Justice at SXSW

Justice at SXSW

Collective hallucinations and the aesthetics of sex tapes

The Gate's, Kit Altin explores the philosophical depths of French electro and the controversial allure of sex tape aesthetics, urging us to broaden our creative horizons and embrace the unexpected

By Kit Altin

There are a lot of excellent SXSW roundups out there, not least this one. But I want to tell you about one session in particular, and what it can tell us about creativity: capturing it, bottling it, making more of it. Because after all, that’s what we’re all here for.

I didn’t actually plan to go to this session, but I’m so glad I ended up there. This is a classic SXSW scenario. Like any good festival, you should make your plan, and then once you make contact with the festival itself, abandon yourself to the kismet of it all. You’ll meet new people; change your mind; get distracted; fail to get in somewhere; take a chance on something, hear some interesting music behind a door, and generally get dragged along by the monstrous tidal force of seven festivals all in one place. And that’s the first lesson. Let go. We probably won’t end up where we expected to go, and that’s how it should be. Because that’s where the new good ideas are hiding.

Justice  - In Conversation at SXSW 2024

So, Justice. Even if you’re not especially into electro-dance music, if you’ve been anywhere near a dance floor since 2006, you’ll know their biggest hits “We Are Your Friends” with Simian, and D.A.N.C.E. Gaspard Auge and Xavier de Rosnay are prolific writers, performers, producers and remixers, and snaffled Grammys for both their remix of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” in 2009 and their own album “Woman Worldwide” in 2019. They were at SXSW for a rare public appearance to discuss their forthcoming album Hyperdrama, their first in eight years, and talk about their career.

At first, it didn’t look too promising. Gaspard and Xavier didn’t look too thrilled to be there. The moderator was following a question list rather than the flow of conversation. But then it turned into one of the best sessions I went to at the whole festival. Why? Well, firstly, Justice are possibly the most French people who have ever existed. Philosophical; wryly contrary, fabulously dressed, and casually tossing in references to Proustian madeleines.

But more importantly, they’ve got integrity a mile deep. They’re confident in their creative choices, but also humble. They care about the work to an almost deranged level. They are, in short, proper old-school artists. And they have a lot to teach us all about unleashing creativity in our world.

(You’re going to have to imagine lots of the next part rendered in an extremely strong French accent. Trust me it’ll make it better.)

“We have with this album tried to unlearn what we know as musicians and producers. And step in with a fresh heart, not even a fresh mind. It’s very important sometimes to try to forget about everything.”

They told a story of hitting a brick wall with mixing a particular track, and asking their friend Philippe Zdar, one half of electro kings Cassius, to pop round and help out. (Do I want to see the spinoff series of Justice hanging out, wearing fabulous jackets, while the likes of Daft Punk and Fred Falke pop in for Gauloises and vin rouge? Yes. Yes I do!) Philippe duly turns up chez Justice, strolls over to the mixing desk where every fader had been ultra-carefully adjusted over many months to their exacting specifications, and gleefully splurges every last one of them up to maximum red. He stands back with what can only have been a Gallic shrug and said well, there you go. 

Justice took this destruction pretty well, because they are French, and they appreciated his philosophical stance on things. They understood what he was saying - “now you have to disrespect all the work you’ve made, because most things need to be destroyed, you have to kill your darlings and move forward.” 

And we’re pretty familiar with the idea of killing your darlings in the advertising creative process. But perhaps what we’re less used to is the idea of unlearning. Going into the process with that “beginners mindset”. I love the humility of Justice here - instead of squatting on their immensely successful nest, built of decades of success and expertise, they were prepared - intent on - throwing themselves off the nearest cliff face to start over again.

“Commercial success is a collective hallucination - something upon which millions of people all agree.”

I loved this thought. Again, this was a very French moment. But what an interesting, fresh way of thinking about commercial success. Sure, we all need to know what market share we’re aiming for, what increase in sales, etc. But - and let me be absolutely clear here - none of those have a place on your creative brief. That’s death to creatives. You might as well lace the brief with arsenic and make them eat it. But we still need to find a way to frame the challenge. So. What if, for your next brief, your aim was to create a hallucination upon which millions of people all agree? 

“We make 200 versions of songs based on the demo. We are doing the least spontaneous thing possible to get something that was spontaneous at the beginning”.

Anyone who has been through endless rounds of design amends (so - checks notes - oh yes, all of us) will perhaps know how this feels. But the fascinating part was how they talked about it. The notion that the first pass of the idea - the demo - is the one with the magic. Where you catch the lightning in the bottle, the mysterious spark that arrived out of the ether, that indefinable, yet definite sense that you’ve got something.

And then you go to work. Refining, perfecting, over and over, until, you feel you have truly captured, in its essence, the thing you felt at the beginning.

There’s a lesson here for us - to give more love to those first instincts. Not just creatively, but strategically too. Yes, we need to show our logic and why this strategy will work, but in my experience there is real value in those first hunches, and the first conversations with creatives. Things work better when we loosen up and are a little more spontaneous. When we think of the first pass of a brief or strategy as a demo. We can refine later. For now, focus on capturing that lightning. 

‘With a collaboration we want a closed circuit.”  Interviewer: “So it’s about control?  “No not about control - staying true to the idea.”

Loved the nuance of this. It isn’t about them controlling everything but maintaining a purity, and ability to find and keep the essential truth of an idea. This is so true to our advertising world too. One of the most useful pieces of advice I ever got was that too many opinions in the creative process means the idea will get pecked to death by ducks. I think the idea of a closed circuit is a beautiful one for planners and creatives - creating a shared space where you have complete trust in each other, utter faith that using the best of yourselves you’ll stay true to the idea. There’ll always be a good amount of push pull there - whether that’s trying to make the idea bigger, or more or less commercial, or whatever it is, but that’s all part of it. It’s not that other people can’t or won’t have input - but ultimately you need to be able to know that the two or three of you will have each others backs, hold each other accountable and keep true to the idea.

If you’re a planner reading this, could you honestly say your relationship with your creatives, especially on those important projects - can be a closed circuit? 

“Paris Hilton’s sex tape was very creepy”

In explaining the aesthetic of the video for new single Generator which is loosely about two gender-fluid androids having “a very cold sex thing”, Xavier talked about the difference in style between the Paris and Pamela sex tapes, and how that had been an inspiration. “There was something really disturbing about Paris’s. Seeing somebody’s stolen sex tape is disturbing to start with but also the aesthetic of it, the night vision with the black eyes, like something very creepy. That makes it feel even more forbidden than the Tommy and Pamela one which was much more casual.”

It was all just inspiration for him, more grist to the creative mill. He acknowledged the, er, unlicensed nature of sex tapes, but nevertheless they were as valid and natural an artistic input as Proust, which he incorporated with the brilliant line “Coachella 2007 was our Proustian Madeleine”.

Morality debates about sex tapes aside, there’s a brilliant reminder here about the importance of input. Of gathering knicks and knacks, oddities and bobbins, like those bower birds, from everywhere - high and low, safe and seedy. Creativity needs input, just like Johnny 5. (If you don’t know what I mean, add to your library of 80s films.) Creativity needs input from most surprising places.

I am not, repeat not, saying you should go and watch lots of or indeed any sex tapes. But if your range of references isn’t about as wide as that, then it’s time to add something fresh.

“TikTok? We are not prepared to make that sacrifice for more popularity” Interviewer: “What’s your natural inclination, if not dancing on TikTok?” “Being at home in our underwear.”

There isn’t a creativity point here, it’s just to say that never have I felt more in common with an ultra cool Parisian electro artist.

So - they were delightful: charming, thoughtful and often very funny. There were many more standout moments than I could fit in, including an excellent anecdote about kicking a rat.


LinkedIn iconx

Your Privacy

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.