(from NPR Music farewell to Daft Punk special, 2021)
My golden Daft Punk memory is not witnessing their 1996 U.S. debut at a muddy Wisconsin rave, or meeting the duo at their home-from-home in the Hollywood Hills in 2013. It's dancing to "Digital Love" with my two-year-old son in 2001, the year Discovery came out. The childhood link – if not my own, then my kid's – cuts to the core of Daft Punk. As hinted by the title itself, Discovery felt like a flashback to pop's primal scene: those first encounters, ears cupped to a transistor radio or eyes glued to the TV screen, with otherworldly transmissions from Planet Pop. A magical recovery of that pre-teen openness to everything, before you've learned the rules of cool and uncool.
On Discovery, Daft Punk took their existing filter-disco sound, as pioneered on tracks like "Musique," and blended in a palette of textures and tones sourced in 1970s radio rock at its most overground, overproduced and over-lit. This was the yacht-rock move, almost a decade ahead of chillwave or groups like Haim. But in Daft Punk's case, the balance of irony and awe leans far more to the latter. There's a transcendent artificiality to "Digital Love" especially, a splendor of sound at once camp and sublime. The hazy glaze of the filter effect on the twirling main riff is like plastic if it could rust. At the breakdown, Supertramp's keyboard sound is duplicated with eerie exactness (or not so eerie exactness, given that Daft Punk used the exact same Wurlitzer piano as the English soft rock group). Then there's the ridiculous majesty of that Van Halen-style guitar solo, frothing and bubbling over like a geyser of hot-pink liquid latex. Yet, within all the delicious knowing allusions, the heart of "Digital Love" aches with unrequited longing: it's a rewrite of "Jump" tilted to the tentative, whose last words implore "why don't you play the game?"
"Digital Love" is such an epic distillation of What Daft Punk Is All About that it's still slightly bemusing to remember it was the third single off Discovery and only a modest hit. Admittedly, on the album "Digital Love" jostles with rival delights: lead single "One More Time," with its astonishingly protracted minute-and-half breakdown during which the beat absconds leaving just Romanthony's Auto-Tune-crackling ecstasy; the baroque excess of "Aerodynamic"; frantic electro-funk bangers "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and "Crescendolls"; the shimmering 10cc homage "Nightvision" and bittersweet ballad "Something About Us"; "Veridis Quo", which sounds like the credits theme for a French movie about a lonely girl who's just moved to Paris.
Still, "Digital Love" is The One as far as I'm concerned: a wondrous fusion of disco, AOR, glam metal and New Wave (the choppy guitar-riff breakdown practically forces you to dance in jumpy formation like you're in a Toni Basil video). The actual promo for "Digital Love", like its precursor singles, was hewn from Daft Punk's anime movie Interstella 5555, a project that captured an abiding truth about pop as well as forecasting its emerging destiny in the 21st century: pop's pulpy essence has far more to do with cartoons, comics and video games than literature or the other high arts.
Of course, in a move that seems in hindsight both logical and fatal, Daft Punk fell out of "digital love." They abandoned sampling and embarked upon the back-to-analogue quest of Random Access Memories: an attempt to turn back time and resurrect the pop monoculture of the late '70s and early '80s, ruled by performers and producers like Chic, Giorgio Moroder and Michael Jackson. RAM was a conceptual and commercial triumph, but ultimately a dead end – where on Earth could the duo go next? How could they hope to top "Get Lucky" being on the radio each and every hour for an entire year, the six Grammys and the awards ceremony jam session with Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers? As a commentary on our atemporal and digitally-overdriven epoch, RAM provided a heaping portion of food-for-thought. But since it came out, I've never once felt the urge to play the record. Whereas "Digital Love" and Discovery are perennial, always there when I need an intravenous jolt of insta-joy. Happy daze.