Daft Punk: How ‘Pop Idol’ Propelled the Rise of the Robots

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Daft Punk: How ‘Pop Idol’ Propelled the Rise of the Robots

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Daft Punk. Photo by Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images. 

When I met Daft Punk in Paris, in 2003, the world was in the initial stages of a manufactured pop pandemic. Popstars, Pop Idol, American Idol and Fame Academy were the biggest things on television. Early Idol winners Kelly Clarkson and Will Young dominated the US and UK charts. Australia was in the midst of Scandal’us fever (a short-lived affliction, fortunately). And in France, an anodyne disco-funk-dance-pop band named Whatfor had burst off the TV and onto the radio airwaves.

By some miracle, I’d been offered a face-to-face sit down with Daft Punk’s notoriously publicity-phobic Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who were doing a handful of interviews supporting their new anime movie, Interstellar 555 – The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. Since the film told the tale of a group of aliens kidnapped and forced to perform as an Idol-style group, it was only natural that the subject of pop sausage-factory reality TV would come up in conversation.

“It’s funny,” Bangalter told me, reclining in a backroom of his record label’s offices. “The 5tory of The 5ecret 5tar 5ystem was written three years ago, and none of this [Popstars / Pop Idol etc.] had really happened.” In conceptualising the movie, set to the sounds of Daft Punk’s Discovery album, “We were writing about these machines that changed people into this horrible thing [manufactured pop stars], and now, people are proud to be transformed, proud to be taken and manipulated,” Bangalter said.

He bemoaned this new phenomenon of “people just wanting to be picked by the television system and be made into stars, and in a very passive way — they don’t want to act, to change things, they just want to be changed.”

It’s hardly a new thing for musical artists to be manipulated, I pointed out. Look at Phil Spector’s stable of girl-groups, Colonel Tom Parker’s shepherding of Elvis’s career, or Lou Pearlman’s oiling of the Backstreet Boys’ and *NSYNC’s machinery.

“Of course this has always happened,” Bangalter agreed. “But before it was a secret. That’s the point of the movie we’ve done — it was always seen as morally evil, and it was a secret, it was hidden. The problem now is not the fact that people are doing this; they always have been. The problem is the fact that they do it with pride.”

The quieter member of the duo, de Homem-Christo rarely says much during Daft Punk’s scarce interviews. One thing he did tell me was, “All the kids think that if they want to sing or be in a band, the only way to do that is through the Fame Academy or Pop Idol.” He pointed out that in the previous year, 2002, “54 per cent of the music sold in the month of December in France was from Fame Academy. It’s the biggest show on TV, and it sells so many records. It makes it hard for everybody (else). If you’re not doing this kind of stuff, you sell a lot less records.”

In this new era, with a new commercial paradigm, “The music industry is really somewhere we don’t feel we belong,” Bangalter said. He explained, “There was no religion in fake before. Now, television is showing the opposite of spontaneity, and they show it in a good light — ‘Oh yeah, that’s the way to do it’.” He worried that by watching the Idol shows, young aspiring musicians and singers would learn that the path to success lies in blind obedience to the manager, record company, or indeed, the TV producer.

“The 13-year-old kids who watch it,” Bangalter thought, “it gives them this idea what a star is, and how it’s great to be a star. But they’re learning that, if you’re a star one day, you have to go and do exactly what the A&R tells you.” Compliance isn’t in the Daft Punk playbook, Bangalter said. “We’re interested in not following any rules… we’re really addicted to innovation, trying to do something new.”

Looking back, it’s clear to see how this situation fed into the development and evolution of the duo’s robot alter-egos, which first appeared in the late 1990s and grew increasingly sophisticated over the following two decades.

“The music industry is like a big competition. Sometimes it can be exciting, and you want to be part of this competition, and sometimes, you just say forget it, I’m not part of this at all,” Bangalter said. By creating a distinctive image while refusing to play along with the mainstream cult of personality and  celebrity, Bangalter explained, “It’s a statement, saying we’re not part of this whole circus.”

Daft Punk’s success serves as a fine anti-Idol example to aspiring musicians that to succeed, you don’t have to become a cog in the machine. Doesn’t hurt to turn into a robot, though.

Last month, Daft Punk celebrated the 20th anniversary of their pivotal Discovery album. Check out some highlights, here. 



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