With new Gorillaz out this week, maybe it’s time to look at the history of the animated band. This is from Vinyl Me, Please.
You may remember Gorillaz first for their look—specifically the fact that they were cartoons, four strangely rendered misfits frowning in baggy clothes while riding in a camouflage jeep. Or, if you heard them only through radio, the name might first recall their peculiar sound, touching on rap, dub, indie rock and electronica that way tourists pose for pictures at America’s Four Corners, one limb in each state. Still, I will always remember the group for what they were to me in 2001: the most controversial band in my fifth grade class.
Pop music had been moving quickly in those years. The record industry was reaching an all-time high, pushed upward by the standardization of the compact disc and the disposable income produced by the bubble economy. A year earlier, ‘NSYNC’s No Strings Attached had sold 2.4 million copies in its first week. Among the boys I knew, the boy band’s only threat came from usurpers like Eminem and Kid Rock, TRL stars who performed rebellion exactly the way elementary school students imagine it—mostly by saying the F-word. I will forever cherish the memory of the afternoon I spent with my old friend Gary, tallying every swear in Kid’s Devil Without a Cause and arguing over whether “ass” should be included in our count.
I lost this argument. But with Gorillaz, a much more complicated argument began to unfold. They were, as I recall, the first band I was ever made fun of for liking. My friends were already fluent in the language pop-entertainment spectacle—its fakeness, its inhumanity, its cartoonishness. At the time, this seemed normal. Gorillaz, however, made it seem less so, turning that artificiality in on itself, making it so obvious that it was no longer possible to ignore.
Just as Napster, also working behind an odd cartoon avatar, used files from CDs to undermine the record industry from within, so Gorillaz presented a new challenge for young music fans who didn’t know much else. Thus began some of my first arguments about the nature of pop: “Who makes the songs?” None of us knew Blur, or Damon Albarn, Gorillaz’s IRL string-puller, and thus we had no idea. Being in fifth grade meant that we couldn’t rule out the possibility that the cartoons were somehow making the music themselves. “What if you went to their concert and a bunch of cartoons came out onstage?” I specifically remember Gary asking that one, and I specifically remember being completely stumped. “How can you like a band that’s just cartoons?” Another tough one. For now, let’s table it.