Daft Punk were nowhere and everywhere. Especially toward the end of their 28-year run, the Parisian dance music pioneers operated under a veil of secrecy, disappearing for long stretches between projects and hiding their faces behind robot masks whenever they did return to the spotlight. They’ve essentially spent the eight years since their hit-spawning, Grammy-winning 2013 swan song Random Access Memories steadily fading from view. Yet by the time they announced their breakup today, they had become such a presence within pop culture that their music was regularly manifesting on some of the grandest stages imaginable, be it Abel Tesfaye stalking the stadium to their computerized backing vocals at the Super Bowl halftime show or a fish-like Techno Troll spinning “One More Time” at an underwater rave in Trolls World Tour.
By design, Daft Punk were larger than life. The planned scarcity, the carefully honed iconography, the music’s grandiose scope — all of it contributed to a mystique perhaps unparalleled in 21st century music. The brand was strong, and business was seemingly always flourishing. Even the one pivot into raw spontaneity, 2005’s knowingly titled Human After All, was weaponizing the duo’s image by playing against it — and when that album became the least enthusiastically received of their career, they immediately followed it up with a thrillingly ostentatious roadshow that sealed their legend once and for all. They leave behind a towering body of work wrapped up in some of the most instantly recognizable sonic and visual imprints in music history.
But if Daft Punk were a singular presence within pop culture, they were also among the most enthusiastically imitated artists of the 21st century. Forebears like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder made ample use of vocoders while pioneering the field of electronic pop, but the robotic vocals Daft Punk favored were mostly a niche sound when Homework dropped in 1997. At the time, most of the prominent electronic acts in the American media sphere were British big beat marauders like the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, and Fatboy Slim, who crossed over to mainstream audiences largely due to the use of recognizable human voices and hybridizing with the existing pop and rock hegemony. Meanwhile Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo were kicking out the kind of house and disco jams that, after two decades of rockist backlash, I’d come to understand as a punchline. When Michel Gondry’s surreal visuals Trojan-horsed “Around The World” into MTV rotation, the song’s Chicago house and French touch elements sounded entirely foreign to most American teenagers. I don’t think I could have expressed this in the moment, but it gave a lot of us context for dance music that worked as pop without catering to radio.
At a time when Cher’s use of Auto-Tune on “Believe” was still novel and controversial, 2001’s Discovery doubled down on the vocal manipulation even as it steered Daft Punk into brighter, more bombastic forms of pop music. Peaking at #23 and spawning a low-range Hot 100 hit in “One More Time,” the album was not a smashing chart success in America, but it made a dent, and its popularity ballooned with time. When James Murphy named an early LCD Soundsystem single “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House” in 2002, it was an imagined flex on his narrator’s part: Here are the coolest motherfuckers on Earth, DJing my kegger. Within the underground, Discovery spawned a whole legion of disciples, from Junior Senior to the Go! Team to Ratatat. The group’s manager launched Ed Banger Records, a label whose roster (especially its flagship artist Justice) sometimes felt like one elaborate Daft Punk tribute. Discovery‘s burgeoning popularity seeped onto the airwaves as well, almost certainly contributing to the widespread acceptance of Auto-Tune. Akon and T-Pain were enmeshed in heavy rotation by the time Kanye West — another critical darling who flaunted Daft Punk for cool points — sampled “Better, Harder, Faster, Stronger” on a chart-topping single.
Kanye wasn’t the first rap star to sample Daft Punk — Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It” contained portions of Human After All‘s “Technologic” — but “Stronger” was an exclamation point on the duo’s reputation. The song’s rise to ubiquity coincided with the mythical pyramid tour documented on the Alive 2007 album, the festival-slaying spectacle that inspired a whole generation to welcome Daft Punk as their benevolent robot overlords. That experience reinvented rave music as laser-light-show arena rock, setting the stage for an EDM explosion that saw the likes of Skrillex and Deadmau5 slinging dubstep drops from gargantuan spaceship-like stage setups. Yet just when Daft Punk were primed to cash in on their increasing influence, they essentially retired from the road and enriched themselves in a manner that didn’t require endless touring.
Daft Punk controlled their image far too tightly to take part in a movement as garish as the early 2010s EDM craze, yet it would be hard to accuse them of being too cool for anything. From working on Disney soundtracks to continually licensing their music for TV ads, the robots got their music out to the world in ways that might have got other artists branded as sellouts. Any musician who has profited from a commercial sync while facing little to no blowback in recent years can probably thank Daft Punk for chipping away at the stigma there. And it’s easy to wonder whether Trent Reznor would have dared to work on a Pixar project like Soul if Daft Punk hadn’t teamed with Disney on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack first. Viewed less charitably, these kinds of moves helped free up musicians to be more corporate and artificial while holding on to their stature as a creative visionary. It would probably be more accurate to say Daft Punk pursued their own idea of cool, taboos be damned.
After helping to conjure the aggro EDM trend, Daft Punk helped to end it, too. Random Access Memories was unlike any Daft Punk record before it: a rose-colored nostalgic tribute to the peak disco era, peppered with guest stars from across the spectrum of pop, rock, and dance music. The album was headlined by “Get Lucky,” a masterfully funky team-up with two of the architects of modern pop music, Neptunes alumnus Pharrell Williams and Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers. Although the song was blocked from #1 by another Pharrell hit, the ethically and legally contentious Robin Thicke/T.I. joint “Blurred Lines,” you truly could not miss “Get Lucky” in 2013, during a season Jon Caramanica of the New York Times dubbed “the summer of smooth.” Now, rather than sculpting the future of pop, Daft Punk were rewriting its past, making eminently likable hits that catered directly to the tastes of aging entertainment-industry gatekeepers. Now, rather than influential cult heroes on a blockbuster budget, they were legitimate hit-makers and unexpected champions of Grammy night.
And with that, Daft Punk began to retreat from view. Contemporaneous to the Random Access Memories rollout, two production credits on Kanye’s artful freakout Yeezus suggested they could have kept pushing forward into the unknown if they so chose. Two more tracks on the Weeknd’s Starboy album — including the title track, the only #1 single to Daft Punk’s name — proved they could have easily kept releasing hit records if they wanted. Work with artists big (Arcade Fire) and small (Parcels) found Bangalter and de Homem-Christo continuing to pursue their muse wherever it led. Now, apparently it has led them either apart or into retirement. It is instructive that the last major Daft Punk news item before their breakup was a widely circulated, quickly debunked rumor that they would score the new Dario Argento movie. It felt like an entire fan base was willing that project into reality; the less music the duo released, the more feverishly the public craved it. But it was not to be. At least for now, Daft Punk are finished, leaving behind a whole galaxy of sound in their image. Now more and ever, they are everywhere and nowhere.