Daft Punk's Visual Evolution: Why 'Random Access Memories' May Not Require Music Videos
Yves Saint Laurent

From iconic "Homework" clips to dialogue-free abstract films, check out this breakdown of Daft Punk's visual history.

Not since pre-unveiled glory days of KISS back in the '70s has there been an artist in popular music that puts as much of an emphasis on visuals -- while remaining virtually anonymous to the world themselves -- as Daft Punk. When you think of essential visuals in mainstream music, they usually involve the artists themselves, whether it be Elvis' swiveling hips, the Beatles' revolutionary moptops, Madonna's chameleon-like omnipresence on early MTV or Beyonce changing trends in the fashion world with every public appearance. Unless you were a family friend or a longtime collaborator, however, you would have virtually no chance of recognizing Thomas Bangalter or Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo if you passed them on the street.

Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' Headed For Big Sales

Yet, despite keeping their own faces a mystery, Daft Punk have become iconic, both for their own trademark getups -- distinct robot costumes that the group wears to all public appearances, which both feeds into and satirizes the duo's purposefully dehumanized musics -- and their outsized, ambitious, and incredibly imaginative visuals. That partly stems from their famed live performances, the dazzling light-show spectacles of which helped make their rare stateside appearances (particularly their Alive 2006/2007 Tour, and its kickoff performance at the 2006 Coachella Festival) the stuff of legend among those in attendance. But the group's strongest visual impression comes with their music videos, which have become not only an essential part of the duo's legacy, but one whose history helps tell the story of the group themselves. On the release date of Daft Punk's latest sonic opus, "Random Access Memories," let's look back at the visuals that have helped define and popularize the duo. 

PART I: THE NEW WAVE

Daft Punk's emergence on the pop scene came about at just the right time for them to have maximum impact on MTV -- which, after ignoring the more underground side of dance music for most of its first decade and a half, was finally starting to give electronic acts some real exposure with its first all-electronic block of music video programming, the late-night show AMP. Some of these artists, like the Prodigy or Aphex Twin, pushed their own image to the forefront, and others, like Orbital or the Chemical Brothers, preferred to take a back seat, preferring to tell character stories in their music videos and showing up as themselves only in brief cameos, or not at all. Daft Punk quickly fell into the latter camp with their first spate of music videos, promoting the eventual release of the duo's 1997 debut album, "Homework." Bangalter said in a 1997 interview that the duo has a "general rule about not appearing in videos," and indeed, the duo was almost entirely absent, even in robot form, from the five videos accompanying "Homework."

However, their absence from the videos did not keep them from becoming a critical part of the duo's ascent, as the clips, helmed by such '90s MTV auteurs as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Roman Coppola, ended up being some of the most creative and captivating of the era. First was the surreal urban drama of the Jonze-directed "Da Funk," and its more serene sequel "Fresh," both featuring the anthropomorphic dog-man "Charles" as a fish out of water struggling to adapt to his new confines, first on the cold streets of New York and then on the sun-baked West Coast. The clips were striking not just for the unforgettable image of their leading dog-man, limping in a cast and crutches or wearing a cheesy tuxedo, but for their bizarrely moving stories, heartbreaking as Charles struggles to make a connection in "Da Funk," and incredibly satisfying as he finds resolution at the end of "Fresh." "Da Funk" became the group's first international hit, and its video gained brief daytime exposure on MTV, a rarity for an instrumental dance track.

The other "Homework" videos were less narrative-focused than "Da Funk" and "Fresh," but arguably more visually arresting. There was the elaborately choreographed, brilliantly designed dance clip for second single "Around the World," in which director Michel Gondry visualized each of the song's instruments (bass, drums, synths, etc.) represented as a different set of characters (skeletons, mummies, flappers, etc.) in an almost Busby Berkley-esque routine. Roman Coppola's "Revolution 909" used the video's obvious busted-rave setup -- prompted by the "Stop the music and go home" police command included in the song -- as a jumping-off point for a sumptuous journey through the life of a tomato sauce, starting with the tomatoes' harvesting in the fields, going up through an instructional video of a mother preparing the sauce, and ending as a stain on one of the cops' shirts. Even Seb Janiak's "Burnin'," the least memorable of the videos, remains compelling for its titular visual juxtaposition of a building on fire with a particularly blazing dance party on a different floor, featuring cameos from Chicago house paragons like DJ Sneak and Roger Sanchez, and for a brief second, even the non-costumed duo themselves.

PART II: DIGITAL LOVE

With the release of Daft Punk's second LP, "Discovery," in 2001, many fans looked forward to another series of interesting, unpredictable and eye-popping music videos, shot by the best up-and-coming video directors. However, as those fans would soon find out from the album itself -- which, in stark contrast to the hard-hitting, occasionally abrasive house cuts that populated "Homework," was absolutely unabashed in its pop leanings -- Thomas and Guy-Manuel were not in the business of repeating themselves, and had no such videos planned for "Discovery." Instead, they had something a little more ambitious in mind: "Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar system," an anime film devised by Daft Punk with a series of collaborators (including supervisor Leiji Matsumoto, a childhood favorite of the duo) to accompany the album in its entirety, with music videos being pulled from the movie for individual singles like "One More Time" and "Digital Love."

The story of "Interstella 5555" -- a beloved band from a utopian planet in a far-away dimension is kidnapped by evil Earth music producers, stripped of their identities and memories and forced to perform for their own financial gain, before a heroic fan of the group's comes to save the day -- is predictable and preposterous, but is almost entirely besides the point. The occasionally mesmerizing sights of the movie, synchronized inspiredly with the album's songs (the breakneck funk of "Aerodynamic" is set to a suspenseful action sequence; the mechanical lurch of "Harder, Better, Faster Stronger" is set to a factory sequence in which the band members are systematically reprogrammed), make for its primary appeal, and it was a treat for fans of the band to see the music on "Discovery" brought to visual life like this.

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