Last Monday, French electronic-house supergroup Daft Punk announced their departure from music-making with a YouTube video titled simply, “Daft Punk – Epilogue.” The video itself, a clip taken from the duo’s 2006 film “Electroma,” is as characteristically simple for the two as it is enigmatic, a mournful send off which shows one half of the band self-destructing out in some anonymous desert.
If the film clip itself was unclear, the preceding graphic made the duo’s departure evident: two hands, one silver and one gold, captioned by the dates “1993-2021.” The video ends with the remaining member of Daft Punk walking on down the desert, aloof and distant as ever, complete with a child chorus and elegiac walls of software synthesizers.
By the end, the message is all too clear: Daft Punk, as an idea, is finished.
That Daft Punk are (or were) towering figures in the music industry is indisputable, and the metrics of this final video only serve to prove it. At the time of writing, the video is #2 Trending in the YouTube music category, and the top 23rd trending video on the whole platform. With over twenty million views and over 155,000 comments in just three days, it is rather easy to see the titanic influence that Daft Punk has had on the music industry at large.
From a nearly spotless discography (barring, perhaps, “Human After All”), to production features with artists like Kanye West, The Weeknd and Pharrell Williams, the Daft Punk brand was no stranger to success. Yet in spite of their enormous popularity, Daft Punk were always a phenomenon in mainstream music. The kitschy, “Metropolis”-esque aesthetic which the group inhabited, along with their roots in house, disco, rock and electronics, colored their work with equal parts camp, theatricality, physicality, rhythm, mood and swank.
Though it would not be until “Discovery,” their sophomore album, that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Gangalter fully embraced their (literal) robotic personas, the blueprint for their success can be charted even in their debut LP “Homework.” The digitized vocals, the repetitive, hypnotic beats, the immaculate production and the latter-day disco drum beats: all of it is there. Early tracks like “Da Funk,” “Around the World” and “Revolution 909” all anticipated the success which the group eventually found in Discovery.
By the time the duo finally went beneath the mask with this second album, the appeal of Daft Punk was all too apparent. The danceability of “One More Time;” the intense, pounding syncopation of “Aerodynamic;” the playful romance of “Digital Love;” the vocoded, chart-shattering “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” — one can go on and on. By the end of the 90s, Daft Punk had set themselves sharply apart from the run-of-the-mill electronic dance groups, and this divide would only continue as the duo forged ahead.
Yet, this division came with its disadvantages. It must be remembered that, in their early days, Daft Punk were no critical darlings, nor did their chart-topping success equate to critical favor. In their initial review of the album, Pitchfork famously gave “Discovery” a 6.4, calling the album both “too-sincere” and “tinny” to the ears. Similarly, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave the album a C+, and the rock-threaded third album “Human After All” drew ire from just about every music publication on the map.
Although Daft Punk spent most of the aughts (and indeed, much of their career) out of said critical favor, their charm, presence and popularity were undeniable. On his third album, “Graduation,” Kanye West quite famously sampled “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” for his single “Stronger” (a no. 1 charter in the U.S.), and the three would later go on to collaborate for songs like “Black Skinhead” and “I Am A God” on the decidedly Daft Punk-sounding “Yeezus.”
Rock group LCD Soundsystem made a tribute to the French musicians with the cheekily-titled track “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House,” and the duo collaborated with Pharrell Williams (perhaps precipitating the later chart-destroyer “Get Lucky”) for the single “Hypnotize U.” In spite of a lack of critical success, the group was nothing if not well-loved by the music industry.
And in fact, eventually critical consensus would come around to the two French musicians. After a smashing 2007 tour immortalized by the album “Alive 2007,” the group went utterly silent until 2013 saw the groundbreaking “Random Access Memories.” If mainstream and critical opinion had been divided about Daft Punk to this point, “Random Access Memories” united the two. Boasting both a “Best New Music” from Pitchfork, a 10/10 from NME, and four stars from Rolling Stone, as well as 5 Grammy wins, Random Access Memories saw the duo finally given their dues.
The songs on display here are the culmination of an entire career, and every track feels almost consciously celebratory of the duo’s own work to that point. The vocoded one-two opener of “Give Life Back to Music” and “The Game of Love” speak to the kitschy, romantic and earnest ethos which the two robots had always exuded. “Giorgio” by Moroder serves as a compelling tribute to the duo’s early influences, and at this point, there is very little to say about the Pharrell Williams/Nile Rodgers featuring track “Get Lucky” that has not already been said.
As a culmination of over two decades, “Random Access Memories” both celebrates and transcends the preceding three albums. Much like the duo as a whole, “Random Access Memories” exist both within a greater context and apart from it, a singularity as sincere as it is playful, as reserved as it is bold.
The final track, “Contact,” is perhaps the perfect song for Daft Punk to leave on — two half-robots, attaining one last contact with humanity before leaving for parts unknown, joined by an army of ever-rising synth arpeggios and a final lift-off.
And in fact, “Random Access Memories” serves as something of a swan song for the musicians, now quite permanently. Aside from a collaboration with The Weeknd for the tracks “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming,” the 2010s would see almost no activity from the two robots, until last Monday. It is an unfortunate start to the new decade, if nothing else; the music industry has lost a game-changing duo.
Indeed, Daft Punk were pathfinders, crafting an image which was equal parts intimate with pop culture and outside of it. The anonymity of Daft Punk laid the groundwork for an act like Death Grips, who themselves have shown reverence for the two robo-composers. The Weeknd, perhaps one of the most high-profile musicians in the industry right now, freely admitted that Daft Punk were “one of the reasons I make music.”
Where Daft Punk could have easily fallen into the crowded back catalogue of 90s house electronic bands, their creative vision and refined, articulate production firmly cemented them as two metal-faced staples of the musical landscape. The absence of these two crooning, bobbing, sampling robots will be sorely missed, and the industry may be a good deal less humanely robotic for a while.
But of course, one cannot forget the humans underneath the masks. The contributions made by both Homem-Christo and Gangalter will always be remembered, and mainstream music is hotly anticipating whatever projects they have down the line. Until then, however, we must bid Daft Punk merci et adieu.