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Bye, Robot: a farewell to Daft Punk

26 February 2021

Masks save lives – and so most of us have been wearing them in public for months. But recently, always working from home and mostly going out just to visit supermarkets full of masked shoppers, I’ve started really missing faces. I miss the faces of my friends and family, seeing them unmediated, not on a screen. But I also miss strangers’ faces: I miss staring at people on the tube or in pubs.

‘The face speaks,’ wrote the philosopher Emanuel Levinas. It is through other people’s faces that we recognise the existence of the world and our responsibility to it. The question of the moment is how to assume that responsibility to the world when it demands precisely that we cover our faces with masks. So there is perhaps a little irony in the fact that, around the same time we are all masking up in our daily lives, two of the world’s most famous mask-wearers – the French electronic music duo Daft Punk – announced they were calling it quits. As Stephen Colbert posted on Twitter, ‘I feel like someone should tell Daft Punk this is literally the worst time to hang up your masks.’

No-one ever needed to see Daft Punk’s faces. I recall no clamour to unveil Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, to reveal the men behind the masks. There was always a sense somehow that those gleaming pates, equal parts biker helmet and robot exo-skull, were their identities, just as a bright red lightning bolt of face-paint could immediately signify Bowie. After Daft Punk announced their retirement, a joke tweet from former talent show twins Jedward read ‘Daft Punk give us the helmets and we’ll continue the legacy!’ as if they were Captain America’s shield or Thor’s hammer. So it is surprising to recall the slow gestation of an iconography so intimately bound up with the band.

For most viewers, the first visual identity associated with Daft Punk was not a robot at all, but an anthropomorphic dog, strolling through New York with a boombox in a video directed by Spike Jonze. In 1997, two years before the release of his feature debut, Being John Malkovich, the director shot something strangely poignant for ‘Da Funk’, which became a surprise instrumental hit. Despite centring a man in a fluffy animal costume, the video felt relatable – even human.

At the time, Daft Punk were in the habit of turning up to interviews wearing plastic masks or Japanese omote, or simply doused in blue paint. They begged shyness and – aside from a brief cameo in the video for ‘Burnin’, disguised in wigs and shades – didn’t appear   in any of their own videos or perform live. But a taste of things to come arrived with Michel Gondry’s clip for ‘Around the World’. Taking place in a round studio set, the video featured a choreographed routine of swim-suited dancing girls, athletes with prosthetic heads, mummies and skeletons – each moving in time to different elements of the track (respectively, the synth line, bass guitar, drum machine, and guitar parts). Then, just as the song’s signature vocoder hook comes in, a quartet of marching robots enter the scene from stage right. Four years later, when it came time to promote their second album, Discovery, the duo donned robot suits themselves.

It feels significant that Daft Punk were giving us robot voices before actually becoming robots themselves. Recorded music separates the voice from the body, but as Agnès Gayraud (who records as La Féline) points out in her book Dialectic of Pop (2019), it also creates a ‘second body’ projected by the listener. The sound of a human voice fed through a vocoder immediately summons up an image of robots. Kraftwerk understood this, when they sang ‘We are the robots’ in 1978. So, too, did the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica, who voiced the series’ evil android Cylons with an EMS Vocoder made in Putney. It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before Daft Punk, too, combined Gondry’s dancing robots with their own teenage love for Brian De Palma’s psychedelic rock opera, Phantom of the Paradise, and masked up themselves.

In 2006, five years after introducing their new robot identities to the public via an interview with The Face, Bangalter and Homem-Christo released a feature film called Daft Punk’s Electroma, which they directed themselves. The picture sees two ‘hero robots’, resembling the group but played by actors, driving to a high-tech facility where they get coated in some manner of thick pink goo, which is then shaped into over-sized masks resembling the real faces of the two directors. Pop music has long had a thing for masks. From oddballs like Gwar and The Residents to more recent – and more mainstream – artists such as Deadmau5 and Sia, a tendency to conceal is as much a part of pop as the performance of laying oneself bare and letting it all hang out. But the story of Daft Punk, and the narrative of Electroma in particular, suggests that sometimes the act of showing one’s ‘true’ face is itself the greater performance.