Let’s face it: Gorillaz were never expected to be more than a gimmick. Created in 1998 by Blur’s Damon Albarn and “Tank Girl” illustrator Jamie Hewlett, the project was firmly a product of its time: a scrappy foursome of anime-inspired cartoon characters, presenting themselves as a four-piece rock band but sounding like a combination of Britpop, reggae, trip-hop, and club music. In their music videos, they painted an elaborate, fantastical backstory by frolicking among early-2000s-CGI landscapes. On tour and at award shows, they appeared as holograms alongside De La Soul and Madonna. They made bank by selling DVDs of their promotional material, back when such a thing could be done. Sure, the band’s most popular song, “Feel Good Inc.,” was a critique of the music industry itself. But Albarn and Hewlett seemed perfectly content to work within that sphere, incorporating enough peripheral trends (emerging hip-hop artists, video game design, interactive multi-media) to give them some artistic credibility and keep the project going for way longer than expected.
So, nearly 20 years down the line, and with a new album on the horizon, how in the world have Gorillaz managed to survive for this long? The characters of 2-D, Noodle, Russel, and Murdoc emerged in that nebulous time between the decline of MTV and the rise of YouTube, and later, streaming-service-based music videos—something that should have been a death toll for a band that relies primarily on its televised visual output.
But with the help of a small army of collaborators, Albarn crafted a genre-crossing hit single for each of the group’s first two albums—“Clint Eastwood” for their 2000 debut, and “Feel Good, Inc.” for 2005’s Demon Days—and managed to stay ahead of the curve when it came to distribution. Gorillaz found an audience through their DVDs, through their early online message boards, and through the occasional foray into politics. (They released a song about the September 11 attacks, and more than one track on Demon Days alludes to the Bush administration’s failings in Iraq.) By the time 2010’s Plastic Beach came out, the band had fully made the transition to YouTube, and the album’s joyful atmosphere, tinged with environmentalist themes, earned them heaps of praise.
Still, the band has never been able to fully shake off its gimmicky aspects. Nine months after Plastic Beach, Gorillaz released The Fall, an album that Albarn considered groundbreaking since it was all recorded on an iPad. And other than the character of 2-D acting as a vocal stand-in for Albarn, there’s been little effort to fool anyone into thinking Gorillaz is a “real” band, playing analogous instruments to their flesh-and-blood counterparts; you need only watch Noodle strumming her guitar over a keyboard riff in the “Clint Eastwood” opening to understand that that wasn’t the intention. Indeed, at least in the early part of their career, a lot was riding on Gorillaz’s mere existence as a dark-and-gritty Alvin & the Chipmunks to keep the characters alive, instead of Albarn simply releasing the music under his own name.
And yet, the band’s obvious artifice—where the “alternate” reality of celebrity is an actual alternate reality—was always kind of the point. Culture writer Eric Thurm acknowledges in an Pitchfork essay from January that their early mockery of fabricated celebrity narratives doesn’t fit the current state of pop music.
“Now, it’s a fun guessing game to see why Taylor Swift is staging a relationship with Tom Hiddleston, or who Lemonade is actually about,” he writes.
Still, he goes on, the increased willingness of the pop industry to push these narratives while winking at the audience, coupled with the consumer’s tendency to analyze and think-piece them to death with a new sincerity, could make Gorillaz’s whole shtick more relevant and satirical than it’s ever been.
Two days before President Trump took office, Gorillaz released their first single in five years: “Hallelujah Money,” a gospel-inspired track off their then-upcoming record, Humanz. Unlike their previous music videos, the video for “Hallelujah Money” is primarily live-action, featuring guest artist Benjamin Clementine singing ominously in front of a projector. The images that light up his face are of cartoons, but not in the Gorillaz style—more like Schoolhouse Rock on a bad trip—along with what look like live-action clips from the deep caverns of Weird YouTube. When it’s his turn to sing, 2-D appears as a shadow puppet on Clementine’s torso, with a stick visibly moving his mouth up and down. The video ends with an abrupt cut to a screaming SpongeBob SquarePants, as though a new Gorillaz video wasn’t enough to remind you that you grew up in the early aughts.
“Hallelujah Money” is an earnest song about false appearances, which validates Thurm’s point and makes the video composition especially poignant. But the four music videos they’ve released since—three of which hardly count as such, since they’re little more than 3D screensavers—have been much less concerned with sending a message. The video for “Saturnz Barz,” however, utilizes YouTube’s virtual reality (VR) feature and allows the viewer to explore the world of Gorillaz in 360 degrees. It’s a trick that, I imagine, Albarn would like to have had up his sleeve when he premiered Gorillaz back at the turn of the millennium. But while it may ignite a fierce debate amongst the film majors in the room (something about whether or not VR could create pathos), I can’t help but wonder if that in a few year’s time “Saturnz Barz” will end up like The Fall, inconsequential and a little silly. Just because Gorillaz fusses around with new technology doesn’t mean the group innovates with it.
Again, this could still all play into Albarn and Hewlett creating an allegorical, cartoony world to reveal society’s own artifices. Or, Gorillaz could just be a digital side project by an ex-Britpop frontman that’s somehow, miraculously, managed to survive far past its expiration date. Either way, the band has adapted to the rapidly changing ways in which we digest music, and all the baggage (music videos, celebrity drama, etc.) that comes with it. Only time will tell if they keep with the trend.