January 10, 2011


Wordless, On a Screen

The video for Daft Punk's "Derezzed" clocks in at a bit under three minutes, and it's still fairly well-padded—the piece itself, on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, is less than two minutes long. It's not much more than a single riff, repeated endlessly and run through various filters until it folds back on itself like a hem: Daft Punk's "if you like this dramatic musical gesture, wait until you hear it several dozen times" philosophy at its purest.

The riff itself belongs to the same lineage as the band's 2005 single "Robot Rock," which, in turn, was lifted and looped from the Philadelphia funk band Breakwater's 1980 recording "Release the Beast." In the context of the new Tron movie, it is film music, which means it doesn't have to call attention to itself. Considered as a song in a music video, though, it does, and its 8-bit simplicity is minimal even by Daft Punk's standards. So the video cunningly frames "Derezzed" as the accompaniment to an old vector-graphics arcade game—so that of course it repeats itself for 100 seconds or so and then stops. We aren't watching repurposed footage from a movie, we're spying on somebody playing a game.

Another way to consider the "Derezzed" video is as the successor to the tradition of videos for hit synth-pop instrumentals from '80s-era movie soundtracks, a tradition that, if you want to be strict about it, consists of one song: Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F," the earworm from the soundtrack of 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. "Axel F" is a little bit more compositionally ornate than "Derezzed"—it actually has a couple of contrapuntal voices besides the melody, and a B-section—but not much more.

It's also worth noting that Faltermeyer's video, like "Derezzed"'s, is all about technology: the mysterious black-and-white detective is observing color footage from the movie by way of one of those newfangled personal computers--remember, the Macintosh had been introduced only a few months earlier. (If we want to extend the parameters of "hit '80s synth-pop soundtrack instrumentals" a little, we can also include Jan Hammer's "Miami Vice Theme," whose video portrays Hammer scoring the show while watching footage from it on a screen.)

The 1984 video wasn't the end of the "Axel F" story, either. There was a hit British version of the tune recorded in 1995 by Clock; its video suggests the effects of the most popular rave drugs of its day, at least on sartorial taste. And in 2005, a sped-up, amphetamine-crazy happy hardcore cover of Faltermeyer's tune became an international hit by Crazy Frog, but blessedly failed to make much of an impact in the U.S. Its video did once again incorporate video monitors, though: near the beginning, a screen reads "WANTED: THE MOST ANNOYING THING IN THE WORLD," which describes the recording accurately.

The conceptual frame around "Derezzed" in its video suggests yet another way of looking at it: as a clever extension of a sub-three-minute electronic instrumental to a satisfying pop-video length. The history of that approach also goes back to the original "Tron" era, and specifically to a brilliant 1983 video directed by Anton Corbijn for the Art of Noise's "Beat Box": a short, riffless, bassless, tuneless, ferocious hip-hop record whose only words are a few bits of found sound.

The original version of the video, also directed by Corbijn, had mostly been videotaped footage of urban street scenes, synched up with the rhythms of the big-beat instrumental. The remake, though, alternates those images with shots of the machines that created the music from the sounds of the city. (Its brief glimpses of producer Trevor Horn—the guy wearing the big glasses—were an anomaly for the Art of Noise, a band that otherwise never included any images of themselves in any of their publicity materials; they were invisible in a very different way from the members of Daft Punk.) And the second video begins before the Noise kicks in, and continues after they end, with an ingenious conceit: a formal explanation of what the band is up to that itself plays with the distinctions between sound, noise and silence. The narrator himself is derezzing, and the only words that matter are the only words left.