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Daft Punk Bursts the Tron Bubble

Now that Daft Punk's score for Tron: Legacy has leaked, I think maybe the Internet owes itself an apology.

Because when it was announced that Daft Punk would be working on a score for a Tron movie, the Internet got very excited. This was completely natural and understandable. After all, Daft Punk’s whole late aesthetic — the robot-biker helmets, the strips of light in darkness, the occasional feeling of being inside a large, grinding, and error-prone computer — can feel Tron-descended in the first place. I’ve spent hours trying to think of some combination of well-loved musical act and fondly remembered film/video-game property that represents nearly this good of a match, and I’ve got nothing: Daft Punk + Tron was a gimme, a perfect combination, and it could quite easily have produced the kind of pop-format soundtrack that people listen to right alongside the artist’s proper albums.

But it would seem that the sheer raw appeal of this combination was a little like a commercial for a toy no kid has ever seen — the kind of horrible, manipulative ad they used to run during Saturday-morning cartoons, where impressionable children were led to believe things about the toy that strained credulity. As in: The commercial would show the toy talking, exploding, flying, buying the child other toys, following the child to school and beating up bullies, etc. The parents would gently point out that the toy was unlikely to be able to do any of these things, to which the child would say: "But I saw it. It’s in the commercial. Please please please." And then eventually Christmas morning would come around, and the child would open the present with great excitement, and within an hour would be crying over the fact that the toy was, in fact, just a toy.

That is pretty obviously meant as a metaphor. Except that in this case, the “commercial” wasn’t really a commercial but was actually the Internet’s own excitement over the prospect of this whole Daft Punk + Tron thing — excitement that pretty much stoked itself, and then stoked news stories and blog posts on itself, and so on, in this extraordinary bubble of speculation about just how freaking awesome this whole Daft Punk + Tron thing was going to be — to the point where fake tracks, pieces of music presumably put together with cracked copies of Ableton Live in people’s bedrooms, got posted around the Internet as possible leaks, and if you look at the comments beneath some of those postings you will find people gleefully saying, "YES, this is the greatest thing ever" (which says something profound about either the madness of excitement or the lack of dance-music savvy among some Daft Punk fans) — all of which continued until the genuine film score in question leaked and turned out to be, who’d have guessed it, a film score. For a solemn action-adventure movie that appears to take place largely in the dark. With an orchestra providing normal mood-setting cues with sawing strings and some martial drums and only a few peaking bursts of the kind of bonkers giant-malfunctioning-computer thing people were expecting.

And of course, not everyone enjoys sitting at home listening to ominous “evil approaches” cues from film soundtracks, because it can make you feel a little crazy — everything gets too dramatic, and you start to feel like putting a can in the recycling bin is an epic, Tolkien-level feat — which left some of the people so excited by the whole speculative bubble of “OMG Daft Punk + Tron” casting around for other possibilities: Maybe the score would be followed by a “music from and inspired by the motion picture” companion album, full of the exciting stuff people were hoping for?

There are some totally interesting things about this score itself, though, and I shouldn’t even be letting this bubble of enthusiasm overshadow them. For starters, it’s kind of fascinating that this Tron soundtrack is a slight reverse of the original Tron soundtrack, which was by Wendy Carlos (né Walter Carlos), who is most famous for playing pieces of classical music using the bloops and warbles of old analogue synthesizers. (The soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange — that was her.) And Daft Punk do some work in the opposite direction here: They use an expansive orchestra, but the parts they’re writing seem to come from an electronic mind-set, full of tense repetitions and strings that behave like they’re being run through an arpeggiator. Elsewhere you get the kinds of murmuring synths and low rumbles that have been staples of electronic scores since the days of Giorgio Moroder, but there are usually pretty fascinating things happening with the textures — the explosion of tension on “The Game Has Changed” revolves around a prickly digital fuzz, and it’s terrific to hear how well the group has made such synthetic tones mesh with orchestral ones. (Electronic-music geeks who listen to this may wind up marveling at certain parts and talking breathlessly about resonators, resonant filters, and downsampling.) None of this stuff will provide quite the OMG factor some were hoping for — that’s left to “Derezzed,” which comes stomping and glitching along halfway through, to give you what you’ve been waiting for — but it’s good work, and I imagine it’ll suit the film extremely well.

Still, though, I’m convinced that the really interesting part is the Internet’s ability to turn into a giant collective child about certain things. It’s either a lively, amazing thing that should refresh our faith in the wonder of life (stuff still happens! We still get psyched!) or it’s just kinda dumb and bizarre. Right now I’m completely unsure which. But I keep thinking of the old book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which was published all the way back in 1841, and cataloged various bizarre crazes — for instance, a rush in trading for tulip bulbs that allegedly, in the mid-seventeenth century, made certain varieties the most valuable things on the planet. Tulips! You cannot do anything all that valuable or interesting with a tulip. Historians have since come along and claimed that this tulip mania was a small-scale thing and has been greatly exaggerated over the years, a fact that actually makes me somewhat disappointed: I prefer to imagine everyone really was maximally insane about tulips. So I suppose I should side with the idea that our hype-riding speculation about this quite-nice film score is actually a great thing, a sign that we retain the capacity to get all atwitter and irrationally exuberant about pop culture, even when it’s not the soundest idea, and Christmas morning may wind up feeling a little flat.

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures