust at once fetishized the warm, optimistic tones and timbres of disco’s style, and embraced the cold, post-human mode, what Reynolds identified as Daft Punk’s trademark “transcendent artificiality.” Stardust’s ambivalence suggests a key pre-millennial anxiety of either orienting toward an uncertain future, or receding into a more comfortable and infinitely replicable past.
If the twentieth century was the century of the self, the twenty-first would be the century of the simulation.
Even structurally speaking, ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ broke markedly with dance music conventions of the day. There were no bombastic build-ups, no mammoth breakdowns. No drop. Rather, the ‘Fate’ sample could theoretically loop on happily forever, extending a state of “hyper-stasis” — another of Reynolds’ neologisms that usefully describes the “restless shuttling back and forth within a grid-space of influences and sources, striving frenetically to locate exit routes to the beyond.” The quaint “beyond” that Stardust strove for was simultaneously retro and futurist, organic and plastic, a perfect symmetry of simulacrum and the simulated.
Today, we can look doubly back: twenty years to 1998, and forty-or-so years to the disco-funk period that Bangalter and company pined for in earnest.
Aside from pre-millennium tension, significant shifts were underway at the end of the 1990s in the reality studio of power and politics, shifts that have had enormous consequences ever since. Globalization and a new, affective economy accompanied the wholesale consolidation of wealth and cultural authority by multinational corporations and conglomerates. Brands, as Naomi Klein memorably wrote in No Logo, supplanted products. Manipulation of affect, not emotion, became the proper, postmodern process of social control after decentralization.
If the twentieth century was the century of the self, the twenty-first would be the century of the archetype, the symbol, the simulation. Actualization would take a back seat to virtuality, both in the digital sense of the word, as well as speaking of immanence — or, on the precipice of being in the world.
Crucially, these shifts were set in motion in the early 1980s, the very moment that Stardust chose as their temporal point of nostalgia: the turn to neoliberalism in the west, the rise of political conservatism and economic austerity, the dogmatic embrace of efficiency in all manner of production, the time of Reaganism in the US and Thatcherism in the UK. I find the former American president to be curiously instructive in thinking through Stardust’s infectious floor-filler. Let me explain.
In a 2004 k-punk blog post entitled “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan”, Mark Fisher wrote about how a coarsely titled excerpt of JG Ballard’s 1970 book The Atrocity Exhibition was distributed by Situationist-inspired pranksters at the 1980 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. But rather than scandalize its readership, which was the intent, the pamphlet — disguised to look just like Republican literature, stripped of its obscene designation, and furnished with the party’s official seal — was tacitly accepted by attendees as a legitimate piece of research, likely “commissioned from some maverick think tank,” as Ballard himself noted later. Fisher interpreted this misidentification as a surefire sign that political subversion itself had been sabotaged, rendered inert by the B-movie actor-cum-politician’s neutralization of satire: “Reagan’s career outstrips any attempt to ludically lampoon it and demonstrates the increasing pliability of the boundaries between the real and its simulations.”
“Reagan operationalized the virtual in postmodern politics,” wrote the cultural theorist Brian Massumi in his 2002 book Parables For The Virtual: “His incipience was prolonged by technologies of image transmission and then relayed by apparatuses such as the family or the church or the school or the chamber of commerce, which in conjunction with the media acted as part of the nervous system of a new and frighteningly reactive body politic. It was on the receiving end,” reiterates Massumi, “that the Reagan incipience was qualified, given content.” Essentially, Ronald Reagan was a blank slate, an empty sign upon which the American public could hang their highest hopes and deepest fears, memories of the past and desires for the future.
Similarly, Stardust manifested a slippery incipience. Contrasting Daft Punk’s robotic masks, Stardust’s members appeared famously in the Michel Gondry-directed video wearing what could be called screens — silver, reflective body suits upon which analogous affective projections could be played out. As the video’s protagonist child constructs a model airplane, we watch him watching the song climb the fictional charts on a fictional chart show, bookended by Robert Palmer and Madness send-ups. As with Reagan, everything familiar here appears uniformly amorphous, anything we want it to be. Is Stardust a real band, or a replication? Is it supposed to be taken seriously, or perceived as a bit of a lark? Is the future frightening? Are we tranquilized by bygone time? We can’t know, so the answer must be yes.
Still, what kind of commemoration is appropriate in 2018? Is the purpose of reflection to canonize cultural artifacts into endless infotainment and click-thru lists? Or is there space to be critical, not in terms of indictment, but instead, as an act of interpretation, of revision, taken in good faith, as if deciphering a distantly remembered dream? I like to think that all of Stardust’s depth was paradoxically present on the surface: what seemed like a clichéd platitude in the late-1990s — feeling good through music and fellowship — has a special sort of resonance now, at a time when feeling poorly is a default setting for most, when there is once again an Iron Lady in the British Parliament, and an inchoate actor, impervious to parody, in the White House.
The “beyond” we urgently seek now is “beyond capitalism”; “beyond control”; “beyond injustice.” We can ultimately, literally, think of ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ as a simple prescription for ecstasy through community — a call to cultivate social spaces and collective scenes, and celebrate the rare instances of harmony that somehow went missing in this evermore-atomized and acrimonious time.
Ryan Alexander Diduck is the author of Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the 20th Century. Find him on Twitter.
Read next: 22 incredible albums turning 20 in 2018