Daft Punk: From Human to Robot to Human Again

On Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, the ever-enigmatic electro-music duo Daft Punk announced their breakup through a wordless video titled “Epilogue,” an excerpt from their 2006 movie Electrorama. “Epilogue” features the band’s two members, Guy Manuel De Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, walking in a desert as their iconic robot personas. Bangalter, turning away from Homem-Christo, initiates a self-destruct sequence. With epic finality, he explodes into shards of black and silver metal to the background of a sunset and the song “Touch” from Daft Punk’s 2013 album “Random Access Memories.” The screen turns black and an epigraph fades in: 1993-2021. 

Mysterious, futuristic, and imbued with the lasting sentimentality of a sad farewell, the video pays homage to Daft Punk’s distinctive character and the techno legacy they leave behind. 

Daft Punk, formed in Paris in 1993 by lifetime Parisians Homem-Christo and Banglater, acquired a whopping fourteen Grammy nominations throughout their 27-year career run. The band went on to win two Grammys in 2009 for Best Dance/Electronic Album and Best Dance Recording and four in 2014 for Best Album, Best Record, Best Dance/Electronic Album, and Best Group/Duo Pop performance. Daft Punk’s debut album “Homework” rocketed them to the forefront of the international house scene during the French House movement of the 90s, followed up by Discovery in 2001 which featured chart-topping singles such as “One More Time” and “Digital Love.” In 2005, Daft Punk released the album “Human After All,” which was met with significant criticism and generally dismissed as a disappointingly minimalist production. 

“Turns out Daft Punk are (mostly) human after all, because from a compositional standpoint, this sounds like it was made in about 19 days,” wrote Mark Pytlik for the Pitchfork in a 2005 review of the album. 

Still, these critics were sorely mistaken to dismiss Daft Punk’s EDM prodigy. Only a year later, Daft Punk would reach techno-god status through their performance at Coachella 2006. Picture this: a flashing pyramid of neon lights. Two robots — helmeted in black, gold, and silver — seated at the peak of the pyramid like pharaohs presiding over the EDM world. An explosive light show in tune with an artful mashup of Daft Punk’s greatest hits (at the time). Today this might not seem so special with the likes of Steve Aoki, David Guetta, and Skrillex taking up the light show format as an embedded feature of EDM performances, but in 2006, an electronic act of such magnitude had never been done before. Daft Punk, with their otherworldly robot forms, were the trailblazing firsts. 

In an article for Billboard Magazine detailing Daft Punk’s legacy on Feb. 22, 2021, Kat Bein spoke to her experience attending a 2006 Daft Punk performance. 

“I had no idea what I was in for when I saw them a few months [after their Coachella performance] in Miami at a now defunct-festival called Bang! Like that Coachella crowd several months prior, I have never again experienced one crowd dancing in utter awe, everyone on the same page of love, astonishment and exuberance … It was an audio-visual revelation, and it was the high point of a concept that will likely never be repeated.” 

However, Daft Punk’s 2006 Coachella performance was not only an unparalleled rave experience, but also the source of inspiration for many rising EDM artists. Skrillex, one such artist and Coachella attendee, spoke to his experience watching Daft Punk perform and the lasting impact it produced in an interview with The Guardian this year. 

“[It] was like walking into the portal of my destiny. It left an instant and indelible mark on my psyche. The idea of delivering a full concert experience while departing from a band on stage was game-changing – not just for me but for all creators.” 

In 2007, Daft Punk released “Alive 2007,” a live album comprising songs and mashups from their 2006-2007 concert tour. The album reinvigorated past releases, such as the flopped album “Human After All, and was met with widespread acclaim. 

“One of the most remarkable aspects of Alive 2007 is how well it recontextualizes career nadir Human After All, turning previously leaden songs into ebullient rock’n’roll manifestos; injected with Homework‘s air-tight Moroder-style anthems or Discovery‘s flamboyant funk, Human After All tracks are constantly improved and born anew,” wrote Ryan Dombal in a 2007 review for The Pitchfork. 

Also in 2007, Kanye West sampled Daft Punk’s 2001 “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” in his hit single “Stronger”, increasing their international renown. Daft Punk would not release an independent studio album until almost seven years later, although they did very fittingly record a soundtrack to the Disney sci-fi film “Tron: Legacy” in 2010. 

Breaking their silence with “Random Access Memories” in May of 2013, an album that featured a conglomeration of different musical styles and artists including the likes of Pharrell in the uber-popular tracks “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself to Dance,” Daft Punk solidified their position in pop culture legend. And yet, the album sounds almost nothing like EDM. 

“‘Random Access Memories’ reflects [Daft Punk moving to LA following their 2007 stadium tour to rethink their game]. Like ex-smokers turned anti-tobacco militants, Daft Punk have been disparaging EDM in the press, and without forsaking their Kiss-like robot personae, they’ve built a record more or less wholly on live instrumentation,” wrote Will Hermes in a 2013 review of the album for Rolling Stone India. 

From founding craftsmen of contemporary EDM to the matchmakers behind a seamless techno-pop marriage in “Random Access Memories,” Daft Punk never sat comfortably in their craft or in their identity as a band. 

“There’s a narrative [in the album], too, although in concept-album tradition, it’s a vague one. The processed vocals unspool a story that suggests cyborgs striving to be human – pretty much the story of all of us these days,” wrote Hermes. 

Just as Daft Punk’s music cycled through heavy synth EDM beats to live guitars, drums, and emotion-ridden vocalizations, so have its members cycled through their cybernetic forms, finally returning to the human. Epilogue is the culminating point of this cycle. Robots exploding, sunset descending, “Touch” blasting, “Epilogue” wordlessly communicates not an end, but a return to Daft Punk’s origins in flesh and blood, in disco and jazz and in every musical tradition that came before them and gave rise to them. Still, as the sun sets over the metal remains of Daft Punk’s iconic robots, it will rise again to illuminate those who pick up the scraps and build their own personae, carrying forward EDM into uncharted territories of the human and inhuman. 

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