Daft Punks (January 2024)

Last time I spoke to you I had a tense and weighty topic and so to mix things up, I’m going for something a bit daft today.

The daftness in question is Daft Punk, a French electronic music duo formed in the 1990s. They combined elements of house music with funk, disco, techno, rock and synth-pop – which as far as I can tell is a bit of everything apart from easy-listening and reggae. From 1999, Daft Punk assumed robot personas for public appearances – they wore crash helmets, gloves and all-covering body-suits to conceal their humanity and made very few media appearances, preferring to maintain an aura of mystery.

I think this is a very interesting decision – one that they said kept the focus on their music and allowed them to have private lives without being the centre of attention. I’m pretty sure that neither of them have moved into teaching, but if they had then they could be working here right now and none of us would know. Please feel free to ask your teachers if they were in Daft Punk – although I’m not sure it will help because if you were to ask an incognito Thomas Bangalter or Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo I’m pretty sure they would deny having had anything to do with the band.

Daft is an informal adjective meaning silly or stupid – it comes from an Old English word gedaefte meaning mild or meek and its usage spiked sharply at the beginning of this century – possibly because of the behaviour of your older siblings when they were small. I can’t find any other reason for it (except possibly the success of our French robotic heroes). It appears in the charming idiom “as daft as a brush” which has come to us from a 19th century insult from Northwest England, “as daft as a besom” – a besom being a kind of broom with twigs tied round a wooden handle. Harry Potter’s broomstick is a besom.

Over Christmas, my family livened up a car journey by examining a variety of idioms, in English and translated from other languages, for intellectual deficiency – such as being as daft as a brush – and our favourite was the deceptive “Wisdom is chasing you, but you run faster.” So as not to run away from chasing wisdom I’d like to share some of Daft Punk’s less daft lyrics – from their song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” which appears on their second studio album: Discovery. The key lyric is in a repeated chorus:

Work it harder, make it better
Do it faster, makes us stronger
More than ever, hour after hour
Work is never over

I think there’s a lot for us in Commitment term of Year 13 here – both good advice and a reflection on the experience. So,  let’s take it phrase by phrase. Work it harder – as you get closer to the end of your school career, you need to step up the amount of effort you’re making. So if you’ve been doing 15 hours of homework a week then I’d say step it up to 18 with some strategic revision. If you’ve not been doing 15 hours of homework a week then you should have – wisdom is chasing you, but you’re faster. Work it harder, Make it better. It is honestly amazing to me as a teacher how much difference it makes when a student works hard over an extended period of time – working hard at the things you find difficult isn’t fun, it’s not easy, but it really makes things better, it really has an impact on your grades, it really means that future you can be proud of eighteen year old you.

Work it harder, make it better, Do it faster – this is important – you are under time pressure, both now in that you have 168 hours a week for eighteen weeks and you’ll spend some of that asleep and so need to make the most of your waking hours, and when you get to the exams and you have 90 minutes to complete the challenges in front of you. Train yourself to work fast – get rid of distractions, turn the phone to do not disturb, the music to silent, shut the door and start a stopwatch. Learn to work fast, use your time efficiently.

Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, Makes us stronger, more than ever, hour after hour. This is your opportunity. Commitment of Year 13 – if not now then you never will work it harder, you never will make yourself stronger. And it is hour after hour – not 40 minutes and a break as some of you seem to think. I took an exam last year – one that I missed out on when I was your age and my colleagues thought would be amusing. It was the STEP paper, the maths entrance exam for Cambridge university, and it’s three hours long. Three hours of focus – if I can do it with my aging brain cells then you can – you’re young, your at your peak of mental and physical fitness. Work it harder. Make it better. Do it faster. Makes us stronger, more than ever, hour after hour…

But, work is never over – it’s a lament, isn’t it. And there’s truth there – the reward for working hard and doing well is the opportunity to work harder at doing something more difficult, more important, more rewarding – but for you it’s also misleading. When you get to July you’ll have two months of summer to relax, to chill, to see your friends, to listen to music, to do all the things that you didn’t do this term.

The song Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger is put together with a very small linguistic palette – there aren’t many different words in it. One is reminded of Dr Seuss’ remarkable children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham which was written in response to a bet that he couldn’t write a coherent story with only fifty different words. He achieved the goal, won his bet, and wrote a wonderful tale with the moral that you should be open to trying new things, things that you might have thought weren’t your kind of thing. A memorable story in 50 words is remarkable, but by my count, Daft Punk have done better with just 18: just the words After, Better, Do, Ever, Faster, Harder, Hour, Is It, Make, Makes, More, Never, Over, Stronger, Than, Us and Work. This inspired a viral video in 2007 when Austin Hall wrote the word stems on his hands and accompanied the song simply by showing the appropriate fingers – it’s called Daft Hands and I recommend that you look it up.

They’re not so daft, Daft Punk. They’re not punks either, actually. The origins of the word can be traced back further than daft – to the sixteenth century where it meant both “rotten wood” and “prostitute”. In the 20th century it meant worthless or criminal until it was adopted by a new musical genre in the 1970s. My punk quote of choice comes from the film Dirty Harry where the policeman, Harry, is facing down a criminal and they are both wondering whether there are any more bullets in Harry’s gun and he says “Given this is a 44 magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?”

And I hope this is a situation that you are never literally close to – but maybe you’re thinking you could leave it another week or two before you really started committing to your future, and I think that given this is your last year of schooling before you face the realities of the adult world you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Because once you reach June there’s not much I can do to help you, not much you can do to change your fate, choices will have been made and you’ll be living with the consequences. Every day that ticks past without serious study is one less opportunity. It might not make a difference, you might still get the grades you need, but given this is the rest of your life, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you?  

So maybe you’re wondering why I’ve not taken this opportunity to show you Daft Hands – it’s a truly remarkable piece of work and part of your cultural heritage – and the answer links to the question of choosing how to spend your time. Firstly I have a limited time with you and wanted to pack it with as much advice as possible so that those punks among you running from Wisdom might change your tack, and secondly it’s not the video that’s important – it’s the decision you make to follow up on what you hear, to be interested in things that you might have previously dismissed as just more green eggs and ham, not your kind of thing. If you take my recommendation to watch Daft Hands on YouTube in your own time you’ll have practiced taking advice, you’ll have worked it – and if you keep taking advice, keep working it, you’ll get harder, better, faster, stronger at whatever it is you practice. And for this term – and the beginning of next, my advice is that you commit to making your practice the subjects you study. Anything else would just be daft.


1. The previous assembly referred to in the opening line is A Tense Topic.