What Does Daft Punk Leave Behind?
On Monday, the ur-French-dance-music duo Daft Punk announced – via the slick and typically cryptic video above, featuring a dramatic self-destruct sequence – that it was hanging up the helmets and leather jackets for good.
The pair, born Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, began making music in the early '90s, raving through that effervescent decade and leaving it, with the release of Homework in 1997, in a blissed-neon glow. Over the next 10 years – most notably with Discovery in 2001, a legacy-cementing tour in 2007 and the mystique-enhancing break they left in-between (not to mention all that came after) – Bangalter and Homem-Christo became the steel-and-silicon giants they'd wished themselves into being, while unwittingly setting the stage for a different type of machine altogether.
Daft Punk's music is and always will be formidable, but the roots and future of its legacy aren't yet crystal clear. NPR Music asked a few experts to consider what the two did for them personally, and what that might mean for the history books.
It all started in the Midwest
It's easy to equate Daft Punk with disco loops – like all good crate-diggers, as they aged they leaned heavily into exploring the lineage of where their samples had come from. But when I think of Daft Punk I always think of Chicago house in the '90s, the pair's adulation of which was no secret. "Teachers," track nine on their 1997 debut Homework, is a spoken incantation of influences that name-checks Midwest greats like Paul Johnson, DJ Sneak, DJ Rush, Romanthony and DJ Deeon – Black and brown artists who didn't have Daft Punk-sized budgets, DJs that may have gotten their flowers in the underground, but are definitely at risk of being forgotten in successive waves of digitalism and cultural Coachella-fication. Just as Berlin had a special bond with Detroit techno, Paris and Daft Punk developed a unique relationship with Chicago, applying chic filters, rock distortion and high-gloss mastering to the city's unctuously loopy disco house, squealing acid and raw stripped-back jack trax. This became the "French touch" sound, with Daft Punk at the center: Guy-Manuel with his Crydamoure label and Thomas Bangalter via Roulé records and Stardust, his collaboration with fellow DJ Alan Braxe (which yielded 1998's inescapable dancefloor sing-along, "Music Sounds Better With You").
At some point, Daft Punk became more than the sum of their parts – actually, they became robots, with a giant f***-off stage show, highly stylized movie-length videos and Grammy trophies. They weren't for me anymore – they were for everybody. It wasn't about twirling on the dance floor at Chicago's Route 66 roller-rink, a sea of phat pants and Polo caps erupting into a cheer as the first squelchy, cartoon notes of "Da Funk" hit the mix. Daft Punk was now at the grocery store, the gym, the festival, on TV. I didn't love them any less – their Alive 2007 show at Coney Island's Keyspan Park was one of the best live electronic music shows I've ever seen – but I listened to them less purposefully, absorbing them in the atmosphere the way one does pop music.
Younger artists excited me, as they amplified fragments of Daft Punk's vision into whole other styles. Longtime Daft Punk manager Pedro Winter explored a hundred juicy tangents of the duo's sound with his Ed Banger label: Justice, picking up where "Robot Rock" left off, took rock distortion in electronic to the nth degree; Sebastian and Feadz leaned into dramatic effects and sample cuts; Kavinsky's '80s keyboard obsession (and Drive soundtrack) almost single-handedly started synth wave. Fellow Parisian label Institubes explored a Punk-esque mix of avant-garde ideas and ghetto house, while Berliner Boys Noize is still artfully applying the duo's mixing and compression techniques as he surfs big waves of cheeky-yet-raw European house.
Yet most of the Daft Punk clips surfacing right now are their least stylized; they're more about [Ed: As in, this entire article, I suppose...] how the group (and especially their live performances) made people feel. One of the most popular is a YouTube clip of a very young Daft Punk playing live at Wisconsin rave Even Further in 1996 – a reminder that no matter how many "Get Lucky"'s they might have made in the future, somewhere in there they're still two kids tweaking drum machines relentlessly in the middle of the night. It doesn't matter if Daft Punk disbands or not because that essence never dies. Daft Punk forever. –Vivian Host is a journalist, DJ/producer and host of the Rave to the Grave podcast. She loves berry pie, Sharpies and giant speaker stacks.
The notion that Daft Punk were once underground dance music "populists" hasn't aged well — the underground isn't associated with many Grammys for best album, and most anti-elitist notions have taken a decidedly right-wing turn in our collective consciousness. But at the time of the duo's legendary 2007 Alive tour, their aspirations to build a bigger dance tent, while deprogramming mainstream dancing biases — the residue of both the "disco sucks" era and the boom-bap '90s defeat of house and techno as commercial genres — felt mass revolutionary in the best ways. The tour also came on the heels of an era when culturally conservative reactions to the racially and sexually mixed club scene saw raves illegalized by the feds, and popular dance spots shut down in city after gentrifying American city. Before the myth that "Daft Punk's pyramid changed everything" would end up propping up Coachella, EDM, the live dance market as a whole and much of non-hip-hop-related pop, dance music needed larger-than-life champions, and at that moment, les robots Francais consciously embraced the role.
That embrace manifested itself in one unlikely, but perfect, creative choice: the stage walk-on music for the American Alive shows: Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out For a Hero," from the 1984 Kevin Bacon film Footloose. "Hero" is Bonnie Tyler and Meat Loaf producer Jim Steinman's follow-up to "Total Eclipse of the Heart," a personification of over-indulged, synth-driven orchestral '80s cheese, yet also the kind of overt, emotional pop that made sense for a French act which had embraced disco's big, hook-filled gestures.
Aesthetically, it stood out like a sore thumb, welcoming a crowd made up of not only the die-hards but those who just wanted to find the best party. As an anthemic earworm from a soundtrack that spawned numerous hits, "Hero" was pop-spotting 101, an invitation to even the most culturally unhip helping Daft Punk pack minor league baseball stadiums and festival headline spots. More pointed was the song's source, a B movie about a Chicago high school kid that loves to dance, whose move to a conservative small town which has banned dancing sees him rebel and start a youthful uprising. Footloose was based on the laws of the very real Elmore, Okla., but Daft Punk was into liberation on a greater scale. "Holding Out For a Hero" wouldn't have worked as well as it did, had what followed not boldly lived up to the fight. –Piotr Orlov lives in Brooklyn, and writes regularly at Dada Strain.
My golden Daft Punk memory is not witnessing their 1996 U.S. debut at a muddy Wisconsin rave, or meeting the duo at their home-from-home in the Hollywood Hills in 2013. It's dancing to "Digital Love" with my two-year-old son in 2001, the year Discovery came out. The childhood link – if not my own, then my kid's – cuts to the core of Daft Punk. As hinted by the title itself, Discovery felt like a flashback to pop's primal scene: those first encounters, ears cupped to a transistor radio or eyes glued to the TV screen, with otherworldly transmissions from Planet Pop. A magical recovery of that pre-teen openness to everything, before you've learned the rules of cool and uncool.
On Discovery, Daft Punk took their existing filter-disco sound, as explained on tracks like "Musique," and blended in a palette of textures and tones sourced in 1970s radio rock at its most overground, overproduced and over-lit. This was the yacht-rock move, almost a decade ahead of chillwave or groups like Haim. But in Daft Punk's case, the balance of irony and awe leans far more to the latter. There's a transcendent artificiality to "Digital Love" especially, a splendor of sound at once camp and sublime. The hazy glaze of the filter effect on the twirling main riff is like plastic if it could rust. At the breakdown, Supertramp's keyboard sound is duplicated with eerie exactness (or not so eerie exactness, given that Daft Punk used the exact same Wurlitzer piano as the English soft rock group). Then there's the ridiculous majesty of that Van Halen-style guitar solo, frothing and bubbling over like a geyser of hot-pink liquid latex. Yet, within all the delicious knowing allusions, the heart of "Digital Love" aches with unrequited longing: it's a rewrite of "Jump" tilted to the tentative, whose last words implore "why don't you play the game?"
"Digital Love" is such an epic distillation of What Daft Punk Is All About that it's still slightly bemusing to remember it was the third single off Discovery and only a modest hit. Admittedly, on the album "Digital Love" jostles with rival delights: lead single "One More Time," with its astonishingly protracted minute-and-half breakdown during which the beat absconds leaving just Romanthony's Auto-Tune-crackling ecstasy; the baroque excess of "Aerodynamic"; frantic electro-funk bangers "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and "Crescendolls"; the shimmering 10cc homage "Nightvision" and bittersweet ballad "Something About Us"; "Veridis Quo", which sounds like the credits theme for a French movie about a lonely girl who's just moved to Paris.
Still, "Digital Love" is The One as far as I'm concerned: a wondrous fusion of disco, AOR, glam metal and New Wave (the choppy guitar-riff breakdown practically forces you to dance in jumpy formation like you're in a Toni Basil video). The actual promo for "Digital Love", like its precursor singles, was hewn from Daft Punk's anime movie Interstella 5555, a project that captured an abiding truth about pop as well as forecasting its emerging destiny in the 21st century: pop's pulpy essence has far more to do with cartoons, comics and video games than literature or the other high arts.
Of course, in a move that seems in hindsight both logical and fatal, Daft Punk fell out of "digital love." They abandoned sampling and embarked upon the back-to-analogue quest of Random Access Memories: an attempt to turn back time and resurrect the pop monoculture of the late '70s and early '80s, ruled by performers and producers like Chic, Giorgio Moroder and Michael Jackson. RAM was a conceptual and commercial triumph, but ultimately a dead end – where on Earth could the duo go next? How could they hope to top "Get Lucky" being on the radio each and every hour for an entire year, the six Grammys and the awards ceremony jam session with Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers? As a commentary on our atemporal and digitally-overdriven epoch, RAM provided a heaping portion of food-for-thought. But since it came out, I've never once felt the urge to play the record. Whereas "Digital Love" and Discovery are perennial, always there when I need an intravenous jolt of insta-joy. Happy daze. –Simon Reynolds is the author of Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture and operates a number of blogs centered around Blissblog.
Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem and Leiji Matsumoto
To me, Daft Punk lives most vividly in the early aughts — more specifically, in the liminal space between Cartoon Network's Toonami and Adult Swim and in the late hours when they would air reruns of older programs. It was there that I first saw Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem in parts, which I'd later find out would form the whole of a playful animated film the duo created, in collaboration with manga artist Leiji Matsumoto and director Kazuhisa Takenouchi. Set to their second record, Discovery, the movie features a band of interstellar performers, designed in the familiar style of Matsumoto's work and other popular 1970s sci-fi anime, with their long limbs, sideburns and big, dramatic eyes.
As kids, Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo had watched Captain Harlock, one of Matsumoto's beloved works. The titular character's image – his mysterious one-eyed gaze, the skull detailing on his outfit and his wine glass – stayed with them. Captain Harlock was a hero that found his place in the stars. In many ways, Daft Punk did, too. There's a chivalrous air that persists in Interstella, as there was in Captain Harlock, that locks you into the lightness and romance of their retrofuturism. It's fitting, then, that Discovery is the album where Daft Punk finds inspiration in the past's popular sounds.
"It was as if spacemen or androids had arrived from outer space," Matsumoto said, recalling his first encounter with Daft Punk. It may have looked like that — with the duo decked out in suits and their robot heads — but the encounter was closer to young boys meeting their childhood idol. Meanwhile, Matsumoto loved French films growing up. Perhaps this is what leveled the field in the making of Interstella, which has no dialogue and very little in the way of sound effects. Image and sound are set up in a perpetual trust fall, but rather than recreating risk, they seek to recreate childlike joy. –Alex Ramos is an artist, writer and NPR Music's editorial intern.
Scotland slows down to "Da Funk"
In 1995, I was resident DJ at Pure in Edinburgh – probably one of the wildest clubs to ever exist. Perceived by many as a techno club, myself and Andy, my co-DJ, were always trying to shatter people's preconceived notions as to what could and should play inside the club.
One barrier that was particularly hard to tear down was the one constructed around tempo: Any time I dropped the tempo below 120 beats per minute, I was guaranteed to be on the receiving end of a lot of moans and groans. Then "Da Funk" came out. It was as if tempo absolutism instantly melted away. "Da Funk" had all the energy and power the dancefloor demanded, but it was that groove, combined with the incessant earworm of a riff that gave it instant anthem status.
I think the fact that "Da Funk" initially came out on Soma, a Scottish label, meant that this was one of the first parts of the world where they were ecstatically embraced. Ultimately I feel "Da Funk" helped point a way forward for me to contemplate the possibility of running a club night beyond the confines of genre or tempo rigidity. –JD Twitch.
So long, and thanks for all the bros
You can distill the arc of 21st-century dance music, from niche concern to billion-dollar industry, into one 75-minute DJ set, which doubles as my favorite Daft Punk record. Alive 2007, and the 18-month world tour in which it was recorded, is the ultimate "you had to be there, man" concert experience of this century so far; I wasn't. (I have like three regrets in life, and that's No. 2.) Only, in a way, you didn't have to be there: 10 seconds in, as "Robot Rock" stutters to a start and the crowd explodes, you close your eyes and you basically are. Back then, I'd watch YouTube footage from the tour and feel as if I was on drugs, and on the occasion I was on drugs, I felt as though I was in heaven (God, as it turned out, was not just a DJ, but two of them).
The Alive tour and its recording opened the floodgates for dance music as mass culture, which is cool in theory and fairly disastrous in practice — a Pandora's box for all sorts of soulless industry cash-grabs and stupid pyrotechnics. What makes Daft Punk's legacy so relevant, I think, is that it wasn't the inherently positive force it had seemed to be circa Alive 2007, when bands sold their guitars and bought turntables and the DJ became the new rock star. There's an argument that it was exactly the formulaic computer music Daft Punk inadvertently inspired which prompted their analogue turn on Random Access Memories, released at the peak of EDM oversaturation: "Whoops, sorry we laid the foundation for an empire of s***. Here's our million-dollar oldies record. Peace out!" Looking back, maybe Alive 2007 did more harm than good. When I press play, I couldn't care less. –Meaghan Garvey is a writer and artist from Chicago.
Robots before, and after, all
Tron: Legacy was always a sci-fi blockbuster best understood as a silent film. Apart from Jeff Bridges' opening monologue as Kevin Flynn, taking us back to the arcade game's first spark of creation, little needs to be said in the sequel, set decades after the original. From a motorcycle chase on Earth to lightcycle races, gravity-defying battles and flying ships within Tron, there's a visual vocabulary to this digital fantasia: dark shadows are lit in neon stripes, as bodies boldly stride, fight and glare with a pre-talkie flair. Even Bridges, master of dude-ly understatement, announces his quiet presence with demonstrative volume.
In the Tron universe, The Grid was developed offline, away from and before the Internet's pervasive influence on the outside world; likewise, Daft Punk scored a digital frontier of its own making. The duo spent two years composing, arranging and orchestrating with Joseph Trapanese, blurring the line between synths and strings, but also deepening their symphonic relationship. The quickening strings of "Outlands" mimic a taut synthesizer sequence. "The Game Has Changed" charges the arena with a mix of organic and digital drums that push up against glitching bombast. "Derezzed," the soundtrack's only single, whizzes with an unlocked character's energy — we see Daft Punk on screen, as they play themselves up as party DJs for underworld extravagance. Even in tender moments of reflection, there's harmonic nuance: unease for an unknown world, but also a euphoric embrace for its possibility. How many nights have I drifted asleep to Tron: Legacy only to be awoken by the overture's stirring motif, rebuilt as a club banger for the closing credits? Bio-digital jazz, man. –Lars Gotrich is a producer and resident Viking at NPR Music.
On becoming a helmet
Music has no shortage of enigmas and recluses, operating quietly and in contrast to artists who live perpetually online or otherwise actively seek the spotlight. Coming from dance music's sweaty underground and no doubt informed by the so-called "faceless" techno tradition of acts like Underground Resistance, Daft Punk always fit best in the former category. Giving scarcely few interviews as their career took them from electronic music favorites to chrome-domed idols, and almost never showing their faces, their notoriety grew with their near-anonymous public image as, well, robots.
While many artists employ pseudonyms to showcase their work, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo took the concept to another level after the modest-yet-significant success of 1997's Homework, an eclectic album that clearly conveyed admiration for their diverse influences. By Discovery, a full-throated house music homage, they donned helmets as conjoined cybernetic identities, adding depth to the mystique. Aided by a vague sci-fi backstory, the immersion afforded to the duo by their custom, instantly signature masks obliterated the fact that we knew their real names and their roots in the Parisian DJ scene. This facade allured and repelled to different degrees, drawing curious listeners in while maintaining a certain distance from the artists themselves.
These android personas allowed for a kind of world building, both in virtual and physical spaces, where Daft Punk could create without the messiness of human expectations or interaction. Like with the recently departed emcee MF DOOM, who famously sent imposters to play some of his live shows, one could never be entirely certain that the pair on stage or on screen was, in fact, the real deal or a couple of stand-ins. Even when lending their technical skills to the formidable likes of Kanye West and The Weeknd, artists who presently spend no shortage of time in public-facing capacities, Daft Punk held onto their automatonic asceticism. When they scored one of the biggest hits of the 2000s with "Get Lucky," they stayed in muted character as highly visible collaborators Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers pantomimed the boogie in its music video.
Seeing Daft Punk as robots, committing to the fantasy on both ends of the experiential transaction, enhanced the listening experience. Though the aesthetic insularity of the underrated gem Human After All perhaps best captures that ethos, the far more popular Random Access Memories came across like an aggressively learning A.I., the connections with legends Giorgio Moroder and Paul Williams feeling like technological advancement rather than a divergence from the mission's directives. Even as they borrowed, often wholesale, from the disco and funk crates across the discography, their use of vocoder and other vocal tools kept fans vested in the moment and the myth. –Gary Suarez is a freelance music critic and journalist born, raised, and based in New York City.
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