Music History

We'll Always Have Daft Punk’s Mythical Nostalgia

The robots inherited the Earth for a while, and are returning from whence they came. Daft Punk announced their split on Monday.
The robots inherited the Earth for a while, and are returning from whence they came. Daft Punk announced their split on Monday. Kevork Djansezian/Getty
Nostalgia is a tricky thing, but Daft Punk did it right.

It already feels strange to refer to Daft Punk in the past tense, but when you think about it, the iconic house duo have always been primed for 20/20 hindsight. With Daft Punk announcing their breakup after what many believe to be a practically flawless 28-year career, the nostalgic fabric of their music looms brighter than ever.

Looking back, their entire body of work feels like a musical expression of “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.” Even at their peak as one of electronic music’s most forward-looking artists, the specter of that past shaded the spaces between every pulsating beat forward.

Even their gimmick felt like a relic of a distant past. In the post-MTV era, where the see-and-be-seen nature of social media dictates that an artist must be visible as well as audible, it’s a safe bet that 95 percent of Daft Punk’s audience have never seen their faces.

The projected idea that, behind their masks, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Cristo were actually robots felt like the spell that KISS cast over the youth of America in the '70s; the intentional mythologizing of the artists makes the art more mysterious, and therefore appealing.

In a world where the boring truth behind the mask or the makeup is only a few finger swipes away, the fact that Daft Punk not only preserved this mythos but thrived commercially and critically is astounding. Perhaps it’s  because nostalgia is intertwined as a part of Daft Punk’s musical DNA. The duo didn’t merchandise nostalgia so much as they emoted it — not the obvious "Remember the '80s?!” nostalgia that seems to grip every teenager who watched It — but Don Draper's elegant definition of nostalgia: “Pain from an old wound."

Daft Punk’s music has always looked back, not at cultural totems, but through them. The hopelessly infatuated protagonist of “Digital Love” just wants to go back to sleep so he can dream of his crush’s touch — the only place he can find it. They summed up the absolute agony of unrequited love in six words: “I don’t know what to do.”  Bangalter and de Homem-Cristo express this via the appropriate use of a guitar/synthesizer solo and a Supertramp-style electric piano breakdown that required the acquisition of Supertramp’s actual electric piano. You may not know it’s from the past, but your heart does. And 9 times out of 10, yearning for the past feels better than the present.

The duo’s mining of the past for ingredients was only one-half of the formula; the recipes were nothing short of brilliant. While chances are the average casual electronic music fan has a lax understanding of music theory and can’t tell the difference between a seventh and a fifth chord, Daft Punk would have thrived long before the age of sampling and electronic manipulation. In “Digital Love,” the song’s chords intentionally don’t resolve — in layman’s terms, it means your brain doesn’t get the next chord it’s expecting, creating a sense of longing, and therefore reinforcing the song’s lovesick mood. Shoot, Daft Punk might have ended up becoming Steely Dan had they been born in 1940s New York.

But they weren’t. They were both born in France within three years of the release of Saturday Night Fever. By the time the pair came together in 1993, Europe was filled with the sounds of dance music while Americans continued (and continue) to pray to the newly resurrected flannel-clad God of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

People of a certain age tend to say “so-and-so was the last great ... ” (fill in the blanks at both ends) and there’s bound to be a lot of that in the fallout of Daft Punk’s demise. Usually, these declarations arise around the time these people either get married or have children — events that signify a bitter loss from one’s carefree youth to the perceived banality and responsibility of adulthood. Around that time is when nostalgia becomes a drug, to which some become addicted, as Tame Impala's Kevin Parker once said.

Daft Punk were able to generate a sort of pre-nostalgia for things that had not yet happened, a sort of musically emotive causality loop. In many ways, they represented the last of a generation of musicians who believed that the mystique was just as important as the music itself. Before the dark times. Before streaming.

In early 2013, at the height of the reign of pop stardom (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, Rihanna, P!nk and Taylor Swift all occupied the same upper echelons of the Billboard charts at some point that year), Daft Punk dropped what was arguably the year’s widest-reaching “event” release: Random Access Memories. Even the end of David Bowie’s decade-long absence was somehow met with less fanfare. Prior to this, it was hard to make the case that Daft Punk were anything more than a wide-reaching cult act, kept alive by high school seniors that whipped out their CD copies of Discovery just when the party felt like it was about to get stale.

Upon release, Random Access Memories debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts with 339,000 copies sold in its first week — the second-biggest first-week sales of any album that year, bested only by Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience and its 968,000 copies (by comparison, you can count on one hand the number of albums in 2019 that sold more than 60,000 physical copies in their first week). Random Access Memories’ lead single “Get Lucky” featuring a pre-ubiquitous Pharrell Williams reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, kept from the top spot by Robin Thicke’s and post-ubiquitous Pharrell Williams' “Blurred Lines” for the entirety of July.

In a world where the boring truth behind the mask or the makeup is only a few finger swipes away, the fact that Daft Punk not only preserved this mythos but thrived commercially and critically is astounding.

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Looking back now, it feels like one of those examples of niche genre-quality-popularity intersections that only seem to have happened in the age of Steely Dan. Much like how Aja brought postwar song form and audiophile jazz harmony to ears expecting Andy Gibb, Random Access Memories slipped maxi-disco grooves, rock opera concepts and audiophile production quality into ears accustomed to downloading “Party Rock Anthem” via YouTube-to-MP3 converter. It may remain the only album to feature the people responsible for Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby,” Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” and Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” inhabiting the same piece of vinyl.

Checkout lines at FYE stores across America filled with 13-year-olds and 30-year-olds buying the same album. Even more shocking, that album was met with widespread critical and fan acclaim. There were no cries of “I prefer the old Daft Punk,” “I’ve had enough of this Pharrell guy,” or “Disco Sucks!” within earshot. In the band’s own words: “Everybody will be dancing if you’re doing it right.”

By the time the album was awarded Album of the Year nine months later at the 2014 Grammy Awards, Random Access Memories had sold 3.2 million copies. One of the most progressive and nostalgic records ever recorded was both a commercial success — hanging around both the album and singles’ charts for the remainder of the year, lauded by the music press, showered with awards and later named the 295th greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone — without most people ever seeing the artist’s faces.

Then, when the world needed Daft Punk the most, they vanished.

There was no promotional tour or any live performances to promote the album, save for one at the Grammys. Aside from bringing some analog warmth to the winter of 2016 in the form of producing two of The Weeknd’s most popular (and not coincidentally, best) songs, “Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming,” the eight years following Random Access Memories were filled with radio silence from Daft Punk — like the sound of the Voyager probes leaving the solar system for the vast unknown of interstellar space. And you know what? It was the right thing for them to do.

The 2013 releases of Random Access Memories, along with Queens of The Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, and Lorde’s “Royals” marked a turning point in the 21st century musical landscape. In many ways, the former three records marked the end of the disco/rock/indie genres as cultural juggernauts, and the latter song took a katana to the age of the pop diva in favor of a more self-conscious, subtle, mature kind of pop music that Billie Eilish has conquered the world with (not a bad thing).

In the years since, streaming has obviously become the primary method of music consumption by most under 30, placing songs directly in the palms of listeners and generating a need for more “content,” more interviews, more promotional appearances and a bigger online presence. When all the music in the world is within thumb’s reach, what makes you type "Daft Punk" over a more familiar musician whom you’ve seen eat chicken wings with Sean Evans, or at the very least, someone whose face you’ve actually seen?

Daft Punk hung up their helmets instead of keeping up with the matrices of streaming data and YouTube algorithms and ensured their place in music history by cementing their legacy at the right time.

In their hypnotic, Kubrickian 2007 film Electroma, Daft Punk wander the California desert in search of their own human forms and find only a town filled with Thorgerson-esque robots who run the duo out to face their destiny across vast, lonely sand dunes. It’s an apt metaphor for Bangalter and de Homem-Cristo's place in the music world since day one.

In a world run by robots, it turns out, the men with the robot masks were the most human after all.
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta