One day in the late '90s, comic-book artist Jamie Hewlett and Blur singer Damon Albarn were sitting around in their West London flat watching TV—a brand-new Panasonic, eight channels on screen at once. Their eyes were glazed, their minds empty. The images just kept coming. This was the dawn of reality TV—shows that turned so-called real life into prepackaged stories and people into cartoons. The question hit them: If culture was already fake, why keep pretending it was real?
At first glance, the idea of an animated “virtual band”—the sprightly 2-D, rogue Murdoc Niccals, gangsta Russel Hobbs, and sweet outsider Noodle—seemed a little gimmicky, an art-school shot at mainstream pop. But in retrospect, Gorillaz’s work—the electro-indie pop of “Feel Good Inc.” and “Dare,” the leftfield hip-hop of “Clint Eastwood” and “Dirty Harry,” the bits of American gospel, African folk, and dub—reflected a rootless, fragmented world that has only gotten more familiar with time. That they had no fixed lineup and an ever-rotating series of vocalists and collaborators (from Elton John to De La Soul, Clash bassist Paul Simonon to Afro-Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer) not only undercut old ideas of what it meant to be a “band,” it projected a vision that felt communal, even a little utopian, unbound by borders cultural, stylistic, or otherwise. Even when they projected dystopia, they made the future sound bright (“On Melancholy Hill”). Bands are bands. In Gorillaz, we got a living, breathing playlist.