Reflecting on Daft Punk’s Discovery 18 Years Later

On February 26, 2001, I was in the 4th grade.  I liked Pokémon, the Redwall series, Legos, and was still writing Star Wars fan fiction and designing the blueprints for space ships.  I did not fully register Linkin Park’s “In the End” until middle school and I sure as hell did not know that Wikipedia’s launch in January 2001 would have such a huge impact on the internet.  I remember asking my parents at the dinner table how a country’s president (Slobodan Milošević was arrested in March of 2001 for his various human rights atrocities, and coincidentally, today at this very moment, Michael Cohen is testifying in front of Congress) could be convicted of a crime, and later that year 9/11 transpired. Meanwhile, amidst all of the consequences that the terrorist attack had, the first film adaptations of both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were released.  I voraciously devoured these movies with the fervor of an incandescently ecstatic kid unable to contain himself at the delight of seeing his two most favorite fantasy series brought to life on screen.  And yet, I was forced to reexamine their seemingly cut and dry “good versus evil” themes within my expanding and exceedingly more confused world view.

Call it a part of growing up, call it losing my innocence, call it what you may, but it was at the age of 10 that I started to pay attention.  The attention of a pre-teen, sure, but I started to notice the impact that the world had on people–individually and on a greater scale.  I began to recognize the fact that both current events and pop culture could change the world.  And while all of this was transpiring, Daft Punk’s sophomore album Discovery was playing, especially when “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was released as a single on October 13th.

At that age, my relationship with music was fairly myopic and contained.  I knew that I loved music, but I only loved what I could easily consume.  The Lion King and The Sound of Music VHS copies were watched more times than logically possible, and any CD’s that my parents had or were available at the public library I listened to copiously.  I heard “One More Time” and “H,B,F,S” on the radio quite a bit but it was not until 2005 when I heard “Technologic” that the electronic duo regained my attention.  They have since been one of the most influential and formative bands of my life, and it is no accident that Daft Punk themselves describe the album as “a reflection of the duo’s childhood memories, when they listened to music with a more playful and innocent viewpoint.”

Pop culture shapes most of our perception of time.  When someone mentions a decade one thinks of the clothing, the music, the movies.  When I think about the turn of the millennia, I think about the immense technological advancements that were beginning to transpire and how they have changed our lives.  The world became more wired and more plugged in.  Internet access was seriously starting to change the way we consume information.  And Daft Punk donned their famous helmets.

This change in their image is the most fascinating decision in their career and without it, they would never have achieved their staggering fame. But that’s the thing. Daft Punk is famous. Their helmets and music are famous. Their stage persona is famous. The men underneath? They are not.

Most of us have dreamed about being a celebrity, but I think I would hate it.  Getting instantly recognized every time I left the house would be constantly uncomfortable and I do not think I would be happy.  Most critics call Daft Punk’s decision to wear helmets a marketing ploy, but they do not acknowledge that it may have been primarily motivated by the desire to protect their identity and privacy.  Daft Punk is the alter ego of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, and they are so careful to preserve their privacy that they rarely ever tour (only twice, to be precise) and never allow their faces to be photographed in interviews.  They even recorded the album in Banghalter’s own house during the two year making of the project.  Masks can be used as protection, not just deception.

Since 2000, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have explored the idea of technological mythology.  Are we our real selves on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter?  What lengths do we go to consciously cultivate a carefully crafted false personality instead of portraying our genuine selves?  Combined with our inability to remove our glued eyes from our screens, this self-mythologizing can be a devastating toxin that ruins our brains and identities.  As they would later say on their 2005 album Human After All, “Television Rules the Nation.”

Daft Punk released an animated film with Discovery called Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem.  Completely devoid of dialogue, the movie is really just one long music video, or complete visual album.  It tells the story of an alien band of musicians, who after performing album opener “One More Time,” in front of a crowd on their home planet, are violently kidnapped by humans to be exploited on earth by a greedy record producer.  After being rescued by an astronautical hero and escaping the mind control of the evil producer, they embark on a journey of self discovery, intent on stopping the insidious record mogul and returning to their home planet.

Interstella 5555 perfectly visualizes Daft Punk’s fascination with the identity of the self and a cultivated stage and technological persona, the ultimate themes of Discovery.  And much like my evolving analysis of good and evil back in 2001, it concludes that it is not a simple rule of duality. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter wanted complete control over both their professional and private lives, and by donning their famous robot helmets they were completely successful.

Discovery is a concept album, one about growing up, self discovery and evolving world views.  Daft Punk is nowhere near the first to explore these universally experienced themes, but with Discovery they did it in an ambitious and ecstatic way.  My three roommates and I in college invested in a huge twelve panel poster depicting the neon silhouettes of  Daft Punk in space and it encompassed an entire wall in our dorm quad common room.  It was a reminder that during those formative years one could confusingly stumble through the process of self discovery and still dance and have a ton fun.  Our shared love for Daft Punk was an invaluable building block for our enduring friendship. Similar things can be said for Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories, which was released during our final exam period our senior year just before graduation, but that is worthy of its own blog post.

It is difficult to truly quantify the significance of Discovery.  It is a masterpiece, and as described by Wikipedia itself, “The record was designed to reflect a playful, honest and open-minded attitude toward listening to music. Bangalter compared it to the state of childhood when one does not judge or analyze music.”  And that is perfect.

Daft Punk makes art that asks provocative questions about technology altering our identities or giving us a platform to become someone else entirely.  Our phones and social media can not only be a vacuum, but an addictive drug that strokes our egos and distorts our social, mental, and even physical identity.  In a world in which our cyber selves dominate, we must not lose sight of our humanity.  Despite Daft Punk’s robotic image, the helmets preserve their personalities, and ironically have ensured that they are indeed, human after all.

“This album takes a playful, fun, and colorful look at music. It’s about the idea of looking at something with an open mind and not asking too many questions. It’s about the true, simple, and honest relationship you have with music when you’re open to your own feelings.”
— Thomas Bangalter

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