Drew Daniel (Matmos) Talks Daft Punk’s “Doin’ It Right”

Before I explain why I’m talking about this song and not “Get Lucky,” I’m going to cough up two kinda obvious points about the Daft Punk album as...

Every summer, there’s that song. The song that’s everywhere, that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll always associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2013.
— the editors of the Talkhouse

Before I explain why I’m talking about this song and not “Get Lucky,” I’m going to cough up two kinda obvious points about the Daft Punk album as such:

First: As an item of business news, the album was the occasion for a triumphalist marketing blitzkrieg which expertly teased a dying industry’s hopes for solvency by giving people a newsworthy Product-as-Event to purchase, bloviate upon or, hopefully, a synergistic bit of both; that very omnipresence made Random Access Memories precisely the sort of thing that it is fine to resent on principle, or simply opt out of on behalf of all sorts of great records that weren’t shoved down our throats incessantly.

Second: On the plane of aesthetics, the album was a reactionary gesture whose stubbornly anachronistic insistence upon AOR timbres, proggy structures, and stunt casting cameos takes on a weirdly provocative glamour when measured against the corny ‘roid rage theatrics of the surrounding climate of dance music circa 2013. While the creators of EDM bangers and brostep anthems try ever harder to be “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” Daft Punk willfully chose to sound Older, Slower, Smoother, Weirder. This is disappointing to people who want to dance and irritating to people who justifiably smell rockism in the critical celebration of a conspicuously lavish “well-crafted, well-recorded album” of songs with lyrics and guitar solos etc., but…  fuck it, Random Access Memories is fantastic when taken on the blatantly reactionary terms it proposes for itself. You don’t have to accept those terms, and you can regard them as rigged, redundant, or conservative if you wish. But if you can bracket those problems and accept the guiding premise, then this was one of the more delirious time machines built this year.

I wasn’t doing all this heavy breathing the first time I heard these songs. But both of these claims are helpful if we’re going to figure out what’s so particularly beguiling about “Doin’ It Right,” in and out of context.

I first heard this song at the start of the summer, playing the album from start to finish in the kitchen as my boyfriend Martin made dinner. Though we didn’t always agree on a song-by-song basis, we both laughed heartily at Paul Williams’ intrusion, we both found the presence of talk show band alumni session players rather telling in some of the chops-heavy drumming, and we were both floored by the detail, ambition, and sheer organic unity of the album as a continuous listen. Then, the next day, I played this album for my friend Max, a video artist and modular synth dude who is 20 years younger than I am and who doesn’t have any of the built-in appreciation for how this album fits into the ongoing Daft Punk Saga. He dug it. Then, two days later, instead of putting on the whole album, I listened to “Doin’ It Right” with another friend before we went out dancing at a gay bar in Baltimore, and it is that song that has continued to crop up in various iterations all summer long. Out of the entire take-it-or-leave-it, hour-long Daft Punk musical extravaganza, I think “Doin’ It Right” travels lightest, and for that reason, it survives transplantation outside of its host environment with the greatest ease. And for that reason, “Doin’ It Right” has been one of the songs of my summer, while many worthy other songs from this album have not. Here are some other reasons why I love it:

As Vanity 6 (see their song “Make Up”), Whigfield (see the video for “Saturday Night”), and Leigh Bowery already realized, sometimes the best part of going out is the preparation beforehand, and “Doin’ It Right” seems perfectly designed for putting yourself together, physically, emotionally, sartorially, and otherwise, before you step out into the summer heat and try to get into some trouble. This is because there’s something simple and direct about the structure of the song. The quiet crispness of the continuous 16th-note stick-hits and stark sub-bass kicks evokes the martial clockwork sound of trap, and establishes an underlying fast-yet-slow rhythmic grid that could easily be a Lex Luger production. At the level of tempo (89 bpm), this makes it twice as useful; you can focus on the hyperactive high end or the stately low end. But, unlike the murky, paranoid vibe of trap, there’s nothing menacing about that Panda Bear vocal, a hooky drizzle of melody with all the depth of a strawberry sundae. Unlike, say, his star turn with Pantha du Prince from the Black Noise album, here Panda Bear keeps it basic, but there’s a toxic earworm concealed in his parsimonious way with syllables. Though he’s set up with a great foil in the form of the de rigeur vocoders that start the song, there’s something marvelously catchy and effective about Panda Bear’s halftime cadence on top of the mix. His words are chopped into single phonemes and doled out with a telegraphic dot-dash staggering that lines up strictly with the kick drum, as if someone had inserted a period after each phoneme: “ If. You. Lose. Your. Way. To. Night. That’s. How. You. Know. The. Ma. Gic’s. Right.” Sorry to slobber here, but the layering of this oddly stilted utterance over the latticework of faster vocoded voices is a stroke of genius, and it’s the kind of trick that makes you listen to this song over and over, singing it to yourself while folding laundry, humming it en route to the corner store, slapping it onto mixtapes. It takes up the same psychic space that “Around the World” did circa Daft Punk’s 1997 debut Homework  (or, for that matter, that “Make Love” did for 2005’s underrated Human After All) — it’s a hook that functions as an endlessly ascending staircase upon which to lounge while on the way to unknown pleasures.

But I think, in the context of the album as a whole (and that is the context in which you are expected to consume this album), what stands out about “Doin’ It Right” is that it sidesteps the earnest, canny historical embeddedness which dogs so much of Random Access Memories. Where much of its host album is engaged in studied evocations of pre-existing cultural moments, scenes, and styles (even specific songs — check out how much “Beyond” resembles Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” if you don’t believe me), “Doin’ It Right” sounds shockingly clean, fresh, new and self-sufficient. Unconcerned about the past, the song seems slanted entirely towards the future, the imminent “will be” in which everybody will be doin’ it right. Day after day, this song whispers to you about the “tonight” that is yet to come, and arches with anticipation towards it. Of course, you could object that “Get Lucky,” at the level of lyrics, does the same thing. But, sonically speaking, “Get Lucky” is an exercise in historical pastiche no less than a carpentry demonstration at Colonial Williamsburg. It’s Ye Olde Disco Museum, all wonderfully fussy period details nailed perfectly into place by a crack team of professionals, but I regret to say that its very majesty is ultimately rendered irritating through sheer over-exposure as The Ominipresent Single from the Biggest Album of the Year, and, sadly, this song is probably now doomed to circle office party disco hell from here on out as punishment for its success. Freed of such marketing pressure to ring the cash register and flood the dance floor, set loose to simply do its bewitching work, “Doin’ It Right” effortlessly inhabits the present, and is better for it. For now.

Talkhouse contributing writer Dr. Drew Daniel is a member of Matmos and a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. Matmos’ new album, Ultimate Care II, is out on February 19, 2016 via Thrill Jockey Records.

(photo credit: Josh Sisk)