2015 has felt like a bit of a summative moment in 10s electronica, insofar as two of the key points of reference for contemporary artists – Giorgio Moroder and John Carpenter – have both released albums of their own. With Moroder, it was his first solo studio album since the late 1970s, while Carpenter has released his first solo studio album ever, in a kind of tribute to the power of digital fandom – the fandom of the Kickstarter era – to coax artists into late work that would have been untenable even ten years ago. At the same time, there is a paradox to this new synergy between fandom and production, since it can place a new and more restrictive set of expectations upon the final product to conform to the parameters of the fandom that has brought it into existence in the first place. More specifically, the heightened demand for Carpenter to recreate the “Carpenter Sound” and for Moroder to produce the “Moroder Sound” has tended to make reviewers peculiarly suspicious of anything resembling genuine innovation or experimentation on the albums in question, with Déjà Vu receiving a lukewarm reception at the very best, and Carpenter’s Lost Themes requiring a followup Lost Themes Remixed, in which a host of contemporary electronic innovators – Prurient, Zola Jesus, Blanck Mass – ironically remix Carpenter’s quite oddball album into something that’s much closer to his earlier soundtrack days. In both cases, you have to wonder whether what fans really want is a genuinely new album by these two electronic mavericks or something closer to a lost classic, a studio album from the 70s or 80s that somehow slipped through the cracks, a conundrum that Déjà Vu and Lost Themes both ironise in their very titles, since Moroder’s album adamantly does not induce déjà vu for his 70s and early 80s output in any concerted way, just as Carpenter’s themes are only “lost” in the most nominal sense, instead representing a series of skeletal motifs and refrains that he may have discarded over the years but that are thoroughly reworked here.
Of course, as a massive fan of both Moroder and Carpenter, I share in this disappointment to a certain extent. When artists are so associated with a particular style that you love, it’s hard not to simply want more of the same, and there is a part of me that naturally gravitates to the most Carpenter-esque and Moroder-esque moments of their respective albums. At the same time, there can be something stifling about an artist who simply repeats their greatest achivements, or continues to remake their greatest hits in so many barely-disguised forms, and in some ways the strongest moments of both Déjà Vu and Lost Themes are when this oscillation between familiarity and novelty occurs within the space of a single track. At the same time, there’s also something stifling about the sheer fact of Moroder and Carpenter producing studio albums at all, a sense of constraint that requires a certain perverse innovation and evasion on their part to hold at bay. In part, that’s because Carpenter and Moroder have never really been in the business of making studio albums. In this case of Carpenter, that’s pretty clear – for all their conceptual and musical unity, his albums are clearly soundtracks – but I would also contend that Moroder has never really made a studio album either – at least not a solo album – with his late 70s LPs playing more as extended and continuous dance tracks more than albums in a traditional sense. In fact, it’s telling that his one indubitably studio album – Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder – was not only a collaboration, but a collaboration that explicitly announced itself as such in its title, and featured a song about collaboration – “Together In Electric Dreams” – as its lead single. Of course, the most critical aspect of that collaborative rhetoric was the insistence that this was very much a collaboration with one collaborator – Philip Oakey, the lead singer of the Human League – since one of the hallmarks of Moroder’s non-studio-albums is their reliance on a plethora of (usually female) vocalists and production assistance to suggest a promiscuous multiplicity of voices that transplants the album out of the studio and onto the dancefloor; it’s no coincidence that the final track to his “album” of the same name, E=MC2, simply involves Moroder describing everyone who contributed to the album, from the composers and producers to the caterers, in a wry vocoder drawl that mechanises away any auterist presence on his part.
If it is somewhat unusual to see Carpenter and Moroder helming studio albums for the first time in their careers, it is even more unusual to see them canonised and identified as electronic musicians, first and foremost. Of course, Carpenter has always been identified as a director first and a musician second, but given his gradual deceleration over the last decade – particularly noticeable when you compare it to the late work of Wes Craven – as well as the aesthetic conviction that pervades all aspects of the Lost Themes project, from the production to the design to the remixes, there’s a genuine sense in which this album represents the point at which music has started to replace cinema as his primary field of aesthetic enquiry, not unlike the way in which Crazy Clown Time and The Big Dream seemed poised to reinvent David Lynch as a musician before the third season of Twin Peaks was announced. If Carpenter was always an art director in disguise – at least in his home country – then the art direction of Lost Themes seems to distill his directorial vision to that art impulse, with one of the key fictions of the album being that these are all soundtracks to films that were too auteurist in their scope and sensibility to fit into the circumscribed horror cinema that Carpenter was always pushing to expand. And, while I really enjoyed Carpenter’s last film, The Ward – and thought it was genuinely underrated – there is a conviction to Lost Themes that makes it feel like the natural successor to Ghosts of Mars, or even Vampires, which I tend to think of as being the last really great Carpenter film, and the last film in which his synth substrate was still partially evident before the all-out nu-metal sensibility of Ghosts of Mars. In Post Cinematic Affect, Steven Shaviro observes that one of the key characteristics of digital cinematography is the combination of audio and visual recording technologies within a single device, leading to films that “are weighted to the sonic more than the optical,” and I see this movement of auteurs towards music work – often extrapolated from their own soundtracks – as a kind of extreme example of this tendency.
When it comes to Moroder, it is perhaps more contentious to suggest that he is not first and foremost an electronic musician. Yet while Moroder has always been identified with electronica, his greatest work shies away from being exclusively or explicitly classified as music, instead challenging music to expand its boundaries in order to incorporate his singular vision. In part, that’s to do with the way in which the synthdisco he pioneered was not ultimately designed to stand alone as music but to instead converge with a whole variety of other reproductive and spectacular technologies, as evinced in his steady movement away from conventional album-length releases as his career progressed in favour of either soundtracks or one-off musical accompaniments to films, television series, sporting events and finally digital gaming. In some ways, the evolution of his iconic “Chase” sequence from Midnight Express provides a neat summary of these movements, since over the last thirty years it has been increasingly dissociated from the film and soundtrack to feature variously on the late-night American radio show “Coast to Coast,” as a walk-on theme for the wrestling troupe “The Midnight Express” and as a key component of the musical landscape of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. While there is something a bit perverse about comparing Moroder and Richard Wagner – although Moroder did, admittedly, score Leni Riefenstahl’s final film – there is nevertheless a sense in which Moroder’s music is also striving for the kind of Gesamstkunstwerk, or “total work of art” that was Wagner’s obsession, with the critical difference that Moroder’s total work of art wouldn’t just converge all available art media, but also the reproductive technologies that made them possible in the first place, in a kind of totalising vision of art and technology that would perhaps only come to fruition on the dancefloor, in the kinds of robotic, mannequinised production-line postures that have become so inextricable from the “electronic live-to-digital” aesthetic that he pioneered.
One of the strongest examples of that convergence is Moroder’s 1984 “adaptation” of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, although “adaptation” is perhaps not exactly the right word. When Moroder’s Metropolis came out, scoring a silent film with an electronic soundtrack was novel enough, but Moroder wasn’t content to simply score the film. Instead, he transformed the film to fit the score – or, more accurately, converged film and music, working on both in tandem as he took on the responsibility of restoring, editing and colouring the film himself, as well as relegating the intertitles to subtitles and amping up the frame rate to 24 frames per second. Pairing Lang’s modernist prophecies of a mechanised future with a postmodern subjectivity that was already fully mechanised, Moroder effectively dissociated Metropolis from the realm of futuristic allegory and situated it within a present that embodied it more than adapted it, creating a totally new work of art in the process that, understandably, was fairly affronting to cinematic classicists and silent films buffs. Like Carpenter, then, Moroder’s 80s were partly about fusing cinematic and musical technologies in the name of an emergent sensibility that in some ways only seems to have come into fruition in the last decade, explaining why both artists have been perceived as trailblazers but also why there’s such a nostalgic imperative for them to revisit and recreate that one particular moment in their careers as well, as if doing so could somehow transport us back to that formative moment in our current lifeworld.
All of which makes it unusual to see Moroder canonised as an electronic artist and relegated to the studio album, which was already a staid medium in his own musical universe, let alone in 2015 when digital streaming services have rendered it all but moribund. For an artist whose sensibility was always strenuously futurist, there’s something a bit debilitating from the very outset about being packaged in such a retro medium, which is perhaps why the album shies away from both nostalgia and innovation in the name of a retro-futurism, or perhaps more accurately an alternative futurism, in which Moroder joins the dots between the past and present by trying to envisage where he would be if he had actually had a consistent studio album career during the intervening period, rather than being suddenly and somewhat abrasively revived as an electronic icon several decades after he had put the traditional studio behind him. Most immediately, that means that this is neither a nu-80s album not an album that is self-consciously “of its time” in terms of the canon of 10s electronica but instead an album in which Moroder draws upon the kinds of 90s and early 00s dance music that were indebted to his singular vision, stretching roughly from the New Jack Swing of the early 90s to the trashy dance-pop of the mid-00s (or the late late 90s, depending on how you want to look at it). In the process, Moroder’s selection of vocalists functions as a kind of cross-section of the way in which the dance floor diva evolved over that period,a cognitive map of the various and sometimes unexpected progeny of Donna Summer’s unique ability to pair her soulful, histrionic vocals with the cold demands of electronic production. At the most contemporary end of the spectrum, there are up-and-coming singers like Charlie XCX, Foxes, Marlene and – stretching a little further back – Kelis, while the oldest singer, depending on how you look at it, is either Britney or Sia. On the one hand, Britney is literally the oldest singer on display here and is offered as something of a prototype for Moroder’s 90s and 00s progeny, which is perhaps why she is also given the only cover on the album – an electroclash version of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” – as Moroder transplants his audience’s need to classicise him onto a classicised version of Britney that just seems to make her trashiness all the more delightful, in one of the wryest and most enjoyable tracks on the album.
At the same time, while Sia is possibly the most contemporary of the artists on the album in her reach and scope, she is given the most retro treatment, with her husky vocals on the title track playing as a direct tribute to Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around The World.” Given that one of the key characteristics of the Moroder diva was a willingness or at least ability to subsume her traits into the relative anonymity of the dance floor – like so many great musical divas, their power came from a sense of melodramatic suppression rather than melodramatic extroversion – there’s something peculiarly appropriate about the way in which Sia is placed here, as well as – once again – a wry joke about the way in which her supposedly self-effacing quest for anonymity has actually transformed her into one of the most extravagant divas out there, in the same way that a band like Slipknot or the Residents managed to create infinitely more speculation as to their personal and private lives by refusing to ever disclose their identities or sensibilities. Between Britney, Sia and the present, the rest of the album traces Moroder’s contribution to what might be described as millennial dance music, a particular strand of 90s and late 90s dance music in which the arrival of the twenty-first century was somehow converged with the end of the night in ways that were sexual, exciting and breathlessly sublime. In some ways, all of Moroder’s music had this millennial quality – it was twenty-first-century post-music in a twentieth-century musical landscape – but there’s something quite incredible about hearing him retrospectively split the difference between his own singular futurism and the kinds of more generic and mainstream futurism that became available on the dancefloor in those last couple of years of the last century. As might be expected, many of these millennial dance songs were about the end of the night, or a night that would only end once 2001 came around, and while there were many pop songs that tapped into that tendency – Jennifer Lopez’ “Waiting For The Night,” Amber’s “This Is Your Night” – there was nobody who managed to quite encapsulate it like Kylie Minogue, not least because in Australia there was an enhanced millenial expectation with the arrival of the 2000 Olympic Games, which frequently seemed like a synecdoche for the new century itself. From “On A Night Like This” to “Spinning Around” – and in their respective videoclips – Kylie made the millennial nighscape her own, and so it’s no coincidence that the most beautiful and breathtaking track on Déjà Vu is a collaboration with Kylie – “Right Here Right Now” – that consciously favours this dancey sound over her subsequent R&B oeuvre, but also – as the title might suggest – emphasises the present as millenium rather than the future as millenial, creating an unusual and exquisite combination of yearning and anticipation that perfectly illustrates Brian Eno’s definition of electronic music as “a strange nostalgia for the future.”
For all kinds of reasons, that millennial sensibility – which pervades the album in various guises – has become profoundly unfashionable, with most contemporary dance music cautiouly shying away from any kind of total identification with the transcendent affect that characterised electronica at this particular moment at time. Without necessarily criticising that move, it does perhaps explain why the album has been so critically reviled, especially in comparison to a release like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, which effects a similar move to Moroder – splitting the difference between the electronic past and present – but with a putative tastefulness that often felt – to me – like an unwillingness to experiment more than anything else, even if I loved several of the songs. In fact, the contrast between Random Access Memories and Déjà Vu – and the critical acclaim and disavowal that has respectively accompanied them – says a great deal about what it means to be genuinely original in the 10s, especially since Daft Punk actually featured a track entitled “Giorgio by Moroder” that featured Moroder intoning the story of his life and career over a ten-minute vamp on the Moroder Effect that may have brought him to a wider audience and helped kickstart his career but was profoundly disinterested in anything he had done beyond that pivotal moment in the late 70s and early 80s. Although many critics acclaimed this as one of the album’s most judicious, tasteful and innovative moments, I saw it as the very epitome of this somewhat trite classicisation of one of electronic music’s most innovative, futuristic and restless artists, on top of which I didn’t even find Daft Punk’s pastiche of Moroder’s synth progressions especially compelling or enjoyable on its own terms either. So it’s no surprise that the Moroder Effect is very much left to one side on Déjà Vu, which features only three tracks that have any kind of direct resemblance to his most canonical style. The first of these, “4 U With Love,” is very brief and opens the album, while the second, “74 Is The New 24,” feels more like Moroder parodying the Moroder Effect, so perfunctory and cursory in its replication of his best moments that it’s easily the most forgettable track on the album, even if it was somewhat strategically offered as the first single. It’s only with the final track, appropriately titled “La Disco,” that Moroder’s beautiful plaintive sensibility comes back into play, as well as the first appearance of his trademark vocoder that was plastered all over Random Access Memories, but is here the merest ghostly echo of its former self, present more as a kind of concerted absence that gives the album a wonderfully delicate and judicious touch in its wake.
Yet that’s not to say that the overall tone of the album is “ghostly” or hauntological in any way, since it’s precisely that designation as the harbinger of a lost future that Moroder refuses to indulge. Instead, this is an incredibly joyous, ebullient and above all cheesy dance album that flies in the face of the kind of self-consciously aestheticist Moroder fans who were partly responsible for bringing it into existence in the first place. Instead of mourning lost futures, Moroder simply provides an alternative future, which makes the album something of a tonic generally, but also feels like a science-fictional gesture – if an irreverent science-fictional gesture – that prevents it becoming the classicist self-tribute that it could so easily have been. In another post, I’ll compare this further to Carpenter’s lines of flight in Lost Themes, but it perhaps suffices to say here that both artists appear to have ultimately benefited from their recent canonisation – or the most recent and emphatic phase in their canonisation – insofar as it has provided them with such a contained, circumscribed and sedimented version of themselves – for all the contemporary innovation it has spawned – that it has effectively forced them to also reinvent themselves to survive, resulting in some of their most original work in years, even if originality was the last thing that was really demanded of them by this point in their careers.