Daft Punk: How two helmet-wearing DJs both defined and transformed a genre

Holding steady as pioneers of sound as the scene of dance music evolved across twenty-eight triumphant years, as of February 22nd, legendary French duo Daft Punk have sadly called it quits. Alex Duke assesses the impact that the duo has had on contemporary electronic dance music, from their unsuspecting origins to their chart-topping success.

Three decades of critical acclaim. Holistic, invigorating live performances. An emphatic return to relevance. An iconic name born out of a cynical review.

Daft Punk’s story, similar to their music and presented demeanor, is fuelled by unconventionality. Yet, their abstract style has led to unprecedented accomplishment, chart success, worldwide tours, and high-grossing albums. It all started in 1987, when the two members, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, met in high school in Paris. After fleeting experimentations with more band members, testing out a different name, and even dabbling in punk-rock, Daft Punk settled on pursuing electronic music in the early 1990s.

‘Their outfits, alongside an unwillingness to divulge any private information, easily created an aura of mystery around the pair.’

It took a while for them to achieve mainstream success, with the 1995 single Da Funk being their first single to achieve any form of commercial acclaim. Yet, their influence began to truly unfold in 1997, with the release of their first album, Homework. With over two million worldwide sales, this was the album that introduced the world to the niche genre of French house music. The standout track was perhaps Around The World. Whilst repetitive to some (the phrase “Around The World” is repeated 144 times to be exact), the song was praised for its use of the voice box and synthesizer, two features that are inextricably linked with Daft Punk’s brand of house music. Da Funk, a fellow track on the album, reached number one and was commended for its genre-blending approach, linking dance with funk to create an instrumental masterpiece.

Two years later, the helmets were added to their personas, and Daft Punk suddenly had an intriguingly unique public perception. Their outfits, alongside an unwillingness to divulge any private information, easily created an aura of mystery around the pair. The turn of the millennium saw an interesting stylistic shift for the French house duo. A move towards synth-pop on their second full album, Discovery, was met with some skepticism, but again, it fostered a great deal of success. Featuring the timeless One More Time and the legendary Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger, Daft Punk were beginning to put together a discography filled with an increasingly developed sound. A vital ability to have a distinctive style, yet a versatile approach to encompass new genres and themes was vital to Daft Punk’s work. One More Time as a track has the freshness of a song that could have been released in 2021, yet simultaneously possesses a nostalgic, sentimental tone. It is simply timeless.

The mid-2000s were arguably a high point, with the release of 2005’s Human After All and the creation of the live album Alive 2007. The albums were both successful, and symbolic of Daft Punk’s constant ability to adapt and evolve in their musicality. Robot Rock was a prime example of Daft Punk’s ever-changing brand of House music, showcasing a forceful riff coinciding powerfully with a pulsating drumming backbeat. In the track, Daft Punk also nodded to their quintessential use of voice-box as a form of vocals. As a track overall, it was the perfect representation of Daft Punk’s distinctive relationship between their past work and their capability to adapt.

Alive 2007 was also critically adored, as it documented perhaps Daft Punk’s greatest ever tour. Their live sets were always memorable, given their all-inclusive set style, thunderous light shows, intricate timing, and smooth transitions between singles. They not only paved the way for other electronic dance artists to thrive musically, but their live shows also set new standards in both musical and technical performances.

“It was not just an impressive album, it was fanatically brilliant; again a reminder of Daft Punk’s staggering ability to regenerate.”

The following album, 2010’s Tron Legacy Soundtrack, is perhaps an album that gets unfairly overlooked due to its place in daft Punk’s chronology. Wedged between the brilliant Human After All and 2013’s Random Access Memories, it is a victim of timing rather than its own quality. But it was Random Access Memories that ushered Daft Punk emphatically into the modern age of electronic music. Emerging electronic music artists such as Avicii and Calvin Harris had helped bring EDM into the charts, and the argument could have been made that the genre had moved past Daft Punk’s niche brand of electronic synth-pop, with modern tracks placing a greater emphasis on pop-style song construction and sudden, impactful bass drops.

Fully embracing the challenges of an-ever changing EDM landscape, Daft Punk returned in glorious style. Random Access Memories saw a greater focus on collaboration, but the album exemplified Daft Punk’s intricate production style, creating bustling, melodic tracks along the way. The album pushed the boundaries expected of pre-existing EDM albums, incorporating a wide variety of genres, including progressive rock, synth-pop, funk, and new wave. Daft Punk’s greater emphasis on collaboration also conveyed the talents of Pharrell Williams, Julian Casablancas, and Todd Edwards. Get Lucky was a chart phenomenon, accompanied by a music video nodding to Daft Punk’s appreciation of 1970s and 1980s musical cultures. Lose Yourself To Dance was characterized by a catchy bassline, sublime vocals, and delicate guitar work. It was not just an impressive album, it was fanatically brilliant, and again a reminder of Daft Punk’s staggering ability to regenerate.

If The Beatles are considered the founding fathers of rock, then Daft Punk have to be seen as the equivalent in Electronic Dance Music. No singular EDM artist has had such an impressive impact, and such an ability to create consistently valuable content over such a long period of time. Daft Punk made the times and also moved with them. They were both the influencer and the influenced. Who knows how many EDM artists would operate differently, or even operate, without their guidance? After twenty-eight years, they will be terribly missed.

Written by: Alex Duke

Edited by: Louise Dugan

Featured image courtesy of Columbia Records via Facebook. Article image courtesy of Daft Punk via Facebook.