Daft Punk were the most influential pop musicians of the 21st century

Alexis Petridis

By resurrecting disco, soft rock and 80s R&B, and bringing spectacle to the world of dance music, the French duo changed the course of pop music again and again

Always a step ahead ... Daft Punk in 2013.
Always a step ahead ... Daft Punk in 2013. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Always a step ahead ... Daft Punk in 2013. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Last modified on Tue 23 Feb 2021 13.12 EST

It’s hard to think of an act who had a greater impact on the way 21st-century pop music sounds than Daft Punk. The style Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo minted on their 1997 debut album Homework – house music heavy on the filter effect, which involved the bass or treble on the track gradually fading in and out, mimicking a DJ playing with the equalisation on a mixer; drums treated with sidechain compression, so that the beats appeared to punch through the sound, causing everything else on the track to momentarily recede – is now part of pop’s lingua franca.

In fact, no sooner had Homework come out than other artists started to copy it. Within a couple of years, Madonna had hooked up with another French dance producer, Mirwais, employed to add a distinctly Daft Punk-ish sheen to her 2000 album Music, and the charts were playing host to a succession of soundalike house tracks – 2 People by Jean Jacques Smoothie, who turned out to be a bloke from Gloucester called Steve; Phats and Small’s ubiquitous Turn Around; and No 1 singles, Modjo’s Lady and Eric Prydz’s Call on Me among them.

The hits made in Daft Punk’s image were cannily done, but never quite Daft Punk’s equal. They alighted on one aspect of their sound, missing the duo’s sly sense of humour – heard on Revolution 909, or their remix of Ian Pooley’s Chord Memory, which stopped midway through to enable a cheesy radio DJ to announce the song’s title and artist, the label it was released on and indeed the country in which the label was based – and their capacity for the kind of ferocious, minimal 3am intensity found on Rollin’ and Scratchin’ and Rock’n Roll. Certainly, no one came up with anything remotely like Daft Punk’s UK breakthrough single, Da Funk, an irresistibly simple 111bpm confection of distorted synth and slow-motion acid house, or anything as creative as their remix of Gabrielle’s Forget About the World, with its extravagant warping of the pop-soul singer’s voice.

By the time the copyists made the charts, Daft Punk had moved on. At least part of the mixed critical reaction to their song-based 2001 album Discovery was down to the fact that it seemed to be dabbling in musical styles considered deeply unfashionable in 2001. There was music influenced by soft rock, 80s AOR, the same decade’s super-smooth R&B balladry: Superheroes offered a pounding kick drum topped off with a cut-up sample from, of all things, Barry Manilow’s Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed.

In Discovery’s wake, all of them – except perhaps Barry Manilow – became part of the accepted lexicon of mainstream pop once more: it was as if Bangalter and de Homem-Christo had become taste-making arbiters of what was and wasn’t cool, a state of affairs acknowledged by LCD Soundsystem’s single Daft Punk Is Playing at My House, in which an appearance by the duo is held up as the last word in hip. For tracks made 20 years ago, there’s something curiously undated about the single Digital Love or the ballad Something About Us, perhaps bolstered by the fact that both tracks offered an early example of vocals treated with Auto-Tune, another aspect of Daft Punk’s sound that was fully absorbed into latter-day pop. In rap meanwhile, Busta Rhymes and Kanye West both sampled tracks from Discovery, and the latter tapped the duo to work on his album Yeezus; in R&B, the Weeknd became another of the duo’s production clients and Janet Jackson sampled Daftendirekt’s strut.

Daft Punk perform at Coachella, 2006.
Daft Punk perform at Coachella, 2006. Photograph: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

But arguably their greatest and most influential work of all was the Alive tour of 2006-07. The album it was ostensibly supporting, Human After All, a rough-hewn reaction to the glossy production of Discovery, had been met with poor reviews. The live shows, however, were a triumph: a son-et-lumière sensory overload with the duo performing in their trademark robot outfits in the middle of a giant illuminated pyramid. More than one observer has pinpointed the tour’s US dates, particularly their performance at the Coachella festival in 2006, as the spark that ignited America’s EDM movement, where DJ performances and live shows involving such vast productions became a staple of festivals and a huge attraction in Las Vegas, and Deadmau5 – a dance producer who, it was hard not to notice, performed in a giant LED-covered helmet not unlike those sported by Daft Punk – ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

The duo themselves were extremely coy about kickstarting EDM. When I asked Thomas Bangalter about it in 2013, he muttered something noncommittal about hearing elements of their sound in other people’s music – “gimmicks that at the time [Daft Punk used them] were not really gimmicks,” as he wryly put it – before giving up and offering a very Gallic shrug. It was hard to work out whether he was simply being modest, or whether he absolutely hated the music they’d influenced – Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were connoisseurs of Chicago house and Detroit techno, who’d recorded a track called Teachers, listing their musical influences – and didn’t want anything to do with it. Others were not so circumspect. “Who’s responsible for EDM?” asked the duo’s sometime collaborator Pharrell Williams rhetorically. “Daft Punk are.”

In truth, Daft Punk always seemed apart from any scene, a step ahead of the music they inspired: at the commercial height of EDM, they began protesting that technological advances had made making music too easy and formulaic, and released Random Access Memories, an album immersed in the late 70s and early 80s. “You have all these recordings from the past that are these little sparkles of magic, but people feel we don’t live in a magical world any more – we’re trying to demonstrate to ourselves if we can break that line and try to do something classic and timeless today,” Bangalter explained.

The sense of distance was amplified by the duo’s very un-21st-century reticence: after the release of Homework, they were never photographed without wearing masks, they spurned social media, and in the scant handful of interviews they gave, never discussed their personal lives. The aura of mystery was maintained to the end: their split was announced with a video, excerpted from their avant-garde 2006 film Electroma, in which one of their robot alter egos blew the other up, followed by a burst of Random Access Memories’ Touch. No explanation was given for the split. It was a very Daft Punk way to go out, preserving their enigma right to the end.

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