Daft Punk and COVID-19: The Game Has Changed, Or Has It?

by Christina Donoghue on 3 March 2021

Monday 22 February 2021 saw the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declare the earliest date nightclubs and music venues could reopen, coinciding with Daft Punk's shock announcement of their split. Christina Donoghue reflects on the duo's music that reverberated around the world and back again.

Monday 22 February 2021 saw the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declare the earliest date nightclubs and music venues could reopen, coinciding with Daft Punk's shock announcement of their split. Christina Donoghue reflects on the duo's music that reverberated around the world and back again.

Just over a week ago, the British public faced two announcements, both in equal contradiction. On Monday 22 February 2021, Boris Johnson unveiled yet another 'roadmap' to the nation for lifting the current national lockdown restrictions, revealing his plan to open nightclubs and large venues on the 21 June 2021, at the earliest. Monday 22 February 2021 was also the date that saw French electronic duo Daft Punk go their separate ways, officially announcing their split after an eight-year hiatus. The timing of both statements almost seems planned; a 90s duo known for their space age helmets - dubbed with the title of saving French House music - (who have also pretty much influenced every music genre in the 21st century), decide to publicly announce their split the day the British Prime Minister discloses the awaited date that we can rub our sweaty bodies against each other in clubs and experience live music. Seems rather fitting, no? Even if you were never a techno fan, nor an electronic music fan, and even if you don't like clubbing (I, for one, certainly feel too old for that, and I'm only 22), Daft Punk's split has reverberated around the world, in similar ways to how their music once did. Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't they write a song about that? Around the World.

Releasing their EP Darlin' on the same label as avant-pop band Stereolab is how it all started. In response to the EP that was well received in the underground scene, English music critic Dave Jennings of Melody Maker referred to Darlin' as 'Daft, punky thrash', and before you know it, the pair cleverly took the comment and based their whole ethos and identity around it, becoming the much-loved Daft Punk we now know.

The men behind the masks go by the names Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, although this detail doesn't really matter in the slightest when you consider that, for more than half their career, no one really knew anything about them. Their decision to conceal their identity started at the turn of the century, and overnight the pair went from being human to becoming robots. Critics say the helmets were just the Millenium bug coming into full effect; others say the helmets represent a much more nuanced identity, steeped in complexities around the invasion of privacy that is too often accompanied with fame in excess. Whatever the reason was behind Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter's choice for refusing to reveal their identity, wearing the helmets and becoming fully-fledged robots is central to their story in terms of preserving their enigmatic appearance at all times. After all, founder of the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles Jean-Daniel Beauvallet voiced of de Homem-Christo and Bangalter, in Daft Punk's 2015 documentary Daft Punk Unchained, 'Creating those robot personas let them stay grounded and completely free. They bought their freedom by sending robots to do the dirty work.'

You don't have to be a Daft Punk fan to understand their influence on contemporary music and French culture in general; you just have to realise that they were probably the force behind many of the artists you listen to today. In the same documentary mentioned above, Thomas Bangalter's voice can be heard clarifying that 'Electronic music was one of the last great musical revolutions of the recent decades - everything produced since is either influenced by it or hip hop, nothing else has come along since.' The documentary Daft Punk Unchained also starts with DJ and record producer Skrillex declaring that 'Everyone knows daft punk. Everyone can hear Around the World or One More Time, just reading those words, and they can feel it too, and it feels so good.' I'm sure the guests present at France's 2017 celebration of their national holiday Bastille Day would agree. To celebrate the ceremony, a French services marching band played a medley of Daft Punk at the end of the parade. It was everything you'd expect and more. Even the translation of Daft Punk through brass instruments is enough to get a party started. Donald Trump looked somewhat bemused as the band performed a mash-up of some of the group's greatest hits, including One More Time and Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger from Daft Punk's Discovery album (2001) and their 2013 hit single Get Lucky with Pharrell Williams.

Daft Punk were too unusual to ever be considered mainstream, yet they were also too big to ever be referred to as underground artists.

What makes Daft Punk's music and genius so inexplicably transcendent is that they didn't really have any contemporaries. Any music made that claimed to be directly inspired by what they were doing was too similar to their own style for it to just be a coincidence, rather more a copy. Journalist Alex Petridis noted in The Guardian that 'The hits made in Daft Punk's image were cannily done, but never quite Daft Punk's equal,' proving that their lack of contemporaries, rather to do with people not liking their music, was actually because people liked it too much, and a more objective attitude could never be obtained.

When they popped onto the electronic dance scene in the 90s, Daft Punk took inspiration from House music to an extent, but their records were completely unlike anything at the time. While people speak about an artist's legacy, their contemporaries always seem to crop up in conversation, placing the subject in the context of their peers, making it a contest of who influenced who and a game of who made what first. Daft Punk didn't have any of that because, as said before, they had no competition, nada. Even the mainstream pop industry didn't really understand their music until the duo had moved, always staying one step ahead. Daft Punk were too unusual to ever be considered mainstream, yet they were also too big to ever be referred to as underground artists. They successfully straddled both categories, and even as their popularity sky-rocketed, they managed to keep both types of audience, a talent often unheard of in the music world.

Through never being photographed without wearing their masks, only having their voices heard in the scant handful of interviews they selectively gave and by never discussing their personal lives, the aura of mystery was maintained to the very end. Even their split was announced with a video cited from their 2006 film Electroma, in which one robot blows up the other. No explanation was given for the split, and if anything, it wouldn't be very Daft Punk to do so. By carefully extracting themselves from a scene they are responsible for creating, they preserved their enigma right to the end.

Their split could be seen as the final nail in the coffin for dance clubs, on top of the blow after blow the events and music industry has already received from the government in recent months. On the other hand, who knows, maybe, just maybe, there may be a comparative second roaring '20s (you know, the one that everyone keeps talking about) sprouting a revival in the rebellious underground scene that Daft Punk grew from in the early 90s. The music industry has arguably been one of the worst effected during the pandemic, which is interesting to say the least when you consider the notion that many subcultures grow from small insular music fandoms. We only have to look to the Punks of the 70s or the New Romantics of the 80s or, to be very fitting, the rave culture of the 90s to understand this. Music has and hopefully will always be the predominant influence on youth culture as a whole, and that remains a hard cold fact. Has Daft Punk stepped aside to allow new talent to come through? If now isn't the time, then when? If Daft Punk are no more, then who?

At the end of the day, with speculation aside, Daft Punk was a business built on a solid foundation of two guys who knew what they were doing through and through. When you compare this to present times, the road ahead looks much darker; the economy is bleak, and the music scene, even bleaker. COVID-19 has destroyed many venues in the entertainment industry, but not all hope is lost. Yes, Daft Punk have split, but their legacy in electronic music and music in general is still just as palpable as it was in the 90s. So, touching wood, I say that when the Day of Reckoning arrives in June, we take a Daft Punk record in one hand, and a glass of prosecco in the other. I'll drink to that!



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