Daft Punk split: how they revolutionised popular music
On Monday last (February 22), Daft Punk broke the news that the duo had split after almost three decades with an 8-minute video titled “Epilogue”, excerpted from their 2006 film, Electroma.
Their split marks the end of arguably the one of most influential groups in modern popular music, with their influence on not only the electronic and dance genres, but popular music at large, rivaling that of Aphex Twin and Kraftwerk; the latter of which are often considered among the most important acts in all of popular music.
Despite a relatively short output of four studio albums, two live albums, a soundtrack album, and two features, Daft Punk’s influence is felt across the whole of popular music.
From homework to international influence
Formed in Paris by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo in 1993, Daft Punk rapidly rose to fame off the back of their 1997 debut album Homework, which was recorded as tracks originally intended to be released as standalone singles, with the album title referring to its literal home-made nature.
Propelling French house to international recognition just as electronic music was reaching a commercial peak, Homework proved particularly successful in the UK, where the album produced two top ten singles which would become club staples, “Da Funk” and “Around the World” respectively.
Homework’s aesthetic blueprint of gradual bass and treble fade ins and fade outs, drums treated with sidechain compression, and use of filter effects, quickly became a part of the popular music landscape.
Daft Punk’s mark on the popular music zeitgeist of the new millennium could be seen on acts who such as Modjo (“Lady (Hear Me Tonight)”) and Eric Prydz (“Call on Me”), whom broke out in the early-to-mid 2000s, as well in the work of more established artists, such as Madonna on her 2000 album, Music.
A discovery of both style and substance
2001’s Discovery followed, and would turn the French duo into one of the most influential and acclaimed artists of their generation. Compared to Homework, Discovery was more cinematic and poppier, though was wide-ranging in sound, covering New York garage house, Eurodisco, R&B, and new wave, among other styles.
The album spawned three more club staples in “One More Time”, “Digital Love”, and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, while also expanding the duo’s range, both socially and emotionally. Tracks such as “Veridis Quo” and “Something About Us” would go on to be important precursors to some of the key tracks found on 2013’s Random Access Memories.
It was also at this point that the duo adopted their now-iconic robot stage personas, which would become the faces of the duo for the remainder of their career, and the voices they communicated in on wax through their extensive use of vocoders and auto-tune from Discovery onwards, which enhanced the duo’s image further.
While they were not the first act to employ the use of vocoders an auto-tune in their work (Kraftwerk had been doing it since Autobahn was released in 1974, while Cher had a major hit with “Believe” in 1998), Daft Punk were credited with helping to popularise the use of both effects in modern pop.
Several songs from the album would be sampled by artists across the whole of popular music, the most well-known of these being Kanye West’s “Stronger” from his 2007 album, Graduation, which samples the vocal line of “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”
The prime time of Daft Punk’s life
While initially receiving a highly polarising response across the board, the duo’s third album Human After All (2005) also put its stamp on the popular culture of the mid-2000s, with “Technologic” being featured as part of Apple’s promotion of the iPod during the summer of 2005.
However, it was the ensuing 2006/2007 tour, which included the release of their Alive 2007 live album, and their 2006 Coachella performance which would arguably become the most influential period of Daft Punk’s career.
Alive 2007, which received widespread praise, would positively change perceptions on Human After All, with most of the album being reworked alongside material from Homework and Discovery to play out as a seamless greatest hits mash-up.
Daft Punk performing at Coachella, 2006.
Their Coachella performance would be regarded as a pivotal moment in sparking the EDM movement which would dominate pop in the early 2010s, especially the high production values of live performances, which would influence acts from both sides of the Atlantic, from Swedish House Mafia and Avicii in Europe to Deadmau5 and Skrillex in North America.
Daft Punk also become in-demand producers at this time, going on to compose the soundtrack for the 2010 film Tron: Legacy, as well as collaborate with Kanye West on Yeezus (2013), and The Weeknd on Starboy (2016); the latter of which would be among the duo’s final projects.
Accessing old memories while breathing life back into music
By 2013, Daft Punk had become ambivalent towards the EDM scene they had helped cultivate, and their final album Random Access Memories (RAM), was what was borne from that ambivalence.
RAM was recorded partly as a reaction to EDM’s commercial peak, as well as being an homage to the sounds of their youth, namely late 70’s disco, funk, and Californian soft rock, a sound which would breathe new life into chart music which many had considered to be growing stale during the early-to-mid 2010s.
The opening track “Give Life Back to Music” was even described by Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo as being about how mainstream music had lost its depth in the years leading up to the release of RAM, which would end up influencing the sonic direction of the album.
Discarding the computer wizardry which initially brought them fame, the duo limited their use of electronics to vintage vocoders, a custom-built Modcan synthesizer and a drum machine, as well as hiring session musicians to fill out the sound.
RAM also saw Daft Punk collaborating with artists who were either admired or were a major influence on the duo, ranging from electronic pioneer Giorgio Moroder on the progressively cinematic “Giorgio by Moroder”, to pianist extraordinaire Chilly Gonzales on the fragile “Within”.
Alongside Discovery’s “Something About Us” and RAM’s own “The Game of Love”, “Within” makes a convincing claim that robots can feel and express emotion in what is one of the finest uses of vocoder on any track.
“Get Lucky”, fronted by Pharrell Williams, became a sound which defined the summer of 2013, and would help lead a revival of disco influenced tracks such as Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” in 2015, and albums such as Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic in 2016, and The Weeknd’s After Hours in 2020.
RAM would go on to win Album of the Year at the 2014 Grammy Awards (the first for any electronic act), cementing the album as being among electronic music’s most historically significant albums.
Daft Punk receiving the Record Of The Year for “Get Lucky” at the 2014 Grammy Awards. Source: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
It is impossible to list off everywhere which the influence of Daft Punk turns up in the pantheon of popular music at large, as it is found in places where you likely would not expect.
To summarise the duo’s massive impact in short, Daft Punk were to France, as Kraftwerk were to Germany, and the Beatles were to Britain; they were the most successful and influential popular music act to ever come out of their country.