Every Tuesday night, teams assemble in 3 Guys Basement BBQ for weekly trivia. The hour and a half ritual — led by a quirky triviamaster named Carl — consists of three rounds, each becoming progressively more eccentric as the evening continues. This week, the final round — always auditory — challenged teams to identify songs through a series of recordings of Carl singing. Carl is not a singer. From what I can tell on the Internet, he is a comic artist. Consequently, the round was almost as bizarre as two weeks ago when Carl used distorted audio from television commercials modulated over elevator music and asked us to identify the product that matched the commercial.
Anyway, the answer to one of the questions in this week’s Carl’s Karaoke round was “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz. Save for their 2010 album“Plastic Beach,”it has been alongtime since I’ve even thought about Gorillaz, and frankly I remembered “Plastic Beach”but forgot it was by the same artist that did “Feel Good Inc.”
“What ever happened to them?” I asked the table.
“They were, like, a cartoon band,” a friend quickly reminded me.
Right, a cartoon band. Yet they still went on tour, won Grammys and had music videos just like a human band.
Behind Gorillaz was Damon Alborn and Jamie Hewlett. Alborn is better recognized as the lead singer of British rock band Blur (think “Song 2”), while Hewlett is a comic book artist (like Carl, I guess). Together they created the four members of Gorillaz who — instead of Alborn and Hewlett — received the critical acclaim, awards and general credit for the music. Live performances might include upwards of 10 other musicians, but they are seemingly irrelevant. Instead, these anatomically incorrect, musically gifted virtual primates were the stars.
Gorillaz is classified as a “virtual band,” and there are more out there, but none as successful as Gorillaz (they actually hold a Guinness World Record). While the term “virtual band” seems both geeky and very year 2000, you can’t help but wonder how different Gorillaz would be if they were created now.
In a way, Gorillaz provides a benchmark for how the public’s imagination and appetite for what constitutes a musical artist has changed in the past five years. Today, “virtual characters” would be a very hard sell in the midst of the explosion of producers and DJs.
Now an Avicii is simply an Avicii. There is no fictional character providing singing on his tracks. Vocalists get a credit line, but are only marginally more relevant than the live performers at Gorillaz shows. It’s no secret that the popularity hierarchy of musicians and producers has seen a radical shift in the past few years.
It's been nearly three years since Calvin Harris and David Guetta were dubbed as “white-bread house” by — of all newspapers — The Wall Street Journal for Christ’s sake. Around the same timeSpindeclared us the “new rave generation,” centered on a festival culture and enabled by capitalism as promoters find a higher nightly profit margin on DJs than bands.
While rave and electronic producers have historically had their individual notoriety, it was limited to a subculture. Now, playing over the FM radio and mentioned by radio DJs, some artists have earned the disdain from the subculture that raised them.
The formula is simple. If you’re a producer and get a big — like Nicki Minaj or Rihanna big — artist to sing over your production, people are going to listen, no matter how artificial the backing track sounds. To dumb down the formula even further, you can just remix a top 40 hit. Reproduction has displaced original content and yet we know these producers names not in spite of, butbecauseof it — which I could write a whole other column about.
Some might argue that this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Gorillaz was a unique project whose creators had a specific vision in mind and of which cartoon characters were a part. Analogous artists before or after them have simply failed to realize the same magnitude of success, making it difficult to form a comparison. Furthermore, Gorillaz isn’t rave music.
EDM guys are producers and DJs first and, now that their music has been popularized, they have become household names. Generally speaking, there was no “vision,” no need to root the image of the artist in pure fiction. However, my point is that our culture has changed to one that wouldn’t receive such a fantasy. Would Gorillaz have been able to achieve the same amount of success in the mid-2000s sans animation? Hard to say. What we are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to experience in a performance hall has changed and our idea of what we must see and hear to define an “artist” has changed.