The Oxford Handbook of Music & Virtuality
Blur's Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett created the cyberworld Gorillaz as a critique and subversion of manufactured music. Does it succeed in its intentions?
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.
The late Sheila Whiteley was Professor Emeritus (the University of Salford, UK) and a Research Fellow at the Bader International Study Centre, Queen's University, Ontario, Canada. She is author of Too Much Too Young: Popular Music, Age and Identity (2005).
Shara Rambarran is an Assistant Professor of Music and Cultural Studies at the Bader International Study Centre, Queen's University, Canada. Shara gained her PhD in Music and Cultural Studies at the University of Salford.