No peace, so Justice

Pub date September 17, 2008
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer

>>Justice for all? Read club snob Marke B.’s response to this essay here.


SONIC REDUCER Is it wrong to like Justice as much as you like your iPhone? Can a rocker adore Justice as much as they love AC/DC? What’s wrong with the fist-pumping, head-banging reaction the French duo inevitably pull when their pop bombast hits your brainwaves?

There’s no denying that the duo of Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay go for the drama, even while piling on the classical melodicism, teasing with sonic textural interest and gently provoking with image and concept. In play are the detached yet still loaded signs and symbols of a de-centered, post-nationalist, millennial Europe — where the virtual village square, an imagined common ground, is littered with logos and branding detritus like corporate trademarks (à la their sparkling ’80s font-anime fete of a vid for “DNVO”) and crosses (a.k.a., the title of Justice’s 2007 Ed Banger/Vice/Downtown debut), the latter of which might be read at various points as a crucifix, a space-galleon, or a coffin with wings.

But perhaps that common ground is also the beat — a constant that shifts intriguingly. The beat doesn’t possess the primacy one would imagine from an outfit so associated with disco, the so-called nouveau French touch scene, or anything resembling dance music culture, if there was ever such an animal. Instead, Augé and de Rosnay are ciphers: the friendly, unobtrusive absence at the center of Justice, as identifier-free and countenanceless as they are in their Grammy-nominated “D.A.N.C.E” video. These children of Jean Baudrillard dare you to deny their ball-busting bounce, ear-bleed volume, and bloodless hooks, sans even the cartoon/anime-cool, featureless, anti-human “faces” of Daft Punk, or the too-cool-for-school ‘tude of, say, Death From Above 1979. As with their recently banned video for “Stress,” Justice are tinkering with pop violence, devoid of true gore, a.k.a. passion.

So is it wrong to think of Justice as a user-friendly lil’ post-modern contemporary performing unit (CPU), right there along with my favorite multi-tool and time-wasting-toy iPhone — generating content that doesn’t burden me with biography, calculated ways of winning my dollar, or even, despite the iconography, religion, politics, or deep thoughts designed to program or convert me. “Justice is music without a message and without politics,” de Rosnay told Pitchfork this year. “We don’t want to tell people what to think.” Regardless of whether I buy ‘s Christian allusions — “Genesis,” “Let There Be Light,” “Waters of Nazareth,” and even divinity or “DVNO,” I believe de Rosnay’s, ahem, sincere. Like any tool, the Net, or any number of platforms available online, Justice provides a blank for me to fill in like the animation-bedecked T-shirts of the “D.A.N.C.E.” video. “T,” here, stands for tabula rasa, ready to be doodled on, graffitied or defaced — even while cheekily offering, for one millisecond, “Internet Killed the Video Stars,” this gen’s knowing rejoinder to the first video aired on MTV.

And despite the adoring masses, Augé and de Rosnay came off as far from superstar DJs in their shadowy absence-presence at Coachella in April 2007, where I first, er, saw Justice deliver what they’ve described as their first live music performance, non-reliant on turntables or CD mixers. Chalk it up to the cool relief of the evening after the blistering heat of the day, the locale of the relatively chill dance tent at the far end of the festival grounds, the gorgeously retina-searing, candy-colored hot neon and cross-flashing light show, or the duo’s own excitement, but their set — epic, melodious, and full of those big, fat, dumb beats that detractors love to slam — turned out to be the sweet spot of the entire event. By comparison, the duo’s MySpace-sponsored turn at the SF Design Center this spring tapped a slightly menacing Nuremberg rally–style vibe with its impenetrable black wall of Marshall stacks centered on a crucifix, above which the duo worked like two hipster Ozs cloaked in darkness. Even without the pastel flash, the kids punched the air with joyful anguish up front as latecomers skipped toward the stage. Justicemania.

But as Chinua Achebe promised and Justice referenced in their party’s-over “We Are Your Friends” video, things fall apart. All five-alarm strings and raver-y emergency broadcast system wail, “Stress” was the least likely track Justice could have chosen. The vérité smash-up of La Haine (1995), Costa-Gavras dynamism (The clip’s director, Romain-Gavras, is his son), and the media-savvy Medium Cool revolves around a multiracial gang of Justice cross-jacketed toughs committing senseless acts of violence in a collision between the two Parises: an alienating, multicultural and cosmopolitan urban milieu, and the quintessentially old-world City of Light. Was this rough Justice? Mais non, considering the injection of irreverent wit when one gangbanger kicks out a car radio bleating “D.A.N.C.E.” Concluding with a fourth-wall-busting scene as the boom operator’s arm catches fire and the gang descends on the camera-wielder, the video appears to be literally turning the easy thrills of the soundtrack-sourcing music on its head.

“Stress” segues with this year’s DJ Mix Leur Selection (Tron) from Justice, which shows off the pair’s puckish humor by aligning Dario Argento collaborators Goblin along with their heroes Sparks, supposed rivals Daft Punk, SF metal abstractionists Fucking Champs, and — who said the French lack wit? — Frank Stallone. The DJ Mix‘s finale — Todd Rundgren’s “International Feel” — gives you a taste of what the twosome might have in mind to follow ‘s tonally varied orchestration of older tracks, dance pop, and more stately instrumentals — as Rundgren wails to his time-traveling synths, “And there is more / International feel … interplanetary deals … interstellar appeal … universal ideal.” After the tantalizing whirl of signs and symbols — hinting at everything and nothing — is there more to Justice than what dazzles the ear and eye?

Justice performs at 9:15 p.m., Sat/20, at the Bridge Stage.