Last weekend, Daft Punk announced it would drop a new record called Random Access Memories on May 21st. Then they ran another 15-second ad on Saturday Night Live, a snippet of one of the album's smooth robo-jams.
For the second time this month, everyone went apeshit. This Pitchfork post, with 25,000 Facebook likes, typifies the sentiment of our shimmering online cultureplex: “The wait is over. The new Daft Punk album, Random Access Memories, is up for pre-order on iTunes. It's out May 21 via Daft Life Limited, an imprint of Columbia Records. Fuck yeah.”
Why? Because everyone loves “Digital Love,” “Around the World,” and that one song from the Olympics? Nope. Because science fiction. Because Daft Punk are masters of wielding their persona, and they’ve chosen the retro-future as the medium in which they do business.
Don’t get me wrong. “Harder, Faster, Stronger,” “Da Funk,” and all of the above are cool tunes. I consider myself a Daft Punk fan. But it's been eight years since their last studio album, and twelve since Discovery. Since then, they have conquered the world and sold out stadiums with mythology, not craftsmanship. Or, rather, with the unparalleled craftsmanship of their sci-fi mythology.
Which goes something like this: two anonymous party-robots make the dance music of the future by synthesizing the sounds of the past. Replete with pitch-shifted robo-vocals. The recurring characters in their music video mini sci-fi epics, the inhuman voice inflecting steely syllables over squishy alien beats, the LED-slathered helmets—it all drives the point home: Daft Punk is not of this world, but a composite of our collective intergalactic imagination. As such, they're one of the only dance acts in existence to earn a page in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia.
Exhibit A: The video that catapulted them to fame. Robot-men and skeletons dance around the world.
And then came the robot suits, and of course those helmets.
Future-helmets that never come off, even around celebrities. Or for interviews.
Then they built a pyramid DJ spaceship.
And they made a feature-length animated sci-fi film. A few years later, they made a live-action movie about the quest of two robots to become human.
Daft Punk’s greatest trick wasn't pulling warped melodies out of vocoders. It was transforming two French DJs into cheeky interstellar ravers. Not since David Bowie has a pop act re-appropriated sci-fi tropes to such mass delight. The kitchen sink sci-fi schtick was surely instrumental in paving the way for the rock kids to get into Daft Punk in the first place (that and James Murphy, before he lost his edge). It gave a generation of sexually frustrated teenagers and college kids, reared on an adolescent diet of Star Wars and Transformers, a big shiny entry point into the world of dance music.
But now, with everyone firmly on board, Daft Punk has doubled down instead of dropping the gag. The only soundtrack they do is for Tron. They do shows only rarely, only epically. They flash images of robot heads in their promo spots as if they were brands, and so they are. The presentation, the continuation of the myth, is more exciting than the slinky elevator funk that dribbles out behind the logos on the TV ad spot.
None of this is intended as a slight to Daft Punk. They write some fantastic pop songs, too. But their true genius is understanding that we don’t just want to be dancing when we go out on a hard-earned Friday night. We want to be dancing on a spaceship. We want our escapism pointed towards the future, and we want that future to be full of awesome and familiar things.