Human after all

Thursday, Mar 4, 2021, 05:28 AM | Source: Pursuit

By Kenny McAlpine

Human after all

Two helmeted figures walk through a featureless dust bowl. As the wind whistles around them, one slows and stops. A moment later, the other walks back and, as they stand face-to-face, there is an unspoken moment between them.

The first figure removes a black leather jacket and turns to reveal a panel with an LED display and two metal switches. The second figure hesitates, but then activates the panel, and initiates a self-destruct sequence.

Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo in 1997. Picture: Getty Images

The film cuts to black and then fades to a title card: one gold and one silver hand locked together to form a triangle above the dates 1993-2021.

This vignette, titled Epilogue, a call-back to their 2006 avant-garde sci-fi film, is both tender and darkly comic, and it's a fitting – if slightly ambiguous – epitaph to the French electronic music duo, Daft Punk, who announced their retirement last week.

In truth, it's difficult to imagine Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, the secretive Parisienne musicians behind the robot masks, doing it any other way.

The ambiguity created by their stage personae has always been a curated and very important part of the band's image.

In the early days of Daft Punk, de Homem-Christo and Bangalter would don grotesque masks to obscure their faces, but when they adopted their robot alter-egos in 2001, they created an image that was not only deliberately artificial, but one that distanced the pair as artists from the public manifestation of their work.

Like German band Kraftwerk, their first-generation robotic forebears, Daft Punk made a feature of the mechanistic relationship between performer, technology and performance. They celebrated the fusion of human and machine, breathing three-dimensional life into their characters that extended beyond the confines of the stage.

German band Kraftwerk (performing in Helsinki in 2018) were Daft Punk's forebears in fusing human and machine. Picture: Raph_PH/Wikimedia

"We're interested in the line between fiction and reality, creating these fictional personas that exist in real life," Bang­alter told Rolling Stone magazine in 2013. "For us, it was sci-fi glam."

That approach, one that combined an evolving backstory, slick technology and camp, high-concept theatricality, links the duo directly with performers like Alice Cooper, Ziggy Stardust and Parliament-Funkadelic.

Even today, in an age where unfettered choice and immediate access to content tend to skew performance towards the extraordinary, the tangible benefits of an artist-curated alternate reality are evident.

Like a living, breathing concept album playing out in real-time, the defined narrative creates meaningful hooks to engage their audience, while the constructed ambiguity leaves space for fans to project themselves onto and into the band's universe, and to create their own mythologies about the artists they love.

When Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, for example, he created a peripatetic performance persona that was more fiction than fact.

Dylan kept his true identity a closely guarded secret – the imagined life of a train-hopping songwriter, he reasoned, resonated more with his folk audience than the real life of a middle-class Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

Bob Dylan in 1963 with singer Joan Baez. Picture: Rowland Scherman/U.S National Archives and Records Administration/Wikipedia

So when Newsweek threatened to expose him in November 1963, he thought his career might collapse. Instead, the story, which highlighted the morass of contradictions that was Bob Dylan, only fuelled the folklore behind the creation.

"He says he hates the commercial side of folk music," noted Newsweek, "but he has two agents who hover about him, guarding his words and fattening his contracts. He scorns the press's interest in him, but he wants to know how long a story about him will run and if there will be a photograph."

The context and the music may be different, but the details of Dylan's situation bear striking similarities to those of Daft Punk's.

On one hand, the duo openly rejected consumer culture and stardom while their robot alter-egos promoted Adidas, Gap and Sony Ericsson in global advertising campaigns.

And one of the common threads across the many Daft Punk interviews put out by the media is how rarely the pair give interviews.

But rather than burst the bubble, the ambiguity and contradictions only drew fans closer to them. Crucially, however, they also gave the musicians the distance that they need to continually reinvent themselves and their music.

It's as writer John Updike once said: "Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. As soon as one is aware of being 'somebody,' to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his over-animation. One can either see or be seen."

Pictured in 2010 (r) is one half of Daft Punk, Thomas Bangalter, his face obscured. Picture: Getty Images

Of course, the success of Daft Punk can't be distilled down into a single, unidimensional quality, but by the same token, it's important not to underestimate just how important those helmets were to the band's evolution.

By creating a point of anonymity and detachment, de Homem-Christo and Bangalter were able to work one step removed from the criticism they themselves attracted, and, instead, focus on exploring and writing new musical ideas for their performance facades.

After releasing Human After All, for example, an album that received a decidedly lukewarm reaction from critics, de Homem-Christo and Bangalter reimagined it as a live audio-visual spectacle performed by the robots from the middle of a giant, illuminated pyramid.

It was spectacular, and the event is credited with kick-starting the contemporary American resurgence in electronic dance music.

In that regard, then, Daft Punk's closing statement – detached yet intimate, ambiguous yet loaded with meaning – was the perfect epitaph.

Maybe those robots were human after all...

Banner: Daft Punk performing at the 2014 Grammy Awards, Los Angeles. Getty Images