January 29 2014
Helmeted French duo Daft Punk have become one of the most successful electronic music collaborations of all time, mixing talent with clever marketing that includes singing in English and hiding their faces from an adoring public.
Known for their kitschy robot costumes, pop's most enigmatic superstars took home four major Grammys on Monday (AEST) - including the prized best album and best record awards - the pinnacle of their two-decade career.
Daft Punk began in 1993 when school chums Thomas Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homem Christo launched a new group. Producer Paul Williams accepts the award for Album of the year for Daft Punk's "Random Access Memories" as Nile Rodgers and Pharrell Williams look on. The name was inspired by a review in British magazine Melody Maker, which trashed their earlier guitar-based group Darlin' as "daft punk". The rest as they say is history.
Marrying machine-like vocals with foot-tapping beats, the pair have since overcome their cultural moorings to become one of the world's best known musical monikers. Bangalter, who has just turned 39 and Homem Christo, who will soon be 40, first hit the limelight with their dance-floor smash 'Da Funk' in 1996, which became a rage in European nightclubs. A year later, they released their first album 'Homework' which contained the chart-busting single 'Around the World'.
Five years later, their second album 'Discovery' harked back to the 1980's recycling disco and pop and became a trailblazer, fashioning musical trends at the start of the 2000's. But their third album 'Human After All', released in 2005, bombed and was largely panned by critics. The return to success came in 2013, when they released 'Random Access Memories', which includes the catchy hit 'Get Lucky' and featured collaborations with disco legends Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers and hip hop star, Pharrell Williams.
Critics say Daft Punk carefully nurtured their secretive image while creating intense curiosity about the album in a trail of hints on billboards and teasers on television. "Taking eight years to make an album tends to mean that everyone forgets about you. With Daft Punk it has simply fuelled speculation," wrote Will Hodgkinson in British newspaper The Times of the album."'Random Access Memories is a blend of disco, robotic vocals, soft rock and smooth easy listening that really shouldn't work but does - brilliantly," he said.
And British magazine NME hailed it as an "ambitious masterpiece you can't imagine being made by anyone other than Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo."
After the Grammys, an ecstatic French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti paid homage to the duo as the "spearheads of the 'French touch' that is appreciated the world over." But music critics at home were less enthusiastic.
"It seems that the success of Daft Punk is clearly explained by the fact that they bear allegiance to American music, it is in no way French music," said journalist Olivier Cachin. Bertrand Dicale said that at another time, singers like Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier launched extraordinary careers in the United States because of their "Frenchness" and the fact that they gave the "American market something it did not have".
"But what counts now is not really the language in which one sings but the language in which one advertises" songs and albums, he said. "Ninety per cent of French artists who sing in English cannot transcend national boundaries," Dicale added. Jean-Daniel Beauvallet from the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles warned Daft Punk's success was in no way an indicator that French performers were growing in popularity on the world stage.
"It's a bit smoke and mirrors," he said, adding that only a handful of current French artistes were global phenomenons.
He said many French groups tried singing in English and signed up with American and British labels but finally returned to singing in French after realising their "extremely slim chances of international success".