What’s up with Daft Punk and the helmets anyway?

Couple of big themes from the Grammys last night — Macklemore had a nice performance in which 33 couples were married, Beyonce and Jay-Z proved once again that they own the world, Pharrell Williams’ hat, Lorde winning a bunch of stuff, and Daft Punk winning basically every other thing. Whenever they came up to receive awards, someone would refer to them as “the robots.” I’ve never been big into that type of music, nor do I know anything about France, so I came pretty late to the Daft Punk game (interesting sidebar: my wife thinks the lyrics to that song are “we rub all night to get lucky,” which is like, uh, draw your own conclusions there).

Daft Punk has actually been around for a while — their first critically acclaimed record dropped in 1997 — and they’ve intersected the mainstream a few times, from Tron: Legacy to that 2003 GAP commercial above to having a Coca-Cola product (only sold in France) in 2011, etc.

First question begged by people new to the game: why the helmets?

The answer?

No musical act strikes the same balance between gravitas and goofiness as Daft Punk. On one hand, they speak loftily about artistic evolution and music being “an invitation to a sonic journey”; on the other, they wear kitschy helmets straight off the covers of Eighties-era Isaac Asimov paperbacks. Bang­alter describes the robot look as both a high-concept philosophical gambit – “We’re interested in the line between fiction and reality, creating these fictional personas that exist in real life” – and a way to enfold Daft Punk’s music within a tradition of flamboyant pop theatricality that includes “Kraftwerk and Ziggy Stardust and Kiss; people thought the helmets were marketing or something, but for us it was sci-fi glam.”

The robots also let Bang­alter and de Homem-Christo, both receding gearhead types, exert a gravitational pull on audiences that their bare faces – handsome in rough-hewn but unremarkable ways – could never equal. “We’re not performers, we’re not models – it would not be enjoyable for humanity to see our features,” de Homem-Christo says wryly, “but the robots are exciting to people.”

Cool things here: although some people do know what Daft Punk looks like outside of the helmets (more on that in a second), this is an amazing bit of anonymity within our current culture. At the end of that Rolling Stone article, the author talks about them boarding a NYC subway train. No one knows who they are. You can argue for “Blurred Lines,” sure, but in all likelihood “Get Lucky” was the song of 2013 for many. Think back to even one-hit wonders who had the song of a given year. If they board a BART train or a NYC subway or whatever, people will stare and/or approach them. Daft Punk won three-four major Grammys last night and they could be at a Starbucks together right now and basically maybe one European electrohead transplant might know them. That’s remarkable in the modern age and our obsession with celebrity (cue discussion about MSNBC cutting away from NSA story for Bieber story in 3, 2, 1…).

More, contextually, on the helmets:

Back in the Nineties, the duo placed black bags on their heads during promotional appearances and bought creepy Halloween masks to wear at photo shoots. The robot helmets, designed by French artist friends, originally featured campy brown wigs – curly for Bang­alter, flowing for de Homem-Christo. En route to the 2001 magazine shoot where they first unveiled the helmets, though, Daft Punk yanked off the hair, deciding the robots looked better bald. “Sleeker,” Bang­alter says. Today they own several different versions of the helmets – some with built-in air conditioning and communications systems, for live shows; others constructed of materials that photograph better, for shoots and projects like 2006’s Electroma, the trippy, dialogue-free feature film that Daft Punk directed. Their latest helmets were made by a Hollywood special-effects shop “that worked on the new Spider-Man,” Bangalter says, adding that the firm signed a nondisclosure agreement regarding the helmets’ exact specifications. He compares Daft Punk to “Warhol, mixing mass production and art,” but the duo can also resemble the Walt Disney Company, or Coca-Cola – a big-money multinational safeguarding its IP. Homemade robot helmets proliferate online, modeled on fan sites and sold on eBay, “but the proportions are really hard to get right just by looking at pictures, so they all seem a little bit off,” says Bangalter.

So while it’s hard to mimic the exact specs, you can do a little digging with this visual history of the helmets.

So … pics of them without helmets? Yep. This link will give you the most different views, and this one has a couple of others. Kinda interesting, because they actually have distinctive looks in a way — so you’d think that you’d be able to contextually remember them. But then I think about it like this: what if Jay-Z constantly performed in a mask? He has a pretty distinctive face, but would I remember it if I only saw it via Google Image search? Basically Daft Punk is playing with the entire context of what it’s like to know something or remember something. Trippy.

Final thing on Daft Punk: even before they worked with Pharrell on Random Access Memories and got minted U.S.-side by the Grammy machine (provided people still respect the Grammys), they were still making a ton of money on the world DJ circuit (which is extremely lucrative if you’re good at it). They set Spotify records and have had their dance tracks compared to Sgt. Pepper’s. They also did cool tour shit like this in 2007:

Here’s a solid video on their history as a duo, too. I’m probably never going to get deep into this type of music, but culturally they’re very interesting. They’re f’n with perception! And they rub all night to get lucky…

Ted Bauer