Virtual bands are nothing new. Since the advent of cartoons, Betty Boop has been grooving along to Cap Calloway’s jazzy rhythms. IRL musicians like Daft Punk perform as alter egos of themselves, enforcing the anonymity of stardom. So how did fake rockers get to the top of the charts?
Virtual Bands On The Small Screen
Cartoon groups like Alvin and the Chipmunks or The Hex Girls were probably your first introduction to fictional bands. Musical groups have been a staple of children’s television since the start of the medium. In fact, Hanna-Barbera productions made a killing off of a simple formula. The Impossibles, Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, and Jabberjaw all feature a band of teens who get into various hijinks while on the road. Yeah, Scooby-Doo was originally a musical. Fictional band The Archies, yes like THAT Archie, put out the real world #1 hit song Sugar Sugar, yes like THAT Sugar Sugar.
Musical cartoons were relegated to educational programming for a long time, until the 80’s media age took the States by storm. Virtual bands broke into the scene with a newfound rigor, trying to chase the success of MTV. This is where we get the absolute apex of 80’s children’s TV: Jem and the Holograms.
The Jem And The Holograms Tangent
Jem and the Hologramsis not only one of the best virtual bands ever, but also one of the best children’s programs of all time. I will go to my grave on that. Jem gave the virtual band a story with an overarching plot. Their music is directly related to their exploits, all the drama they get into with rival bands. This sets the stage for the appeal of a lot of modern virtual bands.We can’t act like Jem wasn’t inherently a cash grab. Before the regulation of advertising in kids’ shows, pretty much every cartoon was a 22 minute commercial for a toy. So while Jem and her holograms may not have played concerts in person, they sang their hearts out in the play rooms of little kids everywhere.
Virtual British Invasion
The year 2000 saw the release of a small EP from Britain called Tomorrow Comes Today. Since then, the band Gorillaz has gone from a cult staple to a modern Megaband. While collaborators like André 3000 and Del the Funky Homosapien have released tracks with the group, there are two core members who founded and ran the operation. While the two share songwriting responsibilities, Damon Albarn generally handles the musical side of things while Jamie Hewlett focuses on visuals.
Gorillaz came about at a time when online marketing was just starting to prove successful. Think of The Blair Witch Project‘s incredibly impactful viral marketing campaign that took place nearly completely online just a year prior. After the Y2K scare, internet users were ready to ring in the millennium by populating the vast frontier that is the world wide web. Albarn and Hewlett didn’t just make music, they made a multimedia experience.
Each Gorillaz album exists within a certain phase, and each phase is essentially a new season of the wildest sitcom you’ve ever seen. The band came prepackaged with zany backstories influenced by Hewlett’s time in the comics industry with cult classic Tank Girl. And with each phase, the story grew more complex. Lead Vocalist 2-D and bassist Murdoc has a sordid and weirdly abusive history. A ghost possesses drummer Russel sometimes. Jack-of-all-trades Noodle has been supposedly killed off, replaced by a robot, and returned to kill that robot.
Through a compelling story, incredible visuals, an engaging ARG experience, and (of course) rockin’ music, Gorillaz set the stage for virtual bands all over the world to rise to prominence.
The World Is Mine
It is impossible to deny the impact of Vocaloids on modern fandom. A lot of twenty-something anime fans could probably cite Hatsune Miku as their first introduction to Japanese media of any kind, not just music. For the uninitiated, it goes like this.
In 2004, Crypton released Vocaloid software in English and Japanese. Essentially, Vocaloid is a synthesizer with a virtual voicebox. The user can input lyrics and have them sung by a pre-programmed voice, one made to sing in a certain range just like a normal singer. For this reason, different versions of the software are released under different names. The original English release saw Leon, Lola, and Miriam, and the original Japanese release featured Kaito and Meiko. The virtual studio became a playground for the musically inclined, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Vocaloid would birth a true star.
Hatsune Miku was released as the first of Crypton’s character vocal series. From this point on, the virtual singer software would be specifically marketed as characters, not just voices, to draw in a new audience. Bear in mind that 2007 was the perfect time to launch this sort of project. Many have cited 2007 as the best year for anime, both in Japan and overseas. So putting candy-colored anime girls on your virtual singer box was not a bad idea at all.
Bridging The 2D/3D Gap Of Virtual Bands
Producers around the world went crazy for Vocaloid software, each lending their own style and tone to the “singers'” performances. Circus-P, NicoNico, and Supercell all lent unique voices to the same software. With the growing popularity of the characters, the only logical thing to do would be to put on a concert. But how do you stage a concert for fully virtual characters? Unlike Gorillaz, a Vocaloid song doesn’t have any live vocals. That being the case, a live performer dressed as Miku just wouldn’t cut it.
So they put her onstage as she was: virtually.
Starting in 2009, Miku has been appearing frequently in concerts to perform some of her most popular songs from various producers. She’s brought to life by a pane of glass and holograms to make it seem like she’s in the room. While the band behind her is live, Miku herself is the effort of an entire team working to bring a digital fantasy to life.
Pop Art And Pop Music
French group Daft Punk ventured into the virtual band market with Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. Interstella was released to promote the Discover album. It’s a series of back to back animated music videos connected by a narrative about a band of aliens, The Crescendolls, who are brought to Earth and brainwashed to perform for the masses. It’s bizarre, it’s cheesy, and I love it. Again, we see the virtual band as a marketing scheme not dissimilar to Jem and the Holograms. Kids are more likely to buy a toy if there’s a story they can think of when they’re playing with it, and grown-ups are more likely to buy an album if there’s a narrative they can think of when they listen to it.
More recently we have Studio Killers, a Europop virtual band led by the stylish Cherry and her animal assortment of backups. Studio Killers is notable for its commitment to anonymity. Fan correspondence is handled completely in character. Listeners are left with only vague suspicions of the identities of the people behind the music. Like Miku, Cherry has also made “live” appearances as a hologram. With their purely virtual mode of delivering music, the band is able to completely control how they present themselves. Cherry is stylish and modern, and the effects on her are the kind of dreamlike beauty you can only find online. Glitching makeup and flowing neon hair are only some of her best looks.
Virtual Bands: An Escape From All The Unnecessary Things
When discussing his love of drawing, Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett said,
Drawing is an escape from all the unnecessary things in life that get in the way of being free.
Jamie Hewlett via Cartoon Brew
The very same thing can be said of the comfort people take in bands, be they virtual or flesh and blood. The appeal comes from the escapism of it all. You can put on your favorite song and be transported to a fantasy world, one where you’re completely free. What makes the imaginative narratives of something like Gorillaz any different from your favorite TV show?
Now more than ever, music defines who we are. A lot of folks don’t understand the appeal of virtual bands, since following the real band members is part of the fun. But if you peel back the curtain and look at all of the work that goes into just putting a band on screen, you get a much greater appreciation for these bands as an art form. And yes, they are an art form. From Jem and the Holograms to Hatsune Miku and everything between and beyond, virtual bands are some of the coolest creative outlets we have.