Olivia Bee

Justice Are Back, But The Old Bloghouse Magic Is Gone

The French duo’s new album, ‘Woman,’ fades into the background instead of starting fires

The Kanye awards show interruption that time mostly forgot happened just over a decade ago. This was November 2006 — three years before the Taylor Swift thing — at the MTV European Music Awards. Kanye, who showed up drunk in a hoodie, figured he might lose the Best Video category to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” on the off chance he’d lose at all. “‘Crazy’ is arguably the best song of this millennium,” he said in an interview with MTV News the next day. But he didn’t expect to lose to some random French bros whom his DJ, A-Trak, would have to put him on to after the fact. I would probably chalk up what happened that night in Copenhagen as a bloghouse hallucination were there not video evidence; the first YouTube result spells Kanye “Kayne,” as if to stress how long those 10 years have been. (Not to be confused with Keane, who performed at the ceremony along with Nelly Furtado and Jet. 2006 was a wild year.)

There’s a buzz of polite confusion as Timbaland announces that the award for Best Video goes not to “Touch the Sky,” not to “Crazy,” but to Justice's “We Are Your Friends” — a remix of Manchester rock band Simian’s “Never Be Alone,” which Xavier de Rosnay and Gaspard Augé had thrown together on a whim for a college radio contest they didn’t end up winning. The “Touch the Sky” video had reimagined Evel Knievel’s infamous 1974 Snake River Canyon jump through the lens of “Evel Kanyevel” to the tune of a cool million. Justice’s video was an elaborate, delicately shot hangover prank, including a beer-bottle tower built around the passed-out, post-party corpse of Justice’s manager, Ed Banger Records founder Pedro Winter (better known as Busy P). Even Jérémie Rozan, the video’s director, and So Me, Ed Banger’s go-to visual artist, looked a bit stunned taking the stage to accept the trophy for Justice, who couldn’t make the ceremony due to their U.S. tour.

Then, suddenly, here’s Kanye, who somehow got his hands on a mic. “Oh, hell no!” he shouts. “[My] video cost a million dollars, fam! I had Pam Anderson! I am jumping across canyons and shit! ... If I don’t win, the awards show loses credibility.” The crowd is starting to get that this isn’t supposed to be happening as Kanye claps an arm around a bewildered So Me’s shoulders: “I’ve never seen your video, it’s nothing against you,” he adds. “But hell naw.” And then in a fog of Hennessy, he disappears, leaving So Me to stammer out some thank-yous. For me, that’s the moment the bloghouse era officially begins.

Bloghouse was a catchall term for the transitional phase between early-’00s indie rock and the later popularization of EDM, a time when Myspace pages and Blogspots provided a platform for artists and “tastemakers” to play with the concept of pre-Twitter branding and dance floors became danceable again. If there’s one album that summed up the whole scene concisely, it was Justice’s 2007 debut, (pronounced and googled as “Cross,” because, I don’t know, vibes). You remember Cross for the bangers that defined the hard electro end of the bloghouse spectrum: unforgettable songs like “Phantom Pt. II” and “Stress,” intentionally heavy-handed takes on the French touch sound of the late ’90s presented with cock-rock crudeness, loads of digital distortion, and zero subtlety. I’d forgotten, until I revisited it nine years later, how soft the album could be, but that was always Justice’s essential tension, and the thing that made Cross bearable over endless listens. “D.A.N.C.E.” was the obvious counterpoint, with its Michael Jackson montage and near-cloying piano chords. (They’d win Best Video again at the following year’s EMA for that one — beating out Kanye’s Daft Punk–sampling “Stronger.”) But in retrospect, understated instrumentals like “Valentine” and “Newjack” were what held the album together. Impeccably sequenced, not so much by any linear logic as by gut instinct, Cross crackled in and out like an old AM radio, with manic electro and childlike filter-disco careening against each other with giddy familiarity. It was strange and propulsive, easy to get swept up in.

In other words, it was kind of like Daft Punk — the highest possible praise. If Justice were the kings of bloghouse, Daft Punk were its gods, and Cross arrived cresting on a new wave of goodwill for the French house icons. Maybe the older duo’s third album, 2005’s Human After All, had kind of sucked, but all was forgiven with Alive 2007, a release that captured the magic of Daft Punk’s career-reviving ’06–’07 tour. The human robots had debuted the show at Coachella 2006, their first U.S. show since ’97’s Daftendirektour. With its giant MIDI-activated pyramid of a DJ booth and live reconstructions of Daft Punk’s decade of hits, it was the mid-’00s equivalent of the Saint Pablo tour in terms of sheer glorious spectacle. It was also the only thing that could have stolen the spotlight from Kanye’s last-minute Coachella debut the night before, which he concluded with a live string rendition of “Touch the Sky.” A compelling argument could be made that God is a raver with a cruel sense of humor, but I’ll let Faithless handle that one.

The parallels between the two generations of Parisian power duos couldn’t have been more obvious, from their sound to their management; though Daft Punk had no official connection to Ed Banger, Busy P had served as their manager for years before signing Justice to his label. But Cross reminded me most of Daft Punk less in its perfect balance of hard and soft — of human versus robot — but in its apparent apathy toward standard conventions of taste. One could consider Daft Punk’s most beloved album, 2001’s Discovery, as a sort of pastiche of disco and rock sounds of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were young. But Daft Punk weren’t really trying to capture a bygone moment in time — they were trying to rekindle a sense of true autonomy over one’s own taste, uncorrupted by any conception of “cool” as only children are. “When you’re a child you don’t judge or analyze music. You just like it because you like it,” Bangalter explained in a 2001 interview. “[Discovery] is about the the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”

And wasn’t that the whole point of bloghouse as an ethos in the first place? If Daft Punk had debuted their hardest, tightest album, 1997’s Homework, in a year when dance music was painted by the French government as destructive and banal — hence the video for “Revolution 909,” where a back-alley rave gets busted by cops — Cross arrived in a dance music culture that was in desperate need of a good shove in the dirt. Bloghouse’s popularity not only had a lot to do with the online platforms through which it spread, but also with how stiflingly self-serious alternative music had become. As Indie Rock™ grew bigger than ever, dance music largely emphasized subtlety, atmosphere, “depth” — think Villalobos, Four Tet, a few dozen techno DJs with two first names who moved from Brooklyn to Berlin to live their minimalist dreams. In short, there was a serious void in the market for some good old-fashioned bad taste — for destruction, hyperbole, neon, and terribly compressed mp3s over bougie white labels; for doing drugs in public and wearing stupid sunglasses at night. A huge part of bloghouse’s cult appeal was in its implicit acceptance of sounds and styles that the newly empowered indie snobs and vinyl-only elitists found irredeemably tacky: disco, hardcore, electroclash, screamo, and trance all found a place under its umbrella. Around the time Cross dropped, I had acquired my first fake ID. This, I thought, is how I always dreamed nightlife would feel — a complete release from the self-consciousness that consumes my days!

Now I am old, so I’m in the ideal demographic for Justice’s third album, Woman, which was released last week on Ed Banger and Because Music. It would seem that, nearly a decade later, de Rosnay and Augé have managed to trace the arc of Daft Punk’s conceptual trajectory almost exactly. If Cross, like Homework, made something expansive and artful out of gauche electronics, and Justice's 2011 sophomore effort, Audio, Video, Disco, attempted (with much less success than Discovery) to elevate childhood sensations into timeless music, then Woman, like Human After All, sees the grownup artists ditching synthetics to reckon with their true materiality. This results in an album of vaguely groovy, unflinchingly posi disco love songs, with lyrics like “Love has been the reason / Love has been the season” and “It’s a love emergency!” Lead single “Safe and Sound” recruits the London Contemporary Orchestra’s string section and choir for, I assume, an attempted reprisal of “D.A.N.C.E.”’s naïve groove. Instead, it all feels like background disco. To be fair, nothing about Woman is overtly bad — which is precisely what makes it the least essential Justice album.

You could argue that Woman officially cements Justice as the truest descendants of Daft Punk’s legacy, right up to the letdown of album three. But Human After All, even in its subpar construction (having been recorded in six weeks), was most disappointing to longtime Daft Punk fans because of its underlying message. The cheeky androids who taught us to use our tensions as momentum and to rekindle our childlike sense of wonder had grown weary and jaded; their time as robots had taught them that humanity was not a revelation but a fucking drag. Human After All was a bummer — but at least it was honest.

The same cannot be said for Woman, whose vague and relentless optimism (“Head up, hold tight, safe and sound!”) reads, at this point in 2016, as not just irritating but delusional. If anything, with Woman, de Rosnay and Augé have bypassed their Human After All moment completely and proceeded directly to their Random Access Memories phase. And hey, maybe that’s what the world needs right now — toothless, geriatric grooves to soundtrack weddings into infinity, or until the ice caps completely melt and we all burn. But what I really want is music that makes me feel like I did listening to Cross in 2007. We need songs for stomping through alleys, kicking down doors, lighting shit on fire, starting a fucking revolution. Is that too much to ask from the guys who made “We Are Your Friends”?