Daft Punk 101
Thomas Bangalter, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and Laurent Brancowitz were still teenagers when they started the band Darlin’, in Versailles, France. They released their songs, and the British magazine Melody Maker did not like their music. They called it “daft punky trash”. Thus was born Daft Punk.
Well, maybe not thus. Thomas Bangalter(“Thomas”) and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo(Guy-Man) left Darlin’and formed Daft Punk in 1993. Daft Punk creates only electronic dance music, till date. They released their first album, Homework, in 1997, and their second, Discovery, in 2001. But something happened between these albums. On 9/9/1999, 9:09AM, Thomas Bangalter says, : “We did not choose to become robots,” he said. “We were working on our sampler, and at exactly 9:09 am on September 9, 1999, it exploded. When we regained consciousness, we discovered that we had become robots.”
Even on Homework, they’d chosen to cover their faces. One of their last official pictures in which both their human faces are present, is dated somewhere in the late 90’s.
They have chosen to not present themselves for two reasons: One, to separate their music from any physical form, and two, to have any amount of privacy as possible. Their costumes have gone through many changes, but the masks seem to be constant since 2001.
Human After All
Human After All(HAA) has been a controversial album. Guy-Man says that HAA is more like Thomas Bangalter, as he is more technical in his craft, and Guy-Man more prone to emotion. HAA is known to be an album which is heavily autotuned. Daft Punk refused to talk about HAA, and the only official statement regarding HAA is a note on the Japanese Edition of it, which says: “Human After All speaks for itself.” Bangalter has said that HAA has been inspired from 1984 by George Orwell.
It is quite a dystopian look at technology and its effects on humans, which is what titles such as Television Rules the Nation, and The Brainwasher, says to us. The internet tells me that HAA is Daft Punk imagining Machines trying to imagine what human music would sound like. Another interpretation is that Daft Punk is trying to be a cocky prophet, telling us off on our reliance of technology. As Banglater has said,: “The problem with music and technology right now is that there’s this utopian idea that technology is going to assist you in freeing your brain to reach higher goals. But the reality is that technology just makes you lazy.” Honestly, it could be both, but the former idea seems more romantic.
If we explore the “Human Music” idea, and listen to HAA, it seems apt. The titular track, which is also the opening one, starts with the line: “We are Human” and repeats it, trying to convince the listeners that they are actually human. “Television Rules the Nation” becomes more than just an ominous warning- it is the machine telling us a fact, or a fact to a machine. “Technologic”, along with the creepy video, tells us a story of a child(?) learning the world of commands, or the world as a machine knows it. This world, and the song, gets progressively complex. This concept really does bring out the post-human thought alive. So now we ask: What does being post-human mean?
The official definition is, someone who achieves: “…maximum attainable capacities by any current human being without recourse to new technological means. ” An example would be that all of us, currently living right now, would be considered post-human for someone who travelled through time from the past, when health sciences and techology was not as capable as now.
For Daft Punk, post-human seems to be a complete takeover by technological advances over the human body to the extent that the idea of human is alien to them. It is an interesting vantage point to look from, but by no means is it an original idea. How Daft Punk makes it their own is by allowing The Robots to try and imitate human music. Another way to look at is what the accompanying videos say. The Primetime of your Life depicts a girl going through identity/figure issues, because all the others in her world are skeletons. The argument is that the skeletons represent the beauty standards forced upon women through television. This point brings us back to Television rules the Nation. Technologic shows a shrunken looking child shape reading commands off of a TV screen, and these commands are what becomes the lyrics of the song.
All this thought brings us back to one question: if we, in our current state are to look through the perspective of a post-human being, we must understand what we are, and then try to imagine moving forward from this perspective. In a nut-shell, it is a meditation on what it means to be human in these times. And so is post-human thought, in my opinion.
Electroma(2007) was a feature length film made by Daft Punk. It doesn’t contain any songs by Daft Punk as its score, despite songs being the only source of audio in the movie.
The plot of the movie is that a pair of robots donning the same clothes and helmets as Daft Punk goes on a journey to become human. They go to a small town in Inyo County, California, and they enter a mysterious facility, in which they go through a process. This process gives them human masks made of wax over their Daft Punk masks. They go out to the town’s population wearing these masks, and see everyone wearing the Daft Punk masks.
Their masks get melted off in the sun, and they are chased out of the town. They go on a long journey, until they find a disembodied pubis and vulva. After this, one robot helps the other self-destruct by pressing a switch on the robot’s back, but can’t kill itself. It walks further, and takes off its mask to shatter it. Using one of the shards, that robot burns itself, and walks away immolated.
Here, the aim to reach by transcending is fixed: it is to be human. It is unclear whether the robots were aware of the existence of a world filled with their likenesses- nothing suggests otherwise. When they achieved their goal, their environment did not allow them to pursue this road. They become disillusioned(?) and try to destroy themselves. This is simliar to Jean-Paul Sartre’s example of a homosexual. Sartre says that any man who denies the ambiguities in his identity should not blame, or attribute, these ambiguities on his nature, or his genetic make-up. For Sartre, this is a coward’s act, who denies his existing conditions and therefore is acting in bad faith.
Hero Robots in Electroma denies their self, which self is like the rest of that town(represented by their helmets), and meets society’s disapproval. However, for the Robots, who had came to that town from a lonely desert, being chased into another lonely desert should not have been a devastating experience- but, it is.
Random Access Memories
Random Access Memories(“RAM”) is Daft Punk’s latest album. The title is a play on the Robot charade, and also on the idea of computer memory v. Human memory. Guy-Man has said in one of their interviews that RAM is more his likeness than Bangalter, because he was the more emotional person in the duo.
All of the songs on RAM has legendary musicians collaborating with Daft Punk, from Nile Rodgers to Giorgio Moroder to Pharell Williams. It is almost as if the Robots have figured out that to sound more Human, human help is required. All of these collaborators still call them “The Robots”. RAM enjoyed huge commercial and critical success.
The songs in the Album goes back and forth between stereotypically human experiences- like a crush who plays mind-games in “Instant Crush”, just dancing and having fun in “Lose Yourself to Dance”, getting lucky in “Get Lucky”,- and less common human experiences such as in “Touch”, where individual existence is questioned, with lines such as “You’ve almost convinced me I’m real.”
This theory that they were Robots in HAA, and became more human in RAM, seems like a going-back-to-understand-yourself story. This fits in what Nile Rodgers said about Daft Punk’s new sound: “They were going back to move forward”. This is a sentiment that Bangalter has also expressed: “In some ways it’s like we’re running on a highway going the opposite direction to everybody else”.
Daft Punk does some very interesting work in music, perhaps the most interesting for their generation. Whether or not post-human thought was involved in their music-making is something that hasn’t been revealed yet, but it surely has been seen there by their audience. Perhaps that says more about Daft Punk’s audience than Daft Punk itself.
Arun Philip is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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