Dance music has never been a particular favorite at the Grammy Awards. For decades, even as electronic music sold millions of albums around the world, it was virtually ignored by the music industry’s most prestigious awards show.
But at the 56th annual Grammys airing this Sunday, one of the cornerstone dance duos of the past two decades — Daft Punk — is up for four awards, including album and record of the year, and will be performing on the national TV broadcast with Stevie Wonder.
Daft Punk founders Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have been working together since the ‘90s, and the French duo’s fourth studio album, “Random Access Memories” (Columbia), produced one of the year’s signature songs, “Get Lucky,” which sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. The track encapsulates the way the album (and the duo itself) bridges generations of dance music, with rhythm guitar from disco-era maven Nile Rodgers of Chic and vocals from Pharrell Williams, whose songs have defined the past decade of rhythm-intensive pop.
The album brims with cameos, like an aural history of Daft Punk’s influences and contemporaries, from studio drummer extraordinaire John JR Robinson to Animal Collective’s Panda Bear. In “Giorgio by Moroder,” the famed disco producer offers a two-minute monologue describing how he stumbled upon “a sound of the future,” and then the music flows across several genres, from fusion jazz to classical, fed by a dance pulse. In many ways the album serves as a 74-minute soundtrack for dance music’s evolution, from underground pariah to mainstream force.
While that history was being forged, the Grammys rarely paid attention. Only one dance music album has ever won a Grammy album of the year: the soundtrack for “Saturday Night Fever” in 1979 (and, no, Frank Sinatra’s 1960 top-album winner, “Come Dance With Me!” doesn’t count).
A category for best dance recording didn’t exist until 1998, when Moroder and his old disco collaborator Donna Summer won for “Carry On.” Since then, the award has been split between hard-core dance acts, such as the Chemical Brothers and Skrillex, and pop performers who dabbled in dance music, such as Justin Timberlake and Rihanna. An award for best dance/electronica album was added in 2005.
Being out of touch is nothing new for the Grammys, but the oversights have been particularly egregious as dance music has been a major if long-underappreciated component of the music industry for several decades. Consider that dance music pioneers such as James Brown, who essentially invented funk, George Clinton and Gamble & Huff have won only a handful of Grammys among them.
In Europe, artists such as Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream created a new template for musical innovation that was machine driven, though dismissed as a fad and barely recognized as “music” at all by the tradition-bound professionals in the mainstream recording industry.
Disco caused a brief commercial stir in the late ‘70s, punctuated by the “Saturday Night Fever” movie and soundtrack, but its rise stirred as much outrage as it did respect. “Disco Demolition Night” and “Disco Sucks!” T-shirts accompanied the reinvention of the British-Australian pop band (the Bee Gees) as polyester bell-bottomed disco heavies.
Underneath the glitz, though, true innovation resonated: Moroder and Summer’s revolutionary “I Feel Love” won the acclaim of tastemakers such as Brian Eno and David Bowie, and the bass line alone from Chic’s “Good Times” was repurposed in countless hits across a spectrum of genres. When disco faded, dance movements such as Chicago house and Detroit techno arose that were even more innovative and influential, though they never appeared on the Grammy radar.
The music of Detroit and Chicago connected in Europe, however, feeding the rave scene that emerged in the late ‘80s, and Midwestern DJ/mixer/producers such as Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Steve “Silk” Hurley were celebrated overseas. Subsequent generations of electronic music yielded their own stars who broke through with mainstream hits, including Moby, the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim.
Daft Punk also had been flirting with mainstream acceptance since the ‘90s but was primarily a club phenomenon until a 2006 appearance at the Coachella festival in California, in which Bangalter and Homem-Christo donned robot helmets and orchestrated their slamming feel-good hooks from inside a neon, three-dimensional pyramid.
That proved a turning point for live electronic music in America, to the point where it’s now a major industry. Corporate professionals in suits rather than local promoters handing out fliers now run the business, and massive dance festivals such as the Electric Daisy Carnival routinely draw hundreds of thousands of fans for weekends in Las Vegas, Chicago and London. Monolithic concert promoter Live Nation recently partnered with Insomniac, which promotes Electric Daisy, to stage events. DJs such as Skrillex, Deadmau5, Kaskade and Avicii play stadiums and amphitheaters in most major North American markets.
The Grammys are trying to play catch-up. Two years ago, Deadmau5, aka Toronto DJ Joel Zimmerman, performed in his trademark mouse mask on the prime-time broadcast, and last year Skrillex won two awards. In his acceptance remarks, he kept it succinct: “Thanks for letting us do it the weird way.”
This year, the nominees for best dance/electronica album include Disclosure, Calvin Harris, Kaskade, Pretty Lights and Daft Punk, but it’s Daft Punk’s emergence in the big categories (“Random Access Memories” for album of the year and “Get Lucky” for record of the year) that’s potentially the biggest development.
If nothing else, it’s worth rooting for the mystery men in Daft Punk to win one of the top prizes, if only to see how they handle their acceptance speech. The notoriously interview-shy duo have hidden their public identity behind helmets and other costuming for more than a decade. But if they win, it may be harder than ever for the reclusive pair to preserve their anonymity.
Greg Kox is a contributing writer to MCT Campus Information Services. The original story ran on Jan. 17 in the Chicago Tribune.