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Giving Life Back to Music: Why Daft Punk’s Album Matters

Arts & Culture | September 23, 2013

Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories not only returns musicianship to electronic dance music, but also seeks to restore meaningful human experience to a genre that has become increasingly shallow in its over-the-top use of costumes, lights, gimmicks, and oversized venues. In a break from their past work, Daft Punk opted to record real musicians for the new album instead of looping samples. The list of musicians featured on the album is impressive: Nile Rodgers (lead guitarist of Chic), Pharrell, Julian Casablancas (lead singer of The Strokes), Paul Williams, DJ Todd Edwards, and Panda Bear make the album a collaboration of established musicians from different eras and genres. Random Access Memories looks to the past—especially 70s disco and 80s soft rock—with the aim of moving electronic dance music forward.

The album follows the journey of a robot trying to rediscover its humanity. Along the way, Daft Punk takes the listener through a diversity of styles and sounds. The opening song, “Give Life Back to Music,” has a disco guitar riff that fades into the slow synth groove of “The Game of Love.” The last song, “Contact,” is a rock anthem with a two minute drum solo. By using real musicians for the entirety of the album (the only sample in the entire album is the guitar riff of “Contact”), Daft Punk performs the act of remembering the roots of dance music. And they do it well—the album is cohesive, intelligently structured, and offers the listener a unique concept, giving the album immense replay value and forcing the listener to rethink what electronic dance music is as a genre.

Dominating the scene through the 1990s and 2000s, Daft Punk brought electronic dance music into the mainstream. Mastering the use of synthesizers, samples, and visual effects, Daft Punk made raves what they are today—a spectacle of robot helmets, high tempo beats, and dazzling lights. Daft Punk disappeared for six years following their last tour in 2007. Then, on May 17, 2013, after five years of recording in the studio, Daft Punk released their fourth studio album: Random Access Memories. In its first week, Random Access Memories became Daft Punk’s bestselling album.

A lot has changed in the world of electronic music scene since Daft Punk’s last album Human After All (2005). What Daft Punk initiated has now grown to oversized proportions. Today, music festivals such as Electric Daisy Carnival draw in over 320,000 people in three days, grossing over $40 million. The sheer number of festivals and raves has grown immensely. Ultra, Electric Zoo, IDentity, TomorrowWorld, Camp Bisco, Hard Summer, and Electric Forest rack up millions of dollars every year. Headlining DJs such as Deadmau5 earn up to $1 million for a festival appearance. SFX Entertainment, a new company headed by media business veteran Robert Sillerman, recently spent over $1 billion to acquire electronic music ventures and promoters. Electronic dance music has done more than make it into the mainstream—in many ways, it has become the future of music festivals.

Electronic festivals have transformed into bombastic spectacles. Jaw-dropping light shows, fireworks, DJ personas, rave costumes, gimmicks, fireworks, building-sized speakers, huge crowds, and scantily-clad women dancing onstage have all become standard fare. Deadmau5 dons a spinning light-up mouse helmet at each of his shows. Dada Life sprays the audience with champagne and bananas. Electronic dance music has become a circus. At this critical juncture, Daft Punk returns to the scene with a radically new vision of how electronic dance music should transform.

If Daft Punk’s new album has a central message, it’s the title of the first track: “Give Life Back to Music.” Daft Punk is urging us to realize that something valuable in music has been lost in this charade of lights and costumes. It’s no coincidence that Random Access Memories is a nod to computer memory and the increasing technological influence on music. Somewhere in the midst of all the downloading, remixing, looping, and demanding the bigger and better, we have forgotten where electronic dance music came from. The way Daft Punk sees things, we’ve become robots in the way we experience music.

This concept develops alongside the robot’s existential journey in Random Access Memories. The robot has forgotten its identity and where it came from. “I need to know now, / Please tell me who I am,” the robot voice sings on “Within.” The climax of this development occurs at the heart of the album with the two middle songs: “Touch,” followed by “Get Lucky.” These are the only two songs on the album where the singer’s voice is not modified to sound like a robot. For a moment on this journey, the robot is able to become human again. This rediscovery of its humanity begins in “Touch,” which is a ballad of existential questioning: “Sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel / Sweet touch / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real / I need something more / I need something more.” These lines raise the fundamental yet unanswerable question of the human condition: in a world where all we have is our physical interaction with the world, how can we know if any of what we experience is real?

The response to this existential question, for Daft Punk, is the optimism of “Get Lucky.” “We’ve come too far to give up who we are,” Pharrell sings. “So let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars.” Following the nihilism of “Touch,” the message of “Get Lucky” seems to be that even if the existential questions of life can never be answered, this fact doesn’t have to be paralyzing or depressing. By affirming life in the face of nihilistic existential questions, the robot is able to rediscover its humanity. No other DJ in the electronic music industry has come close to creating a music experience as emotionally meaningful as Daft Punk’s new album. Through this concept of a robot rediscovering its humanity, Daft Punk has exposed electronic dance music for the sham it has become: a plastic art, full of deceptive appearances and flashy aesthetics.

In this profound journey, Daft Punk is not just trying to return musicianship to dance music. In a fundamental way, Random Access Memories is a project of rediscovering our humanity and making music a meaningful experience that can help us affirm life in the face of hardship. To Daft Punk, electronic dance music can be more than party music—it can be one of the fundamental ways we celebrate and affirm our existence. Daft Punk’s new album leaves the listener at a crossroads. We can remember this album as either a human, appreciating the totality and intricacies of the journey, or as a computer that chooses bits and pieces of their random access memory to be remixed at the next big music festival.