Dead Punk: What Daft Punk’s Split Says About the Past and Future

Thomas Q. Kelley
10 min readFeb 27, 2021
Daft Punk as fancy debonair Robots.

The metaphor was dead, and the music was close. There’s a lot of sadness today about Daft Punk’s split, but no one is surprised. Where were they going to go after their self-indulgent trip back to a childhood that was not as great as they would have us remember it? It turned out with 2013’s Random Access Memories, that maybe their brand wasn’t that deep after all. The Robots were ever capable of brilliance, except they convinced themselves they were something they were not. And most of us replicated the same exact mistake…

We didn’t see it coming. And yet it was right there: the shadow of a racial backlash that would challenge everything the rave generation thought it had accomplished. Tolerance could be obliterated by advertising algorithms strapped to a Wall Street rocket ride with the captains asleep at the helm; Silicon Valley hopelessly lost to an intellectual swamp of data-fueled rationalism, whistling past the basic truth that we are animals little more evolved than our ape cousins. Hate glimmers in the heart. (Oh, but what a difference that upright walk makes! Our heads in the trees. Heads in the Cloud. Freedom of speech? Freedom to creep, or harass, or berate. Or Instagram? Sadly it’s also the place to instigate.)

I was there at the dawn of this techno sunrise. Like the old tool-smashing primates of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we knew how to get our beat on. In the California desert, at Moontribe parties, it seemed like the whole future was before us, that anything was possible, that we could hear world peace on the horizon. It was a precognitive blast of yelps and yahoos and throw downs and night grooves. How sweet it was. For those who were there, or in the warehouses or grassy fields across the Western world, we hailed the wisdom of rhythm, and the electric daisy fireworks that exploded in our imaginations. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Soviet Union was no more. And the speaker stacks were a-booming.

So many happy times. The rise then fall of the global rave scene, followed by its rebirth, and then death again, set to repeat like an algorithm into infinity. Acid House. Bleep. Full moon gatherings. Progressive House. Drum ’n’ Bass. Glastonbury. Organic. Coachella. Dubstep. Burning Man. EDM. Electric Daisy Carnival. Tomorrowland. On and on. Each time — a retreat — and then harder, better, faster, stronger…

When Daft Punk landed their pyramid in the Coachella Valley, most people had no idea what was going to hit them. And that went for plenty of experienced ravers too. Pasquale Rotella, the founder of Insomniac and the mastermind behind EDC, was among them. So was I. In that heady incendiary performance, we got the download: techno was alive and it was no longer going to take no for an answer from a fickle American music industry that didn’t get it.

The next year, they kicked off a world tour that made their message undeniable and irresistible. Jay-Z and Kanye West took notice. So did every other pop star and rock band who had a clue. Get with the program, or fade. The 1990s, the birth decade of global rave and Daft Punk — their Homework came out in 1997 — replaced what the 1960s had been for the previous two generations. Gen X had grown up with Tron, Atari, comic books, Led Zep, new wave, hip hop, and yes, disco. They engineered house and techno, then acid house — and before you knew it, Katy Perry and then Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Joe Jonas. Millennials got it. Gen Z embodies it.

I’m not a pop hater. The Gen X-ers behind the careers of Perry and Bieber know what they are doing. Making infectious pop music is hard. And in an age when all that shiny hardware and the software to outmatch it is in the hands of every middle class kid, or even the poor kids as the middle class evaporates in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave — so comes Billie Eilish — and across the seas and cities, it’s harder than ever to stand out.

Surely Daft Punk showed us that. Homework was a brilliant work of art because it relished in French irony, in the play of the double entendre, the sleight of the under-statement. I lived in Paris as a kid, during the Gulf War years, going to school with the children of diplomats and Mideast gun runners. I came from not so much by way of Memphis a few hours drive from my grandmother’s house in the country, where my father grew up on a cotton farm, braving water moccasins and a South that would tear itself apart, and practically take the whole country with it once again, just like those algorithms. He married a Japanese-American woman, who outranked him in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. They watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on their honeymoon. They had three sons, mixed boys who said “m’am” and “sir” when they answered the telephone; he farmed code, read the computer winds, and tapped into the electronic matrix before it was there — the screeching howl of his dial-up modem in our ears — taking us around the world…

“What the hell was that!?” a college kid said as I walked out of the Los Angeles Sports Arena on July 21, 2007 near the University of Southern California. Daft Punk tore the place apart, tore minds apart, tore the body into streaking blazes of melody and a newborn freedom of thought. I had just finished grad school myself, and as a journalist would cover politics, elections, tsunamis, and an accelerating world.

Daft Punk ignite the cult of Daft Punk, July 21, 2007. Photo by T. Q. Kelley.

The next year, after years bogged down in the Iraq War and the fallout of 9/11, America would elect Barack Obama to the presidency. Wall Street would also nearly implode, entangled in a mass of complex interlinked financial “instruments,” made possible by nerdy data surrealists who never saw a blackhole. We survived the Great Recession, tattered and the democratic world shaken.

Trump and Brexit weren’t even on the horizon back then. In 2010, the underground rise of EDC reached a fever pitch as the City of Los Angeles raked in some much needed cash through its Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, location for the festival going back to 2007, right next to the L.A. Sports Arena where Daft Punk had amped their boom.

Because a girl died at EDC 2010, Insomniac was forced to move its mega event to Las Vegas. From there, it went practically interstellar. Daft Punk’s 2001 album, Discovery, in many ways set the stage for the EDM wave. It is a work of genius. It is not only a devastating journey through cutting-edge sonics, but a cookbook filled with rare groove gems, inventive funk samples, and the meticulous “French touch” that famously speaks equally to music nerds and the less discerning alike.

But Random Access Memories was in its own way a rejection of all that. Why? Because it pretty much kicked the computer under the bed. That is, they wanted to play Quincy Jones, but in a way their homage could only ever come up short. Yes, there were some genuine gems. ‘Get Lucky’ was in some ways too slick for its own good, and yet it was also too joyous to dismiss. Daft Punk was seemingly going soft, right when they had the world in the palms of their robot hands. Their big triumphant conquest of the music establishment seemed inevitable, their Grammy winnings a fait accompli…

And then, it seems, they retired. As the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones observed, Memories rejected the moment — a moment when techno could reset the terms of musical consciousness, and imbue it with their hard-won perspective. It was entirely backward looking. You could say the same of a lot of great art. It grated some though, because they couldn’t resist slagging off on their peers — perhaps betraying just a touch of that Parisian privilege that I lived and loved myself for a time. (The City of Lights is like no other city, filled with culture and beauty. Still, it can be blinding.)

The pedigree of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo has never been in doubt. They are clever. They are intentional. They are smart. They had the good sense to reject fame on the face of it. So they took a page from Kraftwerk, and turned themselves into silver and golden robots. Fashionably coiffed ones, of course. Icons that poked fun at who we are. Nevertheless, even they didn’t see the gulf between the image and the truth from afar.

Maybe no one did. Everyone loved the Robots. We could project whatever we wanted onto their chrome façades. They glistened like the glass on our iPhones and Androids. Yes, the Matrix was dark, as was Neuromancer before it. Our technological fairy tales have villains and dark forces. Darth Vader. Skynet. Agent Smith. Sark and Clu. And yet we waved it all off in exchange for the zap and the bling and the click…

EDC’s Night Owl Experience, a peak moment in 2013, the same year as Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Photo by T.Q. Kelley.

We were taken with the whole myth. We were taken with the whole “rave onto the break of dawn” future drift. It was the future. But the future is here now, and it’s not so fun. January 6th, 2021, brought the whole operating system to the brink. Turned out our software was damn buggy, if not corrupt — gremlins chewing on the cables.

It seemed to me that conspiracy theories were the new raving for some. I remember scratching my head when old raver friends told me that they had voted for Trump. I remember a Bernie Sanders-boosting DJ telling me that he would rather see society burn down to the ground, than see Sanders lose the 2016 Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton: The “lizard people,” he told me, alluding to the illuminati. I thought he was joking. That he was being ironic. No, it turned out he was being literal, just as his love for house and techno was something akin to fanatical. Had we gone insane?

Somewhere along the way, we completely lost perspective. This robot thing has forced us into a merciless zero-sum game. We need a major refactor. Perhaps the mother of all refactors. And yet, it seems to me, that we’re stuck. So, it’s better to blow ourselves up? That’s what Daft Punk’s split says. Like Random Access Memories, it’s a bit daft. It’s a cop-out. For a band that told us that we’re “human after all,” and sold optimism like it was candy, to disappear right now seems cowardly.

In their Epilogue video that they released to “announce” their break up, Daft Punk use the end of their avant-garde 2006 film Electroma to convey their goodbye. It shows one of the robots on a dry lakebed in the desert turning on the other’s self-destruct sequence. Kablooey! like a firecracker he goes. And in the emptiness we hear the strains of ‘Touch’ from Memories: “Hold on / If love is the answer you hold…”

Maybe some don’t want to hear this, but it’s good we’re not going to go ga-ga over the Robots anymore. It’s time to re-enjoy the music they made for what it is — music — “musique!” — and to recall as we look back that the past has always been just as obsessed about the future as the present. It’s time for some bolder and newer memories. Every generation must renew the prior’s promise.

Besides, is anyone really convinced that this is the last we’ll ever see of Daft Punk, even if it’s the end of the Robots?* You can never be too sure with these two French surrealists — ever eager to flip our expectations into confusion or wonder. I have a hard time believing this is it. That they are not actually human after all. Or at least that’s what I want to believe. For I still feel they do possess something different.

Maybe they realized that it was time for a new myth. Even if it means living on as pop ghosts and in the flesh, their software ripe for reimagining. You can always hear it. For Memories has one truly great song. Their ‘Doin’ It Right’ is as spellbinding as anything they ever wrought. It dances your spirit into believing that we can hold on. Split or not. Binary or not. “If you lose your way tonight / That’s how you know the magic’s right.”

And yet ‘Get Lucky’ does have the best lyric, and it seems it could speak to anyone struggling to make sense of our dire present: “We’ve come too far / To give up who we are.” There it is. That maximal sense of destiny, that joie de vie zealotry that speaks to so many on both sides of the robotic divide. For who will we find on the other side?

Daft Punk cultists and conspiracy theorists could claim the same. Because it’s time to let go of what we’ve become, and to embrace those willing to step out from behind the screen — to once again dream together and hear the human heart.

Daft Punk’s career could use more context than it is usually given. If you want to know how others set the stage for their boom, start here. If you want to dig deeper in general, join us at Substack for much, much more.

*One month after Daft Punk’s announcement, frequent collaborator Todd Edwards told the following, speculating himself about why and what it means, whether it is permanent or not:

“Thomas and Guy-Man have always had their individual paths along with their work together. They aren’t departing from music making. Thomas has spoken to me about things he’s researching and potential projects, and Guy has been active as well.

I am curious about why they made the split so official. Because if they decide five years from now to work together again, absolutely no one is going to hold them to the Epilogue. I know they have their reasons for everything they do. Hopefully it will be something they share with me.”



Thomas Q. Kelley

Editor-in-chief at Rave historian. From Los Angeles, Memphis and Paris.