music

Blurring Genres—Gorillaz, and the Art of Indescribable Music

November 18, 2019

Lauren Berry

I’ve always found it pretty interesting when people say that it’s a radical move for a musician or band to blur musical genres. It raises the assumption that genres are fixed, and toying with them, manipulating them, or infusing them with instruments or effects reminiscent of another ‘established’ genre is a bold move. Critics have often slammed music which plays with genre, or otherwise praised it as ‘innovative’­—without considering the possibility that creativity, perhaps, should be label-less, and allowed to exist in the world defined only by its own unique essence.

Music is an art form, and categorising a piece of art as one thing or another goes against its very transient, undefinable nature. For there is no real objective opinion about the meaning or form of a piece of music—it’s different for every listening individual, and the only objective thing we can say for sure about its meaning is that it probably reveals something about the artist’s own introspection and personal, spiritual soundtrack.

As with other art forms, music resonates with the body­—it plucks at your heart strings, or, if it’s not especially poetic, it at least stimulates exhilaration throughout your blood, or jams with the inner snare drum of your soul. Music makes us feel something indescribable—and perhaps it shouldn’t have to be described in words, but left as a beautiful craft and stimulus for our wordless inner contentment.

One of my favourite examples of music genre transmutation is Gorillaz, a project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett (est. 1998). Over the years, the widely-successful band has been treated to a colourful array of hyphenated, comma-filled labels by critics and writers desperate to attribute them with a musical identity, and package them up—for consumers, sure, but also for their own writerly, online poetry. Labels include “rap-rock”, “smooth funk electronica” and even “trip-hop”. A reviewer for the Guardian once even wrote that Gorillaz’ second album Demon Days dabbles in “disconnected ideas,” fusing “dub bass, Dylan-ish singing …a vaguely African guitar twang… a Song 2-like riff” together to create something that can only be described —or rather, clunkily termed— as “a sort of dub/hip-hop/lo-fi indie/world music hybrid”. Woah.

Damon Albarn and Snoop Dogg at Glastonbury 2010. Getty Images.

Of course, from the early days, Gorillaz has identified with the hip hop genre, with songs featuring rap breaks from artists such as American hip-hop group De La Soul on the acclaimed song ‘Feel Good Inc.’, and Del the Funky Homosapien on ‘Clint Eastwood’ (Snoop Dogg even made a cameo appearance during Eastwood at the group’s performance at Glastonbury 2010, and featured on the later single ‘Hollywood’).

But more recent Gorillaz stuff tends to lean more towards a sound that can’t be categorised according to traditional established music genres. My old iTunes even struggles to classify the genre, opting for ‘Other’ or simply, ‘Unknown Genre’. In an article for Music Feeds, writer Cyclone Wehner referred to the band as “eccentrically postmodern”—whatever that means. Anything referred to as ‘postmodern’ is as vague as it gets. Wehner also cited Gorillaz’ 2017 album Humanz as “a disco dystopia album”—a description that really only serves to demonstrate the author’s alliteration abilities and loosely hint at a kind of mood, without really informing naïve listeners of the album’s actual sound.

However, what really establishes Gorillaz as boundary-crossing musicians is the virtual, video aspect to their work. AllMusic cited the band as the “first virtual hip-hop group” with four animated members living in a fictional universe: ‘2-D’ the keyboardist and vocalist, ‘Murdoc’ the bassist, ‘Russel’ the drummer, and ‘Noodle’ the guitarist (created and voiced by Albarn, Hewlett, and an extensive list of high-profile collaborators). While the cartoonish, manga-inspired virtual band provides a critical commentary on the notion of ‘manufactured pop’ that was becoming increasingly popular at the band’s inception, it also addresses notions of the real/virtual, sight/sound, use of technology in music, transmediation and, of course, genre-dabbling. Gorillaz refuses to conform to a single medium, or a single sound.

Shouldn’t we bask in this nonconformity? We can label the project as radical, innovative, or even postmodern. Sure, do that if you like. But really, like every other piece of music, Gorillaz’ songs are manipulations of sound, crafted and tuned to move us, making us feel an intuitive sense of peace (and delighted puzzlement) in the body. Not the ‘peace of mind’ we get from words and labels.

Cross-pollination: Gorillaz X Blur at Demon Dayz Festival, Los Angeles, 2018.