“Feel Good” with Gorillaz and “Reject False Icons”
The Fantasy Worlds of the Virtual Group and Their Creators
In a world where everything is a virtual copy of itself, where there’s nothing but image, wherse publicists have publicists and where celebrity is bleakly industrial, it’s inevitable that “image” starts to collapse on itself….
— Roger Morton, quoted in Gorillaz: Rise of the Ogre (2006)
Over the past decade, celebrity and reality television culture have had a major impact on both media and popular music. The current wave of successful popular music has been based largely on manufactured pop, thus encouraging reality television competitions globally to find the next “pop star” (e.g., Pop Idol and The X-Factor) . It is also evident that an insight into future pop stars’ personal lives is often more appealing to the media and public than the music, making it problematic for professional musicians to be acknowledged simply for their musical output. Damon Albarn reflects, “The centre aspect of it is how uniformed it makes everything, it doesn’t celebrate how the individual pop culture should be, constantly pulsating new ideas, new approaches and new manifestos” (quoted in Pop Britannia 2008). Albarn also comments on how manufactured artists and bands are not allowed to experiment or control their own music, primarily because the music industry expects them to produce standardized songs to keep the targeted audience satisfied.
They do an amazing thing, but then the whole weight of the celebrity and money destroys it, and they can’t come astray from a single hit…. I think that is true of so many things in our culture these days; no one is given a chance to experiment. (Albarn, quoted in Baltin 2001)
One cannot help but surmise that Albarn may be reflecting on his own musical career as lead singer with the Britpop group Blur. During the 1990s, the popularity of Britpop had led to the media intruding into musicians’ private lives, especially Albarn’s, who felt that the pressures began to restrict his musical career. Not least the hyped media attention on Britpop prevented him from experimenting with other musical styles (Phillips 2001). In 1998 Albarn and comic book artist and designer Jamie Hewlett reacted by creating the virtual pop group Gorillaz, arguably their response to the cult of celebrity and reality television’s association with manufactured pop music. It was, as Tony Wadsworth writes, the “ultimate manufactured band” (Wadsworth quoted in Phase One: Celebrity Take Down 2002), one that enabled Albarn to work behind the scenes and compose music, while Hewlett concentrated on developing the four characters. Creating Gorillaz as the “ultimate manufactured pop band” can, perhaps, be seen as somewhat of a parody given such contemporary boy bands as One Direction, but while Gorillaz are an imitation of a pop group, as John Richardson suggests, they are also “an effortless combination of ‘serious’ and more playful strategies” (2005, 4), suggesting a more subversive reaction to successful manufactured bands. Certainly both Albarn and Hewlett believed that they could produce a mainstream act with an agenda: to have control of the group in terms of artistic and musical creativity. There was also less pressure on Albarn, because it safely allowed him to move away from his “trademark” Britpop sound, avoid media attention, and experiment with other musical styles such as dub, reggae, pop, and hip hop.
Once their vision of creating a virtual band became public knowledge, Albarn and Hewlett were subject to something of a media scramble, as the press was keen to know more about this new experimental project. This added pressure on Hewlett and the animation company Passion Pictures, because they were producing a music video for the track “Tomorrow Comes Today” (2001) within a time frame of three weeks (Bananaz 2009). The blurring of reality and fantasy is evident in the video where Gorillaz are seen singing, driving, and walking in London. Albarn pledged that “this is not novelty … we see Gorillaz [as] a complete subversion of current trends” (quoted in Duerden 2001): televised singing competitions, a commercialized music industry, and the grooming of pop stars. Albarn also created the “Reject False Icons” campaign, a direct protest against celebrity idols, where he encouraged fans to scribble the words “reject false icons” as graffiti.
The image of a pop artist takes an ironic twist as Gorillaz’ looks are unconventional, and it is the peculiar animated modification of their bodies along with their distinctive personalities that make the band appealing to the audience. To fully appreciate Gorillaz and the various roles they play, it is important to understand that the group is a simulation of a pop group; that because of their virtual presence, they belong to the category of the hyperreal. As such, it is considered relevant to consider further the concept of hyperreality and its foundation, the simulation. As Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) argued, reality can no longer exist because we are surrounded by simulations of signs, the majority of which are presented in the media. He supports his argument by referring to imitation as a simulation, representation, or reduplication; the simulation does not separate the “real/original” and “fake/representation” as they are too similar in appearance. In music for example, a producer or DJ who remixes records or uses samples would be using simulations of the music (regardless of medium) and not the original. If an artist or group were to mime for media-related purposes, they would be simulating a live performance. If someone wanted to make a copy of a CD, she or he would be making a simulation of the CD.
The notion of simulation is associated with Baudrillard’s theory of “orders of the simulacra,” which describes the various stages of the representation as based on (1) counterfeit (fake imitation), (2) production (duplicate), and more relevant to this discussion (3) simulation (Baudrillard 1993, 51; 1994, 6). The third order is dominated by simulations in which its “original” cannot be detected: the representation of the simulation blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and is usually digitally produced. In Baudrillard’s view, there is no such thing as reality, only hyperreality. In a world of hyperreality we are influenced by free-floating signs and are separated from reality; it tends to be more attractive than the real world because of the signs we are exposed to (1994), and as such the hyperreal is “more real than real” (1990, 11; 1994, 144). Another example of hyperreality is virtual reality, where technology can create films (with The Matrix being a commonly cited example) and cyberspace, where the creation of worlds, way of living, changing identities, and bodies are apparently limitless, permitting users to escape from reality and live in fantasy by experiencing another “real life” temporarily. In particular, bodies in virtual reality are presented as a mixture of machine and human, known as cyborg (cybernetic organism). Cyborgs are evident in popular culture, in films like Robocop (1987), The Terminator (1984), Avatar (2009), and Elysium (2013). There is a blurring of boundaries when constructing cyborgs: nature-artificial, real-unreal, human-nonhuman, biological-technological, and so forth.
It is suggested that Gorillaz fall into the third order of simulacra. The members are almost replicas of human beings, but they are not fully presented as robots or automatons. Instead, they are generated as would-be human beings through the aid of digital technology, which in this case enables the group to be perceived as cybernetic or virtual beings who are all “neither real or unreal” (Baudrillard 1994, 125). Rather, they could be perceived as the death of a “real” band: Gorillaz is not a manufactured product formed by the music industry that is dependent on the overproduction of idol singers and boy/girl bands with similar images, personalities, lifestyles, and music. The third order also implies that the simulation has total control of its purpose or role (1994). This can be explored from two angles when studying Gorillaz. First, they are in control of the image, personality, videos, performances, lifestyles, and music. Second, it is obvious that it is Albarn and Hewlett who are in control of Gorillaz. Albarn, in particular, controls the musical and media direction of the group and can arguably be compared to a music manager and producer. The difference, however, is that Albarn never experienced such control in his earlier musical career, which raised a further question about Albarn’s personal agenda for Gorillaz. Could the liberation of Albarn’s musical creativity and control of a virtual band be an idealized representation of himself? Is 2D the lead singer, the (virtual) alter ego of Albarn? Albarn teasingly says “no” (Lester 2003).
The association of hyperreality with Gorillaz lies primarily in the identity of its four members.
Murdoc Niccals, the bass player of Gorillaz, was the “founder” of the group (Bananaz 2009). He was born on June 6, 1966, in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Tall and shaggy-haired, his black clothing suggests a metal/rock image, while his green skin, green teeth, and eyes (which are composed of two colors, one black, one red) separate him from being identified as human. Particular attention is paid to his date of birth: 06/06/1966, an obvious biblical association with the devil and 666 as the number of the beast (Rev. 13: 11–18). Murdoc’s Satanist associations (Browne 2006) lie with his middle name (Faust), literary collections (e.g., Pacts with the Devil), and metal music (such as Black Sabbath). Murdoc explains that he furthered his taste in music by listening to such styles as punk, dub, and reggae (Browne, ibid.), a possible reason metal is hardly included in the music. As the founder member of Gorillaz, he first recruited the singer 2D.
2D (real name Stuart Pot) was born on May 23, 1978, in Crawley, England. His body appearance is almost human in form, but he has “natural” blue hair and striking black eyes (Browne 2006, 18). He is, however, visually impaired from two car accidents caused by Murdoc, which also resulted in 2D suffering with mobility problems, long-term headaches, and anxiety (20-22). As a teenager, his hobbies included watching horror films directed by Lucio Fulci and George A. Romero, and listening to music by the Specials, the Clash, and the Human League (ibid.). As well as singing, 2D plays the moog, stylophone, drum machine, and Casio VL-tone (19). 2D and Albarn share the vocals and have similar cheeky grins. 2D and Murdoc’s friendship resembles a brotherly love-hate relationship, and when they fight it is quickly resolved by their mediator, the third recruited member, Russel Hobbs, the drummer.
The Virtual- Real-World Connection
Russel Hobbs, an African American, was born on June 3, 1975, in New York City. He was sent to England for his own safety after his friends were shot dead in a drive-by shooting (Browne 2006, 23). At the time, he claimed to have seen the Grim Reaper and become possessed (his eyes turned white). He further states that the Grim Reaper put the spirits of his dead friends into his own large body, when, thanks to their musical talents, he instantly became a musician (25). He also claims that one of his inner ghosts, Del, raps while he is drumming. Like the other members of Gorillaz, Russel’s physical appearance is striking. Other than horror, his identity resembles the hip-hop genre (for example baggy jeans, trainers, designer street wear, machoism). His height, body size, and white eyes also identify him with such comic characters as the Hulk and King Kong. He is, however, a “gentle giant” and is protective of his fellow band mate, Noodle, the most significant member of the group.
Noodle, a Japanese guitarist, joined Gorillaz when she was ten years old. She resembles an anime character and has cyborg features. Her recruitment to the group was unusual. After Murdoc placed an advertisement for a guitarist in the New Musical Express magazine, Noodle arrived instantly in a freight container from the courier company FedEx (Browne 2006, 29). Her personal history is revealed and explored in “Phase Two,” where it is described by the biographer of Gorillaz, Case Browne (2006). As he concludes, although the super soldier background of Noodle is reminiscent of Battle Royale (2000) and thus appears as a constructed history, it has nevertheless shaped her identity in terms of her look, style, and body.
Noodle’s trademark style in “Phase One” is based on Japanese culture: a gakuran (military) jacket, miniskirt, cloth-covered sandals, and a radio helmet with headphones — associated with anime films such as Mach Go Go Go (Speed Racer) and Uchû senkan Yamato (Space Battleship Yamato). In photographs and videos, Noodle displays signs of her cultural origins such as the Japanese flag, which is found on her t-shirt, and a nihontō (sword) carried on her back. A mon on her clothing reveals the initials of the Battle Royale (“BR”). This symbol is strongly connected with the controversial film referred to earlier, and to Noodle’s reported background in the training camp. In anime, however, Noodle does not carry the facial features presented in this genre. For example, Japanese women in anime have large eyes, which are associated with cuteness and innocence (Poitras 1999). Noodle has small eyes, and it is their shape that contributes to her look (in contrast to the other members, where it is the color of their eyes that is focused on). Noodle, however, carries the “cutismo” factor in her performances, which in anime is associated with shōjo (girls who are pre-teenage), while displaying signs of shōjo culture, which includes independence, power, and masculinity (Napier 2005). What is also significant is that at the beginning of a shōjo film, the female character is introduced to the viewer by flying. What is different in Noodle’s situation is that she reportedly “flew” to England via FedEx cargo plane!
Another significant quality that has an impact on Noodle’s virtual identity is gender. She has been mistaken for a boy, which is due to her tomboyism, uniform, and short hair. Judith (Jack) Halberstam argues that tomboyism is an “extended childhood period for female masculinity” (1998, 5); tomboyism is an admiration for boys who enjoy their independence (6). Noodle’s independence, as a robotic shōjo, lies in her defense skills, while her female masculinity relates to another anime style, mecha (mechanical and robotic-based), thus confirming her identity as a cyborg possessing both “power … and technological competence” (Napier 2005, 86). In common with other cyborgs, she has a “greater capacity for violence, combined with enormous physical prowess” (Springer 1999, 47), and her abilities are displayed through her weaponry skills and martial arts. It is also suggested that her multiple identities (including her personal history) put her into a sharper relationship with cyborg than the other members of Gorillaz, who are cyborgs simply because of their technological creation. As a female cyborg, Noodle’s greater power is challenging. Annie Balsamo argues that female cyborgs are stronger than male cyborgs because they “embody cultural contradictions which strain the technological imagination” (1999, 149); they appear to be more highly experienced than the male when confronting humans and using technology, which challenges the dominant norms surrounding the role of women in society (passive, nurturant, and so forth). Her body (shōjo, cyborg) and image (super soldier, tomboy, cultural origins) integrate the construction of her multiple identities to make her the most interesting character in Gorillaz.
Kong Studios is in cyberspace, where Gorillaz live and create their music. Their virtual world is a form of computer mediated communication (CMC), which allow social interaction with fans. In a virtual world, for example, the user can move around and have an impact on the world, and other online users can contribute to her or his experience at the same time (Gaunlett and Jackson 2008). At Kong Studios, the fans can explore the lives of Gorillaz and search around their home. Gorillaz.com is more than a standard website; it is a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE), where fans can congregate at Kong Studios anytime, in virtual form, although not as avatars as Second Life.
Like Second LifeGorillaz.com resembles a 3D virtual computer game or massively multi-player online games (MMOGs), where the fans can wander into members’ bedrooms and the recording studio, view music videos, enter competitions, play games, shop, and if lucky can also chat with Gorillaz. The fans can also chat with each other. The website serves additionally as a PR facility. Any music releases, tour dates, and gossip are announced on the site first before it is released to the media. Gorillaz offer their fans the opportunity to become virtual and explore their world by sharing their lives and music. This allows the fans to escape reality temporarily and interact with Gorillaz through technology, blurring the boundaries of virtual reality and reality.
Reprinted from Chapter 9 of The Oxford Handbook of Music & Virtuality by Sheila Whiteley and Shara Rambarran, published by Oxford University Press © Oxford University Press, 2016. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.