If 15 seasons of The History Channel’s pseudoscientific mainstay Ancient Aliens are to be believed, extraterrestrial lifeforms once visited Earth’s primitive civilizations. Using technology far beyond that of the Bronze Age, they built awe-inspiring monuments, cityscapes, megaliths, and geoglyphs. Many of these relics, such as Peru’s Nazca Lines, served purposes both spiritual and scientific, constructed to observe celestial bodies or mark the changing seasons. After granting the human race these structures and their accompanying insights, the aliens abruptly departed, leaving Earthlings to extrapolate science and culture from their galactic gifts.
Just this February, French electronic duo Daft Punk abruptly announced their breakup, leaving behind a three-decade legacy littered with cultural monoliths. Their unorthodox career was devoid of the peaks, valleys, prolificacy, and Behind the Music drama that usually accompanies acts of their internationally famous stature. (Even if there was such drama, we probably wouldn’t have known, as Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter never wavered from their commitment to faceless, robot-masked public presentation and intensely private personal lives.)
Instead, they sporadically released game-changing music and spent the rest of their time in the shadows. Each of their four studio albums was a Rosetta Stone tossed into the primordial soup, rippling outward, sending aftershock after aftershock through popular music and culture. Just like the ancient Wonders of the World, you can pick out building blocks that existed prior to the alien (or, in Daft Punk’s case, robot) visitations — brick-cutting technology, a disco sample, rudimentary pulley systems, the clear influence of Chicago house music — but even experts sputter to explain how any earthly being engineered the final product.
Despite four distinctive, groundbreaking eras, no Daft Punk release reinvented the wheel quite like 2001’s Discovery, released worldwide 20 years ago today (March 12). On their second album, the duo emerged from their more traditional house/techno background and created something that was as poppy as it was reverent of dance music, as retro as it was futuristic. Several of its singles were global hits, particularly lead cut “One More Time” — but initial reviews were mixed, some critics balking at the album’s unabashed earnestness. Today, in the wake of two decades of electronic music’s infiltration of the mainstream, you’d be hard-pressed to find another 21st Century dance album as globally successful, beloved, and influential. Discovery established a unique, definitive “Daft Punk sound” that inspired a generation but never quite returned in the duo’s ensuing releases, which continued to expand outward and swallow up new worlds.
Even before last month’s breakup announcement, you didn’t have to flip over many rocks to find Discovery praise from musicians whose work has defined the 21st Century. But to get a better sense of the album’s divination of modern trends, Billboard did flip over several of those rocks. With contributions from 16 artists and industry insiders, here are 10 ways that Daft Punk’s most inconceivable world wonder predicted pop music’s future.
1. Destigmatized “cheesiness” in cutting-edge dance and pop music
If you read the early reviews — especially in the U.S. — you’d never guess Discovery was destined to be a cornerstone of the electronic music canon. Among complaints about perceived irony and gimmickry, critics attacked the album’s “cheesiness,” especially its flirtations with soft rock sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s, achieved both by using archaic instruments like the Wurlitzer keyboard and LinnDrum drum machine, and by sampling pointedly unhip artists like Barry Manilow and George Duke.
“Daft Punk’s speciality is rehabilitating ideas long consigned to the dustbin of history,” wrote The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis. A.V. Club’s Joshua Klein thought that many of the album’s songs sounded “so resolutely retro that they often [fell] prey to the pitfalls that felled disco — namely, banal hedonism at the expense of emotional resonance.” Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, in a now-infamous 6.4 review, dubbed the music the unwanted “Frankenbaby” of prog and disco, writing, “This beast, however grotesque, is relatively harmless.”
Electronic artists Porter Robinson and Madeon were both pre-teens at the time of Discovery’s release, and though too young to remember the negative press firsthand, look back on it with bemused derision. “The critical reviews of Discovery are the best shorthand reference I have to why music criticism isn’t really worth getting worked up about,” says Robinson. “Let me put it like this: Every negative review of Discovery has aged about a million times worse than the album.”
Discovery was, in part, conceived as an homage to “the naiveté and the non-pretentiousness of childhood,” says Madeon, which he believes is the reason for the album’s “anti-snobbiness.” “This is not an excuse to be corny, it’s just an excuse to be authentic and true to emotion.”
For younger listeners like Robinson and Madeon, Discovery’s sonic archaeology also served the purpose of, well, musical discovery. “When I first listened to Discovery, I didn’t know about Supertramp or Electric Light Orchestra,” says Madeon. “To me that was the ‘Daft Punk keyboard.’ And then through them, I started listening to that older stuff, and then I started using that Wurlitzer keyboard, and I’m sure there’s some people that weren’t that familiar with Discovery [who] heard my album first. To them that was my keyboard, and for me it’s Daft Punk’s keyboard, and for Daft Punk it’s Supertramp’s keyboard, and maybe for Supertramp it’s somebody else’s keyboard.”
Along those same lines, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker says he loves the album “because of how timeless it is.” “Timelessness is a quality that I care a lot about when I’m making music, and [Daft Punk’s] ingredients just sound old and futuristic at the same time.”
2. Combatted stereotypes of electronic music as sterile or antiseptic
Electronic music’s had a place on the dancefloor ever since it started infiltrating and mutating disco in the mid-’70s. Throughout the ‘90s, the U.K.’s big beat scene carried on the party-starting legacy that expanded in the house and techno scenes of New York, Chicago, and Detroit during the ’80s. Despite that, the larger world of electronic could still feel impenetrable at times, whether due to the rise of heady IDM (“intelligent dance music”) or stateside perceptions of “rave music” as mindlessly repetitive. Despite the androidian appearances of its creators, Discovery offered a comfortingly human take on dance music, introducing a gentler touch, some playfulness, and an almost complete lack of pretension. The group’s cutting-edge music videos and savvy marketing didn’t hurt either. It was both a gateway drug for the electronically uninitiated and a blueprint for the genre’s next big tent explosion: EDM.
“I wasn’t listening to much electronic music at the time, and I think prior to that most electronic albums were pretty closed off on themselves and the rules of their genre,” says DJ and Fool’s Gold Records co-founder A-Trak. “My mind was blown… The album was explosive, euphoric, and full of imagination.”
“Discovery was a great introduction [to Daft Punk] because it was very approachable,” says electronic musician Baauer of the first CD he ever bought, which remains his favorite album to this day. “It’s funny to think that people were hating on them for going too pop, but for people like me, and I’m sure so many others, that was what drew me in. It was cool that I could then go discover [Daft Punk’s 1997 debut album] Homework and be like, ‘Okay, here’s the harder s–t.’”
On the other hand, Discovery still appealed to more selective niche listeners, such as electro-rockers Ratatat’s Evan Mast. “I was listening to a lot of more abstract electronic music and tended to steer clear of dance music before [Discovery]. But Daft Punk was proof to me that dance music could go further and be experimental and really interesting too,” he says.
That Daft Punk could be simultaneously experimental and accessible is no small feat, and Discovery achieves that, in part, via its arresting simplicity. “The thing with electronic music is it’s really easy to make it infinitely complex, and so involved in so many elements,” says Kevin Parker. “I always find that Daft Punk have that bold approach where they can just let it be — super simple and super effective.”
Daft Punk cribbed a good deal of that bold, minimal approach from Chicago house music, a subgenre they revered and paid homage to, mostly unabashedly on Homework, but throughout moments on Discovery as well. Their debut album included the song “Teachers,” its lyrics consisting solely of a list of the duo’s biggest influences, many of them Chicago DJs. DJ Rush, a veteran active since the early ‘90s, was among them. Like many others, he also expresses a deep admiration for Daft Punk’s lack of pretension.
“I’ve noticed producers take things too seriously and don’t put a lot of fun, or take chances, in their music,” he says. “Daft Punk always got dirty and creative and had fun with each release… They wasn’t afraid to mix it up a bit.”
3. Brought pop songcraft to electronic music
Among the chief reasons Discovery stands out as so approachable when compared to other electronic music, or even Homework, is its inclusion of more traditional pop-style hooks and song structure. As the 2000s went on, this became much more common in electronic music, and by the EDM boom of the early 2010s, collaborations between dance producers and top 40 stars essentially functioned as straight-up pop music, with no “electronic” genre tag even necessary. It was far from the first set to merge top 40 songcraft with house production, but among some of EDM’s biggest names, Discovery’s pop-savviness is still held as the benchmark.
“To me Discovery has a lot more musicality, in a traditional sense, than [Daft Punk’s] other albums,” says Zedd — one of those megaproducers to define EDM’s peak — who believes Discovery to be “one of the most influential albums of all time.” “Not to say that I don’t enjoy the other albums, but there was a lot more for me personally to latch on to in this album.”
Like Zedd, Baauer was first drawn to Discovery by lead single “One More Time,” which became Daft Punk’s biggest worldwide hit to date. “‘One More Time’ being electronic music, but also a pop song — it was definitely one of the first to be that,” he says. “It follows pop songwriting — there’s a big hook that’s memorable — it follows all of the pop rules, and it’s got a very poppy, fun vocal while being a sampled electronic music piece. And I think already we’re in a world where any pop song is [electronic music]. It’s become the norm. ”
Discovery’s importance as a building block for the pop-fluent electronic music of the past two decades can’t be overstated, but it often takes a younger, Daft Punk-influenced musician to introduce the duo’s music to a new generation. “young, new fans of dance music who haven’t done it yet,” Porter Robinson tweeted in 2013, “please listen to daft punk’s discovery album now. don’t be ashamed, just catch up.” When asked about it now, he explains, “I get the sense that Discovery would strike modern dance music fans as being something deeply creative and pure. I think Daft Punk approached the song structures in Discovery in a very verse/chorus pop kind of way, but the music is so authentic and uncompromising in its style.”
Of course, for a duo so committed to self-curation and artistic evolution, Discovery’s foray into pop music was more than an attempt to lean commercial. Jason Bentley, former music director of LA’s decorated KCRW public radio station, also served as the music supervisor for the 2010 film Tron: Legacy, the soundtrack of which was composed by Daft Punk. He offers a more theoretical explanation of the duo’s increased use of vocals and familiar sounds on Discovery: “The larger arc of what Daft Punk represents is drawing a circle connecting technology to human insight — and Discovery was further exploring the spirit in the machine.”
4. Popularized drastic reinvention from album to album in dance music
Every Daft Punk album that isn’t Homework has endured its fair share of criticism for not sounding like the last Daft Punk album. Random Access Memories wasn’t electronic enough, Human After All wasn’t catchy enough, Discovery was too poppy. As a deeper, harder-edged and more groove-oriented landmark of funky techno, the duo’s 1997 debut cast an imposing shadow. Homework was cooler, in the leather-jacketed, cigarette-smoking, traditional sense of the word. And while it was more invested in mashing together every danceable genre under the sun than the era’s intensely orthodox house/trance/techno acts were, it remains the most acceptable Daft Punk album for purists.
“We tend to forget, but the amount of fame and hype and pressure they were under [after Homework] must have been really crazy,” says Madeon. “And now, it’s so clear in the bigger picture why this was such a meaningful step, for their career and for dance music as a whole.”
Electronic artist Alison Wonderland agrees. “I think that for an electronic group to experiment and evolve like Daft Punk have in their career is super inspiring, and to see them do that from album to album is awesome, especially from Homework to Discovery,” she says. “Pushing boundaries and embracing other genres within electronic music helps it to move forward and will always create a new and interesting sound.”
Other electronic musicians had certainly shape-shifted over the course of their careers before Daft Punk stepped on the scene — look at Aphex Twin gradually ramping up the intensity between Selected Ambient Works and Richard D. James Album, or at The KLF ping-ponging between ambient and stadium house with their Chill Out and The White Room eras — but generally, artists working within the genre back then didn’t prioritize full-length statements of radicalized intent, often letting singles and EPs do the talking. Daft Punk made drastic reinvention an attractive (and to some artists, paramount) goal.
“Discovery, that step, is the thing that turned Daft Punk from a great house group to Daft Punk,” says Madeon. “It was planting all of these seeds, and it wouldn’t have happened if they had done the easy move. Between every album, for myself and for a lot of my peers who I know revere Daft Punk as well, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this a discrete enough era that’s going to add to the repertoire of universes we build?’ That’s the lesson that Discovery taught.”
5. Placed just as heavy an emphasis on the album’s visual components
Although they disguised their faces with a variety of cheap, costume shop masks ever since they began appearing in public as Daft Punk, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo didn’t unveil their now-iconic robot looks until 2001. As a bit of slavish commitment to visual presentation, it was a harbinger of Discovery’s well-curated aesthetic. It also got kids interested.
“Them being robots, just on the face of it, was cool,” says Baauer, who was 11 at the time of Discovery’s release. “Like, ‘Those guys dress up like robots, cool,’ on a very superficial level, you know? I think not getting a lot of it [at first] made it really fascinating to me. Because then I discovered Interstella 5555, and I didn’t really understand what that was all about but I thought it was so cool.”
Interstella 5555 is the anime that Daft Punk released as a visual companion to Discovery, a sort of extended music video that also functions as a dialog-less narrative on its own. It wasn’t released in full until 2003, but a few months after the album came out, three Interstella snippets (featuring Discovery singles) were aired on music video marathons on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block — notably shown alongside the first animated clips from Gorillaz, who would take the cartoon-band aesthetic to new heights over the decades to come, starting with their own 2001 self-titled debut album — and later on other video channels.
“I was sitting in my room with some friends when I was a teenager and the ‘One More Time’ music video came on and I fell in love with the song — I was obsessed with it,” says Skrillex. “I loved the little alien party and the animation… the whole thing just hit me really hard.”
Like A Hard Day’s Night, Purple Rain, and The Wall before it, Interstella is a landmark in the continuum of “visual albums,” a format that has remained popular in the new millennium with artists as diverse as Beyoncé, Sturgill Simpson, and Animal Collective throwing their hats into the ring. Ostensibly, the film’s there to add context, or at least fitting accompaniment, to the album’s themes, which is a tricky proposition for an album as non-narrative as Discovery.
Bangalter and de Homem-Christo tapped Leiji Matsumoto, the creator of some of their favorite childhood cartoons, as the film’s supervisor, which fits with the album’s overarching sense of nostalgia. Even if the plot has very little to do with the already-flimsy lyrical themes, the medium makes sense.
Madeon first experienced Discovery in full via Interstella at a young age, and now understands that the film, along with accompanying promotional materials like action figures and trading cards, was “targeting adults but using an aesthetic of children,” rather than actively courting pre-teen listeners. “But I was a child consuming it absolutely first degree — no irony, no nostalgia, just a child watching a cartoon, getting cards in a magazine,” he says. “I’m sure they had conceptualized this in some way, but I doubt it was at the forefront of their minds, this children’s audience.”
Unlike most of the media we’re enamored with in childhood, Discovery has seemed to stick around in the lives of those who were drawn in by its flashy ephemera at a young age. Electronic musician Gryffin says that, despite enjoying the singles at the time, he was too young to fully appreciate the album upon its release. “But as I grew older and learned to make electronic music,” he says, “I began to fully appreciate the depth and range this album has beyond just making dancefloor hits.”
6. Became larger-than-life when performed live
“What’s funny with Discovery’s influence is that it was also felt much later in the decade,” says A-Trak. “When Daft Punk finally toured in 2006-7, they performed a lot of songs from Discovery and got a whole new generation exposed to them.”
Daft Punk released Human After All, their follow-up to Discovery, in 2005. It was met with even harsher critical response, bordering on indifference in some cases. Had they focused primarily on new material during their first shows in nearly a decade, who knows how the tour would’ve fared. Instead, the duo banked on the goodwill they’d acquired from their first two albums and delivered a megamix-style performance that’s become the stuff of legends.
At Coachella 2006, Daft Punk unveiled their completely revamped live show, featuring a pyramid-shaped DJ booth and groundbreaking LED screens. By the end of 2007, they had performed 43 shows worldwide on the Alive 2006/2007 tour, all featuring the same elaborate setup.
“They just did an incredible job with the production,” says Ratatat’s Evan Mast, who opened for the duo on a string of U.S. dates. “It’s a big risk for an artist to invest in a show like that. You have to put so much into it up front and just hope that it all pays off in the end.”
To make a long story short: it did. To ensure that the performance could be enjoyed by more than just tour attendees, Daft Punk immortalized it with a live album Alive 2007, the lead single of which was a new version of Discovery’s “Harder, Better, Faster Stronger.” For those who weren’t lucky enough to experience it firsthand, like Kevin Parker, the album is a major source of FOMO.
“It’s a legendary electronic music performance,” he says. “If you were to ask me any day — not just doing a Daft Punk-themed interview — what my biggest regret is in life, it’s not seeing Daft Punk live in 2007.”
Both Skrillex and Baauer were lucky enough to attend tour dates, and cite the experience as a formative influence on their careers, as do many other heavyweight electronic producers of their generation. “Alive 2007 started the EDM festival craze” has become the modern version of “the hippie era ended at Altamont” or “Nevermind killed hair metal” — a neat, facile explanation for a trend that involves many more moving parts — but there’s some truth to it. Live dance music exploded in the U.S. in the early 2010s and with it, so did the budgets for stage equipment.
Perhaps the most surprising evidence for the continued interest in Daft Punk as live performers (save for three appearances at the Grammys, their last show was in 2007) is the emergence of several tribute acts, previously unthinkable in the knob-twiddling world of electronic music. The most successful of these is One More Time, a duo who formed to play a college Halloween party in 2010 and have since taken their reverent act on world tours.
“I found [the Alive 2007 tour] to be a huge turning point in electronic live performances,” says One More Time’s Ben Linsenmeyer. “That was the first time that I, like many people, saw an electronic group perform with a larger than life stage and production. It seems like the lightbulb flipped and production for electronic acts skyrocketed after that show, all trying to capture that same energy and emotion.”
Above the rest of Daft Punk’s discography, Linsenmeyer says, Discovery is the key to his (and Daft Punk’s) live success.“Discovery is a danceable album, [as in] it is not to be judged or analyzed, but instead to be playful,” he says. “Although the voices are vocoded and many of the instruments are heavily layered, the music on Discovery feels more like a story. It has a strong beginning and end with emotional interludes, and even a love song. All these elements really create the blueprint for a live show that takes the audience on a ride they never expected.”
7. Directly informed the mid-to-late 2000s French house boom
On a more immediate, smaller-scale level, Daft Punk are commonly cited as the forefathers of the wave of French house and electro music that began in the mid-to-late ‘90s and peaked in the mid-2000s. Also known as “French Touch 2.0” (a callback to the first wave of French disco in the ‘70s and ‘80s), this scene was informed not only by Daft Punk as a duo, but also by de Homem-Christo and Bangalter’s solo activities around the time. Each separately operated an influential record label (Crydamoure and Roulé, respectively), and with his one-and-done group Stardust, Bangalter released the 1998 mega-hit “Music Sounds Better With You,” which charted in 20 countries and played a large part in popularizing the nu-disco sound globally. But despite a scene crowded with like-minded producers and DJs, Daft Punk’s widely distributed music still seems to get most of the credit for pioneering the style.
“[Daft Punk] were seen as the fathers of French electro for a new crop of producers,” says A-Trak, who despite not being a part of that scene himself, did release a DJ mix via French electro/hip hop label Disque Primeur in 2006 (coincidentally, said mix includes a snippet of Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”). One More Time’s Ron Diep agrees, noting Discovery’s specific importance, as well as how inextricable Daft Punk were from the rest of the French scene: “[Discovery] really cemented the Daft Punk ‘sound’ for me, as far as future albums, and also for the emerging French house/electro scene.”
In addition to Crydamoure and Roulé, Daft Punk had another more direct tie to the scene, as their longtime manager, Pedro Winter, founded what would become arguably the single most important French electronic record label of the 2000s in 2003. Ed Banger Records released music by French artists including Breakbot, Sebastian, Cassius, Mr. Oizo, Winter himself under his “Busy P” moniker, and perhaps most importantly, Justice, whose opulent live performances and frequent usage of disco samples made them Daft Punk’s clearest heirs apparent.
While unable to lay full claim to “inventing” French house music, the distinctive, disco-indebted sound of Discovery tracks such as “Aerodynamic,” “Crescendolls,” and “High Life” left an indelible mark on a vibrant electronic music scene. “Daft Punk have consistently been ahead of the curve,” says Jason Bentley, “and I think Discovery marked the ascent of a sample-based French disco sound to new heights.”
8. Relied on samples from bygone eras
“Over the years I’ve gained a much greater appreciation for the sampling on [Discovery] and the diversity of places they pulled samples from,” says Robby Hauldren of electronic duo Louis the Child. “I think that’s a part of Daft Punk that people overlook sometimes, they’re master samplers.”
Sampling’s been inextricable from electronic music since the genre’s birth, so while Discovery is a fairly sample-heavy album, it’s far from the first. Daft Punk chose source material that matched their retro equipment and manipulated it — in many cases, not drastically at all — to suit their vision. The backbone of “Harder Better Faster Stronger” is an unaltered flip of the synth bass and ride cymbal-led groove of Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby”; “Digital Love”’s space romance is fueled by skyward-bound melodies of George Duke’s “I Love You More”; the persistent loop propelling “Superheroes” is from Barry Manilow’s “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed.” Something about the way Daft Punk chose to deploy all of that ‘70s and ‘80s fare stuck with the artists they’ve influenced.
“[Discovery track] ‘Aerodynamic’ has a very inventive structure, I call it the A-B-AB,” says Madeon, getting into the nuts-and-bolts of the album’s composition. “It introduces one concept, the chopped-up disco sample [of Sister Sledge’s “Il Macquillage Lady”], and then another, the crazy, AC/DC-style riff. So you have an amazing A and an amazing B, and then you play both together and they re-harmonize. What’s incredible about this structure is, if you started the song with the two of them together, it’d sound like a mess. But because of the order in which the elements are introduced, it all makes sense and it gives you goosebumps.”
“Discovery informed so much about how I make music, especially the way they sample records,” says Baauer. “I still think that’s my favorite part of music-making: taking something old and recontextualizing it into something new. It was absolutely Daft Punk who showed me the possibilities of that. Like, I just watched the YouTube video that shows you all the samples [used on Discovery], and it’s pretty mind-blowing — not only does almost every song have a sample, but a lot of them are not even manipulated very much. Like, they just lifted it, straight up, and I think it’s so cool that they were able to transform it into something new.”
9. Annihilated barriers between electronic, rock, and hip hop
Among other winkingly ludicrous boasts on LCD Soundsystem’s 2002 debut single, “Losing My Edge,” frontman James Murphy claims to have been “the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids.” Whoever actually did that deserves a ton of praise, because you won’t find an electronic act that crossed over as much as Daft Punk did, especially to rock listeners of the time.
“I remember hearing ‘One More Time’ at a time when I only listened to rock music and it completely threw me off,” says Zedd. “I didn’t like electronic music and somehow ‘One More Time’ absolutely captured me immediately.”
“Daft Punk weren’t always something I actively listened to because I was into rock music,” says Kevin Parker, who acknowledges that the guitar riff in Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen” is “pretty Daft Punk-inspired.” “They were just this weird anomaly for me, because they were part of a different world of music than I was usually a part of, but it was just so… I don’t know, good. I know it sounds cheesy to say ‘it transcends genres’ — but it transcends worlds, in a way.”
Parker goes on to illustrate this more concretely: “I saw this meme the other day, after they split up, and it was all these knights putting their sword on a rock, and the rock is Daft Punk, and the knights are like Band Kids, Electronic Music Fans, Rock Music Fans, Animation Fans, like everyone. Everyone appreciates Daft Punk.”
That meme may have not included a Hip Hop Fans knight, but it certainly could have. “I think that Daft Punk was influential to a lot of artists, not just electronic artists,” says Alison Wonderland. “Think about Kanye sampling them. That is a huge deal, because not many rap songs back then acknowledged electronic music. For them to speak to so many different artists, that is a one of a kind act.”
Kanye sampling Discovery’s “Harder Better Faster Stronger” (his then-tour DJ, A-Trak, was the one who first played him Daft Punk’s music) on the lead single of his 2007 album Graduation was a pivotal moment for both dance music fans and newcomers to the genre. In the same way Discovery introduced Supertramp and Electric Light Orchestra to a new generation, Kanye’s “Stronger” had kids rushing out to learn more about the robots.
“I was 10 years old, traveling home from New York to Chicago with my mom, and at the airport, I saw a magazine cover with Kanye and Daft Punk’s faces [on it],’” says Frederic J. Kennett of Louis the Child. “My aunt had recently given me Kanye’s Graduation CD, and it was my favorite album, so I had to read about ‘Stronger.’ I had recognized the sample and needed that magazine so I could know more about Daft Punk. I listened to the original ‘Harder Better Faster Stronger,’ and the Discovery album, and I was instantly in love… This was really the first time I’d ever heard electronic dance music in my life, and it’s the initial spark for the love and curiosity I have for what became my own passion and then career.”
Kennett isn’t alone in having his first experience with Daft Punk, let alone electronic music as a whole, inspire his own hybrid brand of rock music. “We were listening to tons of Daft Punk leading up to the first Ratatat album,” says Evan Mast. “Our band may not have existed if it weren’t for them.”
10 . Set the gold standard for artistic freedom and control among pop musicians
The 2020 HBO drama series I May Destroy You has a fantastic soundtrack that centers on contemporary U.K. hip hop and R&B, but also ropes in afrobeat, jazz and electronic music. Of all its needle drops though, the most pivotal might just be Daft Punk’s Discovery slow jam “Something About Us,” which first soundtracks a spontaneous, tender romantic encounter, and reappears several times throughout the series. It’s somewhat of a surprising inclusion, not so much because it’s out of step with the rest of the soundtrack, but because Daft Punk are so notoriously stingy about licensing their music for outside use.
“That was one of the songs which was scripted by [series creator and star Michaela Coel] from day one, so our job was purely to convince the rights holders and Daft Punk themselves to agree to the placement,” says the show’s music supervisor, Ciara Elwis. “As a huge fan of the band the clearance is one of my proudest achievements to date — as they are really selective with the shows they clear for, and rightly so.”
In the 2015 French documentary Daft Punk Unchained, Pedro Winter explains how important it was to the duo to secure a record deal that provided them full artistic control over their music and visual art. You hear this sort of thing from artists all of the time — especially recently, with world-famous artists like Taylor Swift and Kanye West fighting for ownership of their master recordings — but looking back on nearly 30 years of Daft Punk, you’d be hard-pressed to find instances of the duo straying away from their obsessively curated vision (save for a commercial or two).
“The artistic discipline they’ve had throughout the years is something that, for some reason, I reference to people all the time,” says Kevin Parker. “I mean, they did interviews, obviously, but they never let up with the concept. They never did a ‘Daft Punk: Helmets Off’ special, or whatever. The amount of offers for shows they would have had since the Alive tour would have been outrageous. They could’ve played anywhere for millions of dollars every night. The temptation to do that would’ve been pretty strong, and they obviously just didn’t want to.”
For this reason, Daft Punk’s aesthetics remain exalted by artists of all stripes, even nonmusical ones. “I’ve heard some French TV producers talk about like, ‘We wanted our campaign to feel like a Daft Punk campaign,’” says Madeon. “There’s something that transcends the musicality of it, about the attitude, the confidence, how complete and curated and committed to its vision that whole [Discovery] era was for them.”
A lot of that visual image curation comes from the duo’s admiration of pop culture writ large, says Jason Bentley. “We had conversations [while making the Tron soundtrack] where they described things like Spielberg films or classic music videos in detail with great reverence. I think they also appreciated the mythology of what they had created with Daft Punk, something as rare and precious as the cult films and pop art they admired.” (That “visionary certainty,” as Bentley calls it, is also what he believes allowed them to “say ‘no’ to a lot of things and maintain an aura of mystery.”)
Daft Punk’s final act of self-curation was their breakup, announced in signature fashion via an eight-minute video entitled Epilogue, which features excerpts from their 2006 movie Electroma. “It’s mostly symbolic as the end of an era,” says Bentley of the split. “I trust this is a very considered decision on their part, and going back to how much they care about the mythology of music and culture I can only speculate that they didn’t feel like they had anything more to contribute.”
Ever hyper-conscious of their place in culture, Daft Punk left us with a neat, deliberate arc of a career, the scope of which gets to the core of the duo’s artistic goals.
“I feel like the huge success of Random Access Memories was a neat bookend for a story of sampling technology evolving into human expression and nuance,” Bentley says. “Discovery probably represents the sweet spot in their discography for me — since I’m still mostly listening and learning from a machine language myself. But their split shows that we’re all just human after all.”