Daft Punk's Visual Evolution: Why 'Random Access Memories' May Not Require Music Videos
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.
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.
"Interstella" also demonstrated the increasingly big-picture direction that Daft Punk was moving in with their albums. "Homework" may have been a collection of singles, but "Discovery" most certainly was not -- tracks bled into one another with obvious care and thoughtfulness, with the album ebbing and flowing in such a dramatically satisfying manner that it was frequently referred to as a "concept album." Nonetheless, the idea that "Discovery" should eventually receive full motion-picture accompaniment was hardly surprising, and like the album, "Interstella" works much better experienced in full, rather than parceled out into individual videos or singles.
PART III: ROBOT ROCK
It would have been hard to get much more ambitious with their next project than the duo was with the "Discovery" and its accompanying "Interstella," both of which seemed like the duo spent every hour of the four years since "Homework" plotting for. Indeed, with third album "Human After All," Daft Punk didn't even try. The album was famously created in just a six-week window, primarily using just a couple of guitars and a drum machine, devised partly as a response to the breathtaking scope and lush productions of "Discovery." The final album was certainly a step back from that, and many fans struggled to adapt to the duo's new sound -- a rawer, even further-dehumanized brand of electro-funk that, for a group coming off one of the most immaculate-sounding LPs of the 21st century, bordered on being lo-fi.
The new set of music videos that came with "Human After All" further reflected this about-face turn in direction. The group returned to live-action for the "Human" clips, but did not enlist a director dream team as they had with "Homework," instead directing two of the videos themselves and passing one off to longtime collaborator Tony Gardner. Also in contrast with the "Homework" videos, the "Human" set comes off as low-budget and somewhat low-concept: first single "Robot Rock" is just the duo, in full robot gear, rocking out to the song in a retro performance clip, while "Technologic" also features the duo, performing in a Duran Duran-like video set, as a sort of baby robot doll recites the song's lyrics behind them. Only "The Prime Time of Your Life" has any real kind of narrative to it, where a normal-looking girl who seemingly exists in a world of skeletons decides to strip off her skin... but even that video has a fuzzy, low-quality look to it, and is mostly set in one single room.
The "Human After All" videos also have the effect of reflecting some of the album's creepier, more purposefully soulless qualities. The baby doll in "Technologic" is an extremely unsettling creation, obviously robotic but with human gums and teeth. The resolution of "Prime Time" -- in which the girl sheds her flesh, possibly killing herself in the process, only for it to be revealed that she was delusional about the skeletons all along -- is absolutely horrifying, a far cry from the cute dance numbers and stories about dog-men of the first album's videos. Even "Robot Rock," an innocuous performance clip, becomes decidedly tiring and semi-depressing by video's end. It was a new direction for Daft Punk, and an arguably rewarding one for those who could wrap their heads around it. But it's not surprising that it turned a lot of people off.
PART IV: DEREZZED
Daft Punk took its longest album gap yet in between "Human After All" and fourth album "Random Access Memories," but they were not completely removed from experimenting with music, and especially video, over this time. Most notably, the duo worked on both sides of film scoring, first providing the film for "Electroma," a dialogue-less, snail-paced, abstract road movie, in which the two Daft Punk robots attempt to become human and then attempt to self-destruct, scored with music by artists like Todd Rundgren and Brian Eno. Then, the duo did their first feature-film scoring work, providing the music for the Disney release of "TRON: Legacy," mostly forgoing their own musical trademarks for a more traditional orchestral soundtrack. Ironically, the vivid, futuristic glow-in-the-dark visuals for "TRON: Legacy" were much closer to what one would expect from a Daft Punk movie than those of the stark, minimalist "Electroma," but both seemed to indulge the duo's thematic fascinations with the blurred lines of reality, humanity and identity.
However, as rich as Daft Punk's visual history has been, it seems to have come to an odd impasse with the release of "Random Access Memories." As incredible an amount of hype as the album has had, the promotion for it has been entirely about the music -- mostly the collaborators who worked with Daft Punk on the album, listed in a trailer premiered at this year's Coachella Festival, and then interviewed about themselves, the album and the Robots in a series of leaked videos. There have been no official music videos, no live appearances (and none announced for the immediate future), nothing but a one-minute clip of the duo performing lead single "Get Lucky" with collaborators Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers that aired during an "SNL" ad -- though the demand for Daft Punk videos is so high that some enterprising sorts have re-cut that brief amount of footage into a full-length clip for the song, some of which have garnered 400,000 YouTube views.
Really though, it wouldn't be totally shocking if Daft Punk took this album off from visuals altogether. The entire marketing campaign behind "Random Access Memories" has been geared around the album's back-to-basics qualities, getting at the essence of dance music (in the classic, Giorgio Moroder-era disco sense) without modern-day trappings. Indeed, many of the songs on the album sound like they easily could have been recorded before MTV's 1981 debut. Pharrell has already talked up the inherently visual qualities of the music on "Memories," saying “It’s beyond 3D. It’s like 4D. It’s in your mind. You don’t need MDMA for this music. Cause the music is so incredibly vivid."
Perhaps this is Daft Punk's attempt to prove that their music requires no imagery beyond that conjured in the head of the listeners. Such a transition would be somewhat jarring for the duo, given how important visuals have been for them throughout their career, but they've done so much with audio-visual synchronization already -- videos, live spectacles, animated movies, scores, live-action films -- that maybe the biggest challenge for them now is doing it with no visuals at all. Or perhaps by the end of the week, they'll announce that they're starring in their own Broadway musical based on "Random Access Memories." With Daft Punk, nothing is ever all that surprising.