Is that the sound of pop eating itself?

June 27, 2003

John Richardson delves into the virtual worlds and mixed postmodern message of animated band Gorillaz

From Woodstock and Live Aid to Bill Grundy's interview with the Sex Pistols: there are some events that so eloquently capture the spirit of the generation that they can be recognised as loaded with broader cultural significance even as they unfold.

Last year's Brit Awards was the scene of one such moment. The house lights of Earls Court Arena were lowered and an aerial tracking shot surveyed the venue before homing in on a dark stage. Drum simulations of a heartbeat triggered the illumination of four towering screens. The silhouetted image of 2D, frontman of "virtual band" Gorillaz, emerged from the static to be joined by three more silhouetted band members before the arms of hip-hop henchman Russel smashed out the four-beat snare-drum intro to the hit song Clint Eastwood .

This spectacle took place at a time when fabricated pop acts were riding high in the charts; when "reality TV" shows filled the channels; and when the language of spin, simulation and makeover was reaching into all areas of the popular imagination from politics to play.

The calculated irony of Gorillaz' performance was that some of the key architects of fabricated pop were watching from the audience as animated caricatures of the acts they created paraded cockily before them with vacant eyes and mocking smirks. A moment of similar deconstructive force is found in the movie The Truman Show when Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) is allowed to step outside the reality TV show he has lived in since birth. What is depicted in both instances is cultural theorist Theodor Adorno's malevolent "culture industry" incarnate. And the act of revelation indicates the possibility of authentic existence, of life beyond the reach of malevolent capitalist forces.

To perceive critical intent in Gorillaz' ostensibly shallow and unapologetically juvenile multimedia art is not to impose the falsifying lens of cultural theory on intellectually naive pop artefacts. Interviews and other promotional paraphernalia tell of Gorillaz' agenda to resist commodification in pop by refusing access to the real musicians while exaggerating traits conventionally associated with pop stardom, such as the spectacle of performance.

This suggests a reversal of reality TV's fly-on-the-wall perspective on the pop industry - Pop Idol and its like - that promises privileged access to "real people", who submit to ritual humiliation and redemption on live television to achieve pop stardom. Gorillaz claims to have no time for such games and makes a point of denying fans access.

On the evidence of critical and broader audience responses to the band, Gorillaz' "message" would appear to be getting through loud and clear. This grates with some critics, who find attacks on manufactured pop acts by erstwhile Blur front-man Damon Albarn (the voice of 2D) and his collaborators either hypocritical, given the overtly manufactured nature of Gorillaz, or redundant, given the inherent critical qualities of the music and accompanying visual representations. The band's critique of manufactured pop involves the creation of an animated "virtual world" that parodies while taking undeniable pleasure in representations of the "real world".

There is nothing new about pop acts that are not what they seem. Significant precursors include bands featuring cyborgs, such as Kraftwerk; fictional bands, such as the The Monkeys; spoofs, such as Spinal Tap; and bands in which the identity of the musicians is withheld, such as The Residents. But Gorillaz' take on the idea of virtual performance is new, and it is best explained with reference to theories of the virtual in postmodern theory. Of particular relevance is Jean Baudrillard's idea that our postmodern world is a kind of simulated version of reality that he calls a "simulacrum".

In his view, we have lost contact with "the real", all experience becoming secondary or "virtual". Baudrillard is fundamentally a pessimist who finds this alienated condition an undesirable state of affairs. But other theorists see the self-conscious move towards artifice in parodic postmodern representation as serving a powerful critical function.

Significantly, most critics' objections to Gorillaz have been concerned not with the "virtual band" but with the veiled presence of Albarn and cartoonist Jamie Hewlett (creator of Tank Girl ) in much of its publicity material. If the animated musicians in Gorillaz inhabit an invented "virtual world", a second "virtual world" might be seen to be inhabited by the band behind the band.

Cameos by Albarn and Hewlett resemble those of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and others in their film and television work and underline the licence granted to the auteur to play with reality; to take a character we know is not an "actor" and insert him into the fictitious world of the work. This has played a big part in the critical reception of Gorillaz. In the context of pop, these appearances reveal that the band must on some level engage with the music industry on its ("real", "human") terms if they are to achieve their goals. So is all of this a compromise too far? For some, perhaps, but let us not forget that the "messages" of popular music span several media, one of the most significant of these being the musical text.

"The digital won't let me go," Albarn sings in Tomorrow Comes Today . It brings to mind Adorno's controversial assessment of the impact of industrial technology on African-American music. In his view, genres such as jazz and blues were so saturated with the rhetoric of oppression that even the most politically reactionary song became an unintentional affirmation of technocratic servitude. He would not concede that transforming the material conditions of oppression musically might lead to a form of emancipation.

Like the blues, Gorillaz' music suggests that the source of greatest anxiety in pop may also be the source of listeners' greatest pleasure. A powerful subtext in Gorillaz' lyrics and their visual representations points to the alienation of a technologically savvy, post-apocalyptic "lost generation" embracing pointless pleasure and streetwise scepticism.

Technology is inextricably bound up with the band's musical world. While the music of Clint Eastwood makes nostalgic reference to the analogue technology of post-punk era dub reggae, the song would not have turned out the way it did had it not been recorded in a contemporary digital setting.

But the power of Gorillaz' music can be explained only when all this cross-referencing is inscribed within the context of a carefully crafted and deceptively simple pop song.

If the call of the 1960s was "turn on, tune in and drop out", a reversal of these sentiments might be indicated by 2D's final gesture at the Brit Awards. Gorillaz' animated frontman approaches the camera with haughty indifference at the end of the performance to extinguish his own image.

This measured response to his own "overexposure" may find a parallel in audiences' growing scepticism towards the overexposure of manufactured acts. Perhaps the critics are right and pop has no need for soapboxes - as each generation polices itself in music and in music sales.

John Richardson is senior lecturer in music, technology and innovation at De Montfort University. He will deliver a paper, Bass Pleasures and Gazing Gorillaz , at the International Conference on 20th Century Music at Nottingham University next week.

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