Sunday, May 5, 2013

Where Have All The Virtual Bands Gone?

Music and animation have a long history together.  Silent cartoons, like their contemporary films, relied on musical accompaniment to immerse the viewer.  The earliest Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes were designed to feature music from upcoming Warner Bros. films, effectively making them proto-music videos.  Composers like Raymond Scott and Carl Stalling have created soundtracks unlike any other.  In most of these cases, music tends to follow the animation to accentuate the zany action or characters.  Every so often however, music does the leading, and we get what has been dubbed, "the virtual band."

Real musicians, real music, fake (usually animated) band members.  The concept alone is brilliant enough to make me giddy.  The idea has been around much longer than the name though.  It all started with Alvin and the Chipmunks back in 1959, but it wasn't long until cartoon bands were everywhere.  There were The Archies, Josie and the Pussycats, The Neptunes, Jem and the Holograms, and several others.  What's interesting though is that these bands all rose to prominence during the decline of American animation that would persist until the '90s.  The bands had a very cookie cutter feel to them, and outside of the occasional pop hit (think "Sugar Sugar") the music is largely forgettable.

Things changed for the better in 2001 when Gorillaz released their first album.  Unlike the previous "corporate shill" efforts, this band had some talent behind it.  The music was handled by Blur front man Damon Albarn and the characters and animation by comic artist Jamie Hewlett.  They took the concept of a virtual band and blew it into the stratosphere.  Fictional band members Murdoc, 2-D, Russel and Noodle aren't just one dimensional Saturday morning cartoon characters.  They have real personalities, back-stories, and despite the outlandishness of some of it, they feel like a real band.  The trials and tribulations of the band can get kind of out there, with story lines involving ghostly possession, super soldier programs, faked deaths, and android duplicates.  It's all entertaining as hell and somehow manages to stay cohesive through the group's three albums.

The real shining point are the music videos.  To this day "Clint Eastwood" remains my favorite music video.  The art is full of energy and personality and there are undead dancing gorillas.  What more do you need?

And is there anyone out there who didn't see this video when it came out:

The third album Plastic Beach featured the group's first outings into 3D.  I don't think the results are as pleasing to look at, but I do think bad-boy bassist Murdoc makes the transition well enough, especially in the video for "Stylo" (he's the one driving the car):

Gorillaz are really the only virtual band to hit the mainstream.  Other groups like Dethklok or Hatsune Miku are too niche-oriented to have the same level of popularity.  I would love to see TV animation use this more often.  Unfortunately, I think the stigma of investing a huge amount of creative energy only to be branded as cheesy makes artists and producers somewhat wary.  If Gorillaz shows us anything, you don't need corny pop songs or a wise-cracking animal sidekick to make a virtual band stick.  If the worry of being lame still is a cause for concern though, remember that "Sugar Sugar" was number one on the Billboard charts in 1969 for four weeks.  That's a hell of a year in popular music to be dominated by a group of animated teenagers.

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