Following their shock split in 2021, many music fans are now left to discuss the enduring legacy of Daft Punk. The duo, defined by their robot masks and pounding electronic beats, certainly blazed a trail within the music industry. Yet few of us understand quite how their legacy transcends the realms of synthesisers and vocoders. In this article, James Tartaglia explores the metaphysics of Daft Punk, and how their work can serve to lead us down a new, idealist, understanding of the world.
As French and subversive as OCB rolling papers, Daft Punk are “widely regarded as one of the most influential acts in dance music history” (Wiki), so it was big news in 2021 when the duo announced their decision to disband after 28 years of chart-topping success. When Wiki refers to their place in “dance music history”, however, this does not include medieval bagpipe music, nor Glenn Miller, whose big band is also “widely regarded as one of the most influential acts in dance music history”. That’s because in addition to its generic meaning, “dance music” has become a label for a particular idiom – a futuristic, electronic music of which Daft Punk are the premier exponents. When it arose, and how it is to be musically demarcated, are questions never likely to be answered to much satisfaction, but I take it Black Box’s “Ride on Time” (1989) was an early and influential example. I remember finding that song particularly annoying, albeit obviously significant, when it was the new big thing.
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So, is there anything philosophically significant about Daft Punk? If there is you’d never guess it from the name, which, like the Average White Band, was inspired by a hostile review; the reviewer dismissed their early efforts as “daft thrashy punk”. There is philosophical resonance, however, to the fact that they dress as robots, which is a stage persona suggesting deliberate synergy between their futuristic music and either a transhumanist or posthumanist philosophy. The difference is crucial, with transhumanists hoping for a future in which humans become “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” (the name of a 2001 Daft Punk hit), whether by merging with machines, or through eugenics, while posthumanists hope for our replacement by robots. That Daft Punk have claimed to be robots themselves suggests an undefined territory between the two; although born human, there was apparently an explosion in their studio at 9:09AM on 9th September 1999 which turned them into robots. It is hard to confirm or disconfirm these claims because Daft Punk keep their identities concealed – even when not wearing robot helmets, they wear masks, or bags over their heads, or give interviews with their backs turned. You don’t get to look into the eyes of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, that’s all part of the Daft Punk act. And why should that be? The formative influence of Andy Warhol, cited by Bangalter, provides a good explanation, for it was Warhol who promised a future in which international consumerism would no longer tolerate elitist high art and the cult of the genius, instead turning art over to the masses, who would each be accorded their 15 minutes of fame. Daft Punk’s robots anonymously generating electro-music for the gyrational needs of the fleshy masses are a musical fulfilment of Warhol’s vision.
These philosophers would, no doubt, regard Daft Punk as the crystallization of everything that’s wrong with modern culture, but the duo themselves are hardly uncritical advocates of the techno-future they envisage
It is the distance Daft Punk have helped to put between music and musicians which should be regarded as their most controversial legacy. Vocoders were not new with Daft Punk – Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd used them in the 1970s – but Daft Punk cemented their popularity and so can reasonably be blamed for all those distorted Metal-Mickey voices you hear in today’s commercial pop. A related form of vocal processing even more detrimental to vocal talent is auto-tune – vocoder takes care of the timbre, auto-tune takes care of the pitch, so all you need to be a singer on a hit record is the ability to speak, like Siri or Alexa. And what about instrumentalists? Well, drum machines have been ruining otherwise good music for a long time now, primarily to save money, but these days you don’t need musicians at all, just a PC and DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). If you use Spotify’s “Soundtrap” DAW, for instance, you needn’t know the first thing about music to produce stuff like on the radio, you just click around until it sounds right – roll over Beethoven! Being tone-deaf can even be an advantage, the beats’ll probably come out sounding more messed-up and sick.
In Modern Culture (1998) Roger Scruton issued the following condemnation:
Techno-music is the voice of the machine, triumphing over the human utterance and cancelling its pre-eminent claim to our attention. (…) You are overhearing the machine, as it discourses in the moral void. (p. 107)
In this most despairing of Scruton’s books, he compares himself to a monk living through the dark ages, trying to preserve the culture of previous times (p. 156). Cultural decline and destitution have been a theme among high-minded philosophers since at least Kierkegaard, who started talking about the “levelling” of culture in the 1840s, with Nietzsche and Heidegger subsequently concerned about a growing “wasteland”, and more recent philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus, Charles Taylor and Nolen Gertz all sure that we’re currently living through a period of desolate “nihilism”.
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These philosophers would, no doubt, regard Daft Punk as the crystallization of everything that’s wrong with modern culture, but the duo themselves are hardly uncritical advocates of the techno-future they envisage, as they made clear in the film they directed, Electroma (2006). It is set in a dystopian post-human future and tells the story of “Hero Robot No. 1” and “Hero Robot No. 2”, who look the same except that one wears a gold helmet and the other silver. They inhabit a world of identikit robots, but our heroes break the mould by using technology to give themselves latex human faces. The others chase them away into a desert, where the sun melts the latex, so they commit suicide – the film ends with the gold robot in flames. What does it mean? That we shouldn’t cede our humanity to the ceaseless technological advance, presumably, and that if we do then the robots that replace us will envy what we once had – or, at least, the heroic ones will.
Electroma was released a year after Daft Punk’s third album, “Human After All” – a title that suggests second thoughts about being robots. Then in 2013, when it seemed that Daft Punk’s flame was rapidly fading, they made “Get Lucky”, the song which put them on the map for a new generation. It uses serious musicians, most notably drummer Omar Hakim, who was with Miles Davis’s band, the four-chord vamp is of proper musical interest, for reasons that plenty of YouTubers are ready to explain, and although Pharrell Williams’ voice goes through a vocoder, he sounds fully human. The lyrics are hardly profound – “I'm up all night to get some; She's up all night for good fun; I'm up all night to get lucky” … it’s a song about poodle-faking, basically. Nevertheless, humanized and individualized as a high-quality funk band, Daft Punk sound as vital as ever.
I expect that a new art music will be developed for virtual realities, unimaginable at present, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Daft Punk aren’t then remembered as among its earliest forerunners
If Daft Punk were in two minds about a techno-future, it’s because they reflect society, as interesting artists tend to. On the one hand, technology is delivering a good time to billions, and a future of life-extension, robots and spaceships sounds exciting to most. But on the other, technological development feels out-of-control and dangerous. Teams of scientists in well-funded labs around the world are racing to develop autonomous artificial intelligence because of its military and commercial promise, but as for the dangers … that’s just something you chat about in the media or make sci-fi films about. The underlying problem, in my view, is that the operative philosophy in our world is materialism, a philosophy which first arose in ancient India and which has never made much sense – for no matter how much neuroscientists find out about our brains, they’ll never make sense of conscious experience against the backdrop of materialism’s false paradigm of small-things-make-big, just as no amount of science could ever make good on the false paradigm of a flat earth. It is materialism, however, which encourages us to think of ourselves as machines, as per the title of Julien de la Mettrie’s 1747 materialist treatise Man a Machine; and if we think we’re machines then we’re bound to think of improving those machines (transhumanism) or replacing them (posthumanism). While materialist thinking holds sway we’re destined to build blindly until things go wrong – because we can’t “get lucky” forever.
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Materialism sees reality as the physical guts which produce experience, rather than experience itself. And yet it is the latter which people care about – we care about how we feel and how others (including non-human animals) feel, nothing else matters. With an idealist philosophy which places experience at the heart of reality, we may yet circumvent scary futures of burning robots while we proceed to transfer our humanity into virtual worlds of experience. The video game industry is now bigger than the music industry and has its own kind of music –some of it is promising and new, such as the songs of The Living Tombstone. One day, I expect that a new art music will be developed for virtual realities, unimaginable at present, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Daft Punk aren’t then remembered as among its earliest forerunners. We could bring that day forward by erecting a tombstone for materialism – it served us well by blasting superstition and promoting technology, rest in peace, now let’s go idealist.