Daft Punk & the Death (and Revival) of Dance

What’s your worst breakup story? Here’s mine:

It was February, it was cold as hell, and my skin was that special kind of dry that made my knuckles bleed. My kitchen ceiling had just broken in a week prior from all the snow piling on the roof, and my roommate and I were driving back to Chicago from skiing in upstate New York. We were stopped at a gas station somewhere in Ohio so our landlord could emotionally abuse us over the phone when my friend texted me the godforsaken Pitchfork eulogy—Daft Punk was no more.

It didn’t make any sense—the guys who ghosted us for eight years were now ghosting us, forever? At first it was like, “oh yeah, that makes sense,” but at the same time, how dare they? After the hellish year without sticky floors below our feet and disco balls above our heads, the Daft Punk break up felt like the closing of the casket, the death of dancing as we knew it.

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter formed their duo in Paris in 1993 after a critic called their previous act, Darlin’, “a daft punky thrash.” I wasn’t born until ’96, and though I didn’t start to appreciate them on a divine level until I was 21 or so, Daft Punk was always there; I danced to “Technologic” at my elementary school talent show and whenever “One More Time” came on at the middle school dance, the tweens suddenly knew how to mosh. Across Homework (1997), Discovery (2001), Human After All (2005), Random Access Memories (2013) and the live albums, film score and compilations in between, Daft Punk grounded French house into the mainstream, paving the way for our generation to dance in a way we never had before.

In many ways, house picked up where disco left off.  The Anti-disco, “Disco sucks”, movement of the late 70s, largely fueled by racism and homophobia, fizzled out American disco culture and contributed to the wider, growing wave of American conservatism that ultimately got Regan elected in 1980. But the remains of disco eventually birthed the more minimalistic, more mechanical house scene. House music emerged from Chicago’s underground club culture in the 1980s, and French house house followed suit, deriving from Eurodisco.

Soon to be the first universally successful French house act, Daft Punk released their debut, Homework, in 1997. Homework is a stunning mesh of house, funk, synth and disco; “Revolution 909” lures you into the blitz of head rolling and chest pulsing while “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” swallows you whole, because now, you’re stuck here, in the dance, and there’s no going back. Welcome. We are happy to have you.

Discovery, the masterful record that affirmed Daft Punk’s emergence out from the underground, is truly a disco revival. The momentum of the first three tracks— “One More Time”, “Aerodynamic” and “Digital Love”—is so goddamn powerful, it could single handedly catapult us into space (and it does). Although my soul leaves its body whenever “Digital Love” comes on (why don’t you play the game?), “One More Time” is it. “One More Time” is the one.

Among the many things that the pandemic has ripped from our rotting hands, the loss of dancing has been among the most difficult for me. Everything that “One More Time” invites us to do— “celebrate and dance so free”—we haven’t been able to do. This song is an anthem that restores the simplest human pleasure—our ability to let go and come together. It’s the thrill of anonymity and community when you’re on a dimly lit dance floor, shoulder to shoulder with strangers like sardines, listening and moving in harmony.

I used to get very frustrated when people would say things to me like, “Well, what’s so different about your life in the pandemic? You’re young, you’re healthy, you can still see some friends.” Because, well, everything. Everything is different. We’re in this sort of disturbed hybrid between pandemic reality and pre-pandemic reality and we’re so detached from the objective normal that it feels impossible to pinpoint what exactly is missing, but this excerpt from a Carl Craig exhibition review does a pretty good job:

“Normally, good parties have people in them. The smells of sweat, the sticky limbs, the flânerie, the dopamine just gushing; a party is best when you’re thrown into it, like a pair of dice, where everyone’s identities and potentials may briefly be upended: friends become lovers, listeners become dancers, and celebrities become what Warhol called ‘nobodies.’”

I always say that if your favorite Daft punk record is Human After All, congrats, you are the weirdest kind of Daft Punk fan, and if it’s Random Access Memories, where do you get off? (Mine is Homework, so, I am neither the weirdest nor the worst by my own standards.) Among their four studio albums, people always toss Human After All to the side. It is nowhere near as powerful nor refined as the other three, but Human After All is a bleak, gritty, industrial-electronic record that I feel is going to age like finest of wines. It was made in only a few months and was absolutely a strange follow up to the eclectic Discovery, but tracks like “Television Rules the Nation” and “Human After All” effectively emulate that alternate side of Daft Punk where suddenly those robot heads make a lot more sense. The record concludes with the beauteous and everlasting “Emotion,” bringing us back to that ethereal Discovery-esq utopia after the rugged journey through Human After All.

Random Access Memories, the Grammy’s 2013 album of the year, does very little if anything for me. “Doin’ It Right” is the only track that I’m interested in, but that’s not to say that RAM is not a thoroughly impressive and polished piece of work. You just can’t be both a Homework and a RAM slut, it’s one or the other, right? You can hear how expensive this record was (a million something dollars) in the impeccable sound engineering throughout. It’s smooth, it’s creamy, it’s easy on the ears, it’s RAM, the soft rock record that I’m incapable of enjoying because I can’t stand Pharrell and mentally, I am forever stuck here.   

@ryanhemsworth on Twitter

Before I even began to write this on my dumb little laptop, I knew that I would never be able to properly commemorate Daft Punk and all that they have done for me, you, and everyone else squished onto this planet. Can anyone? Daft Punk found the sweet spot in the fusion of various electronic subgenres and completely revolutionized mainstream dance music, giving us so much life, love and liberation.

When you’ve lost what makes you feel alive you’ve got to pinch yourself here and there to remember you are in fact still living, still moving, still breathing. I did a lot of pinching this past year in hibernation, desperate for the cobwebs on the dance floors to be cleared and doses of normalcy to finally return. And then all at once, with little to no warning, just as abruptly as things shut down, it has all begun to open up again.

It was last Friday night when I felt myself emerge from my casket like a (fully vaccinated) corpse that had been withering away for well over a year. At Cole’s Bar in Logan Square, of all places, I saw it happen. In that dark, piss-smelling back room that I now adore so much, “One More Time” came through the speakers. As my roommate and I locked hands and ascended the stage, tears filled my eyes as I watched it all come back as if it had never left. Strangers poured into the musty dance floor as Daft Punk streamed through our veins, and I watched it happen—I watched life return again. I watched Daft Punk bring us back.

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