Daft Punk’s Robotic Anthropology of Love

Joel Mayward

In high school, my musical tastes consisted mainly of the CCM of my church youth group and the indie punk rock of my “secular” peers at school. Then one of my youth group pals introduced me to a new album he had just purchased: electro-pop dance duo Daft Punk’s Discovery. The album’s title was apt; listening to it served as my introduction into the world of electronic music. As I listened to “One More Time” repeat its titular phrase, I found myself hypnotized by the simple-yet-funky rhythms and aggressively catchy lyrics. For all of its digitized keyboards, electronic synthesizers, and repetitive auto-tuned vocals, there remains something joyfully human about this music. Though upbeat tempos and mantra-like lyrics, Daft Punk’s sound contains an innately spiritual, even theological, quality.

On Feb. 22, Daft Punk released an eight-minute video entitled “Epilogue.” In a lengthy shot, we see two humanoid robots silently walking through a vast desert salt flat. The silver robot begins to slow down until it halts, prompting the gold robot to approach out of curiosity. The silver robot removes his “Daft Punk” leather jacket and turns around, revealing an electronic switchboard on his back. The gold robot hesitates, then flips the switch, prompting a countdown on a digital display. In a striking wide shot, the silver robot walks away from the gold robot across the wilderness as the timer incessantly beeps. When the countdown reaches zero, the silver robot dramatically explodes, black shrapnel flying everywhere in slow motion while the gold robot silently observes. After a “1993–2021” title card, we then see the gold robot walking alone through the wilderness towards the setting sun. It seems that the enigmatic duo—who almost always appeared in public as these robot personas—were, in fact, breaking up.

Formed in Paris by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, Daft Punk emerged as leaders in the French house music movement of the 1990s. Their sudden dissolution by way of music video merits reflection on their legacy. For all of its enigmatic visuals, what I found most striking from “Epilogue” was the choice of music: a haunting riff adapted from the bridge of their song “Touch” emerges as the “1993–2021” title card appears, then is sustained until the video’s abrupt cut to black. The lyrics—“hold on / if love is the answer / you’re home”—are repeatedly sung by a choir like a pop-music prayer. “Touch” is the keystone track on Daft Punk’s masterful 2013 album Random Access Memories. As guest singer Paul Williams repeatedly croons “I need something more,” the song crescendos into the tone of a celebratory dance at an old-timey county fair before it dramatically downshifts into the ethereal and dreamy sounds of a science-fiction movie as a robotic voice sings, “hold on / if love is the answer / you’re home.” This “something more” is a musical meditation on a sentient robot’s desire to be “home.” In other words, to be human.

For all of its digitized keyboards and electronic synthesizers, there remains something joyfully human about Daft Punk's music.

So, what does it mean to be human in our technological age? For all of their robotic accoutrement, Daft Punk ultimately present us with an anthropology of love. Through their musical journey, they’ve sought the raison d’etre of human beings, concluding that what it truly means to be human (and not merely a robot) is to love and be loved.

We can trace this theme throughout their discography: song titles such as “Digital Love,” from Discovery; a 2005 album titled Human After All; the soundtrack for Tron: Legacy, a 2010 sci-fi film about humans searching for meaning in virtual reality. Yet this preoccupation with love is perhaps most evident in Electroma, Daft Punk’s 2006 avant-garde film and the source material for the “Epilogue” video. In the opening scenes set in the desert, the pair get into a black Ferrari with a license plate reading “HUMAN,” driving through the wilderness until they reach a small town inhabited by identical-looking silver and gold robots. They enter a Kubrickian tech facility where they receive latex poured onto their robot helmets, ultimately giving them disturbingly artificial quasi-human masks. Upon emerging with their bizarre new “human” faces, the townspeople—really, townsrobots—chase and persecute Daft Punk, driving them away. In the pair’s search for a loving community, technological innovation has tragically led them into further isolation. The duo’s new faces melt in the desert sun and they flee the town on foot, leading to the aforementioned “breakup” scene from “Epilogue.”

All of this speaks to an innate longing within Daft Punk—and within us—for something more, as Williams so poignantly sings on “Touch.” Indeed, beneath their robot attire, Daft Punk are human after all. Paradoxically, Daft Punk uses disco/funk electronic music and robot personas to celebrate the dignity and value of human beings. For all of the technological innovations in our modern era, none of it can replace the simple-yet-profound mystery of love. In our current COVID-19 era requiring quarantines, social distancing, and a heavy reliance on technological communication, we are all feeling the lack of this connection. It appears that love cannot be wholly mediated by robotics or technology. Indeed, as we see in the Incarnation, God reveals divine love through presence, proximity, and touch.

Such an aesthetic demonstration of love is found in the description of the Incarnation in the opening verse of 1 John: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” Later, the epistle suggests that Christ’s Incarnation is the very definition of God’s revelatory love to human beings: “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. . . . God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

Understood through this lens, the refrain of Daft Punk’s “Touch” and “Epilogue” is a profound theological statement about humanity’s eternal value, when in loving relationship with God: hold on, if Love is the answer, you’re home. Through the incarnate love of God, we discover what it means to be human after all.

Topics: Music