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Musical Space

Virtual Bands

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license / Ian T. McFarland

Virtual bands are a thing.

I’m talking about real bands with real songs, but represented as animated cartoon characters. Virtual bands have been around for generations, starting with Alvin and the Chipmunks in the late '50s. The Archies were a band on TV, as were Josie and the Pussycats and Jem and the Holograms. These were all television studio creations, as is Dethklok from Adult Swim’s Metalocalypse series. Some virtual bands, though, seem instead to have been imagined by the musicians themselves, and they are capable of very interesting things.

It’s a brilliant idea: as a cartoon character, a musician can be in complete control of image, style and branding. They can tie in to the less mainstream comic book and anime cultures. And their music videos are guaranteed to be unique.

Gorillaz is the best and most brilliant example of a virtual band. Formed by britpop star Damon Albarn and comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz is a loose confederation of some very famous players. Guest artists include Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, members of The Clash, and many others. But the image of the band is unified behind the hand-drawn guises of four slightly simian misfits named 2D, Murdoc, Russel and Noodle. The music is eclectic, a mixture of rock, hip-hop and electronica, but it’s easy to relate to because it all fits a single, character-driven narrative. It’s a pop culture bullseye, organically spilling over into videos, books, comics, action figures and even a style of Converse shoe.

Gorillaz have even appeared as live projections. So has the animated dance outfit Studio Killers and J-pop avatar Hatsune Miku. Miku isn’t just a computer-rendered hologram, she’s a “vocaloid,” a software package that produces a completely synthetic voice. For me, she’s the most extreme example of a virtual musician.