It’s always been hard to take Gorillaz totally seriously. After all, the side project of Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl co-creator Jamie Hewlett is comprised of cartoon characters: Albarn’s daffy-voiced singer 2D, drummer Russel Hobbs, bassist Murdoc Niccals, and adolescent guitarist Noodle—each with their own arc over the course of the band’s nearly 20 years. Where most successful groups have carefully canned histories on the “bio” sections of their Wikipedia pages, Gorillaz have a “backstory.”
Knowledge of these characters isn’t strictly necessary to enjoy “Feel Good Inc.,” but Gorillaz remain one of the few working bands with a genuine mythology around them. It helps that Albarn and Hewlett strongly committed to the bit from the beginning: Del the Funky Homosapien’s verse on “Clint Eastwood” wasn’t just a guest appearance; it was the manifestation of a ghost (also named Del) who lived inside of Russ’ body. (All of his friends were murdered and their ghosts took up residence in his corporeal form, or so the story goes.) Russel also does interviews, and Noodle is literally a brand ambassador for Jaguar Racing. They even wrote an autobiography, Gorillaz: Rise of the Ogre, in “collaboration” with frequent collaborator Cass Browne (a real human, to be sure); the book largely takes the form of an oral history… from cartoons. So while Gorillaz aren’t “real,” they definitely exist.
The mutability of Gorillaz as something totally subject to the whims of Albarn and Hewlett is reflective of the various incarnations and characters of the masked rapper DOOM, whose MF DOOM, Metal Fingers, King Geedorah, and Viktor Vaughn personae frequently interact on records (and who, coincidentally, appears on Gorillaz’s 2005 LP Demon Days). With all of this in mind, it might be more useful to think of Gorillaz as less of a band than an alternate reality game.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, an alternate reality game (ARG) is essentially a form of interactive storytelling, using elements from theater, geocaching, cryptography, and, most frequently, the internet (often via message boards). Players find “rabbit holes” seamlessly integrated into everyday life, and pursue to them to find a series of challenges and an unfolding narrative. Early ARGs were largely tied to the release of massive pop culture products—the movie A.I., the video game Halo 2, and so on—but took on a life of their own, often being enjoyed separately from the thing they were supposed to be promoting.
One of the hallmarks of ARGs is a willingness to blend media. The life cycle of a Gorillaz record, which is simultaneously the product, an audio narrative, a new set of online tools for “interacting” with the band (through a fresh website, social media accounts, etc.), a jumping-off point for visual storytelling—all tied to an ongoing story about a bunch of fictional characters—is essentially an ARG by itself. Though ARGs have become far more sophisticated (and ubiquitous) in the past few years, their heyday is decidedly evocative of the Demon Days era. Even if the Gorillaz designs get sleeker, the band will still look (and probably feel) like a product of the early Bush years, from its anime-inspired appearance to the sloppily rendered images in some of the early videos that look like they’re from a Half Life game.
In particular, the band’s web presence has long been a way of fleshing out the story beyond albums. Kong Studios, the Gorillaz website described in Rise of the Ogre as possessing an “unprecedented level of interactivity,” depicted the studios where Noodle, Murdoc, 2D, and Russel lived and worked, full of hidden Easter eggs about the characters, and secret rooms. Most of the original Kong Studios site is maintained in archive form—if you want to poke around, you just need to download Adobe Shockwave.
The lead-up to the band’s next album, expected sometime this year, has maintained that interactive spirit, though in less aggressively webpage-based form. A series of Instagram stories have caught up fans on the whereabouts of each band member since “the attack on Plastic Beach,” the story told throughout Gorillaz’s 2010 album. Apparently 2D spent a few months weaving bracelets, Russel was kept as an oddity by North Korea, Noodle tracked down and killed a shapeshifting demon, and Murdoc was literally imprisoned by EMI underneath Abbey Road until he agreed to write a new Gorillaz album. Besides the Instagram stories, each of the characters has also “created” Spotify playlists for specific occasions (delightfully, Murdoc’s is titled “Dirty Santa Party.”)
The hybridity of the ongoing Gorillaz ARG-like project perhaps seems odd, until you realize that it’s essentially how pop functions these days. Not that the line between PR and reality was ever particularly thick, but it’s become even harder to tell the difference between the two—or, rather, it matters less, especially for anyone less famous than a major pop star. (Even Dirty Projectors’ upcoming album—not a major pop project by any means—has been so heavily telegraphed as being “about a breakup” that it might as well spring from a nerdy 12-year-old’s notebook.) It was a more nascent internet when Gorillaz began their world-building, but the digital tools they used to mock pop celebrity eventually made it easier for everyone to get in on the game.
Big pop albums have often fit within some kind of narrative, but now it’s harder than ever (or maybe more pointless) to separate the two. And when every album becomes a story in addition to a piece of music, the artifice of major pop stars feels less and less like a bug and more like a feature. At this point, how much difference is there, really, between the explicit storytelling at play in a Gorillaz album rollout and the rest of the music industry?
The difference is that for Gorillaz, the “alternate” reality is genuinely alternate (and not in the “alternative facts” sense of the word). Exposing this gap was part of the original idea behind Gorillaz as a project. Much of that “autobiography” Rise of the Ogre bemoans what the “band” characterizes as MTV-fueled celebrity culture. The preface of the book lays out the band’s accomplishments in what is functionally a press release, as Murdoc interjects—first sardonically, then enthusiastically, until it becomes clear that the cartoon bassist has paid the writer (Cass Browne) to flatter his band so he (Murdoc) can masturbate.
By now, the frustration with celebrity and industry narratives expressed by Rise of the Ogre feels almost quaint. 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, and who the fuck ‘Becky with the good hair’ is. If the existence of Gorillaz was ever a statement about the music industry, it’s been fully absorbed now. Still, if anything, the increasing willingness to turn narratives into something more dizzying and complicated—to blankly, unconvincingly assert everything is real while openly winking at consumers who are obviously in on the bit—makes it feel like the rest of the world has caught up to what Albarn originally described as “dark pop.”
“Hallelujah Money,” the first song off their upcoming album, is surprisingly sincere, coming from a band made up of animated characters controlled by skeptical humans. But that veneer has always allowed the band to be a bit more direct, like they are here in railing against Trump. There’s the naked emotional resonance of something like “On Melancholy Hill,” but the band’s disarming earnestness is political, too. Demon Days is, among other things, an album about the Iraq War, while Plastic Beach’s environmental message is so blunt, it’s literally impossible to miss.
So it’s besides the point to call the bright colors and silly voices of the Gorillaz a “distraction.” In fact, the world of the band—ours, but not quite ours—paints society in allegorical terms while avoiding the corny pitfalls that have trapped so many of their collaborators. The end of the “Hallelujah Money” video features the pained cries of Spongebob Squarepants, which is as definitive an aughts-cartoon reference as you can make. 2D appears primarily as a shadow puppet, with obvious sticks moving to manipulate his mouth.
Though it’s been a few years since Albarn and Hewlett made a concerted effort to pretend Gorillaz were real, this is the closest they’ve come to a diegetic acknowledgment of the whole setup. It makes perfect sense. Once you dig underneath all that artifice, it’s actually quite real.