Pop culture narratives have taught us that when the robots finally begin to rise, humankind can be counted on to defeat them. Man trumps machine, they told us. People prevail.
They were wrong. At the 56th Annual Grammy Awards on Jan. 26, the French robo-duo Daft Punk seized the night's top prizes Album and Record of the Year, for Random Access Memories and "Get Lucky," respectively beating out such exemplary Homo sapiens as Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.
It was a momentous win on many levels. Electronic music has steadily gained currency in the mainstream over the past several years, and RAM solidified that trend by being the first pure dance album to win the award (though the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which claimed it in 1979, could be considered a prototype). That it took two helmet-clad French outsiders named Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo to do it is even more remarkable. To some onlookers, the duo's journey from cult concern to Grammy glory may seem unlikely. But in fact, it's been a long time coming not just for Daft Punk but for the genre as a whole.
"We've been making music for 20 years, and we were just trying to make better music this time," Bangalter told EW last year. "We've focused in the past on trying to make the music of the future, and here, it's actually maybe much more focused on the present."
The thing is, the mainstream present sounds a lot like their past. Thanks to their hugely influential Homework (1997) and Discovery (2001), Bangalter and de Homem-Christo are credited with defining modern electronic music and influencing an entire generation with their harder-better-faster-stronger sound. "They're pioneers," says Zedd, the 24-year-old who won this year's Best Dance Recording Grammy for "Clarity." "The song 'One More Time' is a main reason we're even having this conversation right now. Without that song and Discovery, I would have probably never started producing electronic music." British DJ Duke Dumont, also nominated for the prize Zedd took home, concurs: "They're absolute legends in dance music. They're a hall-of-fame-type act."
Given that so many current acts were working off their blueprint, Daft Punk knew it was time to move in a different direction for RAM. As Bangalter explained, they were looking to make "the music we wanted to listen to right now, the music we would not find when we turned on the radio." That meant trading in the synthesizers and samplers for a warm vintage sound made organically from painstakingly recorded live instruments and a massive roster of guests that includes performer-producer Pharrell Williams, Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, disco legend Giorgio Moroder, and more recent indie-rock idols like the Strokes' Julian Casablancas and Animal Collective's Panda Bear.
Interestingly, Daft's new technique happened to sync up with two of music's hottest trends: the hand-crafted, back-to-basics aesthetic (see: Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers) and the European electronic/dance revival (Calvin Harris, David Guetta). Call it artisanal disco and what could be better suited to the Instagram age than that?
"With 'Get Lucky,' it is not about reinventing the wheel or trying to come up with something ultimately new, [but] rather just having a good time," Bangalter said. "There's something very simple about that." And because they were recording it live, Pharrell told EW, "we would do a bunch of takes. The guys wanted to make sure that they had everything they needed; they're good like that." Moroder was also impressed with their meticulous nature: "I went to the studio in Paris and recorded two, three hours of talk. They were mostly just listening this was a couple of years ago. Then they played it back to me last March, and I was really surprised, and a little bit emotional." The songwriter Paul Williams, who also figures prominently on the album and spoke for the robots at the Grammy podium, was similarly taken aback by RAM's scope: "The first track, I'm transported back to the '70s, but then later on in the album they take you off into the future. It's like parallel universes."
In other words, Daft Punk are growing up and bringing the electronic community with them. "[RAM] has inspired a lot of young producers to think outside the box," says Zedd. Adds Dumont: "There's been a journey to come to this album. A lot of people are like, 'Oh, it doesn't sound like Daft Punk.' But if you listen, it makes sense."