Why Daft Punk Mattered: A Retrospective
2021 saw the shocking breakup of Daft Punk, one of house music’s most legendary duos. Although dormant since 2013, Daft Punk released a cryptic video titled Epilogue excerpted from their 2006 science-fiction film Electroma, ending with one member “exploding.” Looking back on their discography, it’s clear that Daft Punk have been trendsetting since the very beginning, grounding the next 30 years of trends in house, pop, R&B, and hip-hop. Daft Punk’s breakup calls for a retrospective review of their discography, their legacy, their influence, and a discussion of whether anything can fill the hole they have left in the music industry. Daft Punk achieved its first commercial success with 1994’s “Da Funk.” With its thick buzzing groove, jittering electronic synths, thumping baseline, and 808s, “Da Funk” transformed the Eurodance scene. At the time, the Eurodance scene that Daft Punk had been born out of was overtaken by a bubblegum, glossy, pop aesthetic, approaching a level of being sickeningly sweet. “Da Funk” reoriented the focus of the genre. Following their hit single, Daft Punk’s 1997 debut record Homework continued to breathe new life into the Eurodance scene with its fusion of R&B, hip-hop, pop, house, electronic, and industrial soundscapes. Massively acclaimed, Homework established Daft Punk’s ability to compose commercially viable multi-genre house jams. “Revolution 909” demonstrated the duo’s mastery over house production; “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” exhibited Daft Punk’s willingness to dabble in experimental, industrial, and glitchy soundscapes and helped set the foundation for dubstep; “Around the World” propelled the duo into the limelight with its catchy, vocoded hook and danceable groove. Notably, the track “Oh Yeah” features distorted blown out 808 bass beats that came to characterize many 2010s and 2020s hip-hop and hyperpop instrumentals—a demonstration of Daft Punk’s predictive production and influence on the next 30 years of music. In the years between Homework and the sophomore record, Discovery (2001), Daft Punk would become famous for their anonymity, sporting masks and facial coverings at live shows. While not the first band to embrace anonymous personas in their music, Daft Punk were one of the first to popularize alter egos in the pop and electronic sphere—creating a template for the likes of Gorillaz, MF DOOM, DeadMau5, and Marshmello, among others, to follow. Samples from Homework became industry staples, appearing on dozens of tracks including LCD Soundsystem’s aptly titled “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and Gorillaz's 2005 dance anthem “DARE.” This interim period would even see Daft Punk’s foray into film with their movie D.A.F.T. (1999) where they combined their music with surreal visuals of humanoid dog creatures and tiny men in toy fire trucks. That sophomore LP proved that the only house artists capable of outdoing Daft Punk’s efforts in house music were the duo themselves. Featuring collaborations from influences Romanthony, DJ Sneak, and Todd Edwards, Discovery was an ambitious concept album that houses the bulk of the duo’s popular and commercial hits. Early 2000s hits like “One More Time,” “Digital Love,” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” can all be found on this record and in samples from the likes of Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas. While best remembered for its pop appeal, Discovery is oft-forgotten for its barrier-breaking accompanying anime film Interstella 5555. Long inspired by the anime they watched in their childhood and adolescence, Daft Punk was one of the first to break down cultural barriers between Western music and Japanese animation, something that numerous artists would go on to follow. Released two years after the album, Interstella 5555 was created in collaboration with animator and their childhood hero Leiji Matsumoto paced to the progression of the album, it tells the story of an alien rock band exploited by the music business, a common tragedy in the industry that Daft Punk regularly strived to bring attention to throughout their career. The band’s 2005 followup record, Human After All, is widely regarded as the duo’s low point, despite its intriguing commentary about the downsides of technology and return to the previously successful industrial soundscape featured on Homework. For Human After All, Daft Punk sought to do the “opposite” of Discovery when it came to crafting the record. Whereas Discovery was an ambitious concept album that took two years to record, the duo decided to only spend two months recording Human After All. Regardless of the success of hits like “The Prime Time of Your Life” and “Technologic,” fans and critics alike blamed the rushed six-month production time for the overall lackluster record. Still, Daft Punk’s performances at Coachella in 2006 and during their Alive 2007 tour redeemed the duo’s industry influences. With flashy gold and silver robotic personas, colorful visuals, and blinding stage lights, Daft Punk wowed crowds as they toured, setting the to-be-emulated standard for how dynamic and lively electronic music concerts should be. On the tour and live album, Daft Punk created medleys with nearly every track from their discography: even tracks from Human After All that previously were seen as flops were given new life and recontextualized. The recordings and medleys featured on the live album, Alive 2007, mesh so seamlessly together that one would think Daft Punk planned each of their releases with these medleys in mind. Alive 2007 would even go on to receive the Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album at that year's Grammys. The duo’s 2013 album, Random Access Memories, strayed from their house roots, instead heavily embracing collaboration with more pop and R&B artists, disco sound palettes and, on the track “Giorgio by Moroder,” spoken word. At the time, the much-beloved Random Access Memories was seen as just another fantastic entry in the French house duo’s discography, but a retrospective of the album reveals lyrical and sonic themes that read like a farewell. Themes of “[letting] the music of your life give life back to music,” and lyrics about “building [...] random memories” and how if they had their way they “would never leave” read like heartwarming goodbyes from Daft Punk to the millions of fans’ lives they’ve touched over the decades. While not necessarily as groundbreaking as many of their prior works, Random Access Memories featured numerous hits that dominated popular music for the next few years including the track “Get Lucky,” which to date has nearly 850 million streams on Spotify. The duo won five Grammys for this album in 2014, including Album of the Year, and in subsequent years would continue to achieve commercial success for collaborations with artists such as The Weeknd on his 2016 album Starboy. Sadly, after one final performance at the Grammys in 2017, Daft Punk went silent until their breakup. Following Daft Punk’s break up, as Guy and Thomas begin solo careers, the music industry must question what is next. Can there be another Daft Punk? What does their breakup mean for the future of electronic and house music? It seems unlikely that there will be another house and electronic duo as prolific, groundbreaking, and persona driven as Daft Punk in the near future. Over the course of their career, Daft Punk have spawned a number of copycats and imitators, most notably French house duo Justice, but none of them have managed to become as popular. With Daft Punk no longer operating, there are bound to be a number of opportunists who will try to fill the void the duo have left in the house scene by copying their style, but part of what allowed Daft Punk to be as influential and beloved as they are was how fresh their sound was for the Eurodance and pop scene they started their career in, and their ability to evolve and innovate pop aesthetics in subsequent decades. Only time will tell if an electronic or house duo can actually come along and be as prolific as Daft Punk is, but there is a certain irreplicable creative spirit and innovation that Daft Punk carried with them that no imitator or influenced artist has managed to capture yet. While another Daft Punk may not be on the horizon any time soon, their influence, personality, spirit, and genre fusion already live on in the works of modern pop and hyperpop artists like Charli XCX, Clarence Clarity, TNGHT, The Weeknd, and even in the works of rock bands like The Strokes who took a more electronic route on their new album The New Abnormal. In fact, we are in the midst of a disco revival with artists like Jessie Ware and Daphni who are clearly inspired by Daft Punk's blend of disco and modern electronic aesthetics. In all, Daft Punk may be disbanded, but their influence will always be present in the contemporary music scene and will no doubt spawn artists, bands, and duos in the future who will cite Daft Punk as their primary influence and try to emulate their groundbreaking sounds. One could even credit the current disco revival to Daft Punk's blend of disco and modern pop and electronic aesthetics. Daft Punk may be broken up, but their influence on modern pop, groundbreaking genre fusions, and cultural barrier-breaking will continue to live on. Lammas is a sophomore in the College studying Government.