We were having a discussion about the philosophy or "message" of Daft Punk's body of work in the chat a few days ago, and this post a follow-up to that discussion. I think there is a philosophy to just about everything and surely you can't deny the obvious social commentary in the Prime Time Of Your Life video. I don't mean to speculate about whether this philosophy is conscious and their goal is to proselytize us to it or whether it's unconscious or a priori assumed and their art is just expressing things we already know. Either way, I think we can identify what it is even though I don't necessarily agree with everything in their philosophy. So let's raise the intellectual bar here and examine just what these two very odd Frenchmen in robot costumes are telling us about Life, the Universe and Everything.
I have been gathering this information not only from the body of work itself but also from various statements and positions attributed to Daft Punk in interviews (particularly the Japanese interview in which they said they wanted to have an influence beyond a musical influence) even though they never discuss any of this directly. However, I have placed the greatest emphasis on everything since the "accident" and on the work itself to speak for itself over and above any interviews or reviews by other third parties. I have also allowed later work to influence my interpretation of earlier work, so I may perhaps see patterns where none were intended. Oh well, I'm doing it anyway.
The Philosophy of Daft Punk; A Brief Dissertation
General (Daft) Principles
The overarching theme in all of Daft Punk's work is individualism over conformism. Their art deals with the influence of society (by mechanisms such as technology, the government, the market, modern culture in general and peer pressure) to reduce individuals to the lowest common denominator and make them all the same rather than encouraging them to be unique and different individuals.
This theme is expressed throughout Daft Punk's work in many different forms, but it has always been accompanied by a related topic of the relationship between men and machines. "Does the man control the machine or does the machine control the man?" That is the central question that Daft Punk directs their audience to focus on, and they borrow heavily from retro sci-fi because this was a common theme there as well.
At the same time, while it is about individualism, it is NOT about the band members themselves as individuals. They have gone to great lengths to make clear to the world that it is not about them. I can respect that. Their art would seem to indicate that they think that the "star system" or cult of celebrity really exploits rather than empowers the individuals that it appears to glorify.
Everything from here on out contains major spoilers
Human After All
The most philosophically-inclined Daft Punk album is definitely Human After All. It is about how modern culture keeps us chained to a cycle of mindless mass media consumption. (Television Rules the Nation)
In the music video for Prime Time of Your Life, a young girl has a television-induced hallucination that all the people in the world are skeletons and she is the only flesh and blood person. She sees herself as overweight and ugly, while everyone else (including her own family members) is "normal" even though we see that she is really normal and her idea of "normal" is a distorted frightening image of a human skeleton. She goes into the bathroom and looks at herself in the mirror. She opens a drawer and finds a razor blade in it. She begins cutting herself, but instead of bleeding like a real person would, she is able to begin peeling away all of her skin so that we see her muscles with no skin. She is evidently trying to make herself like everyone else. After removing about half her skin, she faints. Her (perfectly normal, non-skeleton) parents find her and we don't see what happens to her except that we find out she was hallucinating by being shown the pictures on the dresser with regular people where she saw skeletons. Notice that it is the family pictures that are ultimately the source of truth for the audience - NOT the television!
There are many similarities in Prime Time Of Your Life to the Twilight Zone episode, "The Eye of the Beholder." Video mashup, anyone? (Hint, hint. Someone make this. No really, someone do it)
The skeletons represent the image of the ideal "beautiful" ultra-thin female with flawless skin projected by porn stars and supermodels which most real women can never attain and even the women who do only do so for a short time. (Hence the title, "Prime Time Of Your Life") Yet by seeing these images of the "perfect" female form day after day, young women are subtly persuaded that they are somehow inadequate for not having achieved the impossible. This feeling of irrational inadequacy leads to spiraling depression, anorexia and self-mutilation. So, in effect, Daft Punk is blaming modern culture (represented by the television) for contributing to depression, anorexia and self-mutilation in young women.
The music video for Technologic suggests that digital technology is reducing us all to shrunken little dolls like the Chuckie figure which is barely alive. He is sitting in a pyramid, which represents alot of stuff, including human institutions and aspirations as well as being something that contains dead people. (perhaps an allusion to the All Seeing Eye concept as well?) The Brainwasher is, of course, about propoganda and while it could be possible that the sample of "Release the Beast" in Daft Punk's Robot Rock may be meant to associate technology with the idea of the "mark of the beast" in the book of Revelations, I really think that it's just mindless rocking out to be honest. Make Love and Emotion are meant to suggest that human qualities are the answer or alternative to the evil regime of dehumanizing technology and institutions that the rest of the album criticizes. These things (Love and emotion) will make us "Human After All."
Electroma is a very negative story of intolerance. Part of the premise is that there are no people, only robots. I think the suggestion is that the people all killed each other off, due to intolerance. The use of the "Billy Jack" lyrics suggest this especially, and the lyrics of "International Feel" represent tolerance I suppose.
Synopsis: Daft Punk are two unique robots that dream of becoming human. They drive and drive and drive until they finally come to a place (the secret white laboratory) where human flesh-like materials are added to them so that they become grotesque human figures that sort of self-parody Thomas and Guy in sculpture. This earns them the universal hatred of all the other robot people who are shocked at first by their sheer weirdness but eventually begin chasing them, apparently intending to kill them. Or do you really "kill" a robot? Wouldn't "permanently deactivate and disassemble" be a more accurate term?
They escape to a bathroom and wash all the flesh-like material off their heads (They have no heads, only helmets, but I digress) and begin a long long trek through the desert. Since they do not speak or show any expressions throughout the entire film, we are unable to gauge their emotions at all except through body language, but nevertheless, one of them is able to communicate to the other his (it's?) desire to commit suicide. It removes it's Daft Punk jacket and the other robot sets a control on it's back to explode when a timer runs out. The first robot is blown to smithereens.
The second robot goes on for a little while but decides to end it's life/operations as well. It is unable to reach it's own back and instead uses the sun to set itself on fire. The fire doesn't destroy it however and the film ends with the image of a burning robot continuing to march on through the desert, unable to die.
The symbolism at the end of the film is probably a direct reference to the Burning Man festival - just one more way in which Daft Punk stresses radical self-expression. The robots wishing to become human is a theme borrowed from the old story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who longed to be a Real Boy. Daft Punk's longing to become human in Electroma is a metaphor for our longing to realize our full potential as individuals. (and of course an expansion on the title track from "Human After All")
Disclaimer: I personally dislike Electroma as I think it takes a very very long time to tell a very short story and I don't buy into everything in this popular "tolerance" philosophy. I'm only expressing what I think the film is saying, despite having been very bored by the film. You will probably find better analysis coming from someone who actually liked the film.
Discovery and Interstella 5555
Discovery is also very philosophical, at least when considered together (as it should be) with Interstella 5555. Discovery is about record companies exploiting and putting pressure on artists to conform, at the expense of their art and even their private lives.
Synopsis: An alien rock band is kidnapped and brought to Earth by storm-trooper like beings. They are physically altered and brainwashed to believe they are an Earth rock band called the Crescendolls. Their memories are stored on MiniDiscs and replaced with fake Earth memories. Eventually they discover the deception and defeat the bad guy with the assistance of a brave space pilot from their own planet who is in love with Stella, the bass guitarist. He dies trying to help them. They alien origin is discovered by the public when they try to break into the record company's building to get the MiniDiscs with their real memories on them back. The Earth people help them get their space ship working again and they return to their home planet, but not without setting up an interstellar broadcasting system that will allow both planets to continue to be entertained by their music.
First, there are the titles. I was initially inclined to think that Discovery was a reference to the Space Shuttle Discovery or the Discovery One spacecraft from 2001; A Space Oddessy which would be further supported by the album having come out in 2001. However, I am now inclined to think that this view is on an entirely wrong track.
I think that in naming the album "Discovery," Daft Punk intended an interesting double meaning, with positive and negative sides. The negative side is that record companies "discover" artists to exploit them, but the positive side is individual self-discovery, particularly the rediscovery of one's childhood.
The title Interstella 5555, of course, refers to Stella, the bass guitarist of the Crescendolls band, but the number 5555 may also be significant. (besides the 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5y5tem thing) 555 is a number used as the first three digits of fictitious telephone numbers, and may refer to the fictitious nature of the band's earthly life.
I do not believe that a single one of the lyrics on Discovery have any philosophical significance, except possibly "Face to Face." Daft Punk ingeniously ingrained their philosophy into the imagery of the film and the moods and vibes of the album rather than the lyrics and I think this was a good move. (Almost everything about Discovery is good!)
The overall story is obviously suggestive of my above assertions but I think I should also point out several interesting things.
1. Interstella 5555 is a story of everyone discovering (Discovery!) their true selves. Individualism again.
2. The Crescendolls logo is obviously a parody of the Coca-Cola logo; a stereotypical example of advertising in modern culture. The fake memories of the lives of the Crescendolls band members are a metaphor for the fake promises of modern culture to provide us with happiness and fulfillment.
3. The exploitation of artists in the film, presumably in order to get the gold discs for some unknown reason, has been going on since the Middle Ages at least.
4. The haze felt by the band members in "Nightvision" which the public believes is deliberately taken mind-altering drugs really isn't those drugs at all. I think that's very interesting and probably very important but I'm not sure what to make of it or how it fits in to the rest of the film, but I think it might be saying something about why so many rock stars have been drug addicts.
5. The star system is secret? How can an entire star system be kept secret!? I think the "secret star system" does not refer to heavenly stars but actually to Earthly ones, as in Hollywood and rock stars. Daft Punk does not believe in "the star system."
6. Interstella 5555 is not criticism of capitalism in general, for we see the record company guy happily rocking out to the band's music at the end of the film. Message: There's nothing wrong with making a buck the honest way and some people may find their individuality in doing so.
Homework is the least philosophically significant Daft Punk album, but nevertheless, some of their philosophy is found in it. Though it has no strong themes besides the overarching theme of individualism, the D.A.F.T. videos do contain elements that were expanded on later as Daft Punk's style became more developed.
ogs: Da Funk's dog headed man who annoys everyone with his loud music is sort of an early, less extreme version of Electroma. It's kind of like "Diet Electroma" or "Electroma Lite."
ndroids: Around the World is probably about diversity. The different people in their weird costumes represent the vast differences between individuals. I'm not sure whether their assortment has any significance but the skeletons may have a connection with the later the Prime Time Of Your Life music video.
iremen: The music video for Burnin' and the lyrics of Teachers pay homage to Chicago house musicians that inspired Daft Punk.
omatoes: Revolution 909's use of tomatoes is probably for two reasons:
1. Tomatoes are red, like blood, which keeps you alive.
2. Tomatoes get thrown at artists when people don't like them, so they are a symbol of hatred and enmity.
There is of course the obvious reference to The Beatles Revolution 9 as well as the 909 drum machine. Bangalter made clear in an interview that the video is about the French government's stance against rave parties. He says that drugs aren't the real issue (a connection to the music video for Nightvision perhaps??) and that he thinks it's really that they don't understand house music. I guess not everyone understands house music. It's a soul thing.
The title Revolution 909's relationship to Revolution 9 may be an attempt to build a sort of bridge between what said government officials don't understand (house music) and what they do understand. (The Beatles, who were the revolutionary musicians of their own generation) But obviously the government stopping individuals from having a new and different kind of party connects to the overarching theme of individualism that exists throughout Daft Punk's body of work.
Alive 2007/1997 and DJ Hero
The major difference between humans and robots is that humans are alive and robots are not. I think that's the reason for the use of the word "Alive" as the show title both in 1997 and 2007 and in the original "Alive" track. The robots sitting in a pyramid are a reference to the earlier Technologic video and the pyramid is used for the same reason. And, of course, as with the DJ Hero appearance, the further use of Daft Punk's songs carry the songs subtle or not-so-subtle meanings with them.
Sampling, Tron Legacy, side projects, commercials and costumes
I should probably mention Daft Punk's heavy use of sampling. Thomas said, "I think sampling is always something that we’ve completely legitimately done. It’s not something we’ve hidden, it’s almost a partisan or ideological way of making music, sampling things and being sampled." The way this is phrased suggests that there is an illegitimate way to sample as well. He further says, "It’s always been a way to reinterpret things – sometimes it’s using an element from the past, or sometimes recreating them and fooling the eyes or the ears, which is a fun thing to do." I think this is another form of individualistic expression which also connects to the overarching theme.
I can't say what the future holds but I wouldn't be surprised if everybody's favorite robots managed to smuggle their philosophy into Tron Legacy as well; a project which would seem to provide excellent grounds for examining the relationship between men and machines like the original 1982 film which, no doubt, Daft Punk were inspired by like many others were.
Together and Music Sounds Better With You do not connect to the individualism theme. But you'll notice that they're from side projects, and are still not contradictory to individualism, as individualism doesn't discourage working together. It discourages conformity and orthodoxy, not cooperation.
Other than those side projects, everything, yes everything, even Daft Punk's appearances on Toonami and in commercials relates to the overarching theme of individualism. It is communicated by their very costumes, which are an embodiment of their philosophy.
In the Japanese interview, Daft Punk said that even though the 9-9-1999 accident forced them to replace much of themselves with electronic components, they still have working human hearts. That's who Daft Punk are: Robots with heart.
So, what do you think? Did I beat this horse dead enough or do you think there are more dots we could connect? Am I missing any important aspects of Daft Punk's imagery and philsophy?