Campus Life stranger than fiction

Missed beats

Catching up with the classics via Gorillaz

My history with music reads like an I Saw You MIT post. “I heard you, ten second music video clip of ‘Feel Good, Inc.’ on a TV commercial.” “I heard you, midi version of ‘Diary of a Madman’ on a web 1.0 Johnny the Homicidal Maniac fansite.” Yet it was only recently that I started explicitly looking for new and classic bands to listen to, and educating myself in good music.

Growing up was a strange contradiction of musical deprivation and enrichment. Like all good Asian children, I learned how to play the piano, but it was always in a kind of rote manner, no deviations from the written classical canon sheet music. The sum total of my musical library was a pop-song medley, The Phantom of the Opera, and random Chinese hits from the 80s, all courtesy of my father’s business trips to China. Not being American, my parents didn’t have stacks of Led Zeppelin LPs for me to listen to, and somehow, I got the impression that rock music all sounded the same.

What songs I did acquire were obtained almost through happenstance. I followed the LiveJournals of people who posted mp3s. I downloaded a bunch of video game music from OCRemix, since it was all free. I found vocaloids, and eagerly ripped their vocoder-esque songs from nicovideo, the Japanese equivalent of YouTube. But that limited musical repertoire was like a diet of fluff and candy, with no steak or vegetables.

I knew I was lacking a proper grounding in popular music, so when I came to MIT to get educated, I also tried to auditorily educate myself in the vein of Senior House, which was mostly an injection of punk rock. Yet, there’s something tedious about grabbing a bunch of random CDs and forcing myself to listen through it. Because of that, I abandoned my quest in favor of more productive things, like learning how to computer.

Fast forward several years to a boring spring vacation day. On a whim, I decide to look up some music, which leads me to a music video featuring windmills, a curious mixture of rap and rock, and gyrating hips. It was the perfect mix of music and intriguing fictional personalities. Thus a new Gorillaz fan was born.

I was kicking myself for not having discovered their music earlier. I could have gone to concerts! I could have seen their Webby-winning website before it was replaced by new content! There would have been people on LiveJournal eagerly discussing the newest developments. Entering a dead fandom is like arriving late to a party and finding out that all the guests have died.

After jamming their music into my ears as fast as possible, I went through videos, concerts, and articles, all to learn as much about the four intriguing characters as much as possible. I avidly read their magazine interviews, to get more delicious character development. However, their interviews were like a foreign language to me, full of references to people and styles I had never heard of. Who the heck was “Sergeant Pepper”?

Trying to pick apart the various cultural influences of the music of the Gorillaz led me to listen to the bands they referenced, just so I could know what was going on when they said stuff like “Howard Devoto-esque riff and a distinctly JG Ballard backbeat.” But somehow, this time, it wasn’t so much a chore. I found myself enjoying punk rock (and not just because Murdoc, the bassist of Gorillaz, favors The Clash). Perhaps the fumes of Senior House have finally percolated into my brain. Perhaps I have grown tired of the boxed-in future, and I’m feeling the rebellion — “He’s in love with Janie Jones, woah / But he don’t like his boring job, no.”

Damion Albarn, one of the duo behind Gorillaz, once said that his motivation for the project was to introduce the younger generation to the great classic bands he enjoyed growing up. At the very least, he was successful in converting one person.