It’s too late now, and it’s probably been too late for a decade. Daft Punk, the French electronic duo who has dominated the press for the last month, will be wearing their robot suits for the rest of their lives. There will never be a reveal, a coming out, or a change of tone. Frat-trance superstar Deadmau5 has, for the most part, removed the cybernetic mouse head. KISS wrote Lick It Up and took off the face paint on MTV. But even now, when Homework is a 16-year-old album, Daft Punk will always be a gold helmet and a silver helmet.
If Daft Punk wanted to, they could’ve removed their uniforms in the early 2000s without much fanfare or drama. They could’ve still headlined festivals, and toured with a giant pyramid, and they could still have made the gleaming, romantic dance music they’ve become famous for. But that didn’t happen, and the cover of the just-released Random Access Memories is emblazoned with the same severe iconography. It’s hard to think of any outfit in music that’s stayed so relentlessly dedicated to a theme over multiple decades. GWAR? Maybe The Residents?
Daft Punk’s aesthetic legacy is born out of its retro-futuristic novelty, and perhaps they keep the suits on to maintain their reputation. But that only goes so far. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo are almost 40, and have been hiding their public appearance for a long time. The last 12 years have solidified Daft Punk as a band of robots. For every show, every commercial, every photo shoot, these two men have dressed up in what look to be sweaty, uncomfortable outfits. That is a profound dedication, and it can’t be written off as simple frivolity. Why do they make this sacrifice? Clearly Daft Punk feel they benefit from the robots, and that might make them the most self-conscious band in the world.
It seems innocuous enough, but what would be the impact of a human face behind a song like “Get Lucky”? Would it feel the same? Or would it be just a little less intoxicating? Is it easier to fall for something pulpy and populist like roller-rink disco when it comes to us from cartoon characters? And as real-life humans, is it ever hard not to blush while making this music? Daft Punk’s only resistance to the goof is their masks. The anonymous robots soak up all the attention and enthusiasm, and critics and fans alike start to regard Daft Punk on their own terms, in their own universe. Essentially, Daft Punk wipe away any qualms of plasticity by engaging in maximum goof. Saying “One More Time” is too silly misses the point, but without the masks, that criticism might become easier to make. Without the masks, Daft Punk might be a hated band.
Daft Punk rely on their costumes because they rely on suspended cynicism, so much so that they might fear ever breaking the fantasy. Superhero music needs to be made by superheroes, not mere mortals. It’s not to say that Daft Punk haven’t created some of the most singular dance music of their generation, but instead that the public’s continued, unfettered enthusiasm about their music is directly tied to their image. Nobody can ever cut Daft Punk down for being too bright or too obvious—what else would you expect from a pair of robots? There’s no doubt the world wouldn’t be as excited about Random Access Memories if it were coming from a pair of regular guys.
But you know what? The robots are totally worth it. If we need a giddy fantasy to trust ourselves enough to enjoy recklessly optimistic music, then they’re doing God’s work. Daft Punk needed to transcend their humanity for their confidence, for their message, and for their audience. They needed to create some distance from the world, in order to bring us in closer than ever. Their albums wouldn’t be as magical if they were coming from planet Earth. Daft Punk dress up like robots for plenty of commercial reasons, but most of all, they do it for us.
‘Random Access Memories’ is out now
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 29, 2013