Never assume that your face will stay the same, or that people will recognize you all the time. To most of the world, your face is meaningless, communicating nothing but the fact that you are, yes, a person. A stranger, at that. Those who know you, including your family, have had the pleasure of watching your face evolve over the years. Faces never stay the same two days, two minutes, two seconds in a row. It exists within certain guidelines, but it is never static or unchanging.
One way people have tried to fix that problem is by using masks. Tigers do not use masks, and only write under their own identities. Humans, however, love adorning, highlighting, and even obscuring their faces to stretch their identities in one direction or another. In some cases, masks are meant to obliterate the person underneath them and communicate an entirely separate persona. In other cases, say when someone uses makeup, it simplifies the messages the face can send and focuses attention on the features the person deems desirable.
And then there are some people who make music under the guise of digital cartoons. Humans and tigresses, I give you Gorillaz.
I share this song not so much to analyze it, but to use it as a frame for discussing the idea of masks and theatrical performance in music. That said, there are a few notes I would like to share about the song itself. First, André 3000, famously abstract rapper from Outkast, delivers a fiery verse that might be his best in years. LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy sings the chorus, and Damon Albarn himself drawls the first two verses. The song, like much of Gorillaz’s output, has an identity that’s split three ways. With some smart production work, however, it sounds fairly cohesive.
What about the strange characters in the video? 2D (the leggy one with the black eyes), Murdoc (green monster), Noodle (the one sleeping), and Russell (giant on the roof) form Gorillaz, the world’s most successful virtual band.Leader of 1990s British rock band Blur Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett created these characters as a response to what they perceived as the hollowness of popular music. Watching MTV in the late 90s was like watching cartoons anyway, so why not create a cartoon group?
This is not to say that they spurned pop forms; in fact, the opposite happened. The virtual band has a hyper-inclusive ethos that shines through in its songs, which are often full of references to rock, electronica, dub, hip-hop, and any other musical forms their creators can think of. It’s remix culture but with little sampling and more original creation. With this façade protecting them from the demands of celebrity, Albarn, Hewlett, and a long list of collaborators have been able to create music that defies categories while still projecting a singular image.
Animated masks freed up the people behind them. Wearing costumes and masks, creating fake personae and pseudonyms. All of these acts can be freeing, using artificial concepts to communicate personal and truthful ideas. Even if Gorillaz is not a real band, the music, and what it says, are certainly real. Listen to the music around you, and you’ll find that most of the pop music created these days is a highly heterogeneous mix of styles, generally incorporating traditional chords and harmonies, house beats, hip-hop, rock music, and so on.
Often musical worth is couched in terms of how authentic it is or feels. What I would claim is that theatricality and heightened performance can make music better and allow it to go places it couldn’t if it were bound to the humdrum. I would strongly encourage giving Gorillaz a close inspection. They’re flat and fake but probably have more substance than most flesh-and-blood groups working today.